Canyons and Icons — Rounding out Moab

Our cousins’ departure for Salt Lake left us with a couple more play days in Moab.  As we hadn’t yet seen Canyonlands (National Park), we figured we’d make that drive and hopefully get in a short hike or two. 

Canyonlands’ geography and topography are interesting – the Colorado and Green Rivers flow in from the northeast and northwest, respectively, and meet in the middle of the park, dividing it into three separate areas (four if you count the rivers themselves), none of which you can reach from the others. The Island in the Sky district is the northern third, and is the one reachable from Moab via the main road. From it you can see the other two areas, Needles in the southeast and The Maze to the southwest.  The Maze is especially remote and almost completely comprised of labyrinthine slot canyons.  To reach it, you need to first find, and then take about a 50 mile dirt road which itself can only be accessed from a remote two lane road.  Needless to say, it wasn’t on our agenda, but how cool is that?

 From what I can tell, the prime activity in Canyonlands is off-roading. There is one road that hugs one of the lower shelves of the main canyon all the way around the Island in the Sky. I had driven at least part of it once before in my ill-fated red Jeep, but had forgotten how spectacular that drive was in the interim.  Here’s a stretch of it, to give a sense of the grandeur, as well as the pucker factor.

Though our Toad is all-wheel drive, she’s also pushing 160K miles, is limping to an extent, and needs to last us as long as possible, given all the aftermarket modifications we poured into her in order to make her towable. Consequently I opted not even to broach the idea of doing any off-roading there.  Tacco’s vertigo may have played into that call as well. Maybe. 

After a brief stop at the ranger station and a short walk to the rim of the canyon, we drove south toward the Confluence, where the Colorado and Green meet to become the Colorado alone.  The kids, and Woodsprite in particular, were a bit hiked out by this point, particularly given the sustained heat, so we gave them a break and promised just a short walk or two – just enough to qualify them for their Junior Ranger badges. 

Both girls, but Firebolt especially, have consistently impressed us with their retention of the knowledge gained in the completion of their Junior Ranger booklets.  One of the tasks in Canyonlands’ version involved flora identification, and Firebolt pranced from tree to shrub to cactus, pointing out to us things like the distinctive cones on the pinyon tree (whose version of pine nuts were eaten by the area’s early residents).  She has become a treasure trove of both biome-specific factoids and parkland conservation best practices, having on multiple occasions scolded various family members (*cough* me *cough*) for minor infractions, like picking up rocks… “Imagine if every visitor did that, Dad!”  At the beginning of our trip we weren’t sure how well the Junior Ranger programs would supplement their educations, but I now think it’s been valuable, and that much of it will stick.

After making it almost as far south as we could and checking out views of the Needles district from various vantage points, we turned around and headed for the Mesa Arch trailhead.

Mesa Arch is one of Canyonlands’ most iconic views, and is unique in the fact that you hike to the top of it rather than the bottom.  When you reach it, it looks relatively small, but then you realize that you’re at the cliff’s edge (a very common occurrence in Canyonlands) and are looking through essentially just the top tenth of the arch, which is anchored several hundred feet below you.  You’re not allowed to climb onto the arch itself, and for good reason, but you can get right up to the edge.

Our Canyonlands visit complete, there was really only one other can’t miss activity in Moab.  I’ve mentioned in previous posts my desire to transfer some of my love for mountain biking onto the kids, and particularly Keeper at the moment, now that he’s old enough to start getting onto some serious trails.  While I have certainly had some success therein, up to now we really hadn’t had access, or at least easy access, to any world class trails.  Moab, however, is flush with them.  They’re far from easy, though, and it became clear to me after riding Keeper’s (my old) bike that putting him on Moab trails on that bike would turn him off to biking at best and get him seriously hurt at worst.  So I hatched a plan to rent a serious bike for him and set about attempting to get him psyched up for a ride with me. 

The logistics proved more tricky than I had anticipated due to the opening hours of the bike shops and all of our commitments while in Moab, but I had let Tacco know of my intentions before we arrived, and with her help was able to carve out time on the last morning to go ride, on a bike which we had rented the evening before.  My plan was to ride the Slickrock trail, which is one of the most iconic trails in mountain biking.  It’s a loop trail east of town, and is unique in that it’s almost entirely ridden on slickrock itself, via a path that’s designated by white arrows painted onto the rock. 

The one other time I had visited Moab, I didn’t make the opportunity to bike at all, let alone Slickrock, which, to be honest, intimidated me a bit at the time. It’s billed as an advanced trail, and at the time I had only a couple years of mountain biking under my belt, none of it especially technical.  Which brings me to the question of the wisdom of subjecting Keeper to it, on a rental bike no less.  Frankly I wasn’t sure.  He just hasn’t biked that much.  But I wasn’t about to let this opportunity pass,and told him as much.  I think my exact words to him were “I’ve been waiting over twenty years to ride this trail – I can’t tell you how excited I am to be doing it with you.”

We got his bike the night prior to the ride at the Poison Spider bike shop, which was beyond awesome.  One of their employees had helped me a few days earlier with a tire issue I was having, and spent at least a half hour fixing the problem, and then when ringing me up shocked me with a grand total of $5.  These are clearly people who are all about love of the sport and want nothing more than to get people (and themselves) onto the trails.  The rental itself wasn’t cheap, but Keeper had a high end bike – they didn’t offer anything that wasn’t –and it was worth it.  Having never ridden a full suspension bike with disc brakes, we decided that we’d be best served by doing a short practice ride up the river at sunset.  Stunning, as expected.

We awoke early the next morning to head up to the trail before the heat settled in, and were surprised to find the parking lot empty.  My initial thought was “oh jeez – it’s closed! I picked the one day where they closed the Slickrock Trail!”  But we quickly discovered the improbable fact that we were just early, and had the entire place to ourselves.  Wow. Wow! 

 Through the gate and onto the sandstone we rode, and Keeper killed it. Just killed it.  I was so thrilled to watch him make his way through the rakishly angled paths up and over and down and across the rocks, that I almost forgot how thrilled I was to be doing it myself.  Slickrock!  With my son! Just the two of us, tearing up one of the most famous trails in the world!

It was a spectacular morning.

What’s more, and better, he seemed to catch the bug.  I suspect my enthusiasm was a bit infectious and he got caught up in it, but he told me afterwards that this was a definite highlight of our flush-with-highlights trip. 

I could’ve ridden all day,but of course we had places to be, and the heat set in, and the crowds began to filter in as well.  Better to seal the experience into memory and head back, with a few more pics to make my mountain biking friends jealous. 

We returned to the RV park still breathless and exhilarated, and tried to explain to the girls how much fun we’d had.  Someday I hope to do it again with them.

For now, though, goodbye to Moab and eastern Utah adventures, and off to Park City, where we plan to take another look at Bend’s most formidable competitor, spend the 4th of July, and fly a work trip (that part’s just me).

 Everyone seems to be in a groove.  No talk in quite some time of “missing” anything or wanting anything we don’t have, and still the majority of a summer ahead of us.  It’s a great place to be.  We do still have a huge decision to make,with Plans Sun and Moon looming and scads of uncertainty staring us in the face, but for now… we’re good!      

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