Thursday, April 6, 2017

Chesler Park in Needles

Backpacking with my dear friend Jan in the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. A loop from the Elephant Hill Trailhead to the Joint Trail and Druid Arch, camping at Chesler Park.
Up the Elephant Hill Jeep road towards Devils Kitchen.
Walking through the Needles is a completely different experience than Island in the Sky. Here, we are down within the canyons, enveloped within rock spires and fins.
The Joint Trail takes us through a giant rock crack. 
As gorgeous as the scenery is, the highlight of the trip is spending time with Jan. As the years go by, I feel more and more appreciative of good trail buddies. Those rare jewels that make any trip a delight. I’m even more lucky that Jan seems to come visit me wherever I roam.
Jan and I take a thousand photos in the Joint, none of which capture the incredible feeling of being surrounded by towering rock.
There is the ease of our shared outdoors rhythm and values— so many miles together means there is no question about stopping for photos of plants, no awkwardness about bathroom stops, no problems deciding how to make plans. I trust Jan’s skills and decision making fully. I trust her advice on life matters. And our ability to laugh and be silly.
Stopping at every biscuitroot to take a photo. Because they are all so cute.

Chesler Park
I also keep making the same mistakes when I hike with Jan. I forget that I’m adapted to the exhausting sand walking and rock scrambling after a few months here, and that Jan is just emerging from the darkness of winter hibernation. Why do I make this same mistake over and over— saying to Jan “This trail is flat” and “I’m sure we can make it back and forth to Druid Arch before dark.” Fortunately, Jan is always a good sport.
See, there is no elevation change here. Nope. Flat the whole way, Jan.

This ladder? The rungs in the ladder are flat. So this trail is still practically flat here. Photo by Jan
I read in a book about Bates Wilson, early superintendent of Arches who worked to get Canyonlands established as a national park, that when Bates took Secretary of the Interior Udall on a hike to Druid Arch, that Bates kept insisting “It’s only four miles.” Totally underestimating the mileage. 
From: “Blow Sand in his Soul; Bates Wilson the heart of Canyonlands” by Jen Jackson Quintan
So at least this is not the first time this has happened on the way to Druid Arch.
We make it to Druid Arch, even though it means ambitious mileage with having to return to our campsite at Chesler Park before sunset.
Our campsite, CP4, is tucked against rock spires and has an expansive sunset view.
Sunset is epic. I watch sunsets a lot here in canyon country, but many are watched solo and even though I like my solo time, nothing compares to the magic of a shared sunset. 
Colors change and get more gorgeous every minute.
More Information

Permits for overnight camping are required in Canyonlands National Park. Make your reservation as early as possible, carry out your toilet paper and poop in a wag bag, and pack in all your own water.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Gooseberry and the White Rim

