I spent my long weekend roaming the wilderness of Utah, scouting out routes down canyons, chasing down a very sneaky river, camping on cliffs and experiencing a rainy night in the desert.
When Heather sent out the “whatcha doing Memorial Day Weekend” email I got excited. We’re on the same page when it comes to holiday weekends – head to the mountains but trek your way into the backcountry to avoid the crowds! When the follow up email had “CANYONLANDS” in the subject line I knew it was going to be a good weekend!
It all started on Friday evening when we crammed everything [well, we hoped it was everything] into our packs and started the drive west. Friday night was spent in a hotel with an amazing breakfast at a local coffee shop in Green River, UT. Not everyone loved their meal, but mine was delicious! From there we headed south to Canyonlands National Park where we would spend the next three days exploring.
After grabbing backcountry permits we strapped on our packs and started hiking…down. Don’t get excited about flat desert hiking if you’re headed to the Canyonlands, nothing is flat. We immediately started downhill along a maze of switchbacks that dropped us 1,400 feet into the canyon in just two miles. Our next stop was the White Rim Trail where we stopped for photos and a lunch break at the edge of Gooseberry Canyon.
It was incredible! I will go on and on about mountains and how they are the most amazing things ever, which is true. However, canyons are pretty awesome too. Just thinking about how much power it took to carve out canyons is mind blowing! Especially once you start navigating down to the bottom of a canyon…it just keeps going down, down, down, one tier at a time!
Out initial goal was the bottom of the canyon, but the miles drug on and the bottom of the canyon seemed to keep dropping further and further down. We decided that we were here on vacation and we’d rather enjoy a relaxing evening rather than rush to beat the setting sun. This is precisely how we ended up camping at the end of a pinnacle reaching out above the canyon floor.
Since we set up camp early it was a low key night with a leisurely dinner cooked on a cliff edge with most of us crawling into our sleeping bags before headlamps were necessary. Sometime in the night it started to spit rain, then pour rain. So much for our bone dry desert experience! We stayed hunkered down in our sleeping bags late into the morning to avoid the rain and muddy sand. Chris did venture out to explore once the rain let up and got some cool shots of our campsite from afar…
As we hiked about we kept talking of the Colorado River…where was it? In theory it was at the end of Gooseberry Canyon, but where the heck was the end of this canyon? And how the heck do we get far enough down the canyon to actually get to the river? Our mini mission of the day on Sunday was to find this potentially mythical river. Eventually we found it, but we never figured out how to get down to it. There were just too many tiers with steep cliffs and we were embracing the “we’re on vacation” mentality to it’s fullest!
Rather then battle our way to the bottom of the canyon – and the desert trees that lived there – we decided to head back to camp and pack our way back up the canyon to spend our last night camping along the rim. On our way down to the first campsite we did a lot of trial and error navigating but were smart enough to leave behind cairns so the hike out was pretty straightforward. In about two hours we covered the 3 miles up the canyon and along the rim to a prime camping spot.
As we cooked dinner at the cliff of the canyon we watched storm clouds roll in. I love storms. They are so powerful and unpredictable. Watching the clouds roll and feeling the temperature drop is like watching Mother Nature throw a tantrum. As the dark clouds got closer we started to really scarf down our food then jumped in our tent just as the rain started. Once again our dry desert disappeared as the rain poured down.
It was just a pattering of raindrops at first, then the storm hit. From inside the tent it sounded very dramatic – the rain was pounding on the rainfly an the wind was tugging at the stake-less tent [you can’t exactly shove a stake into slick rock!]. Occasionally thunder would boom overhead. I kept unzipping the rainfly just to peek out. Like I said, I love storms! Getting a little wet to actually see the storm was totally worth it! I could see water pooling near the tent as the dark clouds rushed overhead, but that’s about it. Luck for us it was an uneventful storm!
As the storm moved on the wind died down and a new sound became apparent – rushing water. While we sat in our tent during the storm we watched water pool around and under the tent, but it wasn’t going anywhere quickly. Where was this rushing water coming from? I stuck my head outside to see a stream rushing a few feet from our tent! I got excited, stripped off my socks and ventured out of the tent to frolic in the remnants of the desert rain…waterfalls!
On either side of our tent there was a steady stream of water plummeting over the edge of the canyon to feed into a stream that made a few more plunging drops down the tiers of the canyon before hitting the bottom…and flowing toward the Colorado River. It was so cool to be splashing through puddles in the chilly air that the storm left behind. It didn’t feel like a desert, even with the crumbling canyon walls surrounding us.
Eventually I got cold and crawled into my sleeping bag…to fall asleep before 8pm even rolled around. So much for taking in a stunning desert sunset! Luckily I was up just after 5am the next morning to experience the sunrise. Unfortunately, I have no photos to share as my cell phone battery finally died. Watching the clouds change colors to match the oranges and reds of the canyon was truly stunning – a simple cell phone camera could never do it justice. However, Chris got some pretty incredible photos of the canyon waking up while out on a short run…
While our morning started early there was no rush – we all snacked on breakfast as we waited for our tents to dry out. Conversation eventually turned to pizza, burgers and french fries. We were all ready for a hot meal cooked up by someone else and running water to wash our hands in, exactly what the afternoon had in store for us. That’s all the motivation we needed to pack up all of our gear before heading out and up…up the 1,400 foot canyon wall.
With our camp being so close to the White Rim Trail our hike out would be steep but short, only 3 miles. I was a little concerned about the climb out of the canyon with a fairly heavy pack but my time spent on mountain trails seems to have paid off. The trek up wasn’t half as draining as I had anticipated. It was steep and relentless in nearly direct sunlight but my legs loved it. Thank you mountain trails!
With hot food calling our names we booked it up the side of the canyon in under two hours! The top greeted us with cold pools of rain water and an instant view of our cars. The shoes came off and the feet went directly into the chilly water, which felt amazing. A few in the group changed clothes while the rest of us opted to embrace the stank…then we were off to Grand Junction for food. Oh, glorious food! If you ever go to Kannah Creek Brewery in Grand Junction get the cheesy bacon fries, they are worth every. single. calorie!
By the time the long holiday weekend came to a close we had covered about 18 miles on foot with packs with an estimated 2,000 feet of loss and gain. Not quite a standard weekend of trail running but I’m counting it all as solid training, especially during taper week for the Golden Gate Dirty 30! In short, if you ever get the chance to backpack around Canyonlands National Park…do it! And invite me along! We saw no one – except an inquiring Park Ranger – during our three days off the main trail, the weather was perfect even with the rain and the beauty of the Gooseberry canyon was unreal!