Wildlife safety in the Yellowstone Backcountry, Part 2

When it comes to wildlife safety on a guided Yellowstone backpacking trip, most of our clients think of bears. And that’s understandable, since Yellowstone grizzly bears do occasionally chomp on folks — usually those who precipitate the ursine action with some overt act of human stupidity: like closing in on the bear for a photo. Or running. Or being careless with food. Yet as we saw in the previous post, any large animal can be dangerous, so give them space!

At our hour long pre-trip safety/orientation meetings, our guides spend about 20 minutes discussing bears . Although the danger from bears is over-rated compared with driving to the trail-head, falling, drowning or getting zapped by lightening, this part of the safety session takes extra time because it is a complicated subject. Bears are complex, intelligent and individualistic animals. A comprehensive tome on safety around bears is beyond the scope of this brief post. I suggest you begin your bear education by viewing our Bears in the Big Wilds web page. For now, though, know a few simple rules: Be careful with food! A clean camp is a safe camp. Never bring any food inside your tent. And never run from a bear, even if you know you can out-run your hiking partners! Leave your deodorant and scented soap at the motel. The more human your smell, the better. Be alert. And please, leave the bear bells at home. If I were a bear and heard bear bells coming down the trail, I would attack that person just to silence the annoyingly incessant ringing! Also, always carry your pepper spray in a handy location, not inside your pack or day-pack. Don’t leave your tent without it. Don’t even go to dig a cat-hole without it. Clients have had encounters with bears while squatting over a cat-hole (though no physical contact has ever occurred between bear and human great ape on a Big Wild trip)! Again, these are just a few things to think about. Your guide will  provide comprehensive safety instructions and then once you’re on the trail, you’ll also learn by doing. It’s not rocket science; it’s mostly common sense, and our safety record with big mammals is perfect. And we plan to keep it that way! We also supply the pepper spray along with instructions on how to use it. Yet we’ve never had to discharge pepper spray at a bear in all of our years.

Again, though, it’s not just about bears. Bison and moose can be dangerous. Even a mule deer can do some damage with a swift kick. So use your telephoto lens. Listen to the guide. And the chances that you’ll be naturally selected out of the human population on a Big Wild trip will be infinitesimally small.

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Wildlife Safety In the Yellowstone Backcountry, Part 1

Some say that when tourists visit Yellowstone, they leave their brains back home. Many do, and the evidence abounds! For example, while driving through the world’s first national park, an observant visitor can see: tourists driving large often rented motor homes (they’ve never driven anything this big before), crossing the center line as they gawk at roadside bison or at a pretty scene. Drivers beware! That’s why we tell our clients that the most statistically dangerous part of any back-country trek is the drive to the trail-head. On that drive, you’ll also likely see tourists with photographic devises — in some cases real cameras — “stalking” these two-thousand pound horned hoofed beasts at way too close a distance. I’ve watched people literally within just a couple feet of wild bison, though I’ve never actually watched anyone get gored. I did once watch a bison gore my backpack, though there were no tourists inside it at the time — and it was not on my back!

Make no mistake, these animals, and all of Yellowstone’s wildlife, are wild.  Yellowstone’s bison are potentially lethal! It is truly a wonder that more tourists don’t get gored or trampled into Darwinian oblivion. By the way, when I see extreme examples of wildlife viewing idiocy, I usually roll down my window and yell something like “You’re too close; you will die!” For better or for worse, though, I am aware that the vast majority will survive, despite themselves.

You might also notice a bear or two on your drive through the park, and if so, you’d also notice similar attempts by tourists to be naturally selected out of the human population by crowding these large carnivores. In fact, trying to get close enough for that great photo of a grizzly is an efficient way to enter the food chain. That has been proven on a number of occasions. Still, as with bison, it is a wonder of nature that Americas’ population is still growing, considering that over three million tourists pass through the Yellowstone entrance stations each year, many without so much as a clue that they’re entering wild habitats with big wild animals that don’t give a hoot for human safety.

