This trip was much more than just about backpacking in Canyonlands, but that was the kernel around which we planned what was to be Dottie’s last backpacking trip. More than a year ago Dottie sent a message from Tucson saying she wanted to go on one last backpacking trip with the family. I started thinking of all the desert places we could go that would be awe inspiring and with trails appropriate for her now 70 year old legs.
Let me preface this report with acknowledging Dottie’s influence on my and our families love of desert places. Nearly 40 years ago she introduced us to the wonders of walking in the desert in Big Bend National Park. Over the intervening years we have backpacked and camped together in the Guadalupes, the Grand Canyon, Organ Pipe, Escalante, Zion and more. Always the desert, never diluting it’s essence with other wetter, more cluttered landscapes. Let me also say that this “last” trip has nothing to do with her health. On the contrary, as usual, she is in better shape than most humans, working and day hiking every week. She has just decided that she is done carrying an awkward backpack.
The only sibling that could go this fall was Chris. Five weeks before we were to go he broke his collar bone and was out. I flew into Phoenix and Dottie was waiting for me at baggage claim. We jumped in the car for the long drive (500 miles) to Monticello, Utah. Beautiful day with grand views but we were both glad to get out of the car and into the motel room.
Nov. 2nd- We knew that a cold front was blowing in and the next morning we awoke to an inch of snow, 25 degrees and 30 mph winds. Not the warm desert experience we had expected.
As we dropped down off the side of the Abajo mountains towards the Needles the snow disappeared, the winds subsided and the temperatures warmed.
We got our permit for five nights out, three in Elephant canyon and Chesler Park and then a resupply at the car and two more in Lost Canyon. There was another front dropping in from the Pacific in three days and this would give us a chance to re-evaluate the situation. The ranger gave us the usual no water in Elephant canyon until the top near Druid arch, damn, have to start with a gallon.
We drove up to the Elephant Hill trailhead and the start was very civilized with well crafted steps up through a slot.
Where we then popped out into the beginning of what would be our slickrock centered world.
The trail winds around and through increasingly wild sandstone formations with long views. One can understand the elephant references here and 40 miles distant are the La Sal mountains, where I spent the summer of 1979 mapping the soils for the Soil Conservation Service.
Soon enough sandstone “needles” began dominating the horizon.
The fragile cryptobiotic soil was everywhere but the well used trail carefully avoided it.
The trail slipped through several slots and finally wound down to the bottom of Elephant canyon. We turned up canyon here and shortly came to our campsite, EC2, which is beautifully situated high up on a ledge overlooking the junction of Elephant canyon and what is unofficially called No Name canyon.
We had lunch and then I went up to the head of No Name canyon, on the trail that goes over to Squaw canyon, while Dottie read and enjoyed the sun.
Not five minutes from our camp was all kinds of water flowing and in pools. Those rangers always sandbag you on water availability.
Fairly quickly you reach the head of the canyon and there is a ladder that takes you up an overhanging ledge, followed by a few footholds cut in the stone over to another ladder down, let the fun begin!
It was then a fun run out across the slickrock following the cairns which are the only thing that mark the route.
sometimes it ran close to the edge
at one point it climbed up a log ladder and then cut through an extremely narrow slit, so narrow they had thrown log pieces into it to walk on, otherwise your foot would have been stuck between the walls.
After a few miles I came to the intersection of the Squaw canyon, Big Spring canyon and Elephant canyon trails.
I wanted to climb up to the pass over into Big Spring canyon and see the views. This is looking down Squaw canyon.
This is the view down Big Spring canyon
I rested for sometime, taking in the clear skies but had to head back to camp. The route just goes straight down the rock
and I started winding my way back to the head of No Name canyon and the lengthening afternoon shadows
Back to camp, after a 5 mile hike, just as the sun dropped over the edge of the canyon and the temperature began to drop fast.
The long night gave plenty of opportunity for star gazing
Nov. 3rd– 26 degrees overnight but the sun hit us early in the morning. We loaded up and walked the five minutes to the water and filled up with enough water for two days in Chesler Park.
We then walked the half mile up to the trail that cuts up to Chesler park and dropped our packs to day hike up to Druid Arch at the very top of Elephant canyon.
Fairly easy walking with a few obstacles and great rock formations.
You finally get to a point where the route climbs out of the wash and up onto the next layer of sandstone. Dottie decided it was where she would wait for me.
It runs out across the ledge and then begins climbing much more steeply up towards the base of the arch. Including a short ladder at one place.
You finally top out on another layer, out of breath and turn around and there it is 200′ tall of it’s double archness.
The top of Elephant canyon is just a fantasy world of rock and I spent a nice long break taking it all in. This is the view back down the canyon.
Eventually I started back down and passed the first of the day hikers that pour in to see the arch. I was very glad that I got to enjoy it by myself. Dottie was waiting and we wandered back down canyon and found an nice sunny spot for lunch.
Back to the packs and we started up the trail to Chesler park and it immediately started with difficult scrambles over rock. I dropped my pack to go ahead and see if it continued in this difficult way. I ran into a day hiker coming down and he said while we were at the worst of it, it did continue to be hard all the way. We decided to go back down canyon and take the main Chesler park trail up and over into the park itself. It was much easier and didn’t add any more mileage to the day.
