Friday, May 27, 2016

Backpacking Canyonlands

We just couldn't wait til spring. The backpacking bug has bitten us, and it bit hard. We just couldn't bear the thought of putting our packs away for the season yet.

Yes, it's November. Late November. Yes, it was cold. But a certain desperation to be walking... walking, walking, walking convinced us that going out to the desert of Utah and staying there for three days was a good idea. And it was.

So we haphazardly planned a quick trip to Canyonlands National Park, the Needles District. We reserved campsites and watched the weather for the days leading up, ready to cancel should snow be in the forecast. There was no snow. Just cold. This trip was a great lesson in what 20 degrees actually feels like. 

We hiked out at about 3:30 on Sunday, with camp being just two miles away from the parking area. We quickly learned to follow cairns (which would become the general theme of this entire hike) and arrived at the Elephant Canyon campsite just as the sun was setting. We set up quickly. It was the first time we'd actually carried in our own tents and was our first time sleeping in tents alone. There's a certain satisfaction in doing all that, being responsible only for yourself. It felt good. We heated water for dinner on a small stove nestled in the sand - because, you know, it's the desert. There's sand everywhere. In the tent. In your shoes. In your hair. In your sleeping bag. In your stove valve. (Yeah, that wasn't ideal. Thankfully, Nicole still has eyebrows, but her hair's a bit shorter now.)

Dinner was delicious, as dehydrated backpacking meals tend to be when you're cold and hungry. As we ate, the sun disappeared completely, and by the light of the nearly full moon we could see firsthand what 20 degrees looks like in a desert canyon. It looks sparkly, actually - sparkly little ice crystals quickly building up on your tent and other gear. We added layers. I added a lot of them. Thermal pants, leggings, fleece-lined leggings, and fleece pants, a thermal top, a long-sleeved shirt, a wool sweater, a fleece, and a coat. Plus wool socks, gloves, and a balaclava. We sat there in our canyon, trying to hang out the way folks do at night when they're camping. We lasted about fifteen minutes before we gave up and went to bed, where there was a chance it would be warmer. I couldn't feel my toes. It was 6:45 pm. 

Winter nights are long. 

Honestly though, once my sleeping bag (and fleece blanket and microfiber bag liner) were warmed up, I wasn't uncomfortably cold. I tried reading though - you know, since it wasn't even 7:00 yet - and discovered there was no way I was going to be able to keep my hands outside the sleeping bag long enough to hold a book and turn pages. So I cinched up the hood of my mummy bag, wrapped my arms around me, and watched the moon come up through the thin layer of rip-stop fabric protecting me from the frozen, wild desert outside. 

It was a long night, the kind where you wake up every couple of hours but are afraid to move for fear of letting the cold in. As long as I stayed mostly still, I was actually pretty warm. I could feel my toes again by about 10:00, so that was nice. The moon was so bright that every time I woke up, I was sure it was dawn. But no, it was only 11:00. And then 1:00. Finally, dawn broke. We made coffee from our icy water in the shade of the canyon because whether the sun was up or not, it wasn't going to be reaching us until almost noon. No sense in waiting for it. We broke down camp, packed up our gear, and headed out.

The thing with ice, though, is that it melts and creates water. And water makes for wet gear. And wet gear in below freezing temperatures is less than ideal. So we changed plans for the first time. Instead of hiking for the day to visit Druid Arch, which was one of the must-see destinations for this adventure, we opted to carry our gear to the next camp site and get it set up early so it would have time to dry before another cold night. It was only a few miles away. We'd get over there real quick, then just carry day packs to Druid.

"Real quick" became a hilarious notion about two miles in. Maps are funny things. They show a trail somewhere, so you just take it blindly, until you start realizing that "trail" is a term that is sometimes used rather loosely. Our "real quick" hike on a "trail" turned out to be an hour-long scramble to cover half a mile of ground. What wouldn't be a terribly difficult task became pretty rough with 35 pounds on our backs. Your center of balance is completely off, you are no longer agile and nimble but weighted down and rather clumsy. For the first time in our adventures, we were forced to remove our packs, heave them up one at a time, and scramble up rock faces. It was hard, but quite possibly my favorite part of the whole trip. 

