Life intervened, so posts about the remainder of this trip are delayed indefinitely. Will update when I can find the time.
The standard view from slickrock in Canyonlands.
Canyonlands is the largest National Park in Utah, and among the less visited. It’s formed at the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers, which cut the park into a ‘Y’ shape. The northernmost portion of the park – and the most accessible from Moab – is called ‘Island in the Sky.’ The South/Southeast portion is the ‘Needles District,’ and the Western portion is ‘The Maze.’
Moonrise and sunset, near the campground.
Island in the Sky is the most popular, while The Maze is inaccessible except by 4-wheel drive vehicles. Thus, I decided to visit the Needles district. (While at the Needles visitor center, I overheard a German lady asking the park ranger about visiting The Maze. “Oh, you can visit, but it’s a 5 hour drive from here,” the ranger said.) Needles is about 90 minutes from Moab, via state highway and then through a national forest.
View from rocks near my campsite.
The national forest section – it’s not really a forest – is really beautiful. Canyonlands is indeed a canyon, and this area, which is about a 30 mile drive, is nearly as wide as the main parts of the Grand Canyon. But the depth of the canyon is maybe 800-1000 feet, rather than 5200 feet. Thus the ‘floor’ of the canyon is a broad grassy plain dotted with cattle. It’s one of the more beautiful and serene places I visited.
This area of the national park itself is called ‘Needles’ because there are some distant spires which do have the appearance of needles. But much of this section is composed of so-called slickrock, and the hike I went on this first day, about 12 miles from the campground to ‘Peek-A-Boo Rock,’ was mostly on slickrock.
The trail goes across the tan sandstone here; this type of trail persists for 7-8 miles.
It’s unusual to hike so long on solid rock. I’d done a brief stretch at Capitol Reef and a little at Arches, but this was sustained hiking on bare rock, much of it at a 15-20 degree angle sloping left or right, which meant that there was always a slight element of danger. I enjoyed the experience, though, and this was among my favorite hikes.
Pictographs under a ledge.
That wasn’t just because of the slickrock hiking. The destination was a set of pictographs (that is, paint on rock), and some of these were 5 thousand years old! There were the normal geometric designs and human figures, but also quite a few hands. As this was in the middle of nowhere, it was possible to get close to the pictographs. Putting your hand right next to the tracings of a hand 2-3 thousand years old is a special experience.
Circled are further hand tracings.
There were further pictographs through the peek-a-boo hole, and these were high up on a cliff. I don’t know if some daring indian climbed up there, along the edge of a cliff wall, or if there was a more accessible route that broke off at some point, but these pictographs were cool as well.
Tracing of child’s hand.
At this far point on the hike I caught up with an older couple who were from the area. They mentioned that there were some indian granaries – small pueblo buildings built under some of the sandstone ledges – along the trail out. I hadn’t seen them, and made sure to keep my eyes open on the return journey.
One of the granaries, just a short walk from the trail.
There were indeed granaries, two and a half of them and many ruins besides, each about 4 feet across and 3 feet high. I looked inside them, and on the ground nearby I found a few pottery shards. These included a black-and-white shard – these zig-zag designs are very common in the area. I also found a large fragment of pottery that must have been used to line a basket, because there were indentations of vegetable fibers.
Potsherd with basket indentations. The largest fragment I found.
These granaries, unmentioned in any park literature, were great fun to explore, and holding some artifacts (they were lying open on the ground and easy to step on) was really unique.
Back in camp I relaxed and read for a while. This was the best campsite of the trip – well separated from other people, with a large climbable rock pile right behind the site, from which I could look at the stars and have a good view across the canyon. There was a full moon during my stay, and it arose well before sunset. Really a beautiful place.
Can you see the hidden pueblo? A door is just visible.
The next day I just stayed in the campground and relaxed, reading and staying out of the sun. I jogged around the campground and saw my only Hawai’i license plate (I saw all 50 states during my trip, but only saw Hawai’i once).
I really enjoyed my stay at Canyonlands and consider it a far better, and more interesting park than nearby Arches. There’s much less ‘highlight reel’ stuff but the isolation and one-of-a-kind hikes make a visit worth it.
I visited a lot of national parks as a kid, and my recollection was always that Arches was my favorite, so I anticipated seeing it again throughout this trip. After visiting, I determined that specific memories were quite accurate, but the park as a whole was different than I remembered.
Just a few miles outside Arches is Moab, one of the biggest tourist destinations in Utah. I knew this, but was taken aback by just how touristy it had become. The target audience here is ‘adventure tourists,’ that is, people who want to pay for guided rafting, 4×4, helicopter, ziplining, parachuting, and so on. As well as your normal tourists: the accessibility of the town, and Arches as a manageable national park less than a mile from a major interstate mean that there are some luxury hotels as well.