There is about a 400 foot climb up from Elephant canyon to the pass over into Chesler but we took it slow and steady. With more great views and needles to take our minds off the climb.
We had reserved the CP1 campsite and it was definitely the best one in Chesler park, situated high up on the side of the bowl with great views south and west out over the area.
We were glad to drop the water heavy packs and settled in for a great sunset.
and the sun began to light up the rocks all around our camp.
We settled in for dinner and another long but clear night.
Nov. 4th– The plan for the day was to day hike all the way around Chesler Park and then decide what the weather was looking like and maybe head out instead of spending another night at CP1 to avoid having to cross slippery slickrock in case it rained or snowed overnight.
It was a beautiful morning and we decided to go counter clockwise because Bob always says it make us younger, like turning back time.
Great needles at the top of the park and vast views over Chesler City
This is about a 270 degree pano of all of Chesler Park, click on it to make it bigger.
The trail winds its way over and around the slick rock, down through some washes and slots and finally drops down to the Devils Pocket and a jeep road that you follow for a mile or so to the Joint trail. A very narrow slot, not real deep but narrow and straight as an arrow in places.
Back to camp and lunch and we do decide to walk out early. The plan is to check the forecast at the visitor center and camp in the campground. Then I would head into Lost canyon for a night by myself while Dottie knocked around.
We got to the car about 4:30 and as we approached the visitor center it was not really necessary to read the forecast as we could see a really serious front blowing in. The forecast was for rain and snow for the next 24 hours followed by highs in the 40’s and lows in the 20’s. We looked at each other and decided to retreat to Moab, a shower and a good meal at the brew pub.
We indeed woke up to rain down in Moab and the snow line was around 5500′. We spent the morning at Arches N.P. in the light rain. A great visitor center with really great displays and we drove the road all the way to the end.
As we headed out it began to clear some and we could see the back edge of the front.
We started south with Monument Valley in our plans and in search of a place to camp. For a hundred miles we drove through intermittent snow and rain showers. We went to Goosenecks of the San Juan State park thinking we might could camp there overnight but even though it had now cleared up, the winds were blowing so hard it just about knocked us down. We would continue south.
We did take in the amazing view of the San Juan river as it twists a thousand feet below. In a mile and a half, as the crow flies, it it runs for six river miles. This panorama really shows the scale and the curve of the earth. In the far distance you can begin to see the first of the monuments in Monument Valley.
On south we go and the vistas leading to Monument Valley are tremendous. This is the north side of the valley.
On the other side is the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. We drove in, paid the $5 per person and realized the best view was probably from the new visitor center. We could have driven the 13 mile dirt road but it had just rained and it was already mid afternoon. So we took some pictures and continued south to Flagstaff.
Flagstaff is even higher in elevation and it was in the 20’s with three inches of snow on the ground. Another motel was in order as well as another brew pub with wood fired pizza.
Nov. 6th– The only solution to this extreme weather was to escape down into the Sonoran desert so we headed on south to Phoenix and east to the Superstition mountains and Lost Dutchman State Park.
We got a nice campsite at the top of the campground and went out to day hike all of the trails that wound across the flanks of the mountains. 70’s and beautiful. We had one last nice meal at the picnic table and went to sleep under starry skies.
We woke up at 4:00 in the morning and it was raining on us even down here! Up went the tarp and then back to sleep.
The rain stopped by 7:00 and we had breakfast and a another short hike before slowly heading towards the airport.
On the way we stopped at an urban farm smack in the middle of Gilbert. Now down to 10 acres, Agritopia grew vegetables and fruit, had community garden plots and a really good restaurant that used all their produce and local beef. We had a great lunch and then Dottie dropped me at the motel near the airport where I spent the afternoon drying equipment, packing and catching up on notes.
This was a great trip for lots of reasons but it is sad to think that it is that last time Dottie will backpack. When she got back to Tucson she took her pack and donated it to the Girl Scouts. We will just have to continue to car camp and day hike for as long as we can. Thank you D.
Fantastic trip report mule ears! Love the panos and night shots. That whole area is awesome. The Salt Creek are of the Needles is pretty spectacular as well. Thanks for sharing and keep up the good work!
Thanks Lance, coming from the pano expert I am humbled. I knew you had done Salt Creek and it was on our potential list, I will have to go back someday.
Your entry is a great inspiration to all of us who would love to follow in your footsteps. Thanks for bringing us along with your story and awesome photos.
Wow what a wonderful hike you guys had and very well narrated. I am a little sad that it was Dottie’s lasts but at least it was her last one by choice not because she can no longer hike.
ME, great report, thanks! Good to see the San Juan again; its been a month but I feel like I just left Cedar Mesa.
Thanks to all for the kind words, we had a great time.
I managed to slip into your story of backpacking the Needles district from some other blog. I was reading along when “soil mapping” jumped out at me!! I mapped soils in the west for SCS/NRCS from 1976 until retired last year. Sure made reading your blog fun. Now I have to figure out if I know you.
I doubt we would have crossed paths as I was just a seasonal hire in ’78 and ’79 while in college and then moved back here to NC to farm.