Friday, November 13, 2015

Canyonlands National Park, UT

Canyonlands National Park, located outside of Moab, is spliced up into three main districts: The Needles, Maze and Island In the Sky. The later is the most visited by tourists while the other two prior are your unlocked doors for pure exploration into Utah's wild untamed desert. Finish up a few hours trekking around at neighboring Dead Horse Point State Park and approach the entrance of Canyonlands National Park's Island In the Sky District, a mesa located at 6,000ft with paramount views of the La Sal and Henry Mountains off in the distance.

Stop first at the lean, fifty-foot long Mesa Arch located a 0.5 mile hike from the park's main road. This arch creates a panorama window with jaw-dropping views out onto Buck Canyon and its vast desert floor, some 500+ feet below. Look east and south from the White Rim and Grand View Point Overlooks as far as your eyes can stretch, out towards The Needles District's deep canyons gouged into the dry desert floor and sharp, colorful towers of sandstone. Head to the west part of the Island in the Sky vista to catch a glimpse of The Maze and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The views from above at the Island In the Sky never ceased to wow.

Of all the National Parks in Utah, Canyonlands is the most polarizing and provided me with the biggest adrenaline rush. The views are the hands-down the best of the five and one could easily spend weeks, if not, months exploring Canyonlands. Spend a few hours at the Island in the Sky District but its imperative you hit the road to drive 90 minutes/75 miles to The Needles District. That's where your adventure will truly begin and that's where this post continues on.

I hopped back onto the highway and drove 90 minutes south to begin my three-day backpacking adventure in the national park's The Needles District. The park entrance is off of hwy and you'll have to drive on a long road through lush, Newspaper Rock National Recreation Area. Watch out for 'Open Range' signs, as there may be a time you come around a bend and there's cattle standing in the middle of the road.

I parked and almost immediately Francesca, a park ranger my age came over to talk with me about my trip into the backcountry. She was interning with the Student Conservation Society and preparing to lead an interpretive talk on ravens later that evening and had dreams of someday working at Dinosaur National Monument, in Colorado's northwest corner. I loaded up my pack, a new Gregory Baltoro 65 freshly bought from REI (thanks to the fine folks at Gregory for sending me the free mini daypack, stickers and hat), prepared some food, filled up both Nalgenes and two collapsible water pouches, left a note on my rental car's dashboard with the location of my site and set off.

The site I was backpacking to, SQ2 was about three miles away, south into the desert backcountry. I had if optimistic, an hour of daylight left and attempting to navigate via stacked carins in the dark is a recipe for getting lost. Hiking at a swift pace, with a loaded pack consisting primarily of water can be exhausting, but I reached the site, set up tent and cooked up a quick dinner over the gas stove as the sun finally fell behind the canyon's west walls. Being completely alone in the desert backcountry, especially at night, is an indescribable reward and sensational feeling of wanderlust. At one point while I was finishing up dinner, I heard big footsteps and rustling around in the trees/bushes twenty feet in front of me. I froze dead in my tracks and my heart started to pound faster. Was it one of the black bears spotted by rangers a few days before I arrived? Mountain lion? Whatever it was, I started yelling, clapping my hands and banging my cooking pots around to fend it off. That patch of black went still quiet and a subtle sigh of relief came over me. The millions of stars and view of the Milky Way above were jaw-dropping.

The next day I awoke at sunrise, boiled water for an oatmeal breakfast and set out on the trail to reach Druid Arch. Hiking around in Canyonland's Squaw Canyon, Elephant Canyon and Druid Arch areas claims the golden trophy for best hiking I've ever done. Holy cow. This desert terrain is just massive, mesmerizing and absolute bonkers. Squaw Canyon was painted with a vibrant array of hot colors from various sediments on the walls and rocks and landscapes that were almost Mars-like. Narrow, long slot canyons that could leave you trapped after a bad foot placement and just pure, silence . Like all of Utah's national parks, erosion is king here and you'll see it everywhere you go. Each step gave way to evidence of how this planets changed over time. Wind erosion was the key shaper here at Canyonlands. Eight miles and three hours later of tricky hiking on slickrock, past tall spires and through sandy washouts, I was staring up at Druid Arch, standing tall against a bluebird sky. Not a bad place to have lunch under this 15ft+ arch. Make sure you get right underneath it on the sloping ledge. The views looking north back into canyon you just hiked through are pretty sweet. Druid Arch wins at being my favorite arch in Utah. It is just massive and worth the long hike. Make sure you have a topography map and plenty of water, it's dry in The Needles.

Heading back to SQ2, my rustic backpacking site, I took my time and admired more and more of this insanely impressive plot in Utah that is Canyonlands's Needles District. About an hour from the site, I found a perch to sit back, kick my feet out and just soak in the views (that cover photo at the top of my blog is that exact view). I sat here for probably a good half-hour scribbling away in my journal, doodling and drooling over this vast desert stretch. The colors all around were blazing like fire, even in the dimmest light. I couldn't take my eyes off of Squaw Canyon, it keeps sucking me in with all of it's powerful, immense detail. Even writing this blog post a month later, I get the chills reminiscing about this spot. I questioned just how much of that boundless land has ever been set foot on. This park was heaven for an outdoors geek like me.

Like in alpine conditions, storms just fly over the desert hard and fast. Looking south I saw big dark clouds approaching behind the canyon's walls as the wind picked up. Then, thunder. Flash floods are common in lands like these and being out in the open when lightning is imminent is just asking for a death wish. I quickly hurried back to my camp site, retracing my foot steps as those dark clouds overhead stalked me. After a quick dinner I sought shelter in my tent as the rain started to fall and winds became super fierce. In an attempt to secure my tent, I placed big rocks around the bottom edges. As I lay in my sleeping bag, the thunder got louder. I knew I'd be alright, but I turned on my SPOT GPS beacon and checked-in just in case.  I dozed off. Something about being in the desert, alone during a storm was almost magical.

The next morning my campsite had flooded and there was water everywhere around and inside the tent. After breakfast, I packed my gear including the mud-soaked tent up in my backpack and set out for the trailhead. About the last half-mile, I saw another array of lightning and dark clouds hovering over the Canyonlands. My pace picked up again. Timing worked out as it just started pouring when I took my pack off at the car. The temperature had dropped too, into the low 40s. But I was high on pure, nature-filled adrenaline and proud to have spent the past three days in such an incredible place.

Best outdoor adventure I've ever done? Backpacking at Canyonlands National Park.