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Backpacking in Canyon Country

Updated: Jul 20, 2022

I'll never forget the look in Angie's eyes as we raced out across the Colorado Plateau. In fact, they were tears - tears of joy and gratitude. She had never before in her life seen such spectacular country and she thought of her family back in the Philippines who could only dream of such a moonscape setting. We were beyond lucky to experience such stark beauty firsthand. We were on our way to Canyonlands National Park where we would check in at the Visitor's Center in the Island in the Sky District, purchase an overnight backpacking permit, and head down into the depths of Taylor Canyon. Despite a biting chill in the air and ominous clouds on the horizon, our spirits were high as we set off into the wilderness.

The Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park backed by the La Sal mountains

We were recommended the Taylor Canyon route, which we attempted in a counter-clockwise direction, starting down the Alcove Spring Trail and returning through the Upheaval Canyon

Setting off down the Alcove Spring Trail in the Island in the Sky District

This was only our second backpacking trip together and the newfound otherworldly environment invigorated us. The steep sedimentary canyon walls gave way to moderately sloping talus slopes, where the loose rock had collected after falling from above. In the canyon's bottom, we followed cairns past high desert scrub plants like mormon tea (Ephedra viridis), blackbrush (Coleogyne rammosicima), and rubber rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus). As we descended deeper into the canyon, the silence grew deafening and I began to notice a constant ringing in my ears - likely from the urban sounds I had grown unconsciously accustomed to living in downtown Denver.

The high desert landscape of Canyonlands. The most predominant shrub seen here is rubber rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus)

Mormon tea (Ephedra viridis). The antidepressant and decongestant drug ephedrine is made from this and other Ephedra species

We watched the shadows of the setting sun dance across the canyon walls as we followed the trail along a dry river basin. As Angie led the way, I pointed out plains prickly-pear cacti (Opuntia polyacantha) and claret cup cacti (Echinocereus triglochidoatus) and warned her to watch her step.

Plains prickly-pear (Opuntia polyacantha)

Claret cup cactus (Echinocereus triglochidoatus)

To think that the canyon walls around us were a vast layered cake of sedimentary rock deposited hundreds of millions of years ago in some cretaceous ocean boggled our minds. These sedimentary rocks were heaved upwards around 20 million years ago in the same tectonic events that formed the Rocky Mountains and then eroded by rivers, rainfall, and wind. The uplift formed the Colorado Plateau, a network of tablelands in a basin surrounded by high mountains. Ever since then, the Colorado and Green rivers have been carving their way through the sandstone, etching out the spectacular landscape we see today. The diversity of rock formations in the park is astounding. In addition to vertical and stair-case-like canyon walls, spires, balancing rocks, and natural rock arches abound.

The view of Canyonlands National Park at the Green River Overlook in the Island in the Sky

We gave ourselves until 7:30 pm to hike, whereupon we set up camp on a muddy hillock mid-canyon. The wilderness felt vast and empty, but an air of calm and tranquility welcomed both of us. We prepared dinner in the rapidly cooling evening air and as we took our first bite it began to rain.

We quickly retreated to the tent with our food and felt thankful for our sleeping bags and warm food in our belly. It was a surprisingly cold night, with temperatures reaching into the low 30s and a cold, nagging rain.

The repeated phrases of a Rock Wren (Salpinctes obsoletus) were the only sounds we heard in the morning. We could not even detect the sound of wind or running water. We felt as if we had landed in some bizarre void, apart from all of civilization - a universe of its own.

Morning light at our backcountry campsite in the Trail Canyon, a tributary canyon of Taylor Canyon

It took a long time to warm up in the morning. This hot coffee helped

We packed up camp and set out on what would turn out to be a 15 mile hike. Most of the hike was along flat, sandy river bottoms, so we didn't start to feel affected until about the tenth mile mark. Our backpacks weighed 30 - 40 pounds a piece, and by no means had we adequately trained. Our hike continued through Trail canyon and along the Big Draw until we were greeted by the spires of Moses and Zeus at a beautiful confluence.

The confluence of Trail and Taylor canyons. The Moses and Zeus spires are on the right

Moses and Zeus spires at the confluence of Trail and Taylor Canyons

To the north, the canyon wall had crumbled into a massive scree field and there was no telling when the next giant chunk of rock was to give way. Angie noticed a white-tailed antelope squirrel (Ammospermophilus leucurus) scramble into the rocks and she pointed out what could have been a fun campsite: a giant boulder to shelter us from the rain.

We followed a road along Taylor Canyon for 6 miles to the Green River, where giant Fremont cottonwoods (Populus fremontii) and their grim naked branches peppered the riparian landscape. Here, we noticed a frenzy of bird life and stopped to admire the playful bursts of dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis), house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus), western bluebirds (Sialia mexicana), and a sole ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) hopping up the branches of a tamarisk (Tamarix spp.) shrub. We noticed an abundance of tamarisk choking the river here. This is a problematic invasive species in many parts of the park.

We took a short break and before we knew it, it began to hail.

Next, we set off on a trail to Upheaval Dome, erroneously thinking we didn't have much farther to go. The trail dissipated to nothing often and sometimes we felt as if we were walking in circles looking for the next cairn to guide our way.

If it weren't for cairns like this one, we would have had a very difficult time route-finding

The next four miles led us through many dry river beds and sandy, mildly sloping terrain until we got to the base of Upheaval Dome. There, the canyon narrowed and the raucous calls of common ravens (Corvus corax) echoed among the rocks.

There are two hypotheses as to how Upheaval Dome formed. The first is the salt dome hypothesis. This hypothesis suggests that a thick layer of salt forced its way to the surface over millions of years and eroded the surrounding rock. The second is the impact crater hypothesis. This hypothesis suggests that roughly 60 million years ago, a meteor with the diameter of one-third of a mile hit the area. Since then, the rocks under the impacted area heaved upward to fill the void, and the erosion that has taken place has left a strange rock formation. Recent findings support the impact crater hypothesis, but the story of how Upheaval Dome was really formed still remains a mystery.

A day and a half had gone by and we had not seen another human being. The solitude filled our souls and rejuvenated our spirit. However, physically, Angie and I were both hobbling around and feeling the frail feebleness of an elderly couple. All we could think about was getting back to the car and how necessary a soak in our hotel's hot tub would be. We made it back to the parking lot to find out that our car was another mile away up the paved road. We had made it this far. What was another mile?

As the sun set, we rounded a bend and our car came into focus. A flock of pinyon jays (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus) flew across the road and landed in a copse of Utah juniper (Juniperus osteosperma). A life lister! It was too bad we were too tired to care. It seemed as if the jays were laughing at us - mocking our frankenstein shuffles. I laughed to myself, thinking, this would have been a hell of a lot easier if we had wings.

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