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Straying off the trail: Canyonlands National Park Valentine’s Day Trip 2015

By on February 22, 2015

Moab, a little uranium mining town turned outdoor-adventurer hub, has become a favorite winter destination for Jason and I. Our first trip together was a surprise birthday trip for Jason last March. This year we decided to go a little earlier in the year and make it a Valentine’s Day trip. The weather was supposed to be nice everywhere on Saturday but Colorado was anticipating snow on Sunday and Monday, while Moab was forecasting 60 degrees and sunny. The decision was a no-brainer.


On top of the mesa

Jason was able to take off Saturday from work, so we drove to Moab straight from his house on Friday night, arriving at our campsite around 10 pm. The second campsite we drove through had available spots (way better than last year when we spent two hours driving around and eventually landed a spot about 15 miles outside of town on Kane Creek Road). We quickly moved everything to the front seats, spread out our sleeping bags, and fell asleep.


All smiles in the sun

We woke up with the sun (even though Jason didn’t believe me that it was actually sunrise since the canyon walls blocked the sun) and headed into town to get everything ready for our two day, one night trip to the Needles district of Canyonlands. Canyonlands is divided into three distinct districts (Island in the Sky, Needles, and the Maze) that are separated by the Colorado and Green rivers, making them pretty much inaccessible from each other. We had heard the Needles Visitor Center was closed for the season, but I assumed the Island in the Sky visitor center would still be open since it’s by far the most popular of the three districts. We drove there to get permits for our planned 26 mile hike to Angel Arch, only to find the visitor center completely closed. There was a sign that directed us to the National Park Headquarters south of Moab, which was also closed for the weekend.


Sunset from our campsite in the Needles

Without permits, we made the 66+ mile drive down to the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park. Upon entering the park, which was free for President’s Day Weekend, we saw a sign saying the campground was full. We assumed that it just hadn’t been updated since the Visitor Center was closed, but just to be safe we drove straight there. The first loop was full so we went to the second which was completely empty. We grabbed a spot, and denoted that it was taken by putting our two camp chairs in the driveway and a handwritten note on the campsite post. The campsites are free during the winter so we couldn’t get one of the yellow strips you normally get when you pay for your site. We thought it was odd that the loop was completely empty, but decided we didn’t care and drove to the visitor’s center to see if we could get any information on the hike we were planning on doing. The visitor’s center was closed but there was a helpful gardener out front who was able to answer most of our questions. 1) the second loop is only used when the first loop is full, this was the first time this year they had to open it. 2) we did need day permits to park at Salt Creek Canyon and they were available in a little box by the entrance to the visitor center. 3) the 3.5 mile driveable section of Salt Creek Canyon was closed to all cars except those made for 4-wheeling (Jason’s Toyota Highlander didn’t make the cut).


My awesome yoga skills (courtesy of Google+ Auto Awesome)

After filling out our permits, we went to check out the trailhead and go on a little hike around Cave Spring. Cave Spring loop goes by an old cowboy camp, an actual cave with a spring and some pictographs, and up to the top of the mesa for views of the Needles. Although short (0.6 miles for the whole loop), the trail climbs up two wooden ladders and contains some slickrock scrambling. It was a ton of fun and an ideal hike to warm us up for the following day’s adventure. When we got back to camp we did a little off-trail slickrock exploring and found the perfect spot to watch sunset. After some relaxing at camp, we headed back up to the area we had scouted before. As the sun set we headed back to camp for a delicious Valentine’s Day dinner of salmon, asparagus, and orange bell peppers cooked over the camp fire and an early bed time.


Campfire dinner

At exactly 4:30 am Sunday morning, my alarm started blaring and we started up the car to warm it up before we crawled out of our sleeping bags and changed into our layers for the day. After a quick bathroom break and wardrobe change, we headed to the Salt Creek Canyon trailhead, parked the car and set off. We had big plans to hike to Angel Arch, which would be a 26-27 mile hike since the road was closed. We quickly realized why the road was closed when we found ourselves trudging through deep sand. If you’ve never hiked through sand, I recommend you try it. It is one of the most soul sucking activities you can possibly do. Soon the sand-trudging ended because we encountered our first water obstacle. With warnings of quick sand in my mind and the darkness making it impossible to see how deep the water was and how far it went, we hoped up on the banks and easily found a side trail. This became the norm for the next 3 miles.


