Thursday, June 13, 2019


Canyonlands was the longest backpacking leg of my trip, four days and three nights spent in the Needles District. Early on I'd found a simple yet compelling description of a potential loop trip through the area, with different variations available based on time available. Later on I came across a fantastic post by the Wandering Queen, who followed a very similar route and went into a lot more detail about her gear and experiences on the trail. I got increasingly excited about this trip as the time grew closer.

One thing I was worried about, though, was water. Most of my previous backpacking has been in the California mountains or other places with a fair supply of streams, creeks, ponds and other potential water sources. You still need to research ahead of time to learn where those sources are and make sure you carry enough to last the time between them, with a buffer for safety, but I've never needed to carry more than about 2-3 liters. In the desert, though, water is in far shorter supply, and you need more of it: the very low humidity sucks the moisture right out of you, and rangers strongly suggest carrying a minimum of one gallon per day, plus whatever you need for cooking or cleaning. I groaned at the thought of carrying four gallons of water! That's HEAVY!

Still, I'd rather be tired and sore from carrying too much water than dead from thirst, so I upped my capacity. For years I've relied on a flexible Nalgene reservoir; for this trip, I picked up some new Platypus flexible water bottles. They're lightweight when empty and can be easily bent and scrunched around to fit within a pack. I also liked the idea of carrying multiple 1-2 liter bottles instead of one huge reservoir, so if I did get a puncture or rupture I would only lose that one part and not everything.

While I was prepared, I definitely didn't want to carry all that weight if I didn't need to. Some online sleuthing suggested a few possible sources in the Needles District: Nothing is ever guaranteed in the desert, but with the heavy winter and the recent rain I'd experienced, I felt cautiously optimistic. It sounded like water was often available in Lost Canyon, where I would be spending my first night, and at Elephant Canyon, which I would visit on my second and my final days. I ended up filling my Nalgene reservoir and the bicycle water bottles I normally use, then packing flat some empty Platypuses (Platypodes?) to fill on the way.

I got a very early start out of Moab and made a beeline for the Needles. The web page had warned that GPS can be unreliable and to use their own map, but the directions are very simple: just south on 191 and then west on 211. On the way into the park you pass through some BLM land, and I stopped at Newspaper Rock, a large and really cool collection of petroglyphs, some of which are thousands of years old. It's fascinating to think about how various tribes have contributed to it over centuries and millennia: many different groups who didn't speak the same languages, sort of engaged in a dialogue across time. To this day, anthropologists aren't able to decipher the rock, and aren't sure whether the drawings are a form of language (similar to Egyptian hieroglyphics), or if they are just people saying "Hey, check out this cool deer I drew!" and "I think feet are neat."

As with Arches, I'd arrived early enough that there wasn't a ranger at the entry kiosk, and headed directly into the park. I swung by the park headquarters, thinking I'd ask about backcountry conditions before hitting the trail. The actual backcountry office was roped off, and the rangers at the desk were busy processing entry fees and advising people on day hikes, so after a few minutes of waiting I got bored and decided to just start. "I'm sure it'll be fine!" I carelessly muttered to myself as I traipsed out the door. "What could possibly go wrong!"

I parked at the trailhead in Squaw Flat campground, cinched into my pack, and started hiking. After just a few minutes I met a couple on their way out and we stopped to chat briefly about their experiences; as with everyone I'd met, they'd had a great time. Cheered, I continued following the very well-marked trail. As with most of my desert hikes, much of the way is marked with cairns, especially over the long rocky sections; fortunately, every trail intersection is very clearly marked with a full proper sign, which proved very helpful and reassuring as I could confirm I was still on track.

After hiking for an hour or so I came into view of Lost Canyon. As with many sights in Canyonlands, it took my breath away: a rocky and stark expanse abruptly plunges and opens up into a narrow but deep and verdant space, filled with green trees that contrast with the stone around and above them. I continued along the lip of the canyon for some time, then worked my way down, descending to a rushing stream.

I proceeded to my LC3 camp site, which was elevated on a nice gentle hill, just out of view of the main trail. I set up my camp, and immediately was invaded. First by a young couple who wandered in and were checking it out for a potential future visit, and then by an older couple who had mis-read the campsite marker as a trail sign. Everyone was pleasant, and we had some good chats about our hikes so far before they eventually GTFOd back to the trail.