Here at Big Wild Adventures, we do give a hoot and we make sure that safety is built into our guided Yellowstone backpacking trips. Although we guide in the back-country, the same safety principles pertain. And not just for bears and bison, but really, any large mammal can be dangerous when approached too closely. That includes elk, moose, wolves, coyotes, some of us humans and more. Heck, I wouldn’t even crowd a sandhill crane! In other words, give wild animals space. That’s why Nikon and Canon make telephoto lenses. In Yellowstone, it is against the rules to knowingly be less than 25 yards from any large mammal, or less than 100 yards from a bear or a wolf. In the next installment, we’ll delve further into the Big Wild way of keeping our clients safe in the back-country, and safely out of the food chain.



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Overview: The Threatened Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, Part 3

Wilderness areas, such as the vast Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness just northeast of Yellowstone National Park, represent America’s highest level of landscape protection. Undeveloped chunks of public lands qualify for Wilderness designation by Congress under the Wilderness Act of 1964. According to the Wilderness Act, a Wilderness Area is “untrammeled”, meaning unregulated or un-manipulated. It is wild, left on its own, where humans practice restraint and where “the impact of man’s works (sic) are substantially unnoticeable.” In designated Wilderness, there is no road or building construction, no resource extraction, and no mechanized transportation. The area is wild and natural, and although Wilderness areas represent great guided backpacking opportunities, their multi-faceted contribution toward maintaining a healthy planet is more important. For example, native biodiversity conservation and clean water are two iconic Wilderness values. Our guided Yellowstone Ecosystem backpacking treks visit the Absaroka-Beartooth, Gros Ventre, Fitzpatrick, Washakie and Jedediah Smith Wilderness areas.

In addition, Congress has designated a number of “Wilderness Study Areas” in which the decision to designate the areas Wilderness (or not) is delayed, usually for political reasons. The Palisades (straddling the Wyoming/Idaho border near Jackson), Shoal Creek (a potential addition to the Gros Ventre Wilderness) and the Wyoming High Lakes potential addition to the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness are the three major WSA’s in the Wyoming Yellowstone region, and the northern Gallatin Range is the big WSA in the Montana portion of the greater Yellowstone. All of these areas are now vulnerable to extreme anti-conservationists in Congress and in the Trump Administration who are attempting to strip them of protection!

I also mentioned a couple million acres of unprotected national forest road-less areas, which still have at least some limited protections under the Clinton Roadless Rule. Unfortunately, though, they are also the target of radical off-road vehicle abusers — not to mention the oil and timber industries. A big part of wild land conservation is the effort to keep these vulnerable areas wild.

Of course, Yellowstone and Grand Teton are national parks, which generally are protected from resource extraction or livestock grazing (with a grazing exception for part of Grand Teton). But until the back-country areas of these two iconic national parks are protected as Wilderness Areas under the 1964 Wilderness Act, new roads, tourist facilities and the potential for opening the back-country to mechanized transportation loom as threats even to these world famous icons of the still living but ever fading American wilderness.

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Overview, The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, Part 2

In the previous post I mentioned that the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is largely a highland that rises above the surrounding high desert and prairie landscapes. That’s a good thing for our guided backpack trips in the Yellowstone region, because the high country is pleasantly cool during the summer vacation season. So you’ll not be backpacking in shade-less 95-degree desert or prairie afternoons! Where might you actually be hiking on our guided greater Yellowstone hiking tours? Well, Big Wild Adventures has guiding permits for the best backpacking areas in the region — and perhaps in the entire world! Of course, we have a variety of great trips in the Yellowstone back-country. Marilyn and I not only live just a few miles from Yellowstone, but along with our other guides we know this wonderland as well as anyone on Earth. But we also lead guided hiking trips in the nearby Fitzpatrick Wilderness portion of the Wind River Range, the Washakie Wilderness of the Wyoming Absarokas, the Beartooth Mountains of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, the Gros Ventre Wilderness near Jackson Hole, and the spectacular Jed Smith Wilderness section of the incomparable Grand Tetons!

