Lost and Found In The Canyonlands

Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park

Adventure is best when it’s off the grid, completely improvised, imperfect, and when it comes with a big surprise at the end. My friend Anh, who up until now I’d only known through the online #HikerChats asked me if I wanted to fly out to Moab and hike a 22-mile loop around Canyonlands National Park. The entire park is a series of gorges, cut out by an ancient ocean, creating a landscape of sandstone towers, slot canyons, magnificent arches, set against the backdrop of golden rock speckled with desert sage and cactus. The splendor of Canyonlands isn’t in soaring peaks or deep forests, the splendor is in the isolation, rummaging through a cave or deep crevasse without running into another person. Yelling at the top of our lungs in an amphitheater where the sounds echo through the trenches.

In other words: this was one of the best hikes I’ve ever done.

Anh, her friend Garrett and I started off on the trail around 9 PM just to see how far in we could get before we decided to make camp. Not even a half mile out of the parking lot, the vastness of this place made itself known. Under slightly cloudy skies, we tread through sand-strewn trails, over sloping rock ledges, and through deep canyons, the only time guided only by our headlamps. Our hike was a game of looking in different directions until we found the cairns, many a time going off in a completely wrong direction. The hike was more interesting with the spindly branches and their shadows constantly giving us the impression that something was crawling, slithering, or creeping under us. Every so often, we had to stop just to be sure that no-one was about to step on a snake.

After two hours of traversing an arid nighttime landscape, we scrambled up a cliff face to pitch our tents. Not knowing what kind of view we were going to have, we held a quick 10-minute birthday celebration for me and nestled in our tents, falling asleep even through a quick shower that ensured the air would be clear the following day.

Our camp on night one
Our camp on night one

When Anh and I awoke, we rustled out of our tents and jaws dropped immediately. Rust colored canyons spread for miles, separated by patches of desert sage and dry trees. Pillow-like sandstone towers rose from the ground with deep chasms that divided them. Anh and I scurried up the cliff face behind us and found ourselves walking across a plateau, staring at the Needles, a set of pillars that define one of the park boundaries. Today we would hike down beyond the canyon rim and along an ancient dry creek to reach the spectacular Druid Arch.

After ascending a small tower from which we were able to see how astonishingly far the park reached, we broke down our camp and started on the trail. Hiking in Canyonlands is unlike anywhere else. There are no straightforward paths here. Hikers climb, dip, weave, and squeeze through narrow slots, high ridges, across ancient petrified sand dunes, and under rock arches cut by water over the course of millennia. It’s hiking at its most primal, traversing enormous amphitheaters where trails aren’t fully defined and the only way to stay on course is to keep looking for the cairns.

Hiking near Elephant Canyon
Hiking near Elephant Canyon

The desert can be a weird place where life and fate seem to intersect. One of the most moving and happiest moments of our trip came around noon as we were walking through the bulging dunes before starting our climb up the canyon. We stopped to help a French couple climb up one of the slopes, helping them manage their jugs of water and pulling them onto the cliff. As we practiced our less than stellar French on them, the woman turned to me and said “I know who you are!” We had never met to that point so I was a little bemused until she continued “Do you have a blog? I think I’ve read your site!” My mouth dropped open and tear started to well up in my eyes as her husband explained: “As we were planning this trip she had read several blogs and sites and yours was one of them.” At this point I’m trying to control myself from not bawling out of joy and I had surmised that she had recognized the hiking outfit that I’d worn in several of my photos. We thanked them, wished them well, and continued up the slope.

Two of my biggest fans
Two of my biggest fans

Every trail in Canyonlands leads to hidden caves, passages and little canyons. Garrett wanted to find a cave, if only to take a bit of shade from the sun for a few minutes. Following a crack that ran along the basin, we found an opening in the canyon wall and squeezed through the keyhole opening. Inside, the afternoon light filtered through the narrow opening on the roof, and light danced on the walls, providing opportunities for photographs taken in silhouette. After exiting the cave, we traversed an even narrower opening to (In Garrett’s words) “break on through to the other side.”

Garrett inside of the cave
Garrett inside of the cave

We found ourselves in a bowl, surrounded by monolithic golden cliffs that lined our trail to the needles. As we rounded the semicircular basin under castle-like towers, we had to climb and descend a series of rickety ladders that brought us into the creek under the Needles.

The bowl that separates Elephant Canyon from the Needles
The bowl that separates Elephant Canyon from the Needles

The Needles looked immense from our vantage point that morning, but now they were towering over us. Naturally, Anh and I were trying to figure out how many ways we could climb them. After a short hike through the creek, we climbed up a small hillside and made camp on a dry stream bed. A short break later, we were hiking towards Druid Arch, a must-see for anyone hiking through the Canyonlands.

The trail that leads to Druid Arch descends into the dry creek bed and tracks through the center of the canyon. About halfway through, a set of slabs had us climbing to the canyon rim, past deep pools, sandstone columns, wind-shaped hoodoo structures, and up a narrow alleyway until we reached another magnificent bowl. At the center, a singular tower rises. As the trail weaves around smaller boulders, the opening becomes clear, and Druid Arch’s enormity and presence makes itself known. At sunset, the light filters through the keyhole shaped oculus, bathing the ledges in an orange, pink, and gold light. Anh, Garrett, and I sat out on the ledge, quietly watching the last rays of sun escape the canyon.

Anh and Druid Arch
Anh and Druid Arch

There was a moment where the three of us sat, feet hanging off the ledge, not saying anything, lost in a singular moment. There’s so many reasons to look for adventure, whether it’s for personal discovery, challenge, and seeing the world in its natural form. However the best moments from my travels aren’t the high cliffs, the death-defying ascents or the times when I was lost, cold, or hungry for days on end. The best parts are the moments you don’t even realize are happening. Sitting out watching the sunset in this cavernous arena with a singular bottle of scotch and two amazing people. An easter brunch of instant coffee and freeze-dried food as the morning kisses the stone and the entire park glows. Sitting out improvising songs with a ukulele. Adventure is extraordinary moments in extraordinary places. I think what I learned most from this trip was as much as I love the thrill of climbing a wall, rafting down a river, or traversing a canyon, it will always be the moments between good friends that I’m most going to remember.

Garrett looking into Elephant Canyon (Photo by Anh Thai)
Garrett looking into Elephant Canyon (Photo by Anh Thai)

Check out Anh at The Summit Air

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “Lost and Found In The Canyonlands

  1. Mike, hello of France
    For us too it was one of more beautiful hikes and without you we would be can have arrived there. Thank you still.
    We shall return certainly to Needles.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s