It technically may be spring, but with temps ricocheting back and forth between springtime and winter, my thoughts are already turning to the canyons and mesas of the desert. It’s time to swap skis for the hiking shoes and the mountain bike very soon.
Back in the day, heading to the desert meant packing up the trunk of the ’65 Fairlane with enough macaroni and cheese to last a week, loading up the cooler with two cases of beer, and a dog-eared copy of an Ed Abbey novel. My mountain bike had 12 gears, my car had three, and there was no cell reception in or outside of Moab because there were no cell phones. Going to the desert meant getting away from it all, away from Civilization with a capital C. Sleeping was done under the stars, on the slickrock, next to the scorpions and rattlers.
Today, things have changed. I am now the proud owner of a pickup camper (1989 Skamper model), a 4wd pickup with five gears, and a mountain bike with 27 gears, although I am not sure what the extra 15 gears are for. The camper has a stereo with an iPod port, features running water, a fridge, lights and a blender, of course. Our rides are now plotted with a GPS, and there are a surprising number of places where cell reception is available. Microbrews are made and served in Moab, much to the chagrin of Brigham Young.
Given all of these changes, it’s getting more and more difficult to get away from it all. To top it off, Moab has become a motorhead Mecca, featuring Jeep rallies, rock crawlers, ATV rentals and hordes of solid guys named Bubba driving huge diesel pickups hauling trailers filled with gasguzzling toys. In short, it has been discovered. And then some. With this in mind, those looking for some peace and quiet might want to steer clear of Moab. Really, anywhere that there are no roads and people will do, but some are more scenic than others.
For the intrepid trekker, Canyonlands National Park is right around the corner from Moab. The most accessible region of the park is the Island in the Sky District, west of Moab, about an hour from town. The Island in the Sky is the high plateau area making up the triangle between the Green and Colorado Rivers, home to the famous White Rim loop ride. The Needles District of the park is southwest of Moab, heading toward Monticello. This district features thousands of sandstone fins and spires (the “needles”) that make a complicated labyrinth of trails, all spectacular and mystical. The most challenging section of the park to visit is the Maze District. This district lies on the opposite side of the Colorado and Green rivers from Moab and is accessed by driving a couple of hours on dirt roads from the west. Once you are in this section of the park, you can take the Flint Trail down into the Maze itself. A map and compass and GPS will be handy if you expect to make it back alive; there is a reason it’s called the Maze. If you have the time for an overnight trip, hiking all the way down to the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers is a worthwhile journey, if for no other reason than to watch the greenish and reddish waters join, merging and swirling together.
It should be noted that hiking is the norm in most areas of the park. Mountain biking is permitted in certain locations, on certain trails and roads. In general, if the road is a Jeep track, then you can ride your bike. Otherwise, it is best to check with the park rangers to find out about regulations. As in any National Park Wilderness Area, mechanized travel — including mountain biking — is forbidden.
All of this is pretty stunning country, but let’s face it: it’s a National Park.
Yes, it’s wild, but it’s not uncharted territory. If you are looking to really get away from it all, you will likely have to head farther away. Pick a direction, and print out some maps (or not!) and start walking. Taking the path less traveled, one might head south from Moab toward Monticello and Blanding. From there, the more creative and adventurous might keep wandering south into the less-traveled canyon country of southeast Utah. Fish Creek. Owl Canyon. Grand Gulch. Escalante. These are some of the well-known haunts, but there are thousands of others, farther away, less accessible, more remote. I cannot divulge names of these locations, being sworn to secrecy, but I can say that the adventure just begins at the edge of the proverbial map.
For those of you who are still holding down a real job in this economy, you probably can only spare a week away for the desert jaunt. Having made this journey over the years, I would offer a few suggestions.
Pick one location and stay there for a few days. This will not only mellow you out, but you will get to know the area better and truly explore every side canyon.
This means not only bringing enough food and a first aid kit, but also the knowledge of what to do should things go awry.
Travel with a good pal, a significant other, your loyal canine companion, or all three.
Bring some good books, a drawing pad and camera. Capture the essence of the desert.
Multi-sport: hiking, biking, backpacking, yoga and playing fetch with your dog are all desert-compatible activities.
Finally, in the spirit of Edward Abbey, the foremost proponent of offthe-map jaunts, make certain that most of your time is spent outside the confines of your automobile. Although driving through Canyonlands National Park or Arches National Park provides a snapshot view of some spectacular scenery, the real beauty lies beyond, hidden in the labyrinthine canyons accessible only by the most primitive form of travel: your feet.