Canyonlands National Park
In early July my brother, Cole, and I ventured into Canyonlands Needles District for the first time. I quickly fell in love with this foreign, but stunning landscape. I’ve never been a huge desert lover, but the untouched landscape and rare human sightings put this destination towards the top of my “favorite places” list.
Canyonlands. Mars. Pretty much the same thing. Canyons, red dirt, spires and columns broke apart white, wispy clouds. Canyonlands is sometimes overshadowed by its nearby cousin, Arches National Park, just outside of Moab. The landscape is not as well known, not as iconic, but also not flooded with tourists.
When spending eighteen hours in the park, my brother and I came across five other people. The majority of our time was spent amongst lizards and the occasional sage brush. I felt a sense of magic and mystery during my time in Canyonlands. So desolate, yet so beautiful.
Bring your own water into Canyonlands. It is desert. For miles. As far as the eye can see, and much, much farther. I caught myself wondering how this place formed, why not many people know about it, and if I was truly still in North America, none-the-less the United States. It’s not the sand dune desert that you may imagine – Canyonlands is way, way cooler than that.
My brother, Cole, and I met in Moab before heading a few miles south to the Canyonlands turn off. Before entering Canyonlands Needles District (the official entrance is about 30 miles off the highway), we were stopped by the only traffic I’ve seen in this corner of Utah: herds of cattle.
I pulled off on the shoulder as dozens of cows casually strolled up the road. We erupted with laughter and pulled out our phones for pictures, “No one at home will ever believe this!” Snapchats were taken, laughter subsided, and the roadblock cleared. In a matter of minutes, we pressed onward.
Our first stop was the visitor center. In typical ‘Deihs’ fashion, we had no plans for our overnight trip. We decided on a hiking trail and agreed to find free camping. I pulled back onto the road and drove a few miles down to our trailhead, which doubled as a campground.
Hopping out of the car, we double checked our overnight packs. Tent, check. Stove, check. Sleeping bags, check. Water and food, check. Change of clothes, debatable.
We walked throughout the campsite for a moment before finding what appeared to be our chosen trail. Within a few steps we were climbing up rock formations and wondering if we were heading in the right direction (the theme of the next 24 hours). We traversed deep into the Needles District.
Rock layers ranged from red to orange to white – all a stark contrast against the baby blue sky. Yellow lizards ran beneath our feet. Blue lizards sunbathed upon rocks, stopping us in our tracks. With a quick glance between us, Cole and I would stretch our hands out towards the critters, hoping to catch one.
We chatted about our childhood, running through backyards and catching frogs by the dozen. Now we were climbing through canyons and hoping to catch a single, tiny lizard.
The distractions in Canyonlands were infinite. Up, down, around, and through canyons – we could see that the red landscape stretched on for miles. An abundance of red, but a serious lack of shade. We stopped to rest under shady rock overhangs at every chance we got.
Few times, we would stand back up and wonder which way we were headed, and which way we had just came from. Cole would take the map out of my pack and stare blankly. The Canyonlands map was extremely unhelpful when paired with the minimal signs on our hike. We’d shrug, and continue on, for the sake of adventure.
Up one rock formation, look around for the ‘trail.’ Through a canyon, look around for the ‘trail.’ I use trail very loosely; 90% of the trail in the Needles District is marked by cairns. If you are looking for a walking path, you won’t find one. If you happen to admire the scenery while walking, you will easily walk right off the “trail” and be lost for miles. I am exhibit A.
Luckily, I didn’t get us lost for miles, but we definitely took one wrong turn and ended up walking through a dry stream bed. How can one concentrate their gaze on cairns when there are orange spires reaching toward the sun?
A slight panic ensued when Cole and I realized we had no idea how to get back on the “trail.” Deep in a canyon, our only choice was to keep walking forward.
“We can’t be that far off. I saw a cairn a minute ago,” I said, trying to convince my brother, and myself, that we weren’t lost. After a few minutes we were in full panic mode. In a silent agreement, we picked up the pace and passed quickly by the lizards that we had once admired.
Finally, Cole spotted a cairn on top of a distant canyon wall. We let out heavy sighs and allowed ourselves to rest before pressing on. Cole insisted on taking the lead this time (can’t blame him!)
The sun began to lower and judging by the map we were given, we assumed we’d be close to a campground. The designated backcountry camping area came at a price and included a long lecture about Leave No Trace (LNT) principles, which we had passed up at the visitor center.
We decided on an small camping spot where we could completely avoid cryptobiotic soil and still be shielded on one side by pine tree. Doesn’t get better, right?
Dinner was dehydrated macaroni and powdered mashed potatoes. Edible. That’s all. After camp was set up and dinner was put away, we explored more. You only YOLO once, right (Hi, John!) Might as well scramble up some huge boulders and blindly climb down (sorry, Mom!) Adrenaline is a hell of a drug.
Cole and I rose with the sun and began our hike out at 7:30 am. Hopping across boulders, chugging water, and strictly following cairns this time. We arrived back in Moab in time for lunch: beer and burgers – the cherry on top of our weekend.