High Desert Camping

My brother Eric does a great job in the cool uncle role, whereas I’ve been typecast as the nerdy dad — so my kids were super excited when he decided to join us on a spring break camping trip. As I usually do, I obsessively searched Google Earth for a perfect campsite and ended up doing pretty well. The goal was to explore some remote canyons from a base camp on BLM land near the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park. This is a big, wild part of Utah: the official map shows several locations in the park that are a 5-6 hour drive from the ranger station at Hans Flat, which is itself at least 1.5 hours from the nearest town. A lot of these places can’t be visited without carrying extra gas, and even when you get to where you’re going there are very few foot trails, so most hikes end up being cross-country routes on difficult terrain.

During our first night it stormed, ending up with more than a third of an inch of rain, which is quite a bit considering the average annual rainfall is around 9 inches.

A wet morning:

Our camp was at 6500′ and it looks like the snow line was around 9000′:

I was worried the rain had made some roads impassable, so we spent the day hiking the rim of nearby Happy Canyon. Since the wingate sandstone layer tends to form long, impassable cliff systems, we didn’t have any way to get into the canyon itself.

A rough tool of some sort, perhaps a scraper, that Eric found:

Home sweet home. I don’t enjoy driving while pulling a trailer, but it’s really nice to be up off the ground and to be able to stand up in the tent.

Views from camp:

The next morning, on the way to our hike, we stopped to look into gigantic Millard Canyon. There are a couple routes down to the bottom that the cowboys put in in the early 20th century, that probably get very little use, but we opted for a different hike. The mountains on the horizon are the La Sals, on the other side of the Green River and Moab.

Wild burros! Inside the park there’s no grazing and both plant and animal life are a lot more abundant than outside.

Doing some more wildlife spotting:

A slab-sided granary that we found in an alcove:

Fingerprints in the mud. These could be a few thousand years old, or could be as recent as 700 years old — people were forced the leave the region around 1300 AD due to climate change. My understanding is that humans arrived in this part of the world around 9000 years ago.

Half of a metate:

A very cool rock art panel:

A pair of granaries; it’s rare to find them with the lids intact:

This is either a huge arrowhead or a small spear point, broken in a couple of places. I’ve come up with a good tactic for making the kids feel better about not being able to carry away artifacts like this that they find: we take a GPS point so we can visit it in the future. This was found in a wash, far from any possible archaeological context.

The next day we visited High Spur slot canyon, an easy but extremely bumpy 13 mile drive past the ranger station. Colorful scenery near the trailhead:

Dropping into the drainage, which was a bit wet from the rain a couple days earlier but happily was free of deep pools, which would have been really cold:

Plenty of low-key obstacles like this one, but no larger ones until further down-canyon than we had time to go.

Yin and yang:

It turned out Eric had never been in a slot canyon! Here he’s having fun:

And here, perhaps, not quite as much fun. We ended up taking off our packs for this section. I’m fairly tolerant of enclosed spaces but would not be interested in exploring a canyon much narrower than this one. In a really tight canyon you are forced up off the ground level, sometimes many feet, and a fall would be disastrous.

Sometime you go under:

Sometimes you go over. Getting wet when this is avoidable is considered bad form. Of course it was me who slipped into a pool first.

Kids looking over an obstacle of some sort:

Long road to nowhere:

Back at camp just in time to eat dinner in the light:

The stupid wax log I bought at the supermarket was very reluctant to burn, the kids spent a long time trying to get a fire started as it got colder and darker and windier:

Eric and I sipped adult beverages and provided helpful suggestions.

Temperature dropping fast, it got down to 24F on our last night. In a high-altitude desert it can easily be 50 F warmer during the day than overnight.

On the last day we got up early and packed quickly since we had to get Eric to the SLC airport for an afternoon flight. Here the first sun is hitting the Henry Mountains:

This is the area I visited on my very first trip to southern Utah about 18 years ago. I love it!

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