Three of us left a grocery store parking lot in North Bend, WA early Saturday morning and began our way up Elephant Hill at the East entrance to Canyonlands National Park at dusk on Sunday. 1,200 miles covered and over 16 hours driving, and the adventure was just about to begin.
Let me back up. Each year the Rising Sun Landcruiser Club of Denver, CO hosts the national Cruise Moab meetup open to all Toyota Landcruiser owners, friends and family. The event is scheduled for a Thursday-Sunday, with organized drives each day all over the Moab area. That’s a long trek for us Pacific Northwest folk, so a group of us decided to make a week-long trip out of it and spend the first few nights with friends in Canyonlands. All told our small group included 8 people and 5 vehicles: two Toyota Landcrusier FJ80’s, one BJ74, and two FJ40’s.
I’d never been to Canyonlands National Park before so I was unsure what to expect, but I was prepared to enjoy myself at any cost. What I wasn’t prepared for was my jaw on the floormat even before we officially entered the park. What greeted us on our winding way into the park was surreal; the landscape felt prehistoric – as if at any moment a dinosaur might step out from behind a rock ledge and stare menacingly at us in our little Micro Machine trucks. What I’m saying is the terrain is AWESOME. Not just in the beauty, but in the overwhelming scale and feel of it. In Canyonlands you get the very real sense that whatever happens to you, the landscape will continue on as it has for millions of years. It is rugged, awe-inspiring, a little frightening, bizarre, huge, and absolutely gorgeous all at the same time.
As the sun set that Sunday we climbed carefully up the steep, rocky traverse of Elephant Hill on our way out to our reserved campsites at Devil’s Kitchen in the Needles District of the park. Canyonlands National Park is massive – it encompasses almost 350,000 acres of land and is divided into three districts each with a distinct terrain: Island in the Sky at the North end of the park, The Maze at the Central-West, and Needles District which includes most of the mid to lower East portion. There are many, many trails that traverse all of the park so it isn’t exactly difficult to get turned around. And after only 15 minutes on the trail, as embarrassing as it is to admit, we did. Look, it happens to all of us – you know where you’re headed, you know where you’ve been, but somehow somewhere in the middle things get a little…uhhh…confused. Well that was us: confused. We had a good map, but we were on a trail with multiple intersections in an area we’d never navigated before. And it was dark. And we had no GPS signal. No problem – all adventure require a little “adventuring” now and then, right? The real issue wasn’t any of the difficulties just mentioned though, it was that our physical map was an Internet printout that had no scale. And with no real distance reference we couldn’t tell how far we had traveled vs. how far we needed to continue. “Shouldn’t we have reached our turn by now?” We decided we must have overshot it…or according to one of our group members who will go unnamed, it appeared we’d taken the completely wrong trail to start with. So we turned around to scour the land for any sign of a missed turn but ultimately ended up all the way back down at the bottom of Elephant Hill in the main parking lot. Ugh. By now it was 0’dark-thirty but by the starlight we could tell that the alternate trail our enthusiastic friend was convinced we should have taken was actually a hiking trail. Double-ugh (ugh, ugh). So there we stood in the obscenely quiet darkness of an empty parking lot in the remote desert poking fun at ourselves and chuckling at our own stupidity. This – THIS – was an adventure. After the finger-pointing, name-calling, and fun-making subsided we decided we had no choice but to go back up over the hill again and just keep driving until we found our way or we had no choice but to pull over and sleep in the trucks. But that wasn’t necessary. We pulled into camp around midnight and were greeted with some high-fives and cold beers by our friends who had arrived several hours (on time) earlier.
The next morning we slept in. Not necessarily because of the beer and Glennfiddich 12 year we got into the previous evening (although that very well may have contributed to it) but more because we just could. One thing I really like about the group we were traveling with is that we all had the same general mentality and speed. Which is basically none. At the most basic level there are two types of travelers in this world: those who truly absorb their surroundings and live in the now, and those who quickly become uncomfortable with any deviation from a strictly-planned daily schedule of tightly-packed activities. We are uniformly the former which is an astonishing feat as in my personal experience at least 40% of the general population is the latter. So after at least 25 minutes of standing in awe of the area we were just now seeing in daylight for the first time, we made pancakes and bacon, raced our remote control rock crawlers around camp, and around lunch time collectively agreed we should do something.
