Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Canyonlands National Park

The final backpacking trip on the 'southwest tour' (before Renee and I head off to hike the Pacific Crest Trail)...

‘Mindblowing’ describes this 3-night backpacking trip to the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park, UT.  The views were over the top (literally) and the terrain and scenery were completely varied- a surprise around every corner.  We’d start our days leaping across desert creeks and then we’d climb up to dizzying heights and cling to the edges of cliffs, hearts pounding.  I didn't want to leave.
Ah what a view!
Flowing springs in the canyons were an unexpected delight.  Each canyon was different from the next- rich riparian Squaw Canyon, large Salt Creek lined with cottonwoods, potholes teeming with fairy shrimp on the way to Squaw Flat (so cool!!!).
Elephant Canyon
Squaw Canyon
Climbing over from one canyon to the next required ladders, boulder scrambles, and slopes I could not believe we would scale when I first looked at them.  It was scary and challenging… and I absolutely LOVED IT!
Going for it on the uphills.  Photo by Renee.
This part was fun/scary cause there were dropoffs on both sides.  Photo by Renee.
Many times we said to one another that we had to trust the NPS that this trail was passable.  We also had to remind ourselves to trust our own strength and our shoes- they turned out to have extra sticky soles that never failed to grip the rocks.
Renee walking on the side of a rock.
Bear canisters and wag bags 
And if the terrain wasn't enough of a thrill, new regulations required bear canisters for our campsite in the upper Salt Creek Canyon and human waste disposal bags for our two other campsites.  So we were carrying all the extra weight of bear cans and our poop as we clung to the edges of cliffs or squeezed through tights spots in the rocks.  Whenever a spot felt too difficult, we’d take off our packs and hand them over the ravine or down the inclines to one another- these trails were much, much easier without full packs and I *almost* envied the dayhikers— but not really because I loved spending so much time out there, plus I sure felt strong carrying that darn heavy pack and getting in an awesome core workout.
Look I’m carrying my own poop in this special bag!  Photo by Renee.
It may sound gross to pack out your own poop, but what’s really gross is finding other people’s poop and toilet paper in the backcountry— I see it all the time on the Appalachian Trail- yuck!  People there do not dig holes properly and they do not choose sites far enough away from campsites or the trail.  In arid environments like Canyonlands, decomposition happens very slowly, and campsites were often close to our water sources.  So I was really quite glad for these regulations- they kept the campsites and water clean. 

Lessons from the Red Layer
We quickly noticed that one of the rock layers was much easier to travel over than the other.   Geologists that we are… NOT…  we called the smooth, rounded layer that was easy to walk over the 'white layer' and the upper, more sheer vertical layer the ‘red layer.’ (We later found out at the visitor’s center that this Cedar Mesa sandstone was deposited during the Permian- the white layers are the nearshore dunes, while the red are the river and lake deposits that eroded from huge mountains.)
Grateful to be on the “nice, gentle" white rock layer.  I felt like I could soar across.  Photo by Renee.
At first, I got mad at the red layer because crossing it made the fear well up inside me.  The pass over to Peekaboo had one part that was the stuff of my nightmares- a narrow traverse with a steep drop-off.  When we got to that part, my gut reaction was that I wouldn’t go any further.  But Renee came back across it, and carried my pack over that part for me.  I followed her across and didn't slip and die, much to my relief.  Logically, it made no sense why I got so scared- that part was nowhere near as technically difficult as other sections that I’d sailed across.  It was that visual of the drop-off that I let get to me.  The red layer made me face my fears.
Pointing to my scary spot on the red layer- that horizontal traverse out past the green bushes.  Photo by Renee.
Later, Renee faced similar obstacles- she hates ladders, and steep steps/ uphills.  So she’d hand her pack to me, or I’d go first over those parts and help talk her through them.  Go teamwork!

That evening, looking at the map, I realized that there was an alternate route back to the trailhead, that I didn’t NEED to go over that steep drop-off spot again.  There was a choice- go over the red layer again vs. take the dirt road.  That’s when Renee and I reviewed what we’d learn from the red layer— crossing over the red layer made us grow as hikers; the red layer made us stay present and in the moment; we could see far and have better perspective from the red layer; it allowed us to appreciate the safety and ease of the white layer.  Of course, we went back over the red layer on our last day!  And it was FUN!
Playing at "stepping off the end of the world" on the red layer on the last day.  Photo by Renee.
A few things that I learned
I was thrilled with the scenery at Canyonlands, and also that the arid environment provided excellent opportunities to learn how to be adaptable in different and ever-changing environments.  It really hit home how "routine" my backpacking has become back in Georgia.  In contrast, I was challenged and constantly learning on this trip and that was really satisfying.  I'm looking forward to this continuing on the PCT.

