Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Lathrop Trail, False Kiva and Murphy Point - Canyonlands NP

Canyonlands National Park near Moab, Utah is one of my most favorite places in the world. It may be my favorite national park, and it definitely is my favorite of the parks in Utah (with Zion being a very close 2nd). I've taken a total of  seven trips to Canyonlands since I started hiking in Colorado and beyond. Each trip has had a different itinerary involving a unique series of locations, trails, and camping experiences and each  of those adventures delivered challenges and moments of exhilaration.

Elephant Canyon in the Needles district
For me there is something special about Canyonlands that seems to guarantee a good, or at least memorable experience each time. I think it has to do with the vastness and silence of the park. There is a haunting energy to places like Canyonlands, where instead of huge mountains thrust up into the sky, you are surrounded by gaping voids of space - places where so much earth has been lost. 
looking down at the White Rim from Murphy Point
Of all the natural landscapes that I have visited on earth, my favorite places are deserts and river gorges. Deserts have a stillness and purity that appeals to me, but the most dramatic natural beauty that I have seen are in the vast canyons scoured out by thousands and millions of years of flowing water. The great rivers and gorges of the West have created the most spectacular and popular landscapes in America, including Canyonlands, Dinosaur, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Zion, and Grand Canyon national parks. The Colorado River is responsible for carving out the Grand Canyon, and Canyonlands.

overlooking the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers
Last March my coworker Chris and I set off for a weekend adventure in Canyonlands. We drove in at nigh time and camped at the Hittle Bottom campground on Hwy 128. The scenic byway that runs along the Colorado River into Moab is one of my favorite roads on earth. The Wingate sandstone cliffs that form the walls of the Colorado River gorge are astonishing and shine in the dawn light. I think camping at one of the many campsites along the river on Hwy 128 (prior to entering Castle Valley), and then driving into Moab in the morning is a great way to show new people the area, especially if you drive over from Denver and arrive in Utah at night.
Colorado River along Hwy 128
Most of the road parallels the river but one section goes through a huge valley of dark red and brown sandstone mesas and ridges that rise up on all sides like enormous ziggurats.  This valley, which holds the tiny community of Castle Valley, looks amazing in the bright sunlight, but looks otherworldly and ethereal in rainy or foggy conditions. Every time I pass through it I feel a strange kind of deja vu that I can only describe as "cosmic home". 

The first day we hiked the Lathrop Trail from the top of Island in the Sky down to the Colorado River nearly 11 miles and 1,865 feet below. Here's my hiking journal entry:

17 March 2015

This past weekend from Thursday night to Monday morning, Chris and I went camping in Canyonlands. Thursday (12th) night Chris drove us to the area outside Moab where we camped in a nice little campground on the Colorado River called Hittle Bottom. In the morning we continued on towards Moab. It is one of my favorite experiences to ride shotgun through Castle Valley on a bright spring day, feeling free and full of hope for the coming adventure. 

We drove through Moab, stopping to eat and get brats, and continued on to Island in the Sky to get our backcountry permit. We drove to the roadside trailhead for the Lathrop Canyon hike and cooked a quick breakfast of brats and an MSR meal while packing our backpacks up with everything we would need for the evening and return hike the next day. My pack felt heavy but definitely lighter than last season and definitely manageable. 

We hiked across a vast meadow of rice grass and cacti, the La Sal Mountains framing the horizon to the Northeast. Soon Lathrop Canyon came into view and far down below we could see the Colorado River, like a glassy tongue laying at the bottom of a red, gaping maw. We got to the rim and dropped down below to a shelf that led us around the pointed rim of Island in the Sky to a side canyon of bright tan and white sandstone. The canyon was like a giant, dry water slide filled with brittle rocks and yucca plants, sloping steeply to the dry wash and the White Rim below. 