That something was a drive and short hike to the Confluence Overlook – a windy but gorgeous spot where from top of a nearly 1,000-foot cliff you can witness the intersection of the Green and Colorado rivers, where the lighter, slightly green water of the Green River joins the darker, muddier water of the Colorado before heading into the Grand Canyon proper. Those of us courageous enough to look down from the cliff’s edge were greeted with a slightly unsettling upward breeze in our face as the wind howling through the canyon below takes a turn at Confluence and rushes up the cliff wall. Cool. And like any group of men will do when no one is looking we reverted to middle school mentality and enjoyed more than a few minutes of pitching small, flat stones aout over the ledge to oooh and ahhh at them flying straight upward before landing back at our feet. And yes, it did work for a baseball hat too…what can I say, you cannot decline a double dog dare.
Back at camp we grilled steaks, roasted up a colorful batch of fresh vegetables, and tore open a 12-pack of of Longboard Lager from Kona Brewing Company which is a group favorite. I can’t stress the importance of well-planned, creative meals at camp. It turns a “ho-hum, what do we do?” evening into an event to look forward to. I admit that I’m not much of a cook at home, but something takes over at camp and I turn into a master chef. Maybe its the camaraderie mixed with the freedom of being 100 miles from the nearest restaurant, but whatever it is it’s much appreciated by all. <tangent>That’s a great idea – someone needs to do a backcountry camp version of Master Chef.</tangent>
The next morning was slightly earlier than the one before. One thing to note about overland camping is that packing up is inevitably more involved than it is on a backpacking trip because you carry more with you. Because you can. A 12-pack of beer won’t make it in the backpack, but in a 60-liter portable refrigerator it fits just fine. A collapsible camp kitchen isn’t practical hiking up a trail, even if it’s on wheels. But pulled from the back of a truck it’s no problem at all. Once this was all safely and securely stowed we had one more brief meeting about which route by which to exit the park. It was unanimous: Bobby’s Hole, out to Beef Basin to see The Ruins at the West entrance to the park. The trip to Bobby’s Hole was uneventful other than the awe-inspiring landscape, however once we arrived we discovered that Bobby’s Hole is not exactly aptly named. I don’t know who Bobby is or was, but there was no hole. It is more like a narrow shelf of boulders along a cliff. Maybe the name refers to where you end up if you slide off the edge? This was definitely the most technically difficult drive on the trip, and it was also the site of our first winch use of the trip. Yeah, mine.
I admit it was my winch, and it was also me that got stuck. But I do have a legitimate excuse: my center differential locker refused to engage, which due to the configuration of my Toyota FZJ80, meant I was essentially stuck in front wheel drive. As much as I’d love to think my off-road driving skill can overcome any obstacle, there’s no physical way to climb a 40-degree ledge of loose gravel and boulders in front wheel drive. And to my credit, I did make it about half way up before sliding backwards and wedging my driver’s side rear wheel behind a 2-foot tall angular piece of rock. Talk about a bump. But I did make it and suffered no other setbacks the entire trip.
Once at the top of Bobby’s “Hole” the view out over Beef Basin was striking. It was a stark change of scenery; we moved from close-in canyons littered with strange and impossible spires of rock to an expansive plain of sagebrush crisscrossed by dried riverbeds and cattle trails. It was truly a breathtaking sight, and shortly after crossing a small valley we all decided to stop atop a hill for a short hike to investigate the reports of ancient native ruins throughout the area. At this stop we also came across a lone park maintenance worker who was as confused by our presence as we were by his, at least seeing him drive up in a miniature backhoe in the middle of nowhere. Conversation:
“Hey, where did you guys come from?”
“We just came over Bobby’s Hole from Needles.”
“Oh…” and he gave us an incredulous look, “I’ve been telling everyone that route is impassible until we finish some maintenance…”
“Oh…okay…sorry?” mumbled one of our group.
I wasn’t sure if we were collectively stupified by his intent to go move boulders on a steep incline, along a cliff, in a tiny backhoe, alone, or if we were simply proud of ourselves for fairly easily overcoming an obstacle regarded as impossible by a ranger. Probably both, but either way he just waved and we headed on our way.
The road back to civilization was long and winding but compared to the rest of the trip was fairly bland. We climbed up a small pass to an amazing overlook and wound back down the other side to another valley floor. From there it was a long, long gravel road past grazing pastures and along a river back to the freeway. We radioed to meet at Moab Brewery for a big post-adventure meal and after eating far too much we headed off to our next campground in town, looking forward to a mild day poking around Moab preparing the official event to start.