A Night On Mars: My Camping Trip to Canyonlands National Park in Utah

Hiking the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park

‎”If my decomposing carcass helps nourish the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture–that is immortality enough for me. And as much as anyone deserves.”

— Edward Abbey

Oh yes, Ed, sing that sweet gospel of desert life. Let it whisper through your prose like sand blowing gently across the brush. Let it boom through the windswept canyons, thunder in the caves, echo through the souls of snakes and scorpions. Let it smash headfirst into the naked, red rocks.

Let it marinate in my mind, as I lay here on the desert floor enveloped in this giant blue tarp like the filling of a burrito, listening to the staccato rain pound me and wondering if my sweet musings could be interrupted at any moment by a flash flood.

Man, I really should have brought a tent.

Welcome to Canyonlands National Park

Chesler Park In Canyonlands National Park

It was Edward Abbey, the eccentric American nature author, who first introduced me to Utah.  Abbey, a passionate environmentalist, saw the American Southwest as the last refuge against the industrial state.  He set up shop there for two seasons as a park ranger in Arches National Park in Moab, Utah, where he filled sketchbooks with reflections on the landscape, animals and people of the area; the notes would eventually become the meat of his non-fiction work, “Desert Solitaire.”

There was a rawness, a true grit, to his descriptions of desert country.  For this reason, when my friend Noah suggested we go on a backpacking trip around Moab this summer, I quickly agreed.   However, instead of heading to Arches, which can often be clogged with tourists, we chose the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.  The area is known for its stunning landscapes, which intermix slick rock benches and labyrinthine canyons with giant red Martian-looking crests.

Just Two Bros in the Desert

Noah takes a swig of water while hiking in Canyonlands

We arrived at the Needles District early in the morning, where we received a back country permit and were told that we would be the only ones camping in the entire park that night.  Apparently, sane people avoid the desert during the summer.  Undaunted, we loaded up our packs with water, sunscreen, floppy hats, a bunch of trail mix and two cans of Chunky soup.  There was no potable water in the desert, so we each brought in approximately 1.5 gallons.

It was only a 4.1-mile hike into our campsite, which was in the Chesler Park area, but the route in was brutal.  The heat was scorching and the terrain jagged, making each uphill taxing.  Our only respite was the occasional overhanging rock, where we swigged water during our breaks. The trails were marked only with cairns — stacks of rocks –so we occasionally found ourselves drifting off point, but after a solid 2.5 hours, we made it to Chesler Park and our campsite.

The Quietest Place on Earth

The View From Druid Arch

I had read earlier that it had only rained an inch or so in the last few months in the Canyonlands area.  Of course, as soon as we arrived at our campsite, the wind grew blustery and thunder boomed.  We made a makeshift lean-to with a tarp, which we crouched under and waited for rain.  It came in torrents, along with golf-ball size bursts of hail.  After 20 minutes or so it cleared, and we sauntered around Chester Park, taking in the scenery.  The large field was bordered on each side by towering rocks, making it feel  like a stadium fit to hold a gladiator bout.  There was nothing, not a person, nor an animal in view, and I sensed that strange combo of desolation and freedom that wide-open landscape often provides.

We decided to take advantage of the weather clearing to hike to Druid Arch, a dramatic overlook located approximately 3 miles away.  Now, freed from my pack, I was truly able to take in the rawness of the landscape.  The red rock and giant peaks made me feel like I was on Mars.  We trekked a tough couple of miles through canyon beds, into caves and up slick rock.  The last quarter-mile scramble  before the arch was particularly arduous, but the reward was worth it.  Sun-scorched and aching, we sat with our backs to the rock, pacified by the natural splendor that unraveled in front of us.  Noah said he had heard that Canyonlands was one of the quietest places on Earth.  It was true.  The sound of the silence was overpowering.

No Tent, No Problem

Day breaks in Canyonlands

After soaking  in the ambiance at the park, we headed back to our campsite.  It was dusk, the shadows of the rocks loomed large on the desert sand, and the wind began blowing in a frenzy, wreaking havoc on the tarp lean-to we had made earlier.  Rain was undoubtedly on the way, and having decided not to bring a tent due to the extra weight, we scurried to try to rig up a decent shelter.  It proved impossible, as there was just no way to tie the two tarps down in these conditions.  We decided that if the rain fell, we would simply wrap ourselves in the tarps, giving us protection from the rain.

After scarfing down a hot meal of Chunky soup made on our portable camping stove, the rain began.  Quickly, we grabbed our respective sleeping bags and tarps and rolled ourselves in them.  We stayed dry, but sleeping proved difficult.  I often felt as though I was a mummy embalmed in a tomb.  Nevertheless, dawn eventually came, and I climbed out of my bag to take in the majestic sight of the sun rising over the canyon.

We spent the next few days hiking and mountain biking around the Moab area, but Canyonlands was unquestionably the highlight of my Utah trip.  Desolate, majestic and unforgiving, the desert has an essential quality that strikes at the heart of one’s desire to be in nature.  If you’re ever considering a trip to the American Southwest, I’d highly recommend you check Canyonlands out.  Just remember to check the weather forecast before you go.

Do you have a great camping trip experience you’d like to publish?  If so, Lost in the Woods would love to hear from you.  Shoot an email to Dan@camping-gear-outlet.com with your idea.  If we dig it, we’ll publish it on the blog and hook you up with some free camping gear as well.

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8 Comments

  1. Posted August 26, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    It’s an incredible place, isn’t it? I’ve been hiking the Needles off and on since 1975 and will return this September.
    Couple of notes for you: it’s “Desert Solitaire.” Abbey was at Arches National Monument in the 1950’s. It became a National Park later. Also, it’s Chesler Park, not Chester. Anyway. Glad you found one of my favorite places on the planet. Next trip, try the Joint Trail!

    • Daniel Lawton
      Posted August 27, 2012 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for catching those typos, David, I appreciate it. And thanks for your feedback.

  2. Greg
    Posted August 27, 2012 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    It’s also “Chesler” Park not “Chester”. Good read, thanks for sharing your trip. The needles is definitely a special place. As you mentioned, the quietness is almost deafening.

    • Daniel Lawton
      Posted August 27, 2012 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

      You’re right Greg, thanks for the correction. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece, thanks for commenting.

      • Kelly
        Posted August 27, 2012 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

        I was born and raised in Moab during the mining boom before the tourist came to town. The south west part of Utah continues to sing in my heart. I make yearly trips for hiking and listening to the canyon walls vibrate with life. I always love to take “virgins” to the area and watch the wonder in their eyes. It may be the quietest place on earth but it sings the loudest to my soul. I truly enjoy listening to others experiences.

        • Daniel Lawton
          Posted September 5, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

          Thanks, Kelly. I really loved your comment, it means a lot.

          Best,

          Dan

  3. Joe
    Posted September 21, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    Southwest Utah really is spectacular. Moab is a cool town, and the parks are just tremendous. I went to canyonlands but I only had time to go out to the edge of the island in the sky. That view though will stay with me forever.

    Great article Dan, true adventure/discovery content is hard to come by

    • Daniel Lawton
      Posted September 28, 2012 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

      Thanks Joe, I appreciate it.

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