A Return To Canyon Country


“Hey, Mike, what’s up?” my brother Rob asked.

“You want to head to the desert this weekend?” I inquired over the phone. “The weather looks ideal.” We both began to pack. Some trips are well planned; others are spur of the moment breaks from reality. This was one of those trips.


The fall desert season is near. The time is here to reconnect with the red rock wonderland that is southern Utah. Review the weather forecast and head to canyon country. Wander a canyon, rappel a slot, bike some slick rock, and savor the majestic landscape that is southern Utah. What are you waiting for? Oh, yeah, finish reading this article and edition of Utah Adventure Journal first; and then, make your escape.


Why am I the only one here? I wondered to myself as I strolled the aisles of the Smith’s Grocery store in Price, Utah. It was 8:30 on a Thursday night. The locals were absent, and only a few employees eyed me as I filled my basket with some goodies for my three-day weekend jaunt. I eyeballed my watch and realized I better hurry. I planned to meet my brother, coming from Denver, at Crescent Junction around 10 pm. I drove my Land Cruiser south on Highway 6 with an enormous smile of anticipation on my face.


Fall in the desert is simply sublime. I get to wear shorts during the day’s activities and fleece around the campfire in the evening. Perfect outdoor weather! Yes, the days are shorter; but the ideal temperatures for play and exploration outside in the vastness of Utah’s deserts are tough to ignore. Ignore no longer. I stepped on the gas and motored toward our rendezvous point. Traffic was non-existent; so in no time, I pulled off Interstate 70 and met my brother. We exchanged pleasantries. My halogen spotlights shined the way on a dirt two-track in our search for a campsite.


After fifteen minutes, we veered onto a dirt road that took us toward Arches National Park. I had visited this area many times prior; but I was a little tired at this point and felt challenged to get my bearings in the darkness. Soon enough, we found a nice group of boulders we could use as a wind barrier.   I threw out my cot, while Rob situated his sleeping pad in the back of his pickup. Sleeping under the stars is truly the best way to experience the desert. I drifted into sleep after watching the airplanes flying high overhead to places such as Los Angles, Las Vegas, or possibly New York. I felt content lying in the “wilds” of Utah. Good night.


The deserts of Utah are a wonderland. The following morning, it was time to play. We followed the north entrance through Salt Valley without seeing another soul. In our vehicles we motored past the Tower Arch Trailhead (and it’s an awesome hike) and soon found ourselves in Devil’s Garden parking lot.   We checked our backpacks and headed onto the trail. Yes, we saw other tourists snapping pictures of Landscape Arch and Pine Arch, but we were headed a little off the beaten path.


A lady stared at us at we detoured off the main hiking path to follow a faint trail leading in the distance to the Dark Angel rock monolith. No, this was not another of the 2,000 arches in Arches National Park but rather a solid, sandstone rock 100-200 feet above that “grew” from the ground. This rock feature can be seen from miles away, but we stood only a few feet away. We arched our necks and gazed up at the rock spire, silhouetted by the blue sky with the Book Cliffs on the horizon. The Dark Angel did not disappoint.


The desert is full of secrets. Whether it’s a secret slot canyon in the middle of Robber’s Roost or a secret ruin tucked into an alcove in Bears Ears National Monument, finding these secrets is thrilling and fun! I had heard about a “secret” rock art panel in the Dark Angel area and was determined to find it. My brother was game, so off we went with our eyes fixated on all potential rock surfaces. I was getting skunked in my search and a little bummed. Where would the Indians etch and paint their art? “There!” I yelled to Rob and pointed. He turned around somewhat puzzled but followed my lead.


We descended through a break in the rocks and came upon a spectacular petroglyph panel. The National Park Service thought so too. The sign in front of the panel read: “You’ve found something unique, please preserve it.” Rob and I snapped a few photos, admired the figures, and tried to determine their meanings. The setting was ideal, but the shadows were starting to grow long; we reversed course and hiked back to our vehicles, then back to camp.


The next morning we awoke to a hot air balloon soaring high above us. However, it was close enough to hear the flames light up to carry the balloon onward. The wind was calm; the sun was pleasant; and the views of canyon country were panoramic—the LaSal Mountains, Arches National Park, and Canyonlands National Park. Rob and I sipped some fresh coffee. Okay, it was really instant but tasted pretty good. Anything we eat or drink in the desert tastes good. With our bellies full of eggs and bacon, it was time to test our legs on a canyoneering adventure.


If you like hiking with a little spice, canyoneering is your poison. With our packs in place, we made our way down the entrance of Granary Canyon. Our feet eased down the scree field to the canyon bottom. I led the way; soon the bottom disappeared. It reappeared some 30 feet below. We donned our harnesses and rigged the rope. This is where the spice comes in. Rob led the way and dropped over the slickrock. Rope grooves marked the rock, which signified we weren’t the first desert wanderers to experience this canyon.


Rob and I ambled down the canyon and came to numerous rappels. Some we took; some we walked down and around. It appeared each rappel had an escape route to it. Take it or not? After six or so raps, we exited the canyon to the north. Our eyes spotted an old dirt two-track, and we followed it back to our vehicles. After retrieving our chairs, Rob passed me a cold Colorado beer, and we sat back to savor the views of canyon country.


The following morning dawned, and I sipped a hot cup of camp coffee. I savored every last drop. To the north, the buttes of Monitor and Merrimac showcased themselves ablaze in the rays of the morning sun. Ravens flew from one juniper tree to another.   A desert morning like this one is truly magical to experience.


Rob and I entered the gate to the Island in the Sky—Canyonlands National Park. We planned to hike to stunning ancient ruins. We donned our backpacks and proceeded west watching our steps to avoid the living cryptobiotic soil.   Within 30 minutes, we stopped at a precipice that dropped hundreds of feet to the White Rim road. The ruin was not in sight. Not yet. We descended further.

“I don’t see it.” Rob called out.

“It’s there.” I responded. I didn’t tell my brother I had been here previously. “Keep looking…it’s right up there.”

Rob climbed upward into an enormous, south-facing alcove facing Candlestick Tower along the White Rim Road. We crawled on hands and knees the final 10 feet to a smaller alcove. The setting was stunning.


The alcove was not large in diameter. Before us, stood a ruin or maybe a kiva. But, in actuality it was neither. It was a simple, round rock structure believed to be used during spiritual rituals and services. True? Who knows? But, as I sat there the word spiritual came to mind. The setting was jaw dropping. This view was one of the best I have seen in canyon country—ever! Rob and I sat in a quiet stillness. Not wanting to leave. Not wanting to head back to reality. But, it was time. We returned the way we came.


We met again at Crescent Junction to say our goodbyes. Interstate 70 “called.” Rob traveled east, while I ventured west. Our paths had crossed for a few days and will cross again in the future. Fall in the desert is an enchanting time. Whether one explores the slots of Robber’s Roost, the ruins of Bears Ears National Monument, the singletrack of Moab, the mining history of the San Rafael Swell, or the picturesque canyons of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, canyon country is waiting. It offers a place to wander and to pursue adventure. Well, what are you waiting for? It’s your turn.

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