Rushing, finishing last minute things as usual, I got my stuff together and took off to Moab. I was going to meet up with Steven “Twinkle” Shattuck, Ryan “Dirt monger” Sylva, and his wife April “Bear claw” Sylva. Twinkle has very impressive beard growing capabilities and never forgets his neon orange fanny pack. This past summer he hiked the entire PCT, where I met him, (2,655 miles) and then turned around, caught a plane to New York and hiked most of the AT (about 2,000 miles.) Bear Claw has overcome much to get where she is now, overcoming and sacrificing much to hike long trails. SHe completed her first thru hike last summer with Dirt Monger on the PCT. Dirt Monger is easily the most experienced out of all of us; he has done the PCT, Continental Divide Trail, and the Hayduke Trail. The Hayduke Trail traverses through 6 national parks in the deserts of Southern Utah and Arizona. It is a route that involves many backcountry skills including being completely proficient using map and compass; the Hayduke Trail website even has a paragraph in large, red letters warning potential hikers to be aware of the difficulty of the route that only a handful have finished. This summer, he is also planning on hiking a never before hiked route that he has dubbed the “No Name Route,” which will link together desert sections in California, Nevada (Death Valley), Idaho and Montana. Needless to say, this guy is decorated. We were to meet at 3 in Moab. I got there around then and we all ate a meal together and planned mileage and reminisced.
The trail we intended to hike was the White Rim trail in Canyonlands National Park. The word “trail” is a bit of an overstatement because it is actually a big, wide road meant for jeeps, motorcycles, and mountain bikes. The road, or trail, circles around a giant mesa top called Island in the Sky. We would have the Island peering like a skyscraper always to the right of us and deep, rugged canyons with sheer, 300-foot drops to our left. Dirt monger was thoroughly excited, having run the Rim in sections over the years. It is mostly flat, naturally, as it is a plateau. We would most likely be the only ones hiking it. It was the perfect trail to get our legs and feet sore, ready for our future summer plans to hike long distances.
After eating, we headed to the trail and began hiking on BLM land where we parked the car. We parked outside of the national park to avoid fees and hassles with rangers. We got going around 5 and had to cover 10 miles to get to the paved road where we would camp just outside of the park. It was chilly above the Rim and after walking the 10 miles we found a spot protected by a small tree to sleep.
The morning sun awoke us with views of the La Sal mountain range to the east. I didn’t know there were snowy peaks above the desert around Moab. It is a relatively small mountain range, 10 miles from the first to last peak, but because of the 12,000-foot peaks, they keep snow socked in for a long winter. Allegedly, they were named La Sal (salt) Mountains back in the 1700’s when Dominguez and Escalante hiked through and were so surprised to see white capped mountains in 100 degree weather, so they hypothesized that it was salt. Or so the story goes. Dominquez and Escalante were Franciscan priests, searching for a route from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to mission homes in California. Usually accompanied by Native American guides, they wandered the west, in some of the harshest conditions, exploring the very little traveled land. They were through hikers of their time, without even knowing it. The route they set is now part of the Old Spanish Trail connecting Santa Fe and California. The trail also crosses through New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada, ending in California.
We walked the paved road into the park, and on the way, Bear Claw noticed her shin splints had been acting up again, and made the tough decision to drop out of the hike. Of course it’s for the best, but missing out on the next few days would be something hard to pass up, but she was able to listen to her body for the greater good. Now we were just three.
The road turned into a dirt road, and the White Rim Trail began. We followed down long, gradual switchbacks 1500 feet to the flat white rim that would circle us around the Island in the Sky. We were immediately exposed with views that would be prevalent the whole time; massive sandstone cliffs with the occasional tower that looks like a touch of the fingertip would send it plummeting down. Now this is the desert, I thought to myself, me not being a fan of the Californian desert south of the Sierra Nevada for the lack of mountains and geological features, but this I could handle.
And so the day went, the trail continued, and around each bend, a new tower, a new canyon, a new wonder. We had planned on getting water at some of the drainages, but we noticed that everything was dry. To our avail, the heavily equipped support cars trailing behind the mountain bikers were never reluctant to ask if we needed water, as they looked at us half in respect for hiking the trail and half confused as to why we were doing that.
We got to the campsite at dusk where there were bathrooms and two large groups of families running around, so we decided to walk a couple miles in the moonlight and camp on a ridge without the noise. That is another key feature of the White Rim Trail, yes there are campsites, but camping is allowed within a few miles of the actual designated camping areas with bathrooms, creating large zones miles long where one can find the solitude or lack of solitude desired.
Another sunrise revealed to us a crescent moon floating between two giant buttresses, above another swerving canyon. We began walking, planning on doing about 34 miles to the next campsite and another two miles after that if things went well. We went by one large canyon, then another, then we looked at the map and found a break in the Island small enough to climb up and over, which would give us new views of the area, and also cut off a couple miles that the trail takes around the Island.
We cut off the trail instantly noticing the softer sand that hadn’t been smashed into a cement like that of the trail. We picked out an area that looked like a scramble to the top of a plateau and headed to it. There were trace signs of old jeep roads, most likely from the uranium boom in southern Utah back in the 50s and 60s. Back then, every inch of Southern Utah was searched in the hopes to find more. We continued toward the plateau, and found a deposit of red obsidian randomly above the ravine. Obsidian, as most know is known for being black, with glassy texture, and very rarely one will find red obsidian. We guessed that the random occurrence of about 50 pieces of obsidian must have been from a Native American attempting to make arrowheads, most likely from the Anasazi tribe that lived in these very areas.