The Greater Yellowstone is the headwaters region of some of our great river systems (the Columbia, Colorado and Missouri/Mississippi). It is also an ecological crossroads where flora and fauna of the Great Plains, the Great Basin, the Canadian boreal forest, plus alpine/arctic lands to the north, Rocky Mountain endemics and even just a bit of the Pacific Northwest blend together in an astoundingly diverse landscape. Folks who’ve been backpacking with us in Yellowstone and its surrounding wilds can attest to the sudden changes in scenery and flora over short distances.  Want to experience just a bit of the Pacific Northwest? Join us in the Bechler Canyon of Southwest Yellowstone. Want a good dose of high tundra reminiscent of Arctic Alaska? Try our Montana backpacking in the Beartooths or our Wyoming backpacking in the Absarokas. Want to be immersed in deep coniferous forest with many elements of the Canadian boreal ecosystem? The Yellowstone Plateau Off-Trail trek will do the trick. And so on….This is an amazing diverse ecosystem, and no matter how many guided hiking treks you do with us, there will always be more to explore in the unsurpassed Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem!

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Overview: The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, Part 1

As previously noted in our March 15 blog, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) is one of the great remaining wildland complexes on Earth, sprawling over roughly 16 million acres — or 25,000 square miles — of northwest Wyoming, southern Montana and extreme eastern Idaho. Yellowstone National Park encompasses about 2.2 million acres in the core of the region. By the term “wildland complex”, I simply mean a cohesive geographic area that is dominated by large chunks of undeveloped wild country in close proximity to one another. Some of the wild areas are protected and some are not. Although our company is noted for our Yellowstone backpacking trips, we also run guided wilderness hiking trips elsewhere throughout much of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. More on this later.

In the March 15 post, I mentioned that the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem may be the most ecologically intact wildland complex in the temperate zones of planet Earth, still supporting populations of every vertebrate species known to have been here prior to European colonization. Of course, some species, such as Canada Lynx, are greatly reduced, but in most of the temperate world a big chunk of the native fauna has long since gone the way of the Dodo. Not here, and many of us are working to keep it that way! Which isn’t easy, because population growth is encroaching on GYE habitat, and associated pressures for mechanized recreation and resource extraction threaten the integrity of this world-renowned landscape.

Most of the GYE is a volcanic highland of mountain and plateau rising above high desert landscapes to the west, south and east, and the Montana prairie to the north. I mentioned that the public lands of the GYE include both protected and unprotected areas. Our Yellowstone backpacking trips are mostly within protected areas. Among the notable protected areas are the contiguous Bridger/Fitzpatrick/Popo Agie Wilderness areas of the famed Wind River Range; the Washakie and Teton Wildernesses (actually one unbroken area) adjacent to much of the southern and eastern Yellowstone park boundary, and the North Absaroka Wilderness just north of the Washakie.  Just to the northeast of the park is the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. The Gros Ventre Wilderness lies directly across the valley of Jackson Hole from the Tetons, and the Jedediah Smith Wilderness forms the west slope of the Tetons. The relatively small Winnegar Hole Wilderness is just to the north abutting Yellowstone. The Lee Metcalf Wilderness lies a bit to the west and northwest of the park.

Of course, Yellowstone itself is also somewhat protected as a national park, though not yet as designated Wilderness. And there are also a handful of semi-protected “Wilderness Study Areas” in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. In addition to all of these lands, there are over 2 million acres of unprotected public land road-less areas, mostly within the Bridger-Teton, Shoshone, Targhee and Custer-Gallatin National Forests. These areas also qualify for Wilderness designation. In many ways, the long term fate of the GYE hinges upon what happens to these still wild but unprotected “roadless areas”.

In the next two installments, we will look at the natural features of the GYE and then we’ll also discuss how the various land classifications will impact the long term fate of this magical landscape that’s know as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.



