Deciding where to go is always a challenge. This is what is considered a “first world problem.” We were fortunate to have the time and resources to go on these trips, so now where and how do we spend the time? After spending a few days in Canyonlands National Park and all of our adventures in Shafer Canyon and the Syncline Trail it was time to move on. We decided to make a quick stop in Moab, Utah for the night and then visit Arches National Park the next day before moving on. Moab is your typical “gateway” town to a National Park. This is the unofficial term given to towns that border the entrances to National Parks (West Yellowstone, MT- Yellowstone, Gatlinburg, TN- Smokey Mountains, Estes Park, CO- Rocky Mountain, and so on). For the most part I’m not a big fan of these towns. Streets full of fast food, chain hotels, t-shirt shops, and souvenir stores. Does Moab have all of these things? Absolutely! But Moab has this intangeable feeling that’s hard to explain. They are able to balance their small town feel with all the conveniences and comforts the tourist and the outdoor enthusiast is looking for. Did we partake in a chain hotel? Absolutely! A pizza shop? Yes! Both were wonderful luxuries after being in the park, dusty and sweaty for 3 days. We also loved strolling the town. Browsing bookstores and galleries. Finding hidden city parks in evening. The large variety of unique and interesting culinary options was a surprise also. Moab is definitely a town to check out when you’re in between your National Parks and you need a break from the tent and picnic table.
The next day we were planning to make the four hour drive to Capital Reef National Park. But first we would spend part of the day exploring Arches National Park. This would just be a quick visit. Not big, epic hikes. Mostly auto touring and doing short hikes to popular destinations. The park is located just a few miles outside of Moab, making it very convenient and much more popular than Canyonlands. After passing through the admissions and visitor center complex the road quickly ascends to this large open plane. We are quickly greeted by the Courthouse Towers, Park Avenues, Sheep Rock, and the Tower of Babel before continuing to Windows Sections, the Devils Garden, or Delicate Arches. Many of the popular Arches are just a quick and easy walk from the parking lot. It should be noted many of these can be very crowded, even during the off season. So be prepared and don’t expect any type of wilderness experience. Delicate Arch, Skyline, and Landscape are all very famous and worth the short walk. If you want a more challenging hike then you want to continue past Landscape Arch towards Tunnel Arch, Pine Tree Arch, Navajo Arch, Partition Arch, Private Arch, and others. These are accessed by a more primitive network of trails that require some scrambling and climbing, traversing a fin, and some minor route finding. With the heavier use of this area getting lost shouldn’t be an issue, but one could get turned around pretty easily.
Our trip to Arches was exactly what we were looking for. All in all I think we spent about six hours driving around and taking short hikes. There were plenty of people around, but that was okay. We were excited to be entering a new section of our trip. Capital Reef National Park was on our horizon and we would be spending the night in the park campground. We were anticipating staying in the Fruita Campground along the Fremont River among the remains of the orchards planted by the early Mormon settlers. We were ready to get there, set up camp, and start exploring.
I consider both of us fairly fit people. Even though we live on the beach at sea level in a very humid climate, we both have made several trips out west and to the mountains throughout the years. So when we were making a decision on what trails to take in Canyonlands National Park, we liked to consider ourselves above average hikers, with high levels of competency, who can make smart decisions. Just like with our decision to make the trek down into Shafer Canyon we like to find challenging out of the way hikes that are not full of tourists. We had read about a place called the Upheaval Dome. It is a large crater that is believed to have been created by a meteor impact. Sounded interesting enough. Little did we know it was one of the most popular and accessible trails in the park. Not what we were looking for. But we were there and decided to check it out anyway. Then shortly up the trail we found what we thought we were looking for. A sign indicating a small side trail: The Syncline Loop. The sign read: “…very strenuous, hard to follow, route finding skills necessary”. This was the start of the days adventure!
The trail was advertised 8.5 miles long. I had remembered seeing it on the National Geographic Adventure map and had filed it somewhere in the back of my mind with all my other Utah knowledge. It wasn’t an overly hot day. Maybe 85 degrees and sunny. We had plenty of food and what we thought was plenty of water; 4 standard Nalgene bottles. Like I said earlier, Pearl and I live on the beach. The biggest climbs we have are the stairs up and over the dunes to get to the beach. So needless to say we needed to get reacquainted with our mountain legs.
The first half of the trail was rather harmless. It was flat, traveling thru dried up river beds and broad valleys. A typical Canyonlands environment. We hiked thru broad canyons, oasis like groves of cottonwoods, and more importantly had only seen one other hiker. At about mile 3 or 4 (it should be noted we thought we had gone much further) the trail deteriorated and the sign that had excited us in the beginning proved every bit true. The hike became a series of climbs and rock scrambles with only the occasional distant cairn to lead the way. We descended deep into an area that led to the Syncline Camp and the Green River. The steep sketchy descent, meant that the ascent wasn’t going to be easy.
We really never thought during the day that we needed to ration our water. We had enough? Every book, brochure, sign says to carry extra water. We thought our supplies were sufficient. We began the climb back up out of the canyon in the late afternoon with the westward setting sun to our right. For the first time that day the sun was baking us. We were both exhausted and breaks became frequent. There was no shade in sight and we were completely exposed to the sun’s setting heat. The water consumption quickly increased. It was a steady, constant climb up to ridge top after ridge top. We would reach what we were hoping was the top only to see another ridge that needed to be surmounted. The water continued to be consumed. Even as the sun was about to set behind the canyon wall it continued to bake us until it set for the day. All day we had underestimated our distances traveled. We had to start backing off the water as the sun set. Yes…the sun set. As we climbed the last ridge we heard our first voices since earlier in the day. We were hopeful we were approaching the parking area. Our water was gone, we had drunk the juice from our canned oranges and it was dark. Soaked in the days sweat and out of supplies the voices of sunset and star gazers increased and our arrival to the crowded parking lot just 10 hours earlier was imminent.
