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.