The day had been cloudy, and rain started shortly after I set up camp, so I was very happy to be able to duck inside my tent. Being inside and cozy and dry and warm while outside is cold and damp is one of life's best feelings. I felt slightly less great when the rain let up and I emerged to find my tent soaking in a giant puddle. The ground had looked level when I had set it up, but after the rainfall I realized that there was a slight dip in the center, and I had set it up exactly there. Fortunately, it was still just early afternoon, and I was able to relocate to another area - a few feet away and just an inch or so higher, but enough to see me dryly through future rainfall. So the rain itself turned out to be the silver lining: I could spot and solve the problem early on, instead of encountering it after nightfall. (Relocating a freestanding tent is EASY, and much quicker than setting it up in the first place: Just pull up the stakes and then lift the whole dang thing up in the air and set it down where you want it to go!)

All in all, it had probably taken me less than three hours from the Squaw Flat trailhead to my LC3 camp site - a very short hike for a day! I had lunch in camp, then decided to spend the afternoon exploring. I'd read earlier about people venturing into upper Lost Canyon and thought I'd give that a shot. I think I found it - at the point where the trail turns sharply right and starts climbing, you continue straight ahead into the narrowing canyon. I found a few interesting things here! First, I had my first near hazardous encounter with slickrock. I'd been hiking on this stuff without incident for three days by now: it's solid and reliable. But when my boot stepped onto an expanse of slickrock coated with running water, it immediately slipped off and I came close to losing my balance. I proceeded with much more caution from then on around wet slickrock. Secondly, sound really carries in canyons. I could pick up on conversations from people from far away, which was cool and also disconcerting.

The upper canyon (if that is what it was - I'm still not 100% sure I was at the right place) was relatively short and definitely not a major path, so it took a little scrambling and squeezing to get through, but eventually led to a neat tight crevise. I chilled here for a bit, enjoying the quiet sounds of nature and the sensation of being squeezed by ancient rocks, before (carefully!) making my way down and back to my campsite.

I spent the rest of the day reading Death Comes for the Archbishop, which I'd picked up the previous day in Moab - I'll review the book in a separate post later, but for now I'll note that it deals a lot with canyons and mesas and proved to be a very appropriate book for my trip in general and this hike in particular. Finally, as dusk fell, I prepared to go to bed, only to have my campsite invaded yet again, this time by three bros. This encounter was a little more tense, as it was pretty clear that they intended to camp there; they challenged me for my permit, I produced it, they departed. Not very far, though: I heard them talking all through the night. I figured that it was due to the aforementioned tendency of sound to carry in canyons, but I realized the next morning that they had camped on the hill directly opposite the trail from me, maybe just 70 feet away. That was kind of annoying - given that you're camping at large in an unapproved site anyways, there's a whole freakin' huge canyon here, why not pick a place that isn't right next to someone?

I was decently tired from the day, even if the main hike hadn't been particularly long, and went quickly to sleep. I was aided a bit by a new piece of gear! In all my previous trips, I've brought along a cheap foam sleeping pad, which provides some cushioning beneath my sleeping bag and keeps it from picking up the ground's chill. It's pretty lightweight, but is bulky, and I've typically strapped it to the outside of my pack. My brother Andrew recently went camping and sung the praises of his inflatable pad, so I decided to follow suit. I'm glad that I did! It packs down VERY small and easily fits within my pack, and removes the risk of the external pad snagging on something. You can inflate it with your breath; it usually took me less than 30 seconds to do so. It has a clever design, with staggered ridges of air pockets rather than a solid mass, so it doesn't take much air to fill but it still provides plenty of support.

The next day I woke up early-ish, which is very typical of me on backpacking trips: I'm usually ready to sleep right around sundown and naturally wake up around sunrise. I made my typical and delicious breakfast, instant oatmeal with nuts and dried fruit stirred in, and tried some new instant coffee I'd ordered from REI. It is disgusting!! I'm not much of a coffee connoisseur, but it's probably the grossest, vilest coffee I've ever tasted. Fortunately I'd also brought along some English Breakfast tea bags, so I had a caffeine fallback for subsequent mornings. I struck camp and hit the trail just as the bros were stirring.

