Huh? We dutifully followed the cairns across the slick rock, arriving at a place where they seemingly stopped. And then the trail went cold. There is nothing but a small slit between the rocks into darkness.
First we climbed up to the top of the dome shaped rock, certain the cairns led over the top. No cairns there.
Then we saw what looked like a trail down below. We scrambled through some juniper bushes down to a ledge, but again we are foiled. The so-called “trail” was just a narrow wash leading nowhere.
Finally we went back to the intersection, examining the signs, then the map. There it is, clear as day. “Elephant Canyon” with an arrow pointing to the right, just where the cairns are neatly piled about 20 feet apart from each other.
And yet, after following about ten of them, the trail seemed to disappear.
“What about your GPS?” I asked of Bryon. “Does that show where the trail goes?”
As we stood at the last cairn, Bryon said, “It shows the trail goes right through here. We are on it.”
Then, he looks again into the small slit, and creeps down in there, disappearing into the blackness. It is barely wide enough for him to get his body into, even without his pack.
“Be careful!” I yell out.
“Oh my God!”
“What, what do you see?”
“The trail does go through here! There is another cairn and it comes out the other side.”
Holy shit! Never in a million years, did I think the trail would lead through a crack in the rocks, creeping along a log in the darkness. It appears to only two feet wide in places. I don’t know how we will get our big backpacks through there.
I gingerly set out, placing my feet ever so carefully upon the logs above the joint. My backpack catches as I try to squeeze through between the giant pieces of sandstone on either side.
“You’re going to have to help me. Can you shove up on the bottom of my pack to get it through this tight place?”
Bryon shoves and I eventually pop through, the cordura fabric of the pack scraping the walls. I eventually come to a drop off of about 20 feet. Shit, how am I going to get down this?
Then I spy a “ladder” if you could call it that. It’s a log about six inches wide with small step holds carved out making a place to put your feet as you step down the log. I clutch the side of the wall with one hand to balance me as slowly step down.
Finally, we are both down, and I am blow away by what I see. Vast red and orange towers encircle me, and I am in a bowl, a sandstone cirque that we walk along the edges of, following the cairns yet again.
How will we get out of this bowl? There doesn’t look to be any easy way as the walls of the bowl appear to go straight up.
“Wonder if there’s going to be another crack to go through?” I joke to Bryon.
But no, this time, it’s not a crack, but a ladder. A metal ladder set up against the steep wall of the bowl at a place where it slightly dips — sort of like a mountain pass, but all wavy.
This is a new one for me on a backpack. I have never climbed ladders with a full backpack on, 35 pounds of weight dragging on my shoulders as I carefully grab the metal rungs, my hand finally reaching the gritty, sandpapered rock.
I don’t see any cairns, but walk straight ahead, and there it is. Another ladder, this one twice as tall, leading down from the wavy dip.
Backpacking in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park includes this and many more adventures. If you decide to take advantage of its many “trails” and campsites, be prepared to think outside the box when it comes to route-finding. And keep an eye out for the stacks of rocks or cairns that will be your only savior from getting impossibly lost. But you will be amply rewarded by breathtaking views of red rock towers, canyons, and bowls.
During our three days, we climbed ladders, squeezed through joints in the rocks, and scrambled up ledges and along rims. Druid Arch is a particularly memorable hike walking up a wash, scrambling nearly vertically up the sandstone rocks, arriving near the base of a dramatic arch. The view looking back down Elephant Canyon provides a dramatic panorama of walls and spires.
One of the other “atttractions” not to be missed is The Joint Trail, a slit in the rocks barely wide enough to fit a human being walking through it, with walls on either side towering 40-50 feet above you. As you walk through the sand, a tiny slice of sun barely illuminates the crack you find yourself in.
As we finished our last day, I chuckled over our initial befuddlement the first day, not realizing the trail went through the crack. Because as I quickly realized after that, if there is a crack available to go through, the trails seemed to dip down below, going into the darkness.
For those who haven’t had their fill of backpacking all summer long, now is the perfect time to explore canyon country. Temperatures are a much more modest 60-70 degrees, with cool nights.
You’ll still have to carry lots of water, but the night skies, breathtaking canyon views will lead to an adventure that you will long remember.