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Spencer Trail, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Updated: Oct 26, 2022

I started the Spencer Trail hike before 7 am, when the sun cast half the land with gold and chased me on the slope. I wanted to climb all 1,600+ feet in the shade, because I knew that the Arizona sun is cruel, even in spring. I passed the Cathedral Wash trail I'd traversed the day before, and kept driving. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area was mostly empty, as a result of COVID-19, and it was temporarily free. I parked at the marina and started the walk, my Camelbak full of water, Dad's binoculars around my neck.

Spencer Trail is a part of Lees Ferry, a historic site and source of Colorado River crossings and tensions between the Mormons and Navajo. The river here is calm and winds around a stunning bend of Kayenta and Navajo sandstone, all visible as you hike the steep, narrow switchbacks to the top of the mountain, a path built in 1910 to transport supplies on wide mules to miners at a canyon thirty miles away. Millions of years of geology surround you here, the Earth carved and eroded and broken into big rocks, and then there's this own human wonder, a two-man job built from shovels and spirit.

I walked slow and breathed hard and tried not to stop--when the sun finally found me, I knew it would bake and dehydrate until my head throbbed, unless I could succeed at drinking enough water, which snaked through my Camelbak tube like the water through this impossible land.

I could see the top of the mountain as the sand got thick underneath my shoes, but all I could think about was how I was bruising my banana every time I stuffed my phone back in my pouch. My no-stopping plan was failing--every few minutes I found a new rock scar or seam that warranted a photograph. The gold was creeping up the side of the mountain, like the little lizards that scattered on the rocks and the chuckwalla that bathed in the shadows.

Prickly Poppy

The wildflowers were soft-petaled yellow and orange and pink, and then stiff and white atop spiny green stems. An antelope squirrel scrambled on the rock as I approached the final steps, and the sand was so loose I kept slipping. I'd read a few comments about the hike before I went, how some people turned around because of vertigo, how others didn't want to risk the babies on their backs, and whenever I lost traction, I had to agree. My lungs burned and I felt nauseous--I was starving and hot and probably thirsty, but the top was so close.

Sweeping views, and my car inside that red

At 8:45 am, I reached the sun-soaked summit, an intoxicating, 360 view of canyons and thin black rivers of road, running downstream to my tiny dot of a car. The scent was sage and the sand was hot underneath my hands and soles of my feet. I ran with my shoes on from side to side, then sunbathed on a perfectly flat rock, the cool(er) breeze the thing that kept me there. I ate my banana and absorbed the views, the now-closed Navajo Coal-Fired Power Plant near Page and Lake Powell, a manmade reservoir formed by Glen Canyon Dam, the home of an aggressive California condor breeding program that has helped re-populate the species. The land was like a 3D topographic map, with ridges and lines you wanted to touch and measure.

A California Condor, perched at Navajo Bridge; these birds have wing spans up to 10 feet!

I was the only human for more than two hours in that stunning space, where silence is so loud you realize your body being a filter for sound, sight, touch, taste is its own containment, that there's a purer experience just out of reach, if only your ears could stop ringing. What is that human world down below, anyway, when you're sharing the sky with birds that swoop so close you can almost see into their black eyes?

Finally I said my long goodbye. I passed three groups of people on the way down, including a couple of friends who were planning to hike the ridge to the Glen Canyon Dam and float their way down with the fold-up rafts on their back. "We were going crazy at home, had to do something!" the woman told me, and I imagined the red-hot hour that lay ahead of them, and then the shadeless peak, but also how incredible that the Earth is a system of valleys and peaks and waterways that can always carry us home.

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