The second day was my longest hike. The initial climb out of Lost Canyon was very steep and technically challenging, with various sections requiring careful handholds and footholds or navigating narrow ledges or even climbing up and down ladders. Eventually I emerged from the canyon, and was pleasantly surprised to have the light drizzle around me immediately stop. Similar things happened to me throughout the day, and I get the impression that, much like San Francisco, Canyonlands is a land of microclimates. Crossing to the other side of a ridge may take you from roaring wind to a peaceful calm, or from rain into sunshine, or suddenly raise or lower the temperature.

I gradually made my way to Elephant Canyon, which required more tricky ascents and descents. I'd decided to skip collecting water in Lost Canyon, reasoning that I didn't want to carry all that weight up and down, and instead shooting for a collection that I'd read about near the EC3 camp site; with the very recent rain, I figured it would very likely be available, and in the very unlikely chance it wasn't I could leave my pack there and just do a water shuttle to refill my reservoirs. As it turned out, though there was tons of water there, enough so that I could be picky: bypassing some cloudy and murky areas of the running stream and eventually collect from a nice short waterfall that had relatively (not totally) clear water.

For years I've used Aquamira to treat water; I think it's more popular these days to just collect dirty water and then filter it, either through passive gravity systems or just by pouring through a filtered straw when you're ready to consume. Aquamira works fine, though, and most of the treatment can happen while you're in transit. I hopped off the trail for a bit and enjoyed my lunch while monitoring my treatment solution, then ditched my pack and switched to my daypack. My next goal: Druid Arch, at the end of a longish and optional spur trail. It would add more miles to an already full day, but I'd gotten an early start and wanted to check it out, so I headed out and up.

This trail starts off easily enough, but before long grows increasingly gnarly, requiring scrambling and ledge pulls to advance. I made my way towards what I think was near the end, and finally admitted defeat. There's a large bowl to scale, and I just could not find a route up it. I might have tried scooting backwards up on my butt or something innovative like that, but by this time the rain had returned and I was deeply skeptical of tackling something with such a high grade and no clear footholds over wet slickrock. It was definitely disappointing to turn back, as I'd already invested a good hour making my way over previous obstacles, but, as the old saying goes, "Better not to see an arch than to suffer a broken limb or death."

I returned to the main trail, re-hoisted my pack, and set off again. The climb out of Elephant Canyon was even harder than the ascent from Lost Canyon, which I'm guessing was at least partially due to the extra water I was carrying, but it's also just really steep in its own right. But cool! This segment included some caves to traverse and, yes, more ladders to climb. Overall, this trip confirmed Chris King's Rules of Walking: City walks get really good once stairs are involved, and wilderness hikes get really good once ladders are involved.

I gained a ton of elevation in a short time, and enjoyed the views of Elephant Canyon a few feet over and several hundred feet above where I started. The highlight was still waiting: Chesler Park. I'd only read the name before, and for some reason had imagined something like Park Avenue in Arches: Stony and stark. Instead, it's a huge, lush, green expanse, improbably suspended above an arid canyon and below arid pillars. It felt so unexpected to abruptly stumble into an unseen Eden after hours in the rocks.

My campsite for this night was CP5, which is the furthest back along an access trail from the main path. All of the CP sites had been available when I applied for my permit, and I had selected CP5 mostly because I figured it would be the most private; and, indeed, it was, without a single invader coming all night. All of the sites are beautiful, though, and they're spread out enough that I think each would feel pretty solitary. Once again I set up my tent, once again I took shelter during a rain burst, and once again I found that I had pitched my tent in the exact worst place, in this case along a nascent brook. But once again I could relocate my tent in mere seconds and find a better position for the coming night.

The day had tired me, so after digging into my hot Mountain House supper I was ready for bed. I'd initially hoped to spend this night stargazing, as Canyonlands has some of the least light pollution in the entire United States, but the periodic rain and regular clouds made me think this wasn't the best plan. I gratefully slipped off into slumber instead.

I woke up in the rain again, and decided to stay put until it cleared, peacefully reading my novel. It finally did so and I hit the trail around 9AM, much later than planned but not so late as to put my plans at risk. My goal for the day was to follow the Joint Trail out to Devil's Pocket and loop through Devil's Kitchen to Elephant Canyon. On the way out, I got to see more of Chesler Park, and it was just as beautiful on the second day.

