Trip Recap: Canyonlands National Park
People have been traveling to the area which is now Canyonlands National Park for more than 10,000 years, so we were kind of late to the party. The first visitors were hunter-gatherers, who traveled to these cliffs and canyons beginning around 8,000 BCE. Next came the ancestral Puebloan and Fremont people, who set up agriculture-based villages in the region around 2,000 years ago. Then, in October 2019, came Katie and Mark, and their friends Leslie and Jake.
About the Park
Canyonlands National Park is located in southeastern Utah, just south of the town of Moab. Its nearest neighbor to the north, Arches National Park, is within easy driving distance. Canyonlands became a national park in 1964, after years of effort by Arches National Monument Superintendent Bates Wilson and United States Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall.
The park is divided into four districts: Island in the Sky, the Maze, the Rivers (the Green and Colorado), and the Needles. Our trip took place in the Needles, which is in the southeast corner of the park.
While the entire park is comprised of gorgeous mesas, buttes, and other rock formations, the Needles boasts tall and especially colorful Cedar Mesa Sandstone spires. These spires graced our view every day.
At first glance, the desert environment in Canyonlands National Park would seem baren and unattractive to wildlife. Nevertheless, the park supports a variety of organisms. On our trip, we encountered birds, bats, lizards, insects, and mice (that chewed holes in our packs).
Beyond our view were a variety of mammals including black bears, mountain lions, ring-tailed cats, and various ungulates. Reptiles, including rattlesnakes, also call the park home. Frogs, toads, and salamanders represent the amphibian class in the park. The park also supports a thriving insect population, which includes venomous black widow spiders, several of which were in our campsite the first night.
In terms of climate, average highs in July are in the 90’s and average lows in January are in the teens. Most of the area’s rain comes in the summer, so we had no access to water during our trip (more on that later). While we were there, the daytime highs were in the 70s and the nighttime lows were in there 30s and 40s. Desert tempertures vary drastically from daytime to nightime, which can make packing for a trip like this a small challenge.
In addition to Katie and myself, our friends Jake (you’ll remember him from the Smokies and Zion trips) and Leslie were on this trip. Leslie decided to join us about a week before we left, which was a great surprise. We knew that this was her first-ever backpacking trip, and we learned when we got there that this was actually her first camping trip. We would find out soon that the Needles offered her a “baptism by fire” experience. She did wonderfully, as you will see.
If weather was the only factor to contend with, we could have stayed out there for a month, but water was the limiting factor on this trip. There was no water source anywhere along our route, so we had to pack in all the H2O we needed for drinking and cooking. That meant heavy packs, especially on day one. A good rule is one gallon per person, per day. Jake’s pack weighed in at close to 80 pounds, which is heavy even for him (he usually carries everything but the kitchen sink).
We would be on the trail for four days and three nights, totaling approximately 19.5 miles. If you're familiar with our trips, you may be asking, "Why so few miles?" Don’t let the relatively short distance fool you: The terrain made this a tough hike and any more distance would have been a real challenge. Our trailhead was the Squaw Flat campground, Loop A, which is WNW from Wooden Shoe Arch.
Before we started, we met with a backcountry ranger at the Needles Visitor Center. Just like every backcountry park ranger I have ever encountered, he was down to earth, kind, and incredibly knowledgeable about the area. We made the necessary adjustments to our backcountry permit so that Leslie was included in the itinerary.
Note: Backpackers need a backcountry permit in most national parks for overnight trips. This ensures that the area doesn’t get too much use, which could be damaging to the environment. Be sure to research these regulations well ahead of your trip.
In addition to the formalities, the ranger advised us that there was a juvenile mountain lion causing problems in the area where we were going to spend our final night. He explained that the cat was circling another camper’s tent at 3:00 AM a few nights prior. That certainly got our attention. Wildlife - especially predators - that behave in such ways often have to be relocated or destroyed. We all hoped that wasn’t the fate for this animal.
Day 1 - 3.6 miles from Squaw Flat to Lost Canyon
Starting from Squaw Flat trailhead, we took the Squaw Flat/Lost Canyon loop trail south, and we didn’t have to wait long for some incredible views. We stopped at an overlook within the first mile to take it all in.
The daytime weather is perfect, sunny and 75, as it would be for our entire trip.
