A Love Letter to Canyonlands National Park

When I was 17-years-old, I packed up my parents’ minivan and headed west with three girlfriends, determined to see what was beyond my home state of Wisconsin.

We found our way through national park icons like Yellowstone and Yosemite, and eventually made our way to three of Utah’s Mighty Five—Zion, Bryce and Capitol Reef. By the end of that 2-week road trip, one thing was certain, I had fallen in love with Utah. But like an old flame, the red rock state, with its meandering rivers, deep canyons and mind-boggling rock formations, slowly slipped away from my thoughts.

A Love Letter to Canyonlands National Park

Second Encounter: Rafting & Hiking in Canyonlands National Park

Fast forward nearly a decade, and I’m back, flying over the Colorado River in a six-seater Cessna, staring down at Canyonlands National Park and Cataract Canyon where I’ve just spent the last week exploring. I think I spot the entrance to Dark Canyon and make out what has to be Big Drop II. I see the Doll House to my left and the stretch of river that was bypassed when we hopped on land to hike the Loop. I’m smiling. I just fell in love with Utah (this time in Canyonlands) all over again.

A week earlier I had arrived in Moab, a Mecca for all things outdoorsy, in the southeastern corner of the state. I came specifically for a Cataract Canyon rafting trip, a 96-mile, multi-day adventure down the Colorado River, which promised exciting whitewater, epic hiking and back door access to some of the most remote areas of Canyonlands.

Best of the West: Cataract Canyon rating trip

The trip began with our guides rowing the group—23 of us from all walks of life—through peaceful Meander Canyon and into Canyonlands National Park. Lazily drifting downstream, the first day provided a chance to soak up the enormity of the landscape and unwind from the daily stresses of life that we left behind at the put-in. As we ventured toward Cataract Canyon, I had my sights set on hiking and this trip wouldn’t disappoint.

The Hikes

At lunch on the second day, we reached Lathrop Ruins, our first side hike. A 15-minute jaunt through the bright green, weedy Tamarisk trees lead to ancient sites, including pictographs and an abandoned granary, which the Pueblo people who first inhabited the area created to store their surplus of crops and grains.

Day three began with the Loop hike, an approximately one-mile, moderate trail that goes straight up about 500 feet with great views at the top, then straight down with some tricky foot maneuvering. While we hiked, the boats kept rowing to pick us up on the other side. We bypassed four miles of the river, but it was well worth it for the chance to peer down into the layered canyon walls we were living among for the week.

We then headed off to the confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers where you reach a sign-in box for groups to write-in the various camps they’ll be staying at throughout the trip. Sign-up is voluntary, but also an unspoken rule of the river, according to the guides. We were all stoked when our Plan A was confirmed, which meant we’d be set up perfectly to hike the Doll House, as well as Dark Canyon, the following days.

Day four was going to be epic. Not only were we hiking the six-mile Doll House trail into the remote Maze District of Canyonlands, we were also running a good chunk of the trip’s free-flowing Class III-IV whitewater.

A Love Letter to Canyonlands National Park

About half of us woke up early to beat the heat and take on the grueling 1,300-foot ascent that takes you to the playful rock formations that make up the Doll House. After a 45-minute Stairmaster climb you get to the top, and are rewarded with an awe-inspiring, 360-degree panoramic view. In one direction sits the colorful spires of the Needles and Island in the Sky Districts of Canyonlands. There’s an ancient Puebloan granary to discover, and an area called the Refrigerator that offers a slot canyon experience with relief from the heat.

The Big Drops

We could have spent the entire day up there, but after an hour of exploring we had to get back for lunch and gear up for the rapids ahead, including some big plunges, literally called the Big Drops.

The following day brought more rapids, which I took on in a ducky after successfully kayaking the first day’s rapids. Lower Imperial got the best of me and my paddle partner and we took our first official “swim.” Luckily, we made it through laughing and unscathed. But I wasn’t as excited about the rapids on day five as I was about Dark Canyon, a hike that the guides said hadn’t been accessible for more than five seasons due to low water levels and impassable debris.

Dark Canyon in Canyonlands National Park

On a perfect day Dark Canyon offers approximately two miles (or more if you’re adventurous) of hiking and bouldering between its steep, narrow red walls alongside a pristine stream. When we arrived to clay-red water it was obvious a flash flood had come through the day before. Nonetheless, we took advantage of the many swim holes, waterfalls and prime cliff-jumping spots that are hidden away in this remote paradise. It was a magic moment to be wandering among canyon walls that glowed like a flame and towered 3,000 feet above you. The wait had been worth it.

As we pulled up to the take out the next day a sadness came over me like I was saying good bye to an old friend. Planes arrived to take us out of the canyon and, as we flew over the Colorado River back to Moab, I couldn’t help but think about all the people out there who haven’t had the chance to see anything like this before—to experience the awe of Utah and fall in love with places like Canyonlands. Maybe this will inspire them to go.

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