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Canyonlands Winter Slickrock Fest

Barefoot Jake jumps skirts the red rock after a pass
Barefoot Jake jumps skirts the red rock after a pass

This is Part 2 on unreal winter dayhikes on Moab. To see Part 1 on hiking to a 17-foot long snake pictograph, click here.

I’m ashamed to say I’ve been to Moab more than a few times, but until this January, never made it out to the epically-sized Canyonlands National Park. This time around, I learned there is a reason: although it is the largest national park in Utah, Canyonlands is the least visited. The park in the winter, I discovered, is a time of extreme seclusion. After miles of seeing no cars, a group of unfazed hikers and I reached the unguarded entrance gate to the park and popped by the closed visitor center (luckily the bathrooms were unlocked!). Lawton ‘Disco’ Grinter, Barefoot Jake, Will Rietveld, Grant Sible, Trinity Ludwig and her friend Erin and I were about to enter 337,598 acres of desert slickrock and have it all to ourselves.

Towers feature many features of weathered rock. Erin gives good perspective on their massiveness.
Towers feature many features of weathered rock. Erin gives good perspective on their massiveness.

Even if I were just a car tourist, the Needles District of Canyonlands is stunning. Multi-colored towers of Cedar Mesa sandstone loom over the roadways. The Needles District has over 60 miles of primitive trails on icy slickrock—but even these were an improvement on our cross country scrambling route in Behind the Rock Wilderness Study Area the previous day. We were stoked to walk on maintained trail for a bit complete with stone stairs and cairns.

I was amazed formations like this could exist surrounded by soft soil and almost a meadow.
I was amazed formations like this could exist surrounded by soft soil and almost a meadow.

 

Our trail took us into open pinyon flats surrounded by turrets of red, brown, and white. After a lunch break at a sunny campsite, we wandered into slickrock ravines and skirted the edge of massive formations of multi-layered sandstone. Often, we would hug overhanging cliffs, posing a challenge to our taller group members.

Grant Sible, with a height of 6’3″ or 4″ , had to duck for parts of this hike
Grant Sible, with a height of 6’3″ or 4″ , had to duck for parts of this hike

Our route passed hidden slot-canyon caves and sometimes required a full body chimney through rock tunnels.

Grant and Barefoot Jake do a bit of chimneying though a narrow cave we tunneled through on our hike.
Grant and Barefoot Jake do a bit of chimneying though a narrow cave we tunneled through on our hike.

We left one valley into another over a pass only accessible by ladder. Soon, the snow-peaked La Salle mountains painted our horizon.

The snow-covered La Salle Mountains seem a world a way from this desert slickrock
The snow-covered La Salle Mountains seem a world a way from this desert slickrock

The sketchiest part of the hike, by far, was sneaking up icy slick rock pour offs. We would gingerly creep up steep slabby sandstone, following the path of frozen-over baby waterfalls. Then would come the mini-roof where we needed to commit our body and our feet to a ledge that we couldn’t see. Last year, a woman died slumping up onto this icy shelf where she slipped and toppled down a hundred feet of slab rock.

Sketchy icy downclimbing on frozen slab upped the adventure factor on any otherwise well-marked hike.
Sketchy icy downclimbing on frozen slab upped the adventure factor on any otherwise well-marked hike.

We ventured over a few more icy slick rock passes. Don’t slip, don’t slip, don’t slip, I told myself. As I carefully heel-toed my way across one of these, my chapstick fell from my pocket, tumbling to the ledge below. I wasn’t about to leave a manmade object in the wilderness, but really would be bummed with myself if I died trying to get some lip balm. I downclimbed an even icier section of steep slab, raising questions from my companions. “I dropped something!” I called out as I gratefully captured my lost treasure, and continued on the slick rock trail.

Trinity stares off into the expanse of desert scenery
Trinity stares off into the expanse of desert scenery

The last part of our trip took us to a wide, sandy wash. During some parts of the year, this gulch must fill with water—in fact, part of our trip along it had us walking on a skating rink of thin ice. Here, we were able to bust out good speed on solid, well marked trail all the way to the Campground parking lot.

The scenery in Canyonlands is very different than Barefoot Jake’s home in Olympic National Park, Washington.
The scenery in Canyonlands is very different than Barefoot Jake’s home in Olympic National Park, Washington.

