It has finally come time to leave Canyon Rim boondock. The wagon train is hitching up and heading south to hide out in a pine forest until the storm blows over. In this case, the “storm” being the storm of school students that descend upon Utah like locusts for a four day weekend every October. It’s UEA Weekend coming up, the Utah Education and Administration conference held on Thursday and Friday, giving the kids a four day weekend from school. We learned this the hard way last year, as we found ourselves trapped in Little Wild Horse slot canyon with about 200 “little wild horses” of the two legged variety. So plans are firmly in place to avoid a repeat this year.
But I am having a tough time leaving the canyon, especially as the rigs pull out one by one, revealing what Jim had so eloquently described as “ab-so-lutely spec-F@#ING-tacular” views now unfolding in front of me. As the day grows longer, and reports start coming back from those who have reached the pine forest, gravitational forces seem to be holding me in place. “There is no view here, other than the pine trees. It may be tough to find a sunny spot for solar. The road is going to be a horror if it rains. No hiking trails, but we can walk on the ATV roads.” So here I sit with this Canyon Rim view all to myself, trying to make a decision of whether to stay or go.
Also adding to my difficult decision is the fact that I didn’t get my fill of the Needles District. I had read about all these great hikes in the area, yet being so far away, we only got to hike the one trail, Chesler Park Loop. I really wanted to see the Druid Arch, but there just wasn’t time. So finally, The Indecisive Libra came to a decision. I would spend one more night in the Canyon Rim boondock, then get up at “first light” and drive into the Needles. If I could find a place to park it, I would stay a couple of nights. If not, I would do a short hike, then join the gang in Devil’s Canyon later that afternoon.
The Canyonlands National Park Squaw Flats Campground is at the end of a desolate 33 mile, two-lane road. The campground only has 26 no-hookup sites, and those are typically filled by 9:00am. There are alternative BLM campgrounds and dispersed camping about five to ten miles back up the road, but I want to be in Squaw Flats to take advantage of some of the hiking that leaves right from the campground, and to be closer to the Elephant Hill Trailhead, another three miles down a 4WD road. So I get hitched up as the sun is coming up, an unbelievable fete for me, drive the 50+ miles into the park, and am circling the campground loop by 8:50am.
The Squaw Flats Campground has a very….shall we say, “enthusiastic” camp host, who wears a uniform and rides his bike with clipboard attached around the loops. He tells me my options, (along with the fact that I am “speeding” at over 15mph) and I end up snagging the next to last spot. There is zero signal here, so I send a message to “the gang” on my Delorme InReach, telling them I have secured a site, and I will rejoin them by Friday in time to celebrate Jim’s birthday.
I am on the trail to Druid Arch by 8:30am, again a remarkable early morning accomplishment for me, particularly considering it was a slow going 3 miles down Elephant Hill Road to the trailhead. There are plenty of parking spaces as this hour, and the morning air is cool and soft on my skin. There are birds fluttering across my path, and I don’t see another soul for the first two miles. Maybe the Box Canyons are on to something with this early morning hiking thing. 😉
I retrace the Chesler Park trail until I reach the junction sign post at 2.1 miles, indicating my left turn up the canyon wash toward Druid Arch. Whereas the Chesler Park Loop can get a little tedious on the back side walking through the “prairie,” I find the Druid Arch hike itself to offer more consistent beauty. Since about three miles of the trail is through Elephant Canyon, the undulating red sandstone of the pinnacle walls, boulder-filled creek bed, and slickrock pour-offs offer a bit more scenic variety.
The arch itself is the terminus for the hike. This 450 ft angular arch was named after the Druids for its resemblance to Stonehenge. The side profile is the first glimpse I get of the arch, which looks more like a pinnacle from that angle. It is not until I start to climb a bit that the three holes become apparent revealing the definition of an arch. It appears massive. Foreboding in its towering presence.
My Utah hiking book explains when the first fin of the arch becomes visible, to be on the lookout for a side canyon that leads up a metal ladder for a better view of the arch. The guidebook cautions that the last 80 feet can be quite a scramble. But I am not clear at what point the “last 80 ft” starts and ends. So I just keep climbing until I can’t climb anymore. I think it would be possible to continue along the narrow precipice to actually reach the base of the arch, but considering I haven’t seen another living soul for an hour, I decide not to push my luck. Although I do feel an increased level of comfort and confidence after having obtained the Delorme InReach two-way satellite communicator, it is not much good if I knock myself out falling off a cliff!
I have the arch all to myself for over an hour. I eat a nice leisurely lunch, take my boots off and press the soles of my hot, bare feet against the cold stone surface beneath me, and lay on the slickrock staring up at tiny airplanes leaving contrails in the cobalt blue sky behind the massive structure overhead.
As is often the case when I find myself in a magical place like this all alone, I make a silly rule. I will stay until the first person arrives and I no longer have it all to myself. But my patience for sitting runs out long before my private time at the arch, and I head back down, retracing my steps 5.7 miles back to the trailhead.
The day after this hike, my arms and shoulders are sore from lifting myself up over and around giant boulders. The backs of my thighs are abraded from sliding down slickrock pour-overs. And I have a few scabbed-over puncture wounds from thorny tree limbs. But what a satisfying way to spend a day in October’s Bright Blue Weather!
“O suns and skies and flowers of June,
Count all your boasts together,
Love loveth best of all the year
October’s bright blue weather.”
~ Helen Hunt Jackson