The Joint Trail was super-cool. It's a slot canyon that you descend into; some parts of it were so narrow that I had to squeeze myself and my pack through in order to proceed. The sidewalls are all vertical, and you can see the sky throughout, it's just very far away and you feel like the earth is hugging you. Along the way, you occasionally cross side-slot-canyons, which are even narrower than this one. And then... the canyon flooded!

I stopped and stared. There was a steep descent, with a sketchy-looking log ladder with footholds carved into it. In ordinary circumstances this would take me safely to the lower level, but today it descended into the water and vanished. I'd read previously about slot canyons so I intellectually knew exactly what was happening. In a rocky land like this, the ground can't absorb water, so rather than soak into the ground it just runs downhill. That means it eventually runs into a canyon. Slot canyons like this, thanks to being so narrow, can fill up very quickly, so even the relatively minor rain we'd received over the previous days was having a big impact.

It didn't take me very long to decide to turn back. If I'd needed to get through I could have found a way. Maybe I'd take off my boots and ford it, hoping desperately that the opaque water was concealing a shallow floor and didn't hold any nasty surprises. Or I might have descended the ladder partway, hurled my pack, and then attempted to leap to the far side. All of that sounded really miserable and risky, though, and I didn't need to get through it. Granted, this was a slot canyon and I couldn't just walk around it, but I knew that there was another trail that would get me to the night's campsite: I could go back to Chesler Park, then take the northern trail out and approach Elephant Canyon from the southwest rather than the northwest. So I turned back, but feeling pretty good about the decision and my plan.

The weather had further cleared up during my time in the Joint Trail, and I ended up being kind of glad at the backtracking, as I got to see Chesler Park one more time and under a prettier blue sky. It's really the combination of elements that makes this area so picturesque: the pinkish needle pillars, the verdant green grass, the bright blue sky. As I continued onto new trails, I ran across several groups of people heading the other direction; I'm usually pretty reserved when I greet people on hikes with a simple "Hello" or "Good morning," but today I initiated some chats about where they were headed; each group had planned to visit the Joint Trail, so I shared the bad news of the flooding and sort of described the situation. My overall message was "It's a really cool canyon, and you can still go a good half-mile or so into it, so you totally should if you have time; just be aware that you probably won't be able to complete the loop, so have a Plan B." Folks seemed to appreciate the fresh intel, and decided to press ahead anyways; I'd have hated for someone to spend hours getting to that point and then feel stuck.

The descent back into northern Elephant Canyon was a lot gentler than the southern climb out. I was curious if the wet conditions I'd seen in the previous day would hold true in this new area, and indeed they did, as a wide, shallow river was flowing through the bottom of the canyon. I had some trouble seeing the marker towards the EC1 campsite, though I could clearly see the site itself on the far side of the river, and I eventually managed to make my way over there.

There was one final downpour, but I was able to take shelter in a deep and open rocky overhang, and patiently read my book while waiting for it to clear. It did so, and I set up camp yet again. EC1 ended up being my favorite of the three spots I had on this trip. It was the least private, and is very visible to the trail; but it's far away from it, across a shallow gorge and river, and a lot less prone to accidental visitors than LC3. More importantly, it's incredibly scenic: perched on a hillside, you have a great view of the surrounding needles and the canyon; there's a particularly pretty arch, and if you position yourself just right, you can line it up with another smaller arch behind it. I may have also been disposed to like this campsite so much because it was the one dry night I had in Canyonlands: That late-afternoon rainfall was the last of my trip, and I enjoyed clear skies for the rest of my evening, finally getting to gaze at some of those famous stars.

I was also glad to have chosen EC1 due to the aforementioned flooding; the routes I'd studied had slightly recommended camping at DP1 instead for a lighter Day 3 of hiking, but I'd chosen to press on to EC1 so I could get an earlier exit from the park ahead of my planned drive down to Monument Valley. If I had gone with DP1... I guess I could have still reached it, but would have needed to approach from an odd angle. Anyways, I'm glad that all worked out!

The next morning I woke up, dry and chipper. I hoisted my pack and made my way out. The final day of hiking was easy compared to the previous two, but still interesting, including some more cave navigation and vast open rocky expanses to cross. I ran across a few more people, both heading in and coming out, and shared good vibes and encouragement. I was happy to see my car sitting safely in the lot; I always get a little paranoid that Something Will Happen when I leave a car unattended in the wilderness for multiple days, but it never does. I gratefully shrugged out of my pack, quick-changed from my disgusting and fragrant hiking duds into more presentable street clothes, and hit the road.