What struck me the most about the Needles is that so many mindblowing formations could be found in one system of trails. For a relatively well-marked national park path way, I felt technically challenged, scenically gifted, and highly rewarded. I can’t wait to return to this section of the Canyonlands again, hopefully to do a bit of backpacking and exploring more of the amazing features that are out there.

Moab Trip to the Solstice Snake

A secret cross-country route near Moab will lead to this magnificant 17-foot pictograph
A secret cross-country route near Moab will lead to this magnificant 17-foot pictograph

For fair-weathered hikers like myself, finding a sweet winter dayhike relatively free of snow and big on scenery can sometimes be a hard task. This January, instead of making my winter trip to Henry Coe State Park in California, I hit up Moab, Utah. Well known as a mountain-biking and 4-wheeling mecca, it’s the closest town to Arches and Canyonlands National Park and winter weather can be sunny and in the 40s—in essence, perfect conditions for a pack of hooligan hikers to go tromping (in a Leave No Trace kind of way) in the unexplored backcountry.

Trinity and Erin do some stretching
Trinity and Erin do some stretching

We met up with Will Reitveld, a seasoned desert explorer of the Utah wilds who let us in on some of his favorite Moab secrets. After dropping a car at a parking lot at the Hidden Valley Trailhead, we started the hike off a dirt road along the Colorado River. With less than five minutes of uphill walking (a reprieve from the below-freezing temperatures of the morning) and a bit of rock scrambling, we emerged at a wall of 11th-13th century pictograph from the Fremont or Anasazi people (I can’t remember which—can anyone help me here?)

Pictograph of mountain goats or elk
Pictograph of mountain goats or elk

Since this was a relatively big snow year in Moab, much slush and ice remained on our cross country route, adding a bit to the navigational challenge. Our next big trial was downclimbing icy slick rock in a shady canyon.

Trinity downclimbs an icy chute
Trinity downclimbs an icy chute

After crossing a dirt road, we entered the Behind the Rocks Wilderness Study Area above the cliffs of the western crest of Moab Valley. Known for Navajo sandstone domes and being unvegetated (60% of Behind the Rocks has no plants at all!), the navigationally savvy traveler gets 12,635 acres of mazed slot canyons all to herself.

 

A long, slow, uphill through a web of narrow ravines led us to a dead-end: we were at the bottom of a pour off with a 15 foot cliff before us. It was rock climbing time.

 

Time to rope up
Time to rope up

Once we were over the pour-off, we continued to ascend to the pass between domes. Dodging willow branches lodged at the bottom of slot canyons and navigating narrow snow-covered ledges, we emerged at a stunning sunny look-out point—the top of a cliff with a steep drop several hundred feet vertically below us.

As Barefoot Jake artistically strove to take the best shot of the group, he walked on the edge of a cliff. Moving towards the edge, he nonchalantly called: “Does this cliff out below me asked?” “YES! DON’T KEEP GOING!” we all exclaimed!
As Barefoot Jake artistically strove to take the best shot of the group, he walked on the edge of a cliff. Moving towards the edge, he nonchalantly called: “Does this cliff out below me asked?” “YES! DON’T KEEP GOING!” we all exclaimed!

After a cold day of trudging through the snow and walking on icy shelves, it was a relief to emerge at our destination: the Solstice Snake. A 17-foot long pictograph, dating to the 11th to 13th century. I had to wonder: why did the ancient people put it here? Why in a place so inaccessible and so far away from water? Above the snake on a ledge that truly could only have been reached by a great rock climber was another pictograph of a person. (Please note that if you do go to the snake, please be respectful and do not take anything and be careful sharing directions as many people consider it a secret and special place.) Nearby, there were some drawings of figures that looked a little like aliens…

Disco examines some ancient aliens
Disco examines some ancient aliens

Sometimes on a hike, I get to a point where I think, “Wait—we’re not really going to go over that next, are we?” That’s how I felt about a fin—a 100 foot slab of sandstone I would have put at a rock climbing metric level of 3rd class. Sure enough, we went up and over…

Going up the steep slab fin
Going up the steep slab fin

And then down…

 

Barefoot Jake tackles a sketchy downclimb
Barefoot Jake tackles a sketchy downclimb

The day ended with a descent down from the Behind the Rocks WSA to our car near Highway 191. Just driving 191, one might look at the cliffs out of Moab and think there is no way up them without a rope (or a big dose of courage). Will found a small, steep gulley of reasonably not-loose rocks and a good share of snow where we could descend. It was a bit dicey for a crew of seven to go down all in a line, but we experienced minimal rockfall.

