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.