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Montana Backpacking on the Northern Continental Divide

The last of the great western wilderness ecosystems that I’ll discuss in this series is in northern Montana, crossing the Canadian border to include Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta plus some smaller adjacent wildlands in British Columbia. The vast bulk of this rugged wild ecosystem, though, is in the U.S., and includes Glacier National Park, the huge Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, the Mission and Rattlesnake Mountains, plus adjacent wild and semi-wild lands in western Montana’s Swan Valley. And the east slope of these mountains include the Rocky Mountain Front where prairie and mountains collide. This big and wild region is called the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) or simply the Glacier Park-Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. The Bob Marshall Wilderness lies just south of Glacier National Park.

Big Wild Adventures runs its guided backpacking treks in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, the biggest chunk of wild country in the NCDE, named for one of the founding fathers of the Wilderness idea in the United States. Bob Marshall was a visionary forester who not only co-founded The Wilderness Society (which was a great organization until the late 1970’s when it became overly politicized and abandoned its original mission), but also convinced the Forest Service to begin adding protected Wilderness and Primitive Areas to its then limited Wilderness resume’ (which until Bob Marshall came along, included only the Gila Wilderness in southwestern New Mexico).

Perhaps the most dramatic part of this mountainous land of forest, river valley, meadow, peak, and gigantic limestone wall is the Rocky Mountain Front, where the Great Plains landscape suddenly morphs into rugged mountains that quickly rise to the Continental Divide. Our guided hiking treks in “The Bob” begin in the mountains near the prairie interface, and our routes take us up spectacular stream valleys to the Continental Divide — and across it in years when early summer snowpack allows. In any event, the scenery is spectacular and wildlife is abundant. Big herds of elk, bighorn sheep and mountain goat thrive on “The Front”, and the entire wilderness complex supports grizzly and black bear, gray wolf, wolverine, lynx and many other wilderness dependent animals. In all my years guiding, I’ve seen one lynx, and that was in The Bob. And one of my most memorable griz sightings while guiding for Big Wild was atop the Great Divide along the Rocky Mountain Front where we watched a sow grizzly with two cubs for hours. Mama bear was feeding but the two cubs were joyfully playing on an adjacent snowfield, redundantly climbing it and then sliding down in a variety of positions including head first, feet first and every other ursine contortion that you might imagine! What a show!

We cannot guarantee a grizzly body-sledding show if you sign up for this trek. But we can guarantee a real big and wild experience in The Bob, Glacier Park’s wilder sister.


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The Greater Salmon-Selway Ecosystem

Our guided Montana backpacking trips include a walk through the rugged Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness along the Montana/Idaho border, just to the southwest of Missoula, home of the University of Montana. For this trip, we meet our groups in Missoula. Although over half of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness is in Idaho, our guided hiking routes are in Montana, where the eastern third of this vast Wilderness is a land of rugged granitic peaks rising in spectacular fashion above lovely subalpine lake basins and densely forested canyons filled with huge coniferous trees.

In previous posts I discussed our guided backpacking tours in some of the great remaining wilderness complexes of the United States: the Utah Canyon country, Greater Yellowstone and Greater Gila Wilderness complexes. The Salmon-Selway country — named after its two great wilderness rivers — of central Idaho and far western Montana is the only wild-land ecosystem in the lower 48 states that compares with the Greater Yellowstone in terms of size. Unfortunately, though, there’s no national park in its wild core, so unlike the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, there’s no central game preserve where wildlife is fully protected. However, the Greater Salmon-Selway Ecosystem’s centerpiece is the huge Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness and it’s neighbor to the north, the Selway-Bitterroot, which is nearly as large. And these two huge chunks of wild country are separated only by a narrow dirt road. They are also surrounded by millions of acres of mostly still-wild national forest roadless areas, that could be added to the National Wilderness Preservation System (and that are in many cases, severely threatened by development and off-road vehicle abuse). At 2.3 million protected acres, the River of No Return is the largest Wilderness Area in the lower 48 states. Yet the furthest distance from a road that it is possible to be in the lower 48 states is not in the river of No Return Wilderness, but is in northwest Wyoming just beyond the southeast corner of Yellowstone National Park. Nonetheless, though, when you’re out in the Salmon-Selway wilds, you know you’re in big wilderness! And that includes the Selway-Bitterroot.

