Earlier that day, I had hiked an unmapped trail that meandered east and south along the mesa. I did not see another person in the eight miles of my out-and-back journey other than a couple who looked to be in their 50s. They sat in folding chairs overlooking the rim, books in hand and a truck-camping site set up behind them.
We greeted one another with a head nod. Silence prevailed.
Now back at my yurt, one of three for rent here, I watched shadows and light move across Zion's walls. Bruise-colored clouds added a tinge of drama to the early evening sky as I pondered naturalist writer Terry Tempest Williams' premise that wilderness is a human necessity.
Recent snow showers had cloaked the Pine Valley Mountains in bright white, which contrasted sharply with the red dirt of the foothills. Two jays squawked in the juniper tree, then flitted away.
A human necessity for sure.
A spider web of trails
Gooseberry Mesa National Recreation Trail, which gained national trail status in 2006, is a spider web of paths draped across a red rock mesa, with more than 20 miles of trails at an altitude of 5,200 feet.
In contrast to Zion, whose visitor center is about 45 miles by car, Gooseberry is lesser known and largely crowd-free, especially during on week days. If you are willing to share trails with mountain bikers, hiking the Goose affords sweeping vistas from its rims. There is no lodging on the mesa other than the three yurts. Camping is permitted and is free.
On the second day, I walked from the yurt onto the Windmill trail, which can be accessed a couple of hundred feet from the steps of the deck. Without a clock dictating my every step, I was free to meander, taking in views of the desert floor and the snowy mountains. When I returned to the yurt, I settled in for a day of leisure and reading.
On Day 3, I drove to the White Trail head (five minutes by car) on the other side of the mesa and hiked the South Rim trail, about six miles to the point on the mesa's western edge. I marveled at the intricacy and resilience of the flowering cactus. Bikers and walkers seemed to be enjoying themselves, as evidenced by the many smiles and nods.
Lunch was an apple and a granola bar, and as I munched a breeze kicked up and there was a chill in the air despite the sunshine. Somewhat replenished, I began the long hike back to the car.
Twelve miles or so of hiking across the mesa made for great sleeping that night. I awakened and realized I wasn't quite zipped into my sleeping bag, and the stove needed more wood. I arose and decided to step outside for a look.
On this cloudless night, a billion stars blazed, and the Milky Way was a cloudy haze against a squid-ink background.
Perfection then and again at dawn, as the sun rose behind Zion's sentinels, smearing the morning sky in soft pastels.
I offered a thank you for the wilderness, grateful for its presence and its power.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO GOOSEBERY MESA, UTAH
From LAX, Air Dialog offers nonstop service to Cedar City, Utah, and Delta and Air Dialog offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip airfare from $300, including taxes and fees. Cedar City is about 55 miles from Kanab, Utah. Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport is about a three-hour drive.
WHERE TO STAY
Gooseberry Mesa is on Bureau of Land Management land. You do not need a permit to camp, so you can stay anywhere on the mesa unless "no camping" signs are posted. There are no amenities other than pit toilets at the Gooseberry trail head.
You'll need to bring food, water, firewood, etc. to your campsite or yurt, and you must be prepared to pack in and pack out. You'll find a small general store/gas station/cafe on Utah 59 as you drive from Hurricane to the mesa turnoff.