After toughing out snow on I70-West from Denver and weaving our way through canyons and mountain passes alike, Eric and I arrived in Utah for what we considered the highlight of our American West adventure –
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park is divided into 4 districts: Island In The Sky, The Maze, The Needles, and The Rivers (Colorado & Green Rivers). There are no roads directly connecting any of the 4 districts, so a trip to each feels a bit like a different park experience all together. The most accessible district is Island In The Sky which is roughly 40 miles from Moab, Utah and first on our itinerary.
We headed straight for Island In The Sky, specifically Willow Flat Campground, in order to secure one of 12 first-come, first-serve campsites. Arriving around 2PM, we scored the very last campsite and within minutes of paying we saw many other cars and RVs circling the campground looking for spots. Checkout for campers is at 10AM, so if you are looking to snag a site in high season (March-June or September-October), get there early to get a spot. I knew we were pushing it at 2PM, so we certainly got lucky with a great site. These drive-in sites each come equipped with a nice fire pit, covered shelter, a picnic table, and your typical flush-less National Park portapotties are around the grounds. The only thing it doesn’t have is water, so be sure to stock up at the visitor center’s tap – nice, tasteless, cool water!
After participating in what I affectionately refer to as “making settlement”, Eric and I walked a quarter-mile down the road to the Green River Overlook adjacent to Willow Flat Campground. The views from this overlook were absolutely outstanding, especially if you have never been to a place like the Grand Canyon.
The vastness and contours of the land are simply incredible in a way that is not only difficult to articulate, but on a scale that is difficult to correctly measure. It at once feels like one of the most massive expanses, while also like a raised-relief globe that you can nearly reach out and run your hand over. While viewing the canyon alongside strangers, there was an fitting silence only interrupted by faint whispers of comments on its beauty. Its adjacency to Willow Flat lends itself to multiple visits – we walked to this overlook a total of three times (once more for sunset and sunrise) – it’s very accessible and great to experience the sunrise as only a camper at Willow Flat can.
Next, we headed up to Mesa Arch in late afternoon. Just a short 0.5 mile loop off the road is the famed Mesa Arch overlooking Schafer Canyon, which somehow we had all to ourselves. On the walk to the arch, Eric told me not to climb it, because one wrong move would take you along a sheer and definitely deadly drop into the canyon. I’m not sure if any recent deaths can be confirmed, but he had me convinced that climbing up wasn’t a great idea.
After turning around from snapping a few photos – I found Eric on top of Mesa Arch, now convincing me that I should climb up so he could take at least one picture of me.
Contemplating death and leaving Eric as a widower stirred up some fear in my heart, so I wasn’t above doing that strange hugging crawl one might do when climbing out on dangerous rock formations, if need be. Needless to say, just like a father who might put a proper fear in you, Eric gave me a dose of reverence and respect for this piece of nature.
Many of the roads in Island In The Sky were created when the U.S. Government was on the hunt for uranium in the 1960s.I don’t know if there is much to thank the world for in mining uranium, but some mountain bike trails and 4×4 roads in and around the Island In The Sky District (primarily White Rim Road, pictured beyond Eric) might be one redeemable quality.
After Mesa Arch and Schafer Overlook, we returned to Willow Flat and got a chance to try out our new Soto WindMaster stove, in appropriately breezy conditions. It is a killer stove – super light (2.3 oz) and super easy with added flame control; I believe it will transform all of my camping and backpacking trips to come. We tried it with our first Backpackers Pantry meal of Lousiana Beans and Rice and I was quite pleased.
After watching the sunset at Green River Overlook, I got my first taste of how suddenly cold the desert becomes when the sun sets. You always hear of how chilly things can get at night, but experiencing the sudden sap of warmth (and hope and joy and promise of a cozy night’s sleep) with the setting of the sun was surprising. Our first night there was pretty cold with light winds and lows around freezing – lows that I learned my old synthetic sleeping bag can no longer handle…
1) If you plan to camp, arrive early to secure a campsite. Assuming you aren’t traveling in the hellish summer heat, you’ll want to be sure to get a spot early in the day. When we called at 11AM, there were 10 of 12 spots available. When we arrived at Willow Flat at 2PM, we got the very last spot.
2) If you can be so particular like some ancient, tribal chieftain, plan your trip around the moon’s phases and go when it’s a new moon – my glimpse of the stars when the moon had set at the time of my early morning pee rivaled some of the best night skies I’ve seen the world over.
3) Know where the sun is in relation to what you are viewing. If you’re there for the countless photo opportunities a place like Canyonlands’ Island In The Sky offers, get your bearings straight for how the sun will be while snapping pics. The view of Mesa Arch faces east – go at dawn for an iconic sunrise, Green River Overlook faces South – great for sunrise or sunset.
4) Fill up on water and gas. Make sure you’ve got enough of both of these, Moab is 40+ miles away from Willow Flat so don’t push it. There is literally nothing around if you get stranded… and remember when I said the desert gets cold?