The goal this weekend is to finish all the hiking trails in Island in the Sky (ISKY), Canyonlands National Park. Only two remain on the list taken from the NPS’s hiking guide, Gooseberry (6 miles round-trip) and White Rim Overlook (1.6 miles round-trip). My overnight backcountry permit is on the other side of the road from these hikes, Murphy Point (4 miles round trip). Not enough trail-miles to fill a weekend but I have a plan.
Gooseberry Trail dropping through the Windgate Sandstone.
The secret to hiking in canyon country is that endless opportunities for exploration are found by following sandy washes and slickrock. Hiking trails provide a good introduction to desert travel for beginners but are merely a jumping off point. My off-trail plan for exploring extends my trip by taking me to an off-trail route. But first, the established trail.
Rock steps of Gooseberry Trail feel solid underfoot.
The Gooseberry Trail doesn’t mess around with flatness. This rock staircase drops 1400 miles in the first 1.5 miles, providing that falling off the edge of a cliff feeling characteristic of ISKY. Some might say the drop is relentless but my legs find a comfortable rhythm, dancing down softly into the wash. An old climbing book says that this trail was built in the late 1930’s by the WPA and was originally called the Government Trail.
Gooseberry is alive with signs of spring, including the most vibrantly red paintbrush I’ve ever seen.
The Gooseberry Trail joins the White Rim Road near a campsite teeming with mountain bikers and jeepers just waking up and strolling around camp.
Down the dusty White Rim Road following tire tracks. 
This early in the morning, there isn’t any traffic and the White Rim Road is the fastest way to get to my so-called destination. I’ve identified a peninsula of land that juts out into something called Monument Basin (not to be confused with Monument Valley). A patch of green on the topo map. Trees, I hope. Perhaps a seep? I’m just relying on gut instincts. If I had more access to wifi, internet searches could be used to find more information, but I sort of like this way too, purely lines on topo maps.
Following the edge
After the first herd of mountain bikers pass me, I veer off the road towards the edge of the White Rim rocks. This is my plan for staying off the beaten-path— following the folds of the slickrock. Sure it’s much further as the crow flies. The change is immediate and rewarding. Jaw-dropping views as the White Rim rock layer falls away revealing the softer Organ Rock shale below. The sweet sound of songbirds and an unexpected lushness all along the cliff edge. My legs work harder, leaping over cracks and cryptobiotic soil. But it feels good to be fully engaged with the landscape.
White Rim dropoffs, La Sals beyond
Mostly the slickrock here is continuous, but a few times I end up on a dead-end, surrounded by cryptobiotic soil crust. “Crypto” is a living community of cyanobacteria, lichen, moss, and bacteria that holds the soil together and retains moisture allowing other plants establish. Plus it’s beautiful in its own crusty, yellow-brown way. Rather than trampling it, I backtrack to find another route.
I join a faint old road out to the top of the peninsula. A few sparse footprints show someone else has followed the old road too. Who used to drive this road? A pile of rusty tin cans provides some sort of answer.
Monument Basin has beautiful red spires of Organ Rock Shale topped with more resistant blocks of White Rim Sandstone
A spectacular flat rock surrounded by vastness serves as lunch spot and dramatic destination for the hike. It seems like I’m out in the center of wilderness, even though by Gaia GPS calculation I’m just 2 miles from the trailhead, having switchbacked and meandered for miles. If only I had a camping permit for this spot! But instead, I have to backtrack to the trailhead, then drive over to the Murphy trailhead to reach my permitted overnight zone.
Clouds are building, the wind intensifies, storms race around in the distance. Before I find a camping spot, rain starts to fall and I find an overhang to hide beneath. Off in the distance, lightening strikes, making me wonder if I should retreat back to my car and call it quits. But the storm is mesmerizing. I stay.
Watching the storm from a sheltered alcove.
I set up my tent on flat slickrock only to have it nearly blown off the cliff by a wind gust. I’m such an amature tenter- my guylines and rock anchors are no match for the heavy winds at this exposed site. I pack up and move my tent to a sheltered site that I’d passed it up before because it has been heavily trampled and trashed by previous campers. It looks like a herd of cows have been through. Minus the cowpies. I gather up the garbage and orange peels and tuck them into my critter-proof food bag before setting up my own tent. The torn up dirt reminds me of a wound. A gust of wind sweeps up the loose, trampled sand and blasts it against my face.

I follow sloppy footprints in the cryptobiotic soil to an overlook, making my own way on nearby rocks. Mostly I feel sad about how hard it is to not leave a mark on this land. I wonder if I ought to just go home rather than sleep at the already impacted site. I decide it probably doesn’t make any difference.
Clouds break up and the sun pours through.
Storm clouds make for a spectacular sunset. Overnight, rain falls in several waves of passing clouds. The sweet sound of rain on tent. I sleep soundly.
Strong winds bring another wave of rain.
More sunsetting
The next morning, sunrise back at White Rim Overlook. A panoramic view of where I’d been yesterday, and last week, and last month. Now I recognize where I’ve been before— the Needles, Needles Overlook, the LaSals, my spot overlooking Monument Basin. I see more old road scars off the White Rim Road, including that one I followed. How long until they are erased?
Seeing where I've been from the White Rim Overlook
This week at work, I helped plant native seeds for a restoration project at a neighboring Park. Trying to heal disturbed ground. I wonder if those seeds are drinking in this rain. I wonder how long until that damage is erased. I wonder how this landscape will all look in 50 years, or 5000 years.
Light playing with rock
More Information
Backcountry camping permits are required for overnight trips in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. Make your reservations well in advance, or you may end up with a less than ideal permit.

Bring all your own water. Pack out all your garbage and toilet paper, and use a wagbag to pack out your poop if a privy isn’t available.

List of hiking trails in Canyonlands here