PrologueSo you guys in?
What are you stupid?
Yes, yes I am.
This conversation was repeated several times as I invited friends to join my wife Kate and I in our excursion around southern Utah. Their main objection, a rational one, being that it was mid August. Not the best time to be hiking around the desert. Channeling my inner cocktail of Emerson, Abbey, and Ruess I argued that there was an element of dishonesty in only visiting the Utah desert in spring and fall. Experiencing the truth of the landscape, understanding the desert's essence requires a visit mid summer letting sand, sweat and blood mix and crystallize under the austere august sun until a lens is created through which both soul and landscape are transformed and enlightenment achieved. My friends remained unconvinced.
The TripDay 1
Undeterred by the wussyness of our friends we set out on our adventure. Dilettantes what did they know? We would journey hard and fast into the unforgiving wilderness, but first a petting zoo. The tiny town of Scipio has a pretty killer petting zoo featuring a zebra, emus and all sorts of nonsense Kate was not about to let us pass up. We got a bit of a late start so the sun was setting at this point. It was also here where we left I-15 and, it would seem, the world behind. There is something wonderfully lonely about driving mile after mile along small desert highways with no companionship other than your own headlights. We didn't see another vehicle from the time we left I-70 until we reached Hanksville. From there we headed south past the Henry mountains, and looked for a suitable place to camp. Lucky for us I-95 is full of small canyons and cottonwood filled turnouts as you approach Lake Powell. Because we hadn't seen another soul since leaving Hanksville I had picked up a Post-Apocalyptic, I'll just park my car on the highway cause ain't nobody left, type attitude. Luckily Kate convinced me this wasn't the best idea and we found a nice spot just off the highway.
I woke up to find that I had somewhat overestimated my own originality as we did see a few cars passing by on the highway while we packed up and headed to Natural Bridges. We fist took a slight detour to see fallen roof ruins.
It was here walking back in the sun that I started to question my commitment to finding "enlightenment", And I am sure my lovely wife was probably questioning her commitment to me. It was hot. After the ruins we headed to Natural Bridges. We stopped and hiked down to Sipapu Bridge. We followed the old riverbed to a few more ruins and made our way back. On our return hike we scrambled out to a ledge (which happened to be in the shade) and relaxed for a bit. We took quite a long break enjoyed the view and took advantage of one of the deserts unique gifts, complete silence. It is at this point I wish I could wax poetic about revelations received as I watched clouds pass above deserted cliff dwellings clinging to white cliff walls streaked black with desert varnish, but the stolid face of nature offered me no such revelation. At least not one that can be articulated and shared in a smug sagacious moment. However somewhere in the silent space between inhale and exhale when the world seemed to vanish I was filled with a sense of deep unease paired with awe at the beauty surrounding me. Perhaps I was granted a glimpse of the sublime. After my bout with existential itchiness and aesthetic pleasure we finished the short loop drive, admired the rest of the bridges and camped just outside the park on Bears Ears road.
We woke up the next morning, and I use the term 'woke' lightly as it was generally too hot to sleep, and headed to Blanding and then up to Monticello. Despite, or perhaps Because of, our sleep deprivation we were both in high spirits and celebrated with some greasy hamburgers. After which we took to the Abajo Mountains which offered stunning views as we descended towards Canyonlands. We stopped at Newspaper rock and spent the night at the hamburger rock camp just outside the park boundaries. We were befriended by a brave kangaroo rat waiting for the payoff from our slovenliness. We spent much of the night laying out on top of the rocks waiting for the temperature to drop enough to make sleep a possibility. It was a full moon which added to the surreal quality of the warm desert night. Eventually we were able to sneak in a couple hours of shuteye.