Up and over the plateau we went. Once on top we could see a better view of the White Rim we had been walking on, with canyons upon canyons leading into the Maze District to the south. It’s understood why it is called The Maze District simply by looking towards it and seeing the snaking, twisting, turning canyons linger on for hundreds of miles. The Maze District is the most rugged part of Canyonlands; oftentimes hikers will carry ropes to get their packs down, or rappel difficult sections of the trail; but, as we all know, the more rugged, the greater the reward. The Maze offers the dedicated remote wilderness rarely accessed, and even the occasional cave drawing from ancient hunters and trappers.
We spotted the trail from the plateau and headed down toward it. In the distance, we noticed a white residue in certain areas, especially where the runoff areas met the trail. It had been cold lately, so we figured it could have been frost, as we had also seen it previously under shaded overhangs deep in the canyons. As we approached the whiteness, we observed that it wasn’t frost at all, but salt, lots of salt. I got on my hands and knees and actually licked the ground, coughing afterward from the, well, saltiness. There was so much that you could even pick up dabs of it to sprinkle on your food, or lick in your palm as you walked on. The large amounts of salt were due to chemical deposition from water runoff. It had been deposited at the convergence of the trail and ravines, where water came down from the upper buttress, rich in eroded sediment and minerals such as salt. The water then evaporated, continuing the hydrologic cycle, and leaving the salt. I felt a little like Dominguez and Escalante in that moment, blazing my own trail, observing and immersing myself in the landscape that immediately surrounded me.
We followed the trail up one of the only ascents to Murphy’s Hogback campground where more people offered us some much-needed water. I found a large boulder that I climbed on top of, and looked out towards the Maze District, and endless miles of desert. Two ravens soared above us, calling out with various sounds. Dirtmonger said to me, “I love those birds, did you know that they can make hundreds of different calls?” I listened and nodded no, he continued, “yeah, hear them now? They are talking to each other. Remember that clicking sound you were doing with your tongue earlier? Yeah, they can even make that sound, I thought you were trying to imitate them.” Hundreds of sounds may be an exaggeration, but ravens are known to make up to 30 different sounds, mainly for social interaction. The surprisingly sly birds can also mimic human sounds. They can even live up to and around 20 years old.
Coming down from Murphy’s Hogback, we saw our first sights of the Green River, and Dirtmonger anticipated what he said would be the largest canyon we had seen yet. A couple miles went by, we passed some canyons, asking him at each one “is this it?” “No,” he replied, “you will know it when you see it.” And of course we did as we approached the edge of the rim and we saw giant cornices of sandstone peeking over the dry river bottoms beneath. The overhangs must have stuck out two hundred or three hundred feet. This called for another rest as we scorched ourselves in the sun with a cool breeze that compensated for the burning sun.
We continued around the island, now on the opposite side of the Island ever since cutting the trail miles back. We had been going for 25 miles and our feet were starting to feel it, the breaks came more often, and the heat became more intense. We nursed our blisters caused by the amounts of sand in our shoes rubbing our feet raw.
And on we marched, around another corner, following as close to the rim and the canyons as we could to get the most of the views. The sand turned into slick rock, then the slick rock turned into large bumps. These weren’t just rocks that had fallen from above, but actual petrified sand dunes. Petrified sand dunes are formed by large sand dunes that are buried in sediment, compressed over time, which freezes the dune in place. The covering sediment then gets eroded away by water and reveals the hardened sand dune from millions of years past. Walking on one led to the next and we found ourselves in a sea of these 8-foot high dunes. We couldn’t help but keep saying oohs and aahhs and wows. “This is the highlight of the trip,” Dirtmonger claimed, Twinkle and I both agreed. We hadn’t noticed that we added about a mile and a good amount of time, but we couldn’t help it, the foreign features literally mesmerized us in our uniform march down the trail. Such is the nature of through hiking; moments of pain, discomfort, and then the unanticipated highlight that keeps you going on.
After the dunes we saw a large slot canyon where a family was exploring in their biking spandex and we saw our first natural water source. We didn’t bother scooping up the green, murky water, knowing that someone would offer us clean, cold water soon. The daytime heat turned into dusk-time perfection and we hammered down the trail, rounding a corner to see the Green River just below us, snaking its way through deep gashes in the sandstone as it has done for millions of years.
We arrived at Potato Bottom Campground where a group of people from Salt Lake offered us water and conversation. Twinkle explained to them how we had met on the trail over the summer, and one of the fathers pointed to a 12-year-old boy and said, “He’s doing the John Muir Trail this summer.” We both got really excited, me having hiked the JMT 4 times and Twinkle twice, and Twinkle leaned back, pointing at me and replied, “Andy here holds the unsupported speed record on the JMT.” The group was amused, they themselves being respecters of the outdoors.
We only had two miles to go from Potato Bottom. It was dark already but the full moon once again illuminated our path. We walked up one of the last ascents and camped on a ridge. The large moon cast shadows over the immense buttresses above, behind and across from us.
We awoke to a pink sunrise making any photo look professional. A large, phallic monolith stood above us and being the group of 3 young men that we we were, we couldn’t help to refer to it as “the Boner.” It was a landmark, that boner, and we had been approaching it all day, and now we were passing it. The final stretch kept us right next to the green river, and up some switchbacks similar to the ones in the beginning that put us on top of the Island once again.
It wasn’t the most beautiful part of the trail, but a sense of accomplishment set in, making us appreciate our surroundings and the short weekend even more. I pulled out a sleeve of thin mints and ate a cookie, then another, then the whole sleeve. We arrived where we had started, and Bear Claw pulled up minutes later with cold drinks and asked me, “so do you like the desert now?” “Yes,” I responded, a short response, but a full response; with respect for a unique desert I have never experienced.
also: my own two feet and tour guide Dirtmonger who pointed out most of the surrounding landscapes.