Walking an icy ledge
Walking an icy ledge

We were pretty relieved to hit a slippery, windy trail for the last mile back to the car ready for more great winter dayhiking!

Do you have a favorite winter day hike?

Book Review: I Hike: Mostly True Stories from 10,000 Miles of Hiking

<a href="<a href="http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0985241500/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0985241500&linkCode=as2&tag=lizthoadvhik-20">">I Hike</a> by Lawton “Disco” Grinter, Grand Mesa Press, 192 pgs. Available in <a href="<a href="http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0985241500/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0985241500&linkCode=as2&tag=lizthoadvhik-20">">paperback</a> and <a href="<a href="http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00AEFDBHU/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B00AEFDBHU&linkCode=as2&tag=lizthoadvhik-20">">e-book format.</a>
I Hike by Lawton “Disco” Grinter, Grand Mesa Press, 192 pgs. Available in paperback and e-book format.

After an awesome week hiking in Moab with Lawton “Disco” Grinter (from the Trail Show, the Walkumentary), it seemed like the next best way to continue my Disco fix was to read his book I Hike (Grand Mesa Press, 192 pages, paperback and Kindle).  I Hike immediately differentiated itself from other adventure tales on my bookshelf because Disco picks and chooses stories across many trails, sparing the reader the termini-to-termini focus. The result is a rich set of vignettes that document the wisdom and maturity that hiking can bring to a young person.  Each chapter has a different locale, but the stories are tied together well with a theme of living a simple fulfilling life with friends (on a trail).

Based on Disco’s work on the Trail Show, I had assumed I Hike would be a funny book filled with triumphant tales of trail shenanigans. It certainly has plenty of that, but although the same joyous humor that Disco shares on his podcast comes through in I Hike, I was surprised by the depth and wisdom of many of the chapters. I Hike is thick with insight only gained from walking. In the least serious example of this, readers learn alongside Disco that eating a half gallon of ice cream in one sitting is a poor decision. In the most serious case, Disco reflects on the dangers of hiking and the fragility of the simple hiking life.

Author Lawton “Disco” Grinter
Author Lawton “Disco” Grinter

In writing I Hike, Disco doesn’t shy away from the difficult parts of hiking, but reflects on them. Why is it that sometimes a long hike is hard and we feel like we want to quit? I Hike also explores what I find to be one of the most beautiful aspects of trail life: the seemingly miraculous transition from suffering to salvation. Yet Disco takes this idea further: it isn’t the transition itself that is incredible, but the irony of how quickly our fates change. This is because being on the trail, no matter how bad (with some exception), isn’t suffering (as the saying goes: “A bad day on the trail is better than a good day at work”). Instead, what is incredible about hiking is that we learn how whimsical our fate can be. Our desire and delight in walking is impacted by our perspective as much as by the weather.

I tried to ration the chapters—forcing myself to do some chores and money-making ventures in between each story—but found myself powerless and read the whole thing in a sitting. Disco’s way of writing is funny and engaging, and because he explains technical hiker terms so well, I Hike may be a better introduction to long distance hiking than A Walk in the Woods (for one thing, Disco has end-to-ended several trails and Bill Bryson couldn’t make it past Gatlinburg). I am eager to share this vivid slice of thru-hiking life with my non-hiking friends. Moreover, I wish I could have read this book before I started thru-hiking so that I could have had a better idea of what I was getting into—the fantastic, the hilarious, the heartbreaking—and could have learned about the trail in a non-guidebook style medium.

Throughout I Hike, I was repeatedly reminded of the kindness and generosity of the hiking community. In numerous stories, Disco and his then hiking partner/fiancé now wife, POD, go through extremes to help those in need, even when they have nothing to gain and much to lose by doing so.  Reading I Hike on a lonely day was like a portkey into the magical hiking world that can seem so fantastical compared to humdrum cubicle life. I Hike is a reminder that no matter what life (or the trail) may present, the hiker family will provide redemption.

Disclaimer: I don’t usually read hiking books because I am worried my own trail experiences might get muddled up with someone else’s (or that reading about others’ trip may alter my expectations). This is one reason why I hadn’t read I Hike until now (it came out at the end of 2012). Disco graciously sent me this copy and forever changed the way I think about hiking books. Far from mixing with my own experiences or altering my expectations, I Hike helped me understand and digest my on-trail experiences better. I am very grateful that he was able to share his stories with me.