Oh, I should talk quickly about clothes! While prepping for the trip, besides increasing my water carry capacity I also looked into appropriate attire. I've become a huge fan of the layered Merino garments that I initially picked up for New Zealand, and now I use them pretty much every time I hike: they're a nice soft wool that's naturally wicking and naturally resist odors. However, the guidance I'd read for desert hiking specifically advises against wicking clothes. In the dry heat of the Southwest, you want to keep moisture on your skin as long as you can to help keep your body temperature low; wicking clothes will push it out to where the sun will instantly evaporate it, making you very hot. The desert is the one place where damp cotton is a good thing. I picked up a couple of new white long-sleeved t-shirts, which help reflect the sun's heat and trap your sweat.

However! After all that prep, I'd ended up falling back to my traditional wool garments after all; it was unseasonably cool and damp in Arches and Canyonlands, so my standard approach to temperature and moisture proved best. I was really glad that I'd still brought all this stuff along! For a while I was debating whether to save on packing by removing things I wouldn't use, but I was grateful to have and use not only my Merino layers but also a hat and gloves.

My route out of the park took me through Monticello, a small town east of the Needles and south of Moab. I stopped here at a place called the Peace Tree Juice Cafe, which I had also seen in Moab. I fell in love with the apple and goat-cheese salad that I got here. In real life I'm not much of a salad eater, but after multiple days of eating nuts and raisins and freeze-dried food, I was absolutely craving fresh greens and fresh fruit, and my body felt delighted at the bounty.

So! Some final thoughts on Canyonlands.

I'm really glad that I did it! It was the longest backpacking trip of this vacation, and was nicely challenging. The terrain was absolutely gorgeous, and the park felt incredibly varied, from imposing rocks to welcoming trees to towering spires.

The rain was a mixed blessing. Many of my pictures were less beautiful than they would have been otherwise, visibility was reduced in a few spots, and my overall comfort level was lower due to being slightly damp and cold. For better and worse, the actual desert experience I had was much different than I had imagined, and I think a very different one than almost anyone else has. The vast majority of the time, water is extremely limited or entirely unavailable in the park, so this was one of the few days (or even one of the few years!) where it was safe for me to carry relatively little. That increased my comfort level, and I hate to think of what, say, the initial climb out of Lost Canyon would have felt like if I'd been carrying three days' worth of water. On balance, I think I lucked out by visiting during a wet time.

I came to realize that my response to scenarios often has more to do with my expectations going into them than the experiences themselves. When I'd been imagining the Canyonlands trip, I'd assumed that it would be the most isolated of my vacation and was imagining a lot of (or even total) solitude. There definitely weren't a ton of people there and it never felt congested, but there were a lot more people around than I'd imagined, which made it feel like a lot. "Ugh, I saw a person today, it was awful!" In contrast, I'd anticipated encountering enormous crowds in the Grand Canyon, so when those crowds turned out to only be moderate I actually felt pretty happy with that, even though the total number of people was significantly more than in Canyonlands. I don't think that the takeaway of this was that I'm a misanthrope, more that I should make fewer assumptions about the type of experience I'll have and avoid disappointment when reality diverges.

I'd initially decided to include Canyonlands on my itinerary thanks to the backpacking loop trail description. That said, if I were to revisit here, I think I would skip the backpacking and instead just car-camp at Squaw Flat and do day hikes from there and from Elephant Hill. For me, the act of backpacking itself doesn't make things more fun, it just adds weight: the appeal of backpacking is opening up new territory for hiking that you couldn't reach otherwise. In this case, though, every single destination I visited could have been reached in a longish dayhike. I think a lot of the scrambling and rock climbs that were kind of painful with a full pack would have been a lot more fun with a lighter daypack: I would have moved faster and covered more ground on each day, and wouldn't have needed to repeat many paths thanks to the variety of trails available which could have formed shorter loops.

All that said, I'm really glad that I did this! It was a great initial exposure to hiking in the desert, but with training wheels: I got to experience the rocky surfaces and narrow slot canyons and other unique topography without getting punished too severely by extreme heat or lack of water. As expected, I was happy but tired coming out of the park, and was already looking forward to a more relaxing visit to my next destination, Monument Valley inside the Navajo Nation.

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