It’s been 4 months since I last said I was going to update. It may be another 4 months before I update again. I hope you enjoy this one!
First, let me tell you about my first Utah trip this year. Skippy and I went on a 10 day Wilderness Education Association winter-based training course. It involved hiking and camping in the cold and snow, along with some awesome ice climbing. The experience we gained in cold-weather camping would prove very useful in the near future. You can find pictures from the trip here.
Next, I was supposed to take one, then teach another, ice climbing course for IU. Both were cancelled for lack of ice at our destination, Governor Dodge State Park in Wisconsin. Then I took a cross-country skiing course in Michigan, which was a whole lot of fun.
That brings us up to spring break, which was this past week. Skippy and I led an Outdoor Adventures trip to Canyonlands National Park in Utah. This was my second trip to Canyonlands, and Skippy’s first.
Canyonlands National Park Trip Details
I go to pick up our vehicle for the trip, and find that we have a minivan. A minivan with barely enough room for 7 people, let alone 7 people with a week’s worth of backpacking supplies and gear. So I have to get another car. We’re taking 7 people 1500 miles away in a minivan and a Taurus, with 4 drivers.
We pack up our gear and head west. And we keep heading west. Eventually we stop for the night in Kansas, at a rest stop that looks like it was inspired by German architects in Normandy, circa 1944. Concrete bunkers all the way up the hill.
We wake up at 7, and use the facilities at the rest stop to freshen up, then we hit the road again, heading west. The goal is to make it close to the park entrance, and camp alongside the road on BLM property.
First we have to get through the rest of Kansas, and eastern Colorado. Which takes FOREVER. Finally, we hit Denver and head into the mountains. I love driving through the mountains, at least when the roads are good. They are, and Skippy and I drive through them like professionals. Due to limitations on the number of times we can fill up IU vehicles during a day, we roll into Moab, UT low on fuel and can’t fill up. We continue on, 45 miles to the park highway, as a winter storm approaches. As we turn onto the park highway at 11pm, 30 miles away from the entrance gate, the skies open up and unleash a torrent of snow and wind.
With the wind gusting at 20-30mph, and snow drifting over the road, we search for a place to pull off and set up tents. The whole area outside of the park is Bureau of Land Management, and open use. We find a relatively protected depression on the lee side of the road, and set up tents. Fortunately, Skippy and I are totally prepared for winter camping, thanks to the previous Utah trip, and we had also had our participants practice setting up the tents during the trip planning meeting a couple of weeks earlier. I had also prepped them for cold weather, so we weren’t surprised or seriously worried about the conditions. The night is cold, but everyone survives with minimal difficulty.
We wake up to blowing snow and visibility at less than 50′. So, we zip back up and wait an hour for conditions to improve. They do, and we pack up and get back on the now snowy road to Canyonlands.
When we check in at the visitor center to get our backcountry permit, we are advised that many of the trails are snowy and/or icy, and that travel would be dangerous, and possibly deadly on certain trails. After weighing that information with the most current weather report (another snow storm is expected that evening, then clear the rest of the week), we decide to set up residence at one of the established camp sites around the trailhead. We then spend the rest of the afternoon climbing around the canyon that the campsite borders.
Later that evening, it begins to snow again, though not as hard as the previous night. I am beginning to wonder if we will have to pack up and take a driving tour of the area. Dinner is chili mac, with chili TVP mix, spaghetti, and cheese.
We decide that no matter what, we aren’t going to stay idle another day. While the group packs up their gear, Skippy and I go back to the visitor center. We work with a couple of the rangers there and come up with an alternate, safer plan than my original good weather itinerary: hike in 1.2 miles and camp at Big Spring 1, then hike back out and use the cars to go to a different trailhead and hike another 3 miles to Elephant Canyon 2 the next day. From there, on to Chesler Park then back out.
We take our newly adjusted plan and permit back to the group, pack our gear into the cars, and head for the trailhead. There we divy up all the group gear, food, and personal gear, check packs, and stretch. The day is sunny and beautiful, the temperature is around 38 degrees. Even though we’re headed back to the cars the next day, I tell everyone to pack for the week.