We realized quickly that Leslie’s pack didn't fit her properly. She borrowed all of her gear, so some of that is to be expected. But when we are carrying this much water, we all felt badly for her before we even left the vehicle. She kept on with a positive, "it is what it is" attitude, which is prerequisite for having a good time on any backcountry trip.
At this point in the trip, we were all hoping for some wildlife encounters. National Park critters tend to be less careful around people and much more tolerant of our presence, compared to the same species in other locations. This is especially true compared to places where these animals are hunted like National Forests and BLM land. Some might argue that the animals that are hunted behave in a more “wild” way and that the National Park animals behave more like they have been raised in a zoo. National Park animals do tend to be habituated to the presence of humans.
By 4:30 PM local time, the sun was hitting the canyons in such a way that every vantage point could have been placed in a coffee table photo book. We knew at this point that our trip was about to be a beautiful one.
Everyone was happy to be exactly where we were.
The route took us through some sections that required scrambling. This was foreshadowing of the next day’s hike. We made some short ascents and descents, including one that required the use of a ladder, which was bolted to the rock.
After a couple of miles, we descended into the canyon, where the loose sand made hiking difficult and strenuous.
After about 2.6 miles on the trail, we came to the Lost Canyon Trail, which we took SSE towards our first campsite, Lost Canyon #2. Finding the campsite proved difficult. We knew about where it was supposed to be, based on the map and our GPS, but we saw no signs. Further complicating things was the fact that we didn’t know if campsites were marked with signage. Having camped in the backcountry of many National Parks, we assumed the sites would be both well-marked and well-worn, but we hadn’t seen any evidence of that yet.
Jake and I spent a good 45 minutes looking for the designated campsite to no avail. We would find out two days later, from a local guide we met on the trail, that LC2 was easy to miss and we probably passed it up on the trail. We ended up pitching tents in a durable, flat area under a rock overhang. It was clear that other groups had camped there as well, and pitching tents in the sandy site would do no damage to foliage. The rock overhang directly overhead gave us pause, but there were no recently fallen rocks on the ground and sometimes you have to go with what you've got.
Our company this evening was the stars, the moon, mice, and two black widow spiders that we only noticed after we set up camp. We would find out the next morning that the mice had chewed small holes in most of our packs.
It wasn’t very cold that evening and we were all comfortable without a fire. Fires aren’t allowed anywhere in the backcountry in Canyonlands. We had a good evening talking, listening to music, smoking cigars, and doing a bit of stargazing. Tomorrow would be a tough day, but we didn’t know that yet.
Day 2 - 7.1 miles from Lost Canyon to Chesler Park
Jake started the day with pain in his right knee, and I’m sure his especially heavy pack didn’t help things. We all agreed to help him out by utilizing the water he was carrying throughout the day.
We left our campsite and took the Lost Canyon Trail through the canyon bottom SE towards Squaw Canyon Trail.
We would have several intersections that day, but navigation wasn’t the hard part. The hard part was the terrain. We quickly began traversing several canyon walls in a row. Our pace slowed from well over 2mph to nearly 1mph.
The route was more technical than most hiking trails. While ropes or helmets weren’t required, they wouldn’t have been a bad idea in some areas. By 1:00 pm, we had only made it 3.3 miles and we knew we were in for a long day. We were taking breaks every two miles to give Jake’s knee a break and to drink water.
At several points during the hike, we were astounded at where the trail was leading us. Following rock pile markers that took us over slick rock and through sandy canyon bottoms, we would come to incredibly steep inclines, declines, and edges that barely seemed passable. Jake described the route as, "intense," and he was absolutely right.
After one ascent over a canyon wall, the trail seemed to end abruptly. We couldn’t figure where to go next until we noticed a very small gap between two walls of rock. The bottom of the gap extended endlessly into a dark abyss, but someone had lodged juniper branches part of the way down. The branches, being out of place on the slick rock, gave us a clue that we should investigate the gap further. Looking through, it became clear this was actually the trail. Our packs could barely fit through.
What followed were several more steep ascents, descents, ladders, and rock scrambles. It was one of the most fun hikes we have ever completed.
The scenery continued to be indescribably beautiful, and with about three miles to go, we found ourselves at the canyon bottom walking along a wash.
We had taken Druid Arch Trail south and were looking for the 1-mile shortcut that would take us to Chesler Park, where we would camp for the night. The intersection proved to be elusive, and we split up within shouting distance looking for the trail.