I’d figured September would see a drop-off in tourists as kids went back to school, but unfortunately most of the parks were just as crowded as those I saw during summer; the campgrounds of every park I stayed at in Utah filled up every night, and Arches was worst of all! I got in mid-morning and the campground was already full; it operates on a reservation system and I knew I had no hope of getting a site. I tried calling around to a bunch of budget hotels and all were completely booked up! This was on a Monday in September!
Finally I had to settle on a Motel 6, which priced out at a whopping $100/night – twice what I’d spent elsewhere. I stopped at the Arches visitor center and talked with a ranger for a while. He said that there’s BLM land abutting the park – not an official national forest, but it contains a variety of campgrounds along the Colorado river. I’d already reserved a hotel (I believe by the time I talked to him the campgrounds were already full anyway), but he showed me where they were on a map. He named each of the campgrounds (there were 4) and visibly winced when he got to the second: “Negro Bill,” which is actually an honest-to-god campground name. You’d think they could find something more suitable.
I spent the rest of the day relaxing at my pricey Motel 6, planning on grabbing a campground early the following morning and then spending the day in the park.
The town of Moab itself is about 1/4 restaurants, 1/4 hotels, 1/4 travel & adventure stores, and 1/4 actual stores. It has a vibe very similar to Jackson Hole, but the town is actually pretty ugly. Both Jackson Hole and Sedona are far more appealing.
View from my campsite at ‘Negro Bill;’ in the other direction was the Colorado river
Early the following morning I grabbed a campsite (as luck would have it, at “Negro Bill”), and then headed into Arches. It’s pretty small, a 15 mile road to the campground, with 2-3 side roads. One striking memory, of the huge looping climb from the highway and visitor center up to the main plateau, was surprisingly accurate after 15 years.
As you might expect with such a layout, the park was incredibly crowded. This was the single most overcrowded park I encountered; September is still the heart of tourist season here, and October there’s a chance of snow. I don’t know if there’s any good time to visit anymore.
Delicate Arch, see the queue to get your photo taken underneath. A tiny person under the arch itself. Rain advancing across the valley.
The most famous attraction in Arches is Delicate Arch, which is commonly seen on postcards, and which is featured on Utah license plates. And it’s deservedly famous. After a 1.5 mile climb you round a corner and are confronted with this arch. First off, it’s far larger than you’d expect: 65 feet tall. It really dwarfed the people who stood under it – there was a line of people patiently waiting to get their picture taken.
Petroglyphs on the Delicate Arch trail. The figures are on horses, so they are post-Columbian.
It’s also simply a peculiar spectacle. The arch is next to a steep cliff on one side, and a huge stone funnel on the other, and there’s no other rocks around it. It just stands there, alone. What geological process could have created it? How much stronger must the stone of the arch have been, compared to that which surrounded it?
The rain continued its pursuit of me here, and soon after arriving at Delicate Arch, clouds were rolling in. It was too far to get back to the car in time, so I simply put on my coat and pulled the cover over my backpack. The direction in which the clouds approached meant that I could watch the border of the rain as it progressed over the open ground nearby.
Large rock fins, prevalent in Devil’s Garden.
After the Delicate Arch, my next stop would be the ‘Devil’s Garden,’ at the far end of the park road. This area I also remembered from when I was younger; the campground was right next door. Here the crowds were at their most appalling. There’s a loop at the end of the road, probably about 2 miles in circumference, including a parking lot. It was completely full! There must have been at least 300-400 cars around this loop. I was able to find a spot, thankfully, but I talked to one guy who had to circle a few times before something opened up. I simply could not believe the crowds.
Double O arch – there’s a smaller arch visible underneath, about 9 feet high, which you can climb through.
The trail itself, which is comprised of a “finished” section – heavily worn and well-maintained – and a ‘primitive’ section, has a few loops and totals about 8 miles. It winds through a variety of fins and arches, and shows many of the most well-known landscape formations. But the sheer volume of people meant that the finished trail was quite congested. At times I felt I was walking on the High Line in NYC.
Landscape arch spans an entire football field
There are many arches here, the most famous being the Landscape Arch, which is 300 feet across. It’s a monumental spectacle, and this arch really defies belief. After seeing this, I continued on the primitive trail, which was probably the most technically challenging hiking I’ve done. That’s not to say it was difficult – it’s not – but it was not simply walking along, either. This primitive trail culminated in the ‘Double O’ arch, which was very impressive, as well as a spur trail to an isolated monolith, the Dark Angel.
Dark Angel monolith
The crowds weren’t as bad here and I enjoyed the hiking; scrambles that require you to use your hands are more fun than regular hiking, anyway. On the return trail there were some tough sections. The sheer rock, compounded by the layer of sand on your shoes mean that getting a grip on the rocks can be tough; some of these sections had drop-offs of 20 feet before you hit level ground.
The diciest stretch of trail in my travels. Doesn’t look bad, but the trail is in green. The red line is about 6 feet. To the left was a further drop of 20 feet into a ravine. The rock was coated in sand.