We made it to the next camp around noon. We set up quickly, had a bite to eat, and considered our plan. Going back across that rough trail - which at times felt nearly insurmountable - didn't sound like something either of us wanted to do. In fact, Druid Arch was seeming a little less important altogether. So we changed plans again. Instead of heading back to Druid, we packed our day packs and went off on a little 6 mile jaunt around Chesler Park. Chesler Park was easily my favorite area that we explored. It's open in the middle and surrounded by those incomprehensible rock formations for which the Needles District is famous. 

Our path quickly led us to The Joint, which might have been the neatest part of trail we encountered. Sometimes only about 15" wide and a mile in length, it was a fascinating hike, and fabulously easy with no packs on. The Joint is a deep slot canyon (actually technically not a slot, but it feels like one so I'm going to call it one) that is mostly sandy on the bottom, involves only a bit of scrambling, and provides a great place to find out whether or not you are claustrophobic. I'd always wondered. It turns out I'm not, so that's good.

After the Joint, we continued our trek around Chesler Park, rewarded with great views and legs that felt a little bit like Jello. We hiked 9 miles that day total, including the morning's difficult climb up and back down the canyon walls. We were back at camp in time to watch the sun go down as we fixed dinner. Then we layered up again. It was about ten degrees warmer the second night. It's amazing how much difference ten degrees can make. I managed to read for a couple of hours before I went to sleep and spent a comfortably warm 30-ish degree night sleeping (for the most part) soundly. 

We woke around 6:30. We skipped coffee that morning, opting to get an early start. We were going 3 miles back over the Trail From Hell to Druid Arch, then back, before packing up our gear and hiking 4.5 miles out that afternoon. With day packs filled with necessities and water that was happily not frozen on this morning, we set off. It turns out the Trail From Hell wasn't really difficult at all, once you aren't carrying all your necessities strapped to your back. We leaped like gazelles over chasms, scrambled quickly and nimbly up and down canyons, and arrived at the start of the Druid Arch trail with time to spare. Funny what a difference a pack makes.

The Druid Trail is essentially just a two mile walk down a riverbed settled into a canyon. At one point we got off the trail a little bit and ended up finding a pond - a virtual oasis in the desert. It was a great spot for breakfast, so we sat for a short bit before backtracking. The last quarter mile or so of the Druid Trail was a little harrowing. There's something about scrambling up a dry, slickrock waterfall wearing old boots with very little tread that makes your heart drop into your stomach and stay there for awhile. It wasn't easy, but it wasn't actually as bad as it felt when I was doing it. It's definitely time for new boots, though. Once up that, it's more scrambling, climbing a ladder, more scrambling, and then we were rewarded with a lovely view of the arch.... in the shade. Leaving at 7:00 am in the winter meant we arrived too early to see the sun lighting up the arch like we'd hoped. But whatever. It was cool, and we got there. We sat for a few minutes, but we had a lot of hiking left that day, so we headed back down. Sliding down the waterfall wasn't as terrifying as I was expecting it to be, and we made good time on the way out. We leaped and climbed and scrambled our way back over the Trail From Hell (that I was actually really enjoying by the third time) and got our gear packed up.

The four and a half miles out felt long, probably because we'd already covered six miles of ground that morning. It was a beautiful hike though, difficult enough to be interesting but not frustrating. We took the northern cross-trail out to the parking area. In the whole time we were out there, we saw only the occasional couple of people hiking together. Late fall in a national park affords a lot more peace and solitude than the busier times. But by the time we got to the last few miles, we started passing a number of folks out on day hikes. I was surprised how busy the trail was for the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. 

We made it out at 3:30 - exactly 48 hours after we'd set out. 21.5 miles total in just about 20 hours of daylight, and average of a little more than 10 miles a day. Not exceptional, but for us, it's something to be proud of. 

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