When you ask locals about going off trail on public lands, most will tell you not to. Some will tell you that it is illegal. Everyone will talk about cryptobiotic soil.
When on land governed by the Bureau of Land Management, using your own two feet to leave the trail will not get you fined or imprisoned. That’s according to the Moab Field Office, which said that there is no law that forbids backcountry hiking on BLM land.
Obviously, though, there is often a rift between “can” and “should,” and the key to remember about hiking off trail is that doing it the wrong way can destroy natural resources and threaten cultural resources.
To put it in the terms that the BLM and the National Park System prefer, every step in the back country is an “opportunity to protect it.” The Moab Rim Trail is a good case study in this.
The trail, a 4x4 out-and-back route, is directly next to the Behind the Rocks Wilderness Study Area — an area the Bureau of Land Management has nominated for wilderness protections that Congress would enact.
What exactly does the law say about going off of the Moab Rim Trail? The signs say not to drive off designated routes, which seems obvious to me. But what about hiking off designated routes?
I ask because, whenever I get to the top of the rim trail, I want to keep going. I don’t want to continue to Hidden Valley; I want to climb up the big sandstone towers.
Going off trail with a vehicle is illegal. Going off trail with your own feet is not, though the signs might not suggest such is the case. If you are going to go off trail, you must (in the moral sense, not legal) treat the land with respect.
These same rules apply to nearly all the BLM land in and around Moab, including the riparian area near Sand Flats that shall not be named.
The primary difference between public lands around Moab is the degree to which locals try to exert their power to keep them sacred and rarified. The reality is that nobody weilds the power to return these areas to being unknown; they weild only the power to manage their use.
It is in this context that I think about going off trail along the rim. All the way up Stairmaster, the hiking trail that sits just west of the 4x4 trail, there are delicate rock structures and plants.
Do not step on them. Do look at and appreciate them.
At the top, the sandstone towers watching over me look a lot more accessible. I start looking for routes I can take to the top. I’m merely a large child trying to climb up big rocks.
The good news is that anyone is allowed climb to the top. The but is that while you’re doing so, you should not step on cryptobiotic soil; you should not establish a trail where there was not one previously; you should pack out everything you take with you; and you should generally leave no trace.
There are many more caveats I can give about going off trail. I would suggest that your moral imperative if you want to leave the trail is to seek out and heed the advice.
Land owned by the Bureau of Land Management, including the land on and off the Moab Rim Trail, is public. Hopefully you know The Tragedy of the Commons; keep that story in mind as you hike off the designated trails.
Talk to the Moab Field Office. Ask them what is and is not allowed. Ask them what is and is not recommended. The kind people who staff that office know the area like the back of their hand, and if they do have gaps in their knowledge, they can lean over and ask a coworker.
Finally, always read and understand the signs displayed along hiking routes. Once you’re done reading signs, looking down to watch your step, looking around for the route with the least crypto, look up and enjoy the view.
If you are like me, the view at the top of the rock will be enough to help you momentarily put out of your mind the many dictums about the right and wrong of going off trail. You can put aside your concern about the branch you accidentally snapped, the rock you broke, or the raven you disturbed.
There will be plenty of time to contemplate the consequences of your actions on the hike down, including what you do with the photos you took.