Contending with the sand (and the dryness) was also a new thing for me.  Sand had to be dumped out of shoes on breaks, and at night it would take an entire wet one just to get the sand out from between toes (even with dirty girl gaiters).  Backpacking in the southeast, I hardly ever use any lotions and I'd repackaged my lotion into teeny tiny containers that seemed laughable out West- where I was lathering on the sunscreen every 2 hours (more than that and I’d burn), and slopping on the lotion to keep my hands and feet from cracking.  SO different from Georgia!

I’ve been carrying around the same small roll of duct tape in my kit for at least three years.  It was all gone by the end of this trip- patching holes in skin and gear.  Both packs got small holes where the sides of our backpacks scraped against rock.  Next time I might put a protective layer of duct tape on the wide part of the pack BEFORE I go, especially if they are large from carrying bear canisters and two days of POOP. :)
Why they make canyoneering packs that are tall and narrow.
Our route:
We got dropped off at the Elephant Hill trailhead, hiked out to EC3 (gorgeous site!) and set up camp, then did an out and back hike to Druid Arch in the afternoon.  Elephant Canyon had a lot of dayhikers.   On day 2, we hiked down Squaw Canyon (lovely riparian area) then up over to LC1 (another gorgeous site, and more wooded).  Then an afternoon out and back up Lost Canyon- this part of the park was more remote and beautiful and we only saw three other people.  On day 3, we climbed up and over to Peekaboo, and then into Salt Creek- doing an out and back further into the canyon- just one other group encountered and it was cool because they showed us some pictographs we’d have otherwise missed.  On the last day, we went out to Squaw Flat campground where my folks picked us up.  What an excellent trip- I only wish we'd have stayed out a few more nights!
Dad meets us at the trailhead with refreshments- he's really getting the hang of being a trail angel!

-We made reservations for our campsites well in advance so we got our choice of campsites. 

-Secure your food at all times.  We saw where animals had gotten into someone’s unattended pack that had been stashed at a trail junction.  DON’T leave your food out!  We carried a bear canister (required for some areas)- you can borrow these from the ranger station.

-This time of year, early March, nights were cold/ below freezing- there was frost on tarps, ice on water (and on rock in a few places), and the bear canister was frozen shut in the morning (side note: does anyone else have this problem where the top of the bear can is frozen due to frost?)

-Water sources are seasonal and intermittent.  Check at the ranger station before you head out.  We lucked out and there was plenty of water in all the canyons.  Other times of year, you need to pack your own water and be especially careful to leave water for wildlife.  Water is precious in this area, so don't camp or pee near the water and certainly never wash in the water.

Check out Renee's trip report on her blog, Pathfinder on the PCT.


  1. Your dad brought you beer?! Awesome.

    1. He sure is! I do feel lucky, especially since my folks are also planning to meet me on the PCT. :)

  2. Sweet trip. I was just here with a group of other day hikers at the start of the year. Thanks for bringing me back there with your photos.

    1. Just saw a trip report for that hike- wow that ice sounded gnarly! Sure is a gorgeous area though. Really want to go back sometime.

  3. Wow, great trip report! Now I want to head west and explore that area a bit. Regarding bad cat holes---the worst I saw on the AT was in the Smokies. Awful, awful, awful.

    1. Ah I hope you will get a chance to check out Canyonlands- it's amazing. This trip to the southwest definitely has me talking about "southwest tour #2." It's taking all my self-control not to get lost reading about the Grand Enchantment Trail- gotta do the PCT first.

  4. Great post! We are in Canyonlands right now and it is fantastic! It is really cool to get down into the canyons and then see how much space there is down there...and then more canyons below. Great place.

  5. What a wonderful spot- glad you are enjoying it. Yes, it's incredible to look out from a high spot and be able to see forever, and yet not have a grasp of all the intricate networks of canyons until you enter their world. Hope you are staying cool!