Canyonlands National Park
With Outrider Melissa Schmitz

Canyonlands National Park

For the next several days we explored the Northern region of the Canyonlands. Prior to being established as a National Park in 1964, the five-hundred and twenty-seven square mile area was known by a limited number of bold cowboys, Uranium prospectors and the original Native American inhabitants. The rugged environment remains one of the most isolated and inaccessible regions in the United States. The park is divided into three areas by the confluence of the Colorado River, flowing from the Northeast, intersecting with the Green River, from the Northwest. Thousands of years of gravity, wind and water erosion have carved out an expansive mesa that rises above the canyon floor thousands of feet below and is known as the Island in the Sky. From this lofty vista, countless canyons span the landscape for as far as the eye can see melting into the backdrop of the surrounding Abajos, Le Sals and Henrys Mountain Ranges. To the Southeast lies the second area of the park, The Needles. To the Southwest is the third area dubbed The Maze. Due to the absence of any bridgework across the rivers, it takes up to six hours to reach one area of the park from another and each holds its own specific topography. While we had hoped to reach all three areas on this outing, staging out of Colorado made reaching the Needles and the Maze challenging with long drives in high heat so we focused on the Island in the Sky.

We outfitted the truck with gear for an overnight tailgate excursion and departed from Grand Junction at the break of dawn. We had hoped that we could find some place to camp and observe the night’s star fields in-spite of the vast swarms of recreational tourists occupying the region. The area is known for stellar views of the galaxy and cosmos gazing in general. The entrance to the Island is on State Route 313 and only a couple of miles from the entrance to Arches National Park, North of Moab off Highway 191. We entered the park and ventured to Mesa Arch Trail in the center of the district and hiked a short leg to the feature. The arch was on the edge of the rim and perfectly framed Washer Woman Arch and the Airport and Monster Towers in the distance. It was a breathtaking composition of geologic structures. While parked at the trailhead, we encountered a brave and curious raven that took an interest in us while preparing our cameras in the truck. Being one of Melissa’s totem animals, we took an interest in the avian critter as well and amidst discussion of Native American mythology and lore, saw fit to name him Edgar. Edgar the Raven…seemed suiting…nevermore, nevermore. We were pretty sure Edgar stalked us for several hikes or else he has numerous equally mangy cousins as we repeatedly saw a solitary raven at each stop.

To the Northwest end of the Island lies Upheaval Dome and a great view of the White Rim, a winding sandstone shelf running twelve hundred feet below the rim along the entire Island perimeter. The masked depths of Stillwater Canyon, cut by the Green, lies to the West while Candlestick Tower juts over a thousand feet above the basin floor having held its ground against millennia of erosion in between Holeman and Soda Springs. To the South lies Grand Viewpoint overlooking Monument Basin and Junction Butte. Westside were the Orange Cliffs. While White Rim Road, a 4×4 trail along the White Rim penetrates deeper into the South, we had reached the length of our mobility with a two-wheel drive and somewhere to South was Cataract Canyon, the merging point where the Colorado overcomes the Green River.

We stopped at each available campground within the park yet were unsuccessful in finding any openings. We were surprised at the limited number of sites for such an expansive section of desolate land. We were contemplating heading into the Needles district in hopes of reduced populations but it was getting late and an additional two hours of driving was not on our adventure list so we took a chance a cut into Dead Horse State Park just outside the Northern boundary of Canyonlands. At the entrance kiosk, we met a vibrant young woman named Sage manning the station. Hailing from Texas, she was clearly excited about her job and provided some insight with regards to potential open sites and educated us on the Living Earth ecosystem of the area and the subsequent limitations on camp sites in the region, an effort to preserve the soil. Our interaction proved a fortunate one as we located an area of BLM land that Sage recommended known as Horsethief and numerous sites were available.

Our camp consisted of an inflatable mattress in the bed of the Titan. With all but the last bed cover panel closed, we had solid shelter from the elements and a clear view of the night sky. It was a bit like being a sardine as any attempt to roll onto your side was met with a bruising whack to the hip. The temperature dropped making for a considerably chilly contrast with the days heat that had, again, exceeded one hundred degrees. While the stars were out, our visibility was limited in the penetrating and brilliant light of a full moon. It emitted such a bright white that I had difficulty falling asleep as if a light had been left on in the room. I resorted to placing my dog tags over my eyes to block out the bright rays of light. A trick I learned while in service that, while effective, likely looks a bit odd to an observer. I was still fairly drained from my recent dehydration and sporting a bit of a headache when Melissa said in a calm voice “look, there is a fox on the table”. Her tone was so sedate and absent excitement, that I thought she was being amusing and I could not bring myself to register her statement. Her tone, however, was to avoid alerting the creature that had approached our camp and rooting through some items on our table until my grunting frightened it away. She awoke in the still of the night to find the fox had returned to perch upon the table. I was, again, oblivious. In the morning as we departed the park for Grand Junction, we marveled at the fox encounter and found the occurrence a bit ironic after meeting Edgar, the Raven, an animal Melissa has had odd interactions with as those that know of my past encounters are aware of the numerous odd interactions I have had with the fox. Totems perhaps, but definitely the making of unique and exciting adventures to observe and interact with the wild.

We made our way back into Colorado and prepared to return Melissa to the working world. The area is an amazing place and worthy of additional exploration. Since available trails are not as abundant as one might imagine, the Island in the Sky is a great day trip for the family but if you go in between May and September, you should expect to see many others. Too many, for my taste. Another consideration is the temperature. While it was early June, temperatures were already exceeding one hundred degrees and were stifling. Some adventurers appreciate the heat but I am not one of them. Extreme heat seems to stifle my desire to meet the physical demands of the backcountry and if I am going to swelter in the sun, I prefer to do it on the beach of a turquoise sea. After seeing Melissa off at the airport, I had planned to explore more of the Southern region of Utah but changed my itinerary and opted to head North in pursuit of more moderate temps. It was an invigorating feeling being able to alter the trajectory of the journey on a whim and decided I could catch Zion, Bryce, the remaining Canyonlands and other sites after I wrap up at the Grand Canyon slotted for October. This will still enable me to be back in Colorado before the winter snows begin. Ahhh freedom…

Ruck out…


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