Looking for a guided backpack trip in the northern Rocky Mountains in wild country that few Americans are aware of other than locals?  Looking for a trek that has spectacular alpine scenery as stunning as the wilds of Glacier Park or the amazing Beartooths? Not to mention some of the most spectacular glacial-cut mountain stream canyons in the world? If so, our guided Montana backpack trip in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness is for you! We nearly always run this trek in July, it is rated “fairly strenuous”.  And it will provide an experience that merges the flora of the Rocky Mountain region with that of the lush Pacific Northwest. Come and join us in the big trees and big peaks!

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New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness Complex

Guided wilderness backpacking and camping tours in the Western U.S. can include nearly every kind of landscape imaginable, from hot arid desert to dank rainforest to icy alpine tundra….and everything in between. In the previous couple of posts, I’ve discussed two of our great western wild-land complexes: the Canyon Country wilds of southern Utah and the incomparable Greater Yellowstone National Park Ecosystem.

Yet the history of Wilderness preservation in the U.S. begins in New Mexico. That’s where legendary ecologist Aldo Leopold convinced his reluctant associates in the U.S. Forest Service to set aside over a half million acres in the headwaters high country of the Gila River, as the nation’s first official protected Wilderness Area, the Gila. Of course, the Wilderness Act of 1964 — which provided for Congressional protection — came forty years later, so the first Wilderness Areas were delineated by the Forest Service as administrative designations, that could easily be undone by the stroke of a pen. That’s what happened with a portion of the Gila, when in the early 1930’s the Forest Service de-classified a corridor through the original Gila Wilderness so they could build the new “North Star Road”. Ironically, the area to the east of the non-wilderness road corridor is a now separate Wilderness Area named for Aldo Leopold.

The Gila and the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Areas, along with the Blue Range Wilderness just a few miles to the west (extending into eastern Arizona), constitute the greatest mostly undisturbed forested highland region of the American Southwest. Like Yellowstone, the Gila complex is mostly a volcanic landscape, with lava plateaus cut by river canyons and framed by big surrounding mountains. We run a wonderful seven day guided wilderness backpack trip in the Gila Wilderness during each April of odd-numbered years. So start to think about 2019 now! The Gila is an amazing land of mountains, mesas, rugged river canyons, grasslands, pinyon-juniper woodlands, savannas and extensive forests. In fact, the world’s largest remaining virgin ponderosa pine forest is in the Gila, and we explore a big chunk of this grassy open wonderland of huge pine trees. There are elk, mule deer, black bear, bobcat, ringtail and even a small endangered population of the Mexican gray wolf, which was reintroduced into the Gila in the late ’90’s. So make your plans now to join us in the heart of this big southwestern wilderness complex, the “Yellowstone of the American Southwest”.



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Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem Backpacking

In the previous blog about Utah’s canyon country, I discussed a number of the West’s remaining “wildland complex’s” or “wilderness ecosystems”. Aside from these geographic regions having great recreational opportunities, what is so special about them? Well, each complex has its own attractions, but as a generalization, it’s all about the wilderness! That’s because native vegetation communities and many wildlife species need large areas of undisturbed terrain, so these wildland complexes are the most ecologically intact regions of the country!

For example, let’s look at the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), which includes Yellowstone National Park plus roughly 15 million acres of surrounding mostly public wildlands. Big designated Wilderness areas abut most of the park’s boundaries, and at least 3 million acres of unprotected roadless areas also punctuate the wildness of the GYE. The Greater Yellowstone occupies northwest Wyoming, southern Montana and a bit along the eastern edge of Idaho. And although Yellowstone backpacking and backpacking in the surrounding Wilderness areas are my livelihood, efforts to protect wild country in the Greater Yellowstone are not and must not be primarily about recreation!

