Falling For Utah: Hiking and Rafting in Canyonlands National Park
When I was 17-years-old, I packed up my parent’s minivan and headed west with three girlfriends, determined to see what was beyond Wisconsin.
We found our way through the National Park icons like Yellowstone and Yosemite and eventually made our way to Utah. To this day, Zion still holds a special place in my heart. And by the end of that 2-week road trip, I had fallen in love with Utah. But life takes you in many directions and eventually Utah, with its red rocks, meandering rivers and deep canyons, fell to the back of my mind.
Fast forward a few years (too many to share) 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’m a Californian now, but I just fell in love with Utah 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 the rafting and hiking and hooked up with OARS, which promised both in one trip. I was excited about rafting 96 miles of the Colorado River and accessing remote trails along the way, typically hard to reach by any other means.
The trip began with our guides rowing the group, 23 of us all together, through peaceful Meander Canyon, rich with geological features that make you scratch your head in wonder. Early on we passed into Canyonlands National Park, but Cataract Canyon doesn’t officially start until 50 miles into the trip. Having already heard about some of the hikes that lay ahead, I was eager to get further down the river.
At lunch on the second day, we reached Lathrop Ruins, our first hike. A 15-minute jaunt through the bright green, weedy Tamarisk trees lead to Anasazi ruins, including pictographs and an abandoned granary, which an ancient community 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. We all had our fingers crossed for plan A and were thrilled when the guides came back and shouted, “Winning!” — our motto for the rest of the trip. We were now set up perfectly to hike the Doll House, as well as Dark Canyon.
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 Class III-IV rapids.
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 Anasazi granary to discover, and an area called the Refrigerator that offers a slot canyon experience with relief from the heat.
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 Big Drop I, II and III.
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 hasn’t been accessible for at least eight years due to low water levels and impassable debris.
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 boat 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 gotten a chance to see any of this yet— to fall in love with Utah.
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