We made our way from the huge alcove just below the rim of Island in the Sky, down some brutal switchbacks to a darker, brownish red shelf at the bottom of the boiling hot and bright sandstone dry wash. We then continued down off the shelf into a sandy wash that emptied out on the White Rim road, about 6 miles from our car at the trailhead. The views from the rim to the White Rim road were stunning, and some of the best I’ve ever seen in Canyonlands.

the White Rim and Lathrop Canyon Below
We rested, ate a little food, and then took Lathrop Canyon Road down below the White Rim to the deep, maroon layers of some ancient, muddy sandstone before getting to the flat, sandy wash that leads to the picnic area at the Colorado River. After a long, hot day of knee-breaking hiking we were ready to set up camp, eat, and watch the stars come out. Up river completely cliffed out behind a huge thicket of tamarisk, and down river was just huge chunks of muddy sandstone. We had no choice but to camp at the picnic area, or go back up the wash and try to find a camp on one of the sandy, yucca filled patches of cryptobiological crusts. The stars were beautiful and bright, and I used my Star Guide app to identify them and learn about the brightest stars I could see.

the Colorado River
In the morning we cooked our food with the murky waters of the Colorado River and in the chilly air of the morning, we packed up camp and headed back up the sandy wash towards the White Rim. The Airport Tower loomed in the distance, marking the general area where we would climb back above the White Rim. We actually made pretty remarkable time, reaching the White Rim road, 4 miles from the river, in under an hour and a half. We rested briefly, put on sunblock, ate an energy boost gel thing, and headed back up the red and brown wash, filled with broken shards of petrified beach sands, the ripples frozen in time.

After another hour we had paused to check out a couple mines (Chris did, I stayed on the trail asking him if it was worth the walk), then moved on up the shelves along the canyon wall before arriving back at the bottom of the glowing, white hot sandstone chute that formed the switchbacks out of the canyon. The climb up was daunting but I took it slow and after another half hour, I had climbed back up to the highest shelf below the rim of Island in the Sky.

We made our way back up onto the rim and slowly crossed back over the vast meadow of Grey’s Pasture, our legs threatening to give out with each step. It felt like a miracle to get back to the car where I collapsed into the passenger side seat. Total hiked over the two days in Lathrop Canyon was about 22 miles, hiked in a total of around 8 hours. Also, this is the first hike tracked with my new D-Tour GPS device.

We were exhausted but felt supremely accomplished. We knew we couldn’t hike down to our intended backcountry site back down on the White Rim road at the Gooseberry site, so we checked around for places to camp. We ended up going all the way back to the campground at Hittle Bottom where we got the last spot, and had a nice dinner of fire grilled brats, cheese, “beef stew”, “beef stroganoff”, pop tarts, peanut M&Ms, and beer. We also saw an adorable, tiny little ground owl just standing on a fence post like something from a Miyazaki movie. We had a campfire and I stayed up later than Chris to look at the stars blazing in the Milky Way. The following morning (14th) we awoke, packed up camp and left Hittle Bottom for Moab. We ate breakfast, and headed to Arches natl park so Chris could say he had been there. We did the short yet strenuous Delicate Arch hike. It was pretty cool but waaaaaay too many people. 

After that we drove out to Upheaval Dome and after a bit of searching, we found the unmarked, kind of secret trail to the “class II archaeological site”, the False Kiva. It was an easy hike across the mesa-top to the rim but then we dropped sharply down into a small canyon towards a huge alcove that looks out on the Candlestick rock formation. After scaling the cliff-face for a couple hundred feet, a
steep scramble up some chalky scree brings you to the deep alcove that holds the False Kiva. It was bigger than I thought and I was thrilled to be there alone (with Chris) and the amazing and iconic view. I got a few pictures of me standing in the center of the rock ring before signing the visitors register and beginning the hike back to the car.
the False Kiva, with the Candlestick in the background
An hour later we arrived back at our car, sweaty and aching, but thrilled to have accomplished one of our main mission objectives for the trip; what we called the Secret Level (I like to pretend I'm in a video game when I'm hiking). Total was about 1.6 miles in under 2 hours. From there we went to Murphy Point, hiked out 1.8 miles to the end of the point and made our last camp for the trip. We felt serene but sad to have come to the end of our adventure so soon, but we had accomplished a lot, including tons of great pictures of a beautiful and dramatic landscape, achieving our special goal of the unmarked, unmapped False Kiva, and over 30 miles of hiking in just 3 days. Not bad for our first backpacking trip of the season!
the very tip of Murphy Point on the Island in the Sky

I didn't have my GoPro for that hike but checkout my YouTube channel for some other videos