With one full day of hiking under my belt without any left knee pain, I am giddy and ready to go for the gold in eastern Utah! Prior to our hike, I’ll do my hammy stretches, take my Tylenol, and slip on my compression sleeve – a dream threesome of preparation.
Hannah and I have history with Canyonlands National Park. In 1993, with our kids, Will (9), Robyn (11), and Molly (13), we drove cross country from Maine throughout the American West: putting up two tents each night (a tent for Hannah and me and one for the kids), we learned the inexpensive joy of hiking and Coleman stove cuisine.
Camping at Devils Garden Campground in the Arches National Park, we five took a side trip to Canyonlands National Park, hiked some forgettable mountainside of stone, and left without the Canyonlands making much of an impression on us.
Let’s be real, we didn’t give Canyonlands a fair shake. Today we are back to right that wrong; to make up for that dismissive disregard of this treasure of trails.
Think of the Canyonlands as the little brother Seth Curry, a successful pro in his own right for the Dallas Mavericks, but dwarfed by his two-time MVP, NBA champion rock star brother, Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors. Though Canyonlands plays second fiddle, let me tell you, it’s a helluva stringed instrument on its own. It is a national park on a modest scale, without the delays, long lines, and circus feel that comes with the Arches; its distinctive trails across stony landscapes rock the senses. (You saw what I did there, right?)
Arriving at the visitor center at Canyonlands, at 930A we meet a less than enthused ranger. (Come on honey, fake it till you make it. I get that you are probably recommending the same %#&*# hiking trails hour after hour, day after day; but choosing to be Debbie Downer? – how is that working for you?). Despite her sullen demeanor, she does steer us to three of the park’s signature hikes.
By the way, Hannah buys post cards afterward and they ask her if she would like to round up her purchase to the next dollar as a donation to the park. How cool is that! So, a sweet $0.83 goes to support what Ken Burns calls our National Parks: America’s Best Idea.
Five miles down the park road, we find a spot at the modest Mesa Arch parking area for 18 cars. At 945A, we have a short and sweet 0.5-mile loop hike out to the arch, bustling with families of preschoolers and foreign guests, often from Europe. At the start of the trail, we see a tube with Mesa Arch brochures for 50 cents each. Come on, who has coins in this day and age! Ah, but the park service is wise beyond its years.
First, no one has coins! Second, the park is encouraging patrons to reach out to fellow hikers and treat one another by buying two brochures for a dollar, then giving one away! Brilliant! So, with my shiny greenback, I look for someone to approach the tube. Within 60 seconds, three folks from North Carolina approach. At this point, I swoop in and say, I have a dollar to pay for your brochure and ours.
And then they do the unexpected. They don’t say, No, no; they don’t say, We couldn’t let you; they say, Thank you. A simple thank you. I love me some Tarheels.
The loop trail to Mesa Arch is well-marked with red stone edges bracketing the trail. Since it is such a short trail, it draws hikers of all shapes and sizes. It begins a trend of great, family-friendly hikes in Canyonlands National Park.
Check out the video.
Jumping back into the car (we can be quite the enthusiastic couple, hence the jumping), we head to the second ranger recommendation; Upheaval Dome Trails #1 and #2, two miles of hiking over red rock trails and massive stone formations. Guided by cairns (i.e., piled rocks directing hikers over stony landscapes), we look out over the Green River here in eastern Utah.
Twenty minutes later on the trail, a woman says, Are you from New York? Seeing my ever-present Ithaca College white shirt, I say, I married a New York girl and our son works at Ithaca College; to which she replies, I work for legal services in Binghamton (NY) and we have an office in Ithaca.
Brighter than many assume, I put two and two together and make the connection that our niece Lauren (married to my brother Richard’s kid, Jon) works for legal services in Binghamton! It turns out Suzanne has worked with Lauren for years.
Cue the Disney music of It’s a Small World After All… The mini-moral of this story is pick your hiking gear appropriately to make the most of chance connections. By the way, I make that sartorial choice of white when hiking because white stands out in pictures in the wilderness.
Hike #3 is not a cranky ranger recommendation, but it’s a winner. A mile down the road from Upheavals 1 and 2, we are taken by the massive Moby Dick stone monolith – the appropriately named Whale Rock. Hiking a short mile round-trip up the spine of the massive stone behemoth, we have another family hike in a family-friendly park.
Weary in the early afternoon, we push on to hike #4, the Grand Dame of Canyonlands, the classic Grandview Point Overlook Trail. With the gray/black storm clouds building across the canyon, Hannah and I have another red sandstone trail over stony outcroppings, guided by cairns.
With the storms moving our way, we wonder if we’ll make the mile out and the mile back before the deluge. Check out this video from Grandview Point showing the enormity and isolation of this area.
Hiking along with Lady Luck today, we make it back to our rented Nissan Altima ten minutes before the rain has her way, this eastern Utah summer afternoon.