After a couple of adjustment stops, we make it to the campsite and set up. I am very interested in not going back to the cars, so John volunteers to fastpack the unknown portion of the trail to the next night’s campsite with me. We do the 5 mile round trip hike in 2.5 hours, and find the way is mostly clear. There is ice, but nothing where the group would be exposed to more danger than falling a couple of feet. Now I’m glad I had everyone pack for the week! Dinner is quesadillas with cheese, beans, and salsa. The moon is nearly full and the sky is clear, and the canyon looks like the landscape of another planet.
Today we hike to Elephant Canyon. We cover the ground John and I scouted the day before without incident. After that 2.5 mile section, there are still 2 miles to cover. We run into some more ice on the north face of a canyon descent, but teamwork and copious amounts of butt-sliding get us down without incident. The Elephant Canyon 2 campsite is amazing, more than halfway up the canyon wall and facing a large row of needles.
Skippy takes Lauren, Taryn, and Steve to scout out the shorter of two routes into Chesler Park. Meanwhile, I fall asleep on a rock in the sun. I also manage to setup our tent before they return. They find the trail is impassable, and dangerously so. Dinner is spaghetti with olive oil, lime juice, red pepper, and parmesan cheese.
Time to head to my favorite section of the Needles District, Chesler Park! The first mile is a retrace of our path yesterday, but then we hit the unknown section of the 3 mile hike. Everything hinges on this .2 mile section of trail over a north-facing saddle between two needle peaks. The disappointing alternative is to head up another trail to an established campsite north of Chesler Park.
Once we arrive at the entrance to the saddle, Skippy and I drop packs and head up to scout the potential danger. We find nothing to fear except some protected icy slopes and snow everywhere. Following our lead, the group makes it up without falling, and without having to drop packs.
We enter Chesler Park.
After setting up camp at CP4, we walk down the trail to check out the remains of a cowboy camp. Lunch follows, then the group splits up to do some exploring. John and Steve head down the Joint Trail, Lauren, Christie, and Taryn go to climb some rocks, and Skippy and I head towards a large rock in the middle of the field. This rock, to be exact:
You see, one year ago, I sat on this rock and decided to stop wasting time. I liked this woman named Skippy, and it was here that I decided to stop waiting around for the chance to connect with her, and instead make it happen. And now, a year later, I’m sitting on the same rock with her. My life couldn’t be better. And now, I ask her to marry me. And she says “yes.” And my life gets even better.
After a dinner of gado gado (DELICIOUS!) or rice and beans, I tell the story over a cup of hot chocolate. When I announce our engagement, there are tears and hugs and congratulations all around. That night the sky is once again clear, the moon is now full, and the open expanse of Chesler Park is transformed into another alien landscape.
Today is our longest hike, 6+ miles, retracing just about every step we’ve taken so far. It goes well, with most of the ice we encountered earlier in the week either mostly melted or entirely gone. Taryn twists her ankle about a mile in, but she’s tough and once Steve helps us apply a sports tape wrap to it, she’s on her feet hiking again. We make it to the cars by 4:15, for a total trail time of 5.5 hours, including ankle treatment, pee breaks, snack breaks, and lunch. This group is awesome!
We support the park service at the visitor center gift shop, then head to Canyonlands Outpost to grab a couple gallons of gas to make it back to Moab. The woman at the Outpost lets us get gas despite having been closed for over an hour.
Once back in Moab, we get the pleasure of our first hot showers since leaving Bloomington a week before, thanks to The Lazy Lizard Hostel. Then, a Mexican feast at the Fiesta Mexicana restaurant. After loading up on cheese and salsa, we get in the cars and head east, making it 90 miles into Colorado before weariness sets in and we stop at a rest stop for the night.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day! More mountain driving, hooray! I lead us through western Colorado, arriving at Genesee Towne Cafe (I-70, Exit 254), where a feast of pancakes, sausage, and omelettes await the group. We met Hanna and Wolfgang, the proprietors of the resaurant, on our trip out to Utah over the winter. They were happy to see us again.
The rest of the day was spent getting us into Kansas. We stopped at a rest stop and fixed SWAD Indian Dinners. I took over driving just outside of Kansas City, and made it a few clicks into Missouri before needing to go to sleep.
Steve graciously purchased everyone’s breakfast at a Cracker Barrel, allowing us to forgo the cold and wind we would have encountered if we had followed through with plans to fix pancakes at a rest stop. Then, we drove the rest of the way home.