On day four we headed into the Needles district of Canyonlands. We stopped by the ranger station to grab a good map and make some plans. We were entertaining the idea of doing a single night backpacking trip and I was interested in hiking to Angel Arch which I have heard is amazing. I asked the park ranger what the hike was like to get out to Angel Arch expecting the standard "If you step foot off maintained park trails you will get chlamydia and die" attitude evinced by many park rangers I've spoken to. But to my surprise this ranger was very encouraging. She checked her logs and let me know that no one had made it to Angel Arch in a few months as far as she knew. She advised that the trail had a lot of quicksand and was thick with black bears, but that it would probably be a good time if we were up for it. We decided that indeed we were not up for it, and decided instead to head for Chelser Park, the Joint Trail, and Druid Arch. On the walk back to our car from the ranger station we realized it was already too hot to get much hiking done today, and figured we could start a long hike at night and take advantage of the full moon, so we spent the rest of the day looking for water, shade and laying around the Squaw Flat campground. Oh and this Lizard let me take it's picture.
We watched cotton tail rabbits and lizards during the evening. Enjoyed the subtle pastel sunset and prepared to set off at 3 A.M the next morning.
We set off later than planned, somewhere around 4, and headed to the trailhead. On our way we saw the two biggest jack rabbits I've ever seen run through our headlights. We got to the trail head with the moon falling and a faint light creeping upwards to the east. The temperature at 4:30 A.M was perfect. The whole loop through Chelser Park, to the Joint Trail, and Druid arch would be about 15 miles, and we hoped we could finish before the heat became unbearable. The Hike through the Needles of Chelser Park was incredible, the sun was rising by this point illuminating the stripped sandstone spires. The fact that Kate and I had not seen any sign of other human life added to the experience. The area had that ever elusive 'wild' feeling all outdoor enthusiasts are after.
After hiking for sometime through the spire strewn flatland we dropped into a crack in the earth called the Joint Trail. I don't know the geology behind it's formation, but it doesn't have the wind carved meanderings of a typical slot canyon instead its walls are strait and sheer eventually leading to a cave like section.
We then headed towards Druid Arch, and it should be noted by now the heat was becoming noticeable. Luckily for us Druid Arch lies up a canyon whos walls offered us continued shade. As we wound our way though the sandy canyon floor we were beset by tiny toads.
Way more terrifying than any black bear by the way. What if you accidentally stepped on one? Look at that face. How would you live with yourself? Nevertheless we pressed on, carefully, until after climbing a couple ladders to ascend higher in the canyon Druid Arch came into view.
The true scale of this arch needs to be seen in person, its size and the fact that it sits atop a sheer cliff is incredible. We took a substantial break as the temperature continued to rise. We had both brought a couple gallons of water, and we were running low. On our hike back we saw our first human of the day. He was lost, from New Jersey and had one 20 oz water bottle. By now it was nearing noon and the temp was about 102 and rising. He said he wanted to get to the Joint Trail I showed him my map and pointed him to the right trail all the while stressing "its going to get hotter!" and "there is no water" He assured us he was fine and continued on. I didn't here about him on the news so he must have made it out fine. The hike out was sunny and it felt as if the temperature rose each step we took. Finally about a mile from our car we came across a small stagnant pool in the bottom of a wash. If you've seen the 127 hours movie where he falls face first in the pool after freeing himself it went something like that. We made it safely back to our car with our thermometer reading 108. We then Hit the road and headed out to Deadhorse Point state park. The view was spectacular as always.
We then headed over to the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands, watched some high rain clouds head our way from the green river overlook, and took in another spectacular desert sunset
We looked for a place to turn in for the night. The campgrounds were all full, so we found a secluded turn out and crashed out in the back of our car.
The next morning we watched the sunrise and headed out to False Kiva, a spectacular and lonely ruin. It is also the sight of some of the most incredible desert landscape photos I've ever seen. I am not a serious photographer, but i was interested to see what I could get out of my point and shoot cannon. The answer, not much.
We finished up driving to the lookouts we hadn't seen yet and declared and end to our adventure. It was hot, nasty, and overall pretty great.