It was getting late and we were worried about navigating these canyons in the dark. We met another hiker who was coming back from Druid Arch and he told us that he hadn’t seen an intersection back the way he came. So, we walked with him back the way we came and didn’t see the intersection there either. We concluded that he must have missed it and walked further south along the Druid Arch Trail, where we eventually saw the sign - down in the wash and tacked on to an old, dead juniper tree.
Note: We later established that the confusion here came from an error on the GPS unit. The GPS, which we we had been following with no issue up until then, showed the intersection to be 500 yards north of where it actually was. The map, upon second inspection, revealed the trail to double back those 500 yards. While GPS is a great tool, this demonstrated it is not always sufficient for route finding in canyon country.
We took the trail west, through more steep inclines and tight squeezes, toward Chesler Park. The features of the last section of trail weren't much different than the earlier sections, and they were just as challenging.
We arrived at Chesler Park just as the sun was setting, and it was an amazing sight to see.
When we arrived at our campsite - CP4 - there was already someone there. He was a single hiker from Salt Lake City who had unfortunately gotten the days mixed up. Since we needed the site for both tents, we helped him move his gear to a flat area nearby and set up camp. Everyone was completely drained from the hike.
That evening, we enjoyed some of the best stars any of us had ever seen. This is a true dark sky area, as there is no artificial light pollution. Areas like this are rare or nonexistent in much of the midwest, even in farm country. I snapped a couple of long-exposure photos of the Milky Way above the rock features. We turned in early.
Day 3 - 4.9 miles from Chesler Park to Needles North
The group slept in. I guess we all needed the sleep after the previous day’s eventful hike. We got moving around noon. The late start didn’t bother me because we only had about five miles total that day and most of it was on relatively flat ground.
We didn’t have to hike far from Chesler Park before we started seeing day hikers who were coming from one of the nearby trailheads. Until then, we had barely seen anyone on the trail. We took the Chesler Park Trail NNE toward Elephant Hill, where we would be camping that evening.
Elephant Hill is in the Needles North area, where dispersed camping is permitted. The rules stated that we needed to be one mile from the nearest road, but the backcountry ranger told us “out of sight” would be alright, even if it was less than a mile. We would take his advice.
We arrived at the Elephant Hill parking area, where we briefly debated hiking the Elephant Hill road to the vehicle to bring in closer for the morning and refill water. We decided against it. We hiked up to the top of Elephant Hill and started looking for a spot to camp that was durable and out of sight from the road.
We found our campsite in a secluded area behind some rock formations. This campsite had easy access to some taller rock formations, which we would climb repeatedly for sunset, moonrise, stargazing, and eventually sunrise.
This campsite was littered with mouse droppings, similar to our campsite on the first night. At one point, we saw a scorpion run into a hole below a bush. Jake remarked that he better go zip up his tent. Before sunset, we saw bats flying around the area. I had never seen bats flying so early in the evening, with so much sunlight left. It was a cool sight to see.
The ranger had told us about a problem lion in this area, so I searched around our campsite for a few hundred yards looking for evidence of a cat’s presence. There were a ton of animal tracks - mostly ungulates - but the dry, crumbly ground made it difficult to identify any of them.
We watched a gorgeous sunset, ate dinner on top of the rock formations, shared the bottle of local Moab Vodka we brought with us, and enjoyed our last night in the backcountry thoroughly.
The stars were somehow even more incredible this night than the last, and we got more long-exposure shots of the Milky Way above the rock formations.
We also watched an utterly amazing moonrise, which illuminated some thin clouds with colors I thought only the sunrise could produce. This was something none of us will forget.
Day 4 - 3.9 miles from Needles North to Squaw Flat
We woke up to watch the sun rise the final morning. It was worth it. The landscape changed colors by the minute. The onset of sunlight over the rock also dramatically and quickly changes the temperature from cold to warm in the desert. We were able to experience this firsthand several times during the trip but even more thoroughly on this final morning.
Our final day was simple: Follow the Elephant Hill Access Road back to our vehicle in Squaw Flat Campground. It was an easy hike, troubled only by a few passing cars, the drivers of which all waved kindly. The weather couldn’t have been more perfect that morning, almost as if we were in an air-conditioned room. We arrived at the vehicle, threw our packs in the trunk, and drove off in search of cold beer and a hot meal.
National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/cany/learn/nature/index.htm