On one section, which I consider the most difficult stretch of my trip, I encountered another guy from New Jersey. He was on a business trip to Denver and had decided to stop at the park on his free day. That’s quite a commitment, as it’s a 5-hour drive to Denver! We talked for a while as we looked at the daunting stretch of trail ahead.
The primitive trail rejoins the main trail, and here I was stopped by a couple in their fifties. The woman clearly wanted to turn around, and she asked me “is there anything worth seeing down there?” I responded that there was another arch. “Is there anything special about it compared to the rest?” Yes, I responded, it’s much bigger (I was referring to Landscape Arch). With a groan she continued walking.
A short trail brings you to this pair of arches.
The fact is, Arches really has only 3 hikes: the 3-miles of Delicate Arch, the 8-miles of Devil’s Garden, and a stretch called the Fiery Furnace, which requires reservations and a ranger guide. So, if hiking at a reasonable pace, it’s possible to cover most of the park in a morning; if stopping at viewpoints you’ll take a few hours more, but there’s only a day’s worth of things to see at the park. Arches would be the perfect park to spend a relaxing few days in, but the crowds simply make that impossible.
The eponymous capitol formation
Capitol Reef is reputed to be the least visited of the Utah national parks. The name comes from one of the rock formations, which looks like the Capitol building, and the fact that the settlers were originally sailors who called anything impassable a ‘reef.’ It’s in the middle of the state, far from either the Grand Canyon area parks of Zion and Bryce, and the Moab-area parks of Arches and Canyonlands. Although it’s remote, the tourism in Utah is such that here, too, the campground filled up.
The parks of Utah
Just like the other parks in the Southwest, rain was at work and the entire park’s road system was essentially closed. Of all the parks, Capitol Reef seemed most at risk for flash flooding. During my stay, it was cloudy and threatening the whole time, but never actually rained, so I guess that counts for something.
Hopefully this conveys the scale. The squared off box is in the corner; circled are three people sitting and having a snack. And this is just a tiny part of the landscape!
With Capitol Reef, the operative word is ‘vast.’ All the landscape features collude, like a propaganda campaign designed to make you feel tiny, in a way unlike any of the other parks I visited. Basically the park is separated into two sections: one of rolling rock formations, and the other of low green sparsely forested hills. Between the two is a sheer cliff 800 feet high.
The rolling hills, viewed over the cliff edge
I did the one big loop I could assemble out of smaller trails which remained open, a total of about 14 miles. It started with these rolling ‘reef’ sections; as you hike and look to one side, they seem to continue forever; as you turn a corner new vistas open up.
My goal, as a landmark, was Cassidy Arch, about which I knew nothing. After passing through semi-conventional trails for about 6 miles, I entered a slickrock portion – basically walking on a giant boulder. The trail here disappears and is marked completely with cairns – small stacks of stones.
The trail finally ended at the edge of the sheer cliff that divides the park. The view here was the best in Utah, in my opinion – although of course that depends upon what you like. Inching forward to look over the edge, the main (closed) road of the park was visible, along with dirt road to Grand Wash. To one side are the weird domes and peaks of rock; to the other, the trail, forward the low hills and behind the reef itself. I stayed for about half an hour, just relaxing.
Panorama of the typical landscape.
The arch was completely hidden – since I was in the area for a while, I was able to observe a family of Bavarians struggling to find the arch among distant formations. I talked with them a bit and showed them that it really was just 50 feet away.
There are in fact two people walking on the road in this picture of the Grand Wash…
I decided to make the trip a loop and incorporate a segment of the closed road, which proved to be a great idea. The descent from the reef was quick, and I found myself in a vast canyon. This was Grand Wash, rumored to once have sheltered Butch Cassidy (after whom the arch is named). Of course, objectively it was smaller than the Grand Canyon, being only about a thousand feet deep. But because the walls are absolutely sheer it’s far more imposing. It felt like a sandstone Manhattan, with streets two football fields wide.
The road here was almost completely washed away; the path of water cut across the road in places and caused drops of two feet. It would have been impassable even to vehicles with four wheel drive.
Probably best to stay away from mutant bats.
Walking out of the canyon there’s two mines drilled into the side of one wall. These date back to the 1930s, and were used to mine uranium! Turns out uranium was a health fad back then, and people would mix it into their water, wear it in a bracelet around their wrist, and so forth. Sound familiar?
The open road
I returned to the main park via the road, which was quite a bit of fun: I could walk right in the middle of the road, since it was closed; this in itself was unusual.
Petroglyphs of human figures
The main section of the park, which includes the campground and visitor center, was settled originally by Mormons, and the orchards they planted are open to the public to pick fruit. There’s also some old buildings, and Indian petroglyphs, which I looked at before leaving the following morning.
I understand why Zion and Bryce are more popular parks than Capitol Reef – the views are easier to take in, more accessible; they’re closer to the Grand Canyon. But I think I preferred Capitol Reef; I’d really suggest checking it out if you’re in Utah.