Return to Moab Part 2: Is This a Canyon?

It was Creeksgiving as they call it in the climbing world, or the time when many-a-climber makes the journey to Indian Creek, that grand valley between highway 191 and Canyonlands to climb their faces off during Thanksgiving. For this reason, all the affordable campsites were occupied, there was no room for us at the inn. Thus we decided to drive straight on into Canyonlands with hopes that there would be a campsite available for the night. If not, we were a bit out of luck.

It was only about 6:15 when we landed at a site in Canyonlands, but it was deeply dark outside. The inky blackness made it feel as if it were much later, and the freezing cold temperatures made me want to retreat to my warm bed back in Boulder. But, we managed to cook a little dinner (which, thank goodness we were able to eat, the food poisoning having finally passed through our systems), and get into bed. This night, we had the foresight to boil water for hot water bottles in our beds, and so my feet were nice and toasty as a slide into my sleeping bag that night.

We were up with the sun the next morning. The hot water bottles had finally lost their steam and I was back to being cold. Cold tent mornings offer you two options: stay in bed and be cold, or get up, make coffee, and be slightly less cold. i usually opt for the second option; it has just enough perks to make it worth while. As I blew on the steam drifting satisfyingly off the surface of my coffee, I watched the sun come up over the Wooden Shoe formation. I was beginning to be able to see the vastness of the canyons around us.

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I learned later, looking at the topo map in the visitor’s center of the park, that the canyons in the Needles district are a far cry for the traditional notion of a canyon. They’re not narrow slot canyons that are clearly walled in on each side, nor are they like the Grand canyon, mighty and deep. These canyons are much more maze like than any of the canyons I had seen before and were harder to pick out as obvious canyons.

After waffling between a bunch of different hiking options, Claire and I decided to take what one of the visitor’s center workers had deemed a “good cool weather hike.” Cool was approximately 30 degrees, which is cold to a soft Front Ranger like myself. Plus, having experienced the cold that happens in the perpetual shadow and deep canyons, I though a little time in the sun would be a nice idea. We were headed to the Confluence overlook, or the place where the Colorado River and Green River become one.

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The hike started by descending (as most canyon hikes do) into Big Spring canyon then quickly out the other side. There was a neat keyhole feature through we we had to exit. Navigating the rest of the hike, it was difficult to detect the fact that we were actually in a canyon. These were not like the canyons I was used to or expected. I did not feel really in it the way I had wanted to. We mostly were meandering terrain until we came to a wide, grassy canyon which we crossed to eventually hike up a ledge overlooking the rivers.

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Do not get me wrong, this hike was beautiful and very fun and very cool,  and everytime I walk in the desert, it blows my mind to imagine navigating the terrain without the estaablished trails and cairns that exist. It would be so, so easy to get lost! But I did not get the same sense of mystery and depth from these canyons that I have received in the past and I was…disappointed. We had planned to only have time for one hike in the park, and that was it.

As if my usual bad habit, I started giving myself serious fear of mission out by scouring the map for what I had not been able to explore. Why was the hike we had done not enough for me? Why could I not simply appreciate the opportunity we had gotten? Why could I not be satisfied? Because there is still so much to explore!

After a mini freak out, Claire agreed to go with me the next morning to explore some of the canyons on the south side of the park, specifically Lost Canyon. We had planned to ge up and out early in the day to get through the 8 miles of walking and still have a decent departure time to get back to Boulder. Our friend was coming into town for Thanksgiving and we didn’t want to be late to meet her.

Unfortunately, our 7:00 am start time turned into an 8:00 am start time. Thanks to our choice to camp on the west side of a rock formation, so we were shaded until later in the day. We were still determined to explore parts of the canyon, however, so we compromised and said we’d walk out for and hour and then just turn around and come back.

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Oh, how we lied to ourselves.

Once we were at the mouth of Lost Canyon (having had to traverse the flatlands then walked up and over the lip of one canyon, and down to meet the mouth of Lost) we couldn’t stop. Something about being down inside a place where life suddenly springs out of the rock, where mystery whispers for you to come closer, take away your power to turn around. And I’m so glad we didn’t. Lost Canyon was as beautiful and magical as I had hoped it would be, every turn offering a new surprise. Rock formations in the adjoining canyons waved as we went by, the evidence of a summertime of lush grasses swished against our legs, and a sudden, magical cottonwood forest sprung out of nowhere from the sand.

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We made it up and out of Lost Canyon and into Squaw Canyon about an hour later, feeling alive with the spirit of the canyons. The energy carried us all the way back to the car, and then again through Indian Creek, past all the climbers we someday hoped to emulate, back to Moab for some gas and groceries, and finally the 6.5 hours to Boulder for some Thanksgiving and friendship. And in the true spirit of Thanksgiving (a little late, I know) I would like to acknowledge the modern day people who have claim to the Canyonlands National Park as their ancestral lands: The Paiute, the Ute, and the Navajo. I am so thankful to be able to experience this place.

Cheers,

Molly

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