When we got back to the car, the lot that had been filled with tourists and RV’s earlier in the day was practically empty. We had dropped our bags and each of us grabbed a gallon of water (we always travel well prepared) and chugged. We were exhausted. Covered in dust, soaked in sweat, baked by the desert sun we had conquered the Syncline Loop Trail. Next time we will carry 6 Nalgene bottles.
I remember the night like it was yesterday, even though it was last summer. Pearl and me sitting in my apartment eating pizza and drinking beer. The National Geographic Adventure map for Canyonlands National Park in Utah had just arrived. We had it unfolded on the table, with beers and pizza flattening it. The difficult, yet exciting task of deciding where to, how to get there, how long to spend, and what to see was underway. We decided on a flight to Durango, Colorado in the southwest corner of the state. It was the closest commercial airport to the region we wanted to focus on. We would make the three hour drive from Durango to the Canyonlands/ Moab, Utah area. Having never visited Canyonlands there was a lot of research ahead of us. Of the “big 5” parks in Utah (Zion, Bryce, Capital Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands) it is the least visited and has the best opportunities for seclusion, where one can isolate themselves. That really attracted us. On this trip we decided to spend the extra money and check an extra bag and haul all of the camping stuff out west. We wanted to sleep under the Milky Way in canyons, deserts, and mountain tops. We wanted to be alone. We wanted experience national parks the way they were meant to be visited. Plus we didn’t want to spend the money on substandard, only adequate lodging. This proved to be a wise choice. Camping had been an important part of life, but it had escaped me over the years and I was looking forward to being reacquainted with it.
That night studying our map we noticed there was only one campground in the entire northern section of the park. It should be noted that Canyonlands is divided into two regions: Island in the Sky and the Needles. These two regions of the park are also not connected by road through the park and one must travel about 90 minutes to reach the other. This makes the trek not convenient or quick at all. Willow Flats campground is a small campground in the Island of the Sky District. It sounded very small, quiet, and just what we were looking for. But I really wanted to get away from it all. No RV’s. No neighbors. We wanted to sleep in a canyon with no other visitors. We weren’t going to be outfitted for backpacking, so what were our options?
It was the White Rim Road! The White Rim Road is over 100 miles. It is accessed by special permit and fee only and is accessible by four wheel drive. It has reservable campsites scattered all along the route that surely would provide the private the experience we were looking for. We would not have time to make the whole journey and from recent advisories the road deteriorated the further you traveled making it not the smartest or the most responsible decision to drive it in a rental car. We did however find the first campsite along the route open and it was relatively easy to drive to. After descending from the main park road through a series of switchbacks we entered Shafer Canyon. The scenery would make you believe you were in a western movie or an Indian Jones scene. Plus it didn’t hurt that it was sunset upon our arrival. Not long after we reached the bottom of the canyon we drove on a long sandy straight away through the broad desert valley. Not a soul around or sound to be heard. We reached a small side road that our map indicated would take us to our campsite for the night. This smaller road was narrower with deeper ruts and softer sand, but we shortly arrived at the Shafer Canyon campsite.
Immediately Pearl and I knew we were in a special place. The red rock walls around us were magnified by the setting sun. We felt enclosed and private as the campsite was in a narrower section of the canyon. The setting sun dipping behind the canyon walls only expedited the sunset. As the sun disappeared we had only the silhouettes of the rock formations until the night sky opened up. It was a sight like I had never seen. The constellations, the Milky Way, shooting star after shooting star. The night sky of Canyonlands was a worthy competitor for the northern lights of Canada and Alaska. The silence. The scenery. The loneliness. Feeling like we were the only two people for miles. It was exciting. It was special. We had come so far from that night in my apartment studying the map, drinking beer and eating pizza. The trip had come together. This proved to be the most amazing start to what would end up being an awesome trip.
It all started one day at work last summer. Pearl and I who had been working together for a few years and had a great working relationship found ourselves talking about travel, hiking, camping, and previous trips. I was in the process of planning a trip to Utah and I started sharing my plans with Pearl. Over the next couple of weeks we continued to talk and I started to think how amazing it would be if she joined me on this adventure. So it goes without saying I was thrilled when Pearl mentioned she was interested in “meeting up” in Utah. It didn’t take long before the “meeting up” became a lot more and before we knew it we were planning this Utah adventure together and soon would be on our way. Our trip to Utah proved to be a very special experience for the both of us and a turning point in an amazing relationship.
This blog is going to to tell the story of our adventures. The big trips, the really big trips, the weekend get a ways, and the day trips. The planning process, the logistics of travel, tips, attractions, how to’s, successes, and failures (hopefully few and far between) will be topics of discussion. We are also looking forward to hearing from all of you; the traveling community. We have a lot to share and a lot to learn also. We are very curious and we are looking forward to starting this discussion with others. As we tell you the stories of the big trips, with tons of information, over the weeks we will also share our local day trips, camping and hiking adventures, and other highlights of our area. We are very fortunate to live in a very scenic and historic section of the east coast of the United States and we are looking forward to sharing all it has to offer.
We hope the anonymity thing doesn’t turn you away. You’ll be taken on all of our adventures with us. We’ll give all the personalized secrets and tips of attractions, parks, hotels, and restaurants. You’ll get to know Pearl and me, just without the faces and names. We hope you’ll join us on all of our trips, big and small.