Monday, July 6, 2009

La Sal Mountains and Canyonlands National Park - Needles District, Utah - Hiking and Backpacking

There is nothing better than a July afternoon in the desert. I love the peaceful, quiet solitude of Utah's red rock desert any time of the year, but a mid summer hike under the scorching sun is a unique experience. It's like walking through a world where every living thing is asleep - a total void of sound and movement. Even the plants seem lifeless, except for an occasional glistening green cottonwood tree with it's secret source of water deep underground. The stillness of the desert in July is surreal.

Last July, Jacob joined me for a "death march" across Canyonlands National Park in the Needles District. Despite the ridiculous heat, we managed to backpack to Chesler Park and do a long day hike to Druid Arch. It was a challenging but peaceful trip through spectacular desert scenery.

This year, to continue the tradition, Hunter, Col, and Alaska Tim joined me for a 4th of July weekend in the Moab area of southern Utah. We spent two nights near Moab which allowed us to see Dead Horse Point and do a long day hike in the La Sal Mountains. We spent one additional night in Canyonlands National Park to get away from the crowds and developed campgrounds.

Car camping, or park-and-plop, has advantages and disadvantages. It allows you to have real food, delicious beer, and the convenience associated with having all of your gear readily accessible in the car near your tent. It's fun and comfortable, but not very adventurous. The main disadvantage is the fact that you almost always have neighbors, noise, and the feeling that you aren't really out in the wilderness. A few good beers make up for these disadvantages, especially late at night when the neighbors are quiet.

What would a trip be this year without rain!? We left Salt Lake on a Thursday afternoon in a total monsoon complete with hail and flooded roads. Things cleared out by the time we reached Dead Horse Point State Park, and we set up camp in the unusually cool July air.

Setting up camp at Dead Horse Point

We didn't quite make it out to the Point before the sun rose the next morning, but some clouds on the horizon made for a less spectacular sunrise than last year. The views were still magnificent and everyone enjoyed spending time walking around the various overlooks of the Colorado River below.

Sunrise near Dead Horse Point

The Colorado River

Happy little deer

The highlight of the trip was our hike in the La Sal Mountains, just outside of Moab. The last things you would expect in Moab (in July) are green forests and running water, but that's just what we found. The high elevation of the La Sals (over 12,000 ft) means the snowpack sticks around well into the summer. There is abundant water everywhere to support the dense forests and fields of wildflowers. Down below, in all directions, the scorched desert stretches out as far as you can see. In the words of Edward Abbey:

"All around the peaks of the Sierra La Sal lies the desert, a sea of burnt rock, arid tablelands, barren and desolate canyons. The canyon country is revealed from this magnificent height as on a map and I can imagine, if not read, the names on the land."

Alaska Tim ready to hike in the La Sals

Col and Hunter enjoying the La Sals

Green? Trees? We aren't in Moab anymore!

Field of flowers in the La Sals

Burro Pass

I advertised this trip as a scorching death march, but the day hike in the La Sal Mountains was cool and comfortable. Thankfully, it was a bit warmer once we made it to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. Unfortunately, it wasn't nearly as hot and nasty as I promised, but everyone seemed to suffer nonetheless. We backpacked in to Chesler Park, and our campsite was spectacular! A gorgeous view of all of Chesler Park. Most of the afternoon was spent hiding from the sun (or sprawled out on a rock enjoying the sun, in my case). A brief storm later in the evening made for some spectacular lighting against the rocks as the sun set, and some natural fireworks (lightning) in honor of the 4th of July!

The Needles

My tent getting nice and warm in the sun

What is this!? This doesn't look like suffering!

Col and Hunter hiking through Chesler Park

Chesler Park

My favorite moment of the trip was sitting on a rock with Tim, overlooking Chesler Park, as a nearly full moon rose over the needle shaped rocks on the horizon. It became light enough to walk around without any need for a headlamp. The pale light shining on the rocks of Chesler Park was so beautiful that we sat together in peaceful silence for a very long time, enjoying the moment.

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