| New Years @ Canyonlands Nat‘l Park
Editors Note: To start this off let me apologize right now for the quality of photographs that are laid out below. Somewhere high atop Ken Lake Road in the La Sal Mountain Range east of Moab, UT, while searching for a camping spot at midnight, I came to the realization that both of my digital camera batteries had gone dead and my portable battery charger had decided to go out of comission. A trip to the Visitors Center and $74.15 later, I was the proud owner of 5 Canyonlands NP Disposable Cameras... what do ya do, right?
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
December 28-31, 2008
The Plan: Utilize Elephant Hill Trailhead to backpack into Chesler Park and establish basecamp. From there make day hikes to certain locations within the Nat'l Park, including Druid Arch via Elephant Canyon.
The People: LongLiveTheHuskers & IowaChuck
I debated back and forth about making a trip report out of this deal (leave that for the serious mountains and current weather beta). And although I am a believer in the idea that 192 TR's on Quandary might be a couple too many, if it wasn't for this website, it's forum and TR section, I wouldn't have gone to Utah. Hopefully someone will read this and make plans to visit the desert as a result. It is an unbelievable place.
The idea of backpacking in Utah started to piece itself together sometime in early September. After posting a question on here regarding "must see/must do" I had a list of several exciting options. Unfortunately my plans didn't work out, and I was forced to wait four months. That meant Canyonlands in winter. Looking back in hindsight New Years proved to be an excellent time to visit the park.
We loaded up the vehicle at 2:00 am CST on Sunday Dec. 28th and pulled onto I-80 out of Hamilton County, Nebraska headed west. After a brief stop in Denver to get supplies we made our way across the mountains into the high desert of Utah, stopping to grab a bite to eat at the Dennys in Moab. Watching the sun go down we decided to spend the first night at a campsite above Kens Lake situated below the La Sal Mountains. Never quite made our destination, and after an hour and a half of aimlessly driving over the Loop Pass looking for campsites we were sure by now didn't exist (also discovering I'm hundreds of miles from the nearest Best Buy and my digital camera situation just went in the toilet), we decided to head south 100 miles on Hwy 191 aiming for an BLM campsite called Indian Creek, located right outside the park entrance. A couple of hours later I sat by a fire staring at the dark grey outline of canyon walls against the blackest sky I'd ever seen. I though the stars in the San Luis Valley of Colorado where bright... They have absolutely nothing on southern Utah.
We awoke the next morning to the sound of ravens flying overhead. As told by the park rangers, they were our biggest threat while in the backcountry animal wise. This is no kidding... Those little bastards tore the rubber seals off my windows and ruined a windshield wiper on my Explorer while it sat parked at the trailhead. Picked it to pieces. They don't hesitate to destroy campsites and belongings left unattended if they can.
After a breakfast over the fire we packed up camp and made way for the park entrance to obtain our backcountry permits and begin our trek in. The road leading to the park (Rd 211) is nicely paved, and runs 34 miles from US Hwy 191, the highway leading you south out of Moab. It's a winding two lane road which cuts through high canyons and mesas along the way. Two thirds of the way to the park entrance, next to a pullout parking area, is Newspaper Rock. By studying the writing on the wall one can only begin to guess how old they really are. Eventually we entered the park and our adventure had begun.
Once inside the gates we wasted little time, stopping only at the Visitors Center to fill out paperwork and empty out my savings account on disposable cameras. Twenty minutes later we were on the trail, climbing higher to break out of the first canyon and into the next. The landscape around us was vast and rugged. Our choice on what food & liquids to bring (a diet of summersauge, cheese, tuna, crackers & DintyMoore stews) and the fact that water is scarce even in the summer months, meant we had fully loaded packs. The decision not to eat astronaut food all week now reflected in the weight on my shoulders as we moved slowly thru the desert labyrinth. It wasn't hard to get my mind off of that, though, as one must only look around at what a magical place I would get to call home for the next three days.
1st view of Chesler Park exiting Elephant Canyon
We chose CP5, a designated campsite situated on the tip of a rock formation located nearly in the center of Chesler Park. A word on the campsites: Of the five you can choose from within Chesler Park, none of them are positioned to get that morning sun from the east that you look forward to so much after a night in a tent when the mercury drops below 10 degrees. CP1 might get some better rays in the a.m. but I can't be entirely sure, as we only walked past it. I swear the difference in temperature between sunlit and shaded areas in this place in the month of December feels like two different worlds. The sandstone rock all around you acts like either a heater or an icebox with it's ability to absorb warmth or coldness. With the sun setting in the west we put up camp, dined on some DintyMoore and called it an evening.
Bout time to buy an ultralight stove already....
Our destination the next morning was to be Druid Arch, per recommendation I received from this website. After some tuna & crackers and some instant coffee, we packed our gear and hit the trail. From what I had read I was excited about this hike. It didn't disappoint....
Six miles round trip, it cuts through one of the most remote and inhospitable places in the lower 48. Technically it's harder than Longs Peak, minus the elevation. One of three ladders found in the park exist here. What starts as a grassy trail out of Chesler quickly turns into a scrambling session in, out and around sandstone and red rock. After finally dropping into the bottom of Elephant Canyon you follow it's path for two miles, then exit abruptly and continue to climb higher. All around you rock spires and jagged walls tower above. After a fairly steep scramble to the canyon rim, Druid Arch finally comes into view.
Druid Arch 3 Miles
Navigating through the landscape. High 30s and clear skies.
The trail descends as you finally drop into Elephant Canyon.
High walls and rock formations fill the sky as you follow the canyon floor moving closer to the arch.
Might be considered the "crux" of the route. The trail was surprisingly steep in places.
The ladder installed by the park service to help you negotiate the path.
Looking down the last scramble to reach the canyon rim.
The "summit" - Druid Arch lies behind.
Looking north up Elephant Canyon. A look at the the route we just traveled.
All in all this trip was way more than I had expected out of southern Utah. We had an unbelievable time. I can't wait to return and backpack the Salt Creek Canyon north to south.... February maybe?
A bigger look at Chesler Park.
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
The Needles District
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):