In fact, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is one of the greatest and most ecologically complete areas of wild country remaining in the Earth’s temperate latitudes! A full compliment of large carnivores persists, including grizzly and black bear, wolf, coyote, lynx, wolverine and mountain lion! Moreover, the GYE is the only remaining region in the lower 48 states where every vertebrate species known to have existed in pre-European times still survives, at least to some extent. Including wild bison that are genetically intact without cattle genes. Think about it. It’s 2018 and regions as wild and intact as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are rare gems indeed!

Of course, some two-legged hominids see the GYE primarily in terms of timber, oil, mining potential, livestock forage, or as playgrounds — outdoor gymnasiums, if you will — for lazy humans and their expensive wheeled or tracked toys. That’s unfortunate, and some of these folks are vitriolic in their efforts to thwart efforts toward additional land protections.  The clock is ticking. Around the globe, few wild places that aren’t legally protected will survive this century. We need more Wilderness designations, more national parks, more land protections in general, and we need protections for every square inch of remaining wild country. In 21st century America, there will always be enough roads, cities, strip malls, oil rigs and sacrifice zones where off-road machines have damaged or destroyed nature. There will never be enough wilderness. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is unique, and still gives us the chance to do something right. Let’s protect all that still remains wild — and then some — for at least some damaged areas can still be restored. And let’s never ever compromise away the essence of wild nature in the unique and unequaled Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

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The Utah Canyon Country Wildland Complex

The spectacular canyon country of the American Southwest is an iconic landscape, popularized by Hollywood’s cinematic shootouts and horse-chases set amidst a colorful landscape of sandstone buttes, mesas and canyons. These landscapes are mostly associated with the southern half of Utah, but the canyon country — which really refers to the Colorado Plateau geologic province — actually includes southern and southeastern Utah, the southwestern corner of Colorado, a good chunk of northwestern New Mexico plus northern Arizona including the Grand Canyon. Our Big Wild canyon country treks are all in southern and southeastern Utah, in areas that, like the Yellowstone backcountry, are much less crowded than the Grand Canyon. Our guided Utah hiking treks in the Escalante Canyons, the Grand Staircase backcountry and in Canyonlands National park are second to none!

What’s so special about this red-rock canyon country bio-region? Aside from the unusual and dramatic landscape, much of the region is still wild! Embedded within it’s unconfined borders are Canyonlands, Arches, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the new and (hopefully temporarily) reduced Bears Ears National Monument plus several more protected parks, monuments and Wildernesses. In addition, there are millions of acres of unprotected public land road-less areas: these de-facto wildernesses are in many cases threatened by development and resource extraction, but they could be designated as Wilderness areas under the Wilderness Act of 1964. Yes, so much of landscape remains wild! In fact, the “Colorado Plateau Wildland Complex” is one of the great wild-land complexes of the American West where wilderness and near-wilderness lands, generally in close proximity to one another, dominate the landscape. Some of the other great wildland complexes of the West are the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the Glacier Park-Bob Marshall (“Northern continental Divide”) Ecosystem in northern Montana, the Salmon-Selway Ecosystem of central Idaho, the North Cascades Complex of northern Washington, California’s Sierra Nevada-Mojave Desert Complex, and the greater Gila/Black Range/Blue Range complex in southwestern New Mexico and eastern Arizona.

Back to southern Utah. Backpacking is Utah canyon country can be a challenge if you don’t know the terrain. Routes that look good on the map can suddenly be blocked by vertical cliff bands, and so you get “rimmed” on the way down or “boxed” on attempted up-canyon routes. Fortunately, our Big Wild Adventures hiking guides know the terrain, so getting blocked by cliffs is rarely a problem. And the red-rock canyon walls, spacious slickrock mesas, lush green riparian habitats, ruins and petroglyphs plus deep black starry skies a long ways from city lights make for an unforgettable wilderness experience. Don’t miss out!


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