Our view for the first 3 miles of the hike

As the sun started to come up we made our fateful error of the day and followed what we thought was the correct creek bed. We lost the tire tracks from a park service truck, but assumed we had passed the campsite and road closure while on one of the side trails. There were still footprints in the sand so we reasoned we were on the right track. After a while, the footprints disappeared but we assumed that was because Salt Creek Canyon is a rarely used trail and that people had only come out for a night and then turned around (there is an open camping zone not far after the Peekaboo campground that lasts for about 8 miles along the trail). And then we came to a part where the trail was blocked by fallen rocks and trees. It didn’t seem like the typical early season mess that you occasionally find on trails before park rangers have a chance to clear them. We consulted the map (and our GPS watches which weren’t helpful because the coordinates it gave us were off the map) and realized we had been hiking down the wrong canyon. Frustrated by our stupid mistake, we turned back the way we came. After 2.5 miles we finally made it back on the real trail (although I didn’t even realize we were back on the real trail because there was nothing indicating we were going the right way).


The canyon we discovered, aka “Fool’s Canyon”

In another trail mile we made it to Peekaboo campground, which was clearly signed and obviously a campground. We both made the decision that continuing another 20 miles roundtrip to get to Angel Arch and back to Peekaboo campground was silly since we had already added 5 miles and 2 hours to our trip (if we had continued it would have been Jason’s first ultra experience – with his longest previous hike being Mount Whitney at 22 miles). Instead we decided to explore the Peekaboo trail even though we had absolutely no information on it besides the fact that it was 10 miles roundtrip and took us back to our campsite from the night before (which wasn’t helpful since we had packed up and vacated it already).


View of the La Sal Mountains from Peekaboo trail

The peekaboo trail passes by some pictographs and then quickly climbs to the top of the mesa via a very steep ladder. If you’re short like me, the ladder was a little bit of a challenge because I had to really reach for each rung (surprisingly it was pretty easy to get back down though). The views on top of the mesa just gets better and better the higher you go. We stopped a couple times to take pictures and then hiked up a little more and realized the view got even better. After about a mile on slickrock, the trail begins to wind around a large butte. It gets a little sketchy in places, to the point that when we looked up the stats online after we got back we found multiple pictures like this one. After about 2.5 miles on the trail, we decided to turn around and try to make it back to Moab before dark. We hiked back the way we came (without the little side canyon mishap) for a total of about 18 miles and 7 hours and 45 minutes on the trail!


The ladder to the top of the mesa on Peekaboo trail

To conclude the day (and the weekend), we decided to hike to the false kiva for sunset. This has been on Jason’s list for a while now, so he was thrilled that I wanted to do the short 2.6 mile roundtrip hike with him (as if I would say no!). The trail starts out mildly enough, winding through sage brush on packed sand. After about 0.6 miles, it starts to make it’s way down slickrock and large boulders. The last 0.1 mile to the false kiva head back up about 100 feet until you’re in the kiva. There is a false, false kiva about 10 feet below the real one that looks like a rubble pile. Keep going up and you’ll see what is obviously a stone dwelling. We made much better time on this hike, reaching the kiva in 24 minutes and hiking back out in about 21 (we had to stop a couple times on the way down to find the route). We ended our trip with a wonderful sleep in a comfy bed and breakfast in the morning. I can’t think of a better way to spend Valentine’s Day weekend.

Photo courtesy of NinetySeventy Photography

If you get grossed out by “feminine issues” I recommend you stop reading here.

For those of you who decided to stick around, I have a little bit of extra advice. This was the first time in almost three years of running and hiking (and 1.5 years of ultrarunning) that I had the unfortunate timing of having my period during a prolonged adventure. It came earlier than expected so I didn’t have the time to plan things the way I would have liked, but I came up with a genius and inexpensive way to take care of feminine issues while on the trail. All you need is:
1. Small plastic sandwich bags (opaque if you can find although the clear ones work too).
2. A tampon
3. A small section of toilet paper
4. A little jar of hand sanitizer
When you feel the need to change things up down there, simply clean your hands with a little hand sanitizer, take half the toilet paper to remove the existing tampon, wrap it up and stick it in the plastic bag. Do your business, wipe, and insert the new tampon. Place the tampon wrapper and the toilet paper in the plastic bag and close it up. Save it until you make it back to the trailhead and can throw it away. Bonus points if the trailhead has a “human waste” disposal trashcan specifically for items like this.