Just before our two trips to Anza-Borrego, Monte @Blackdawg reached out to see if we were interested in a late-March trip to Canyonlands and some hiking of a few nearby slot canyons - perhaps even some that we'd attempted in our F.U.Rain trip last year.
Not really realizing how close it was (5 days) to the completion of our trip, and definitely not realizing the work that would need to be done to the truck between trips, I responded in the only way I knew how.
As it turned out, it was a mad dash between trips. I had CV axles to reboot, skid plates to re-weld, and of course I wanted to get the Anza-Borrego photos and trip report as "ready to go" as I could before taking off on another adventure. I think we can all agree that it really was the definition of a tough life. Yes, I'm a lucky dude.
At any rate, none of those are the real story for today - so let's get right to it. On March 22, I was ready to go by about 7:30pm - the truck repaired and provisioned "enough" that I was confident that it would survive a week long adventure, and me ready to hit the sack at 8:00pm - the same time as @mini.turbodb - so I could wake up at 3:00am the next morning to get going.
Repaired "enough." Looks "legit."
- - - - -
March 23, 2019.
As somehow seems to happen, I awoke at 2:58am - two minutes before my alarm went off. Final preparations made - and more importantly my final shower taken - I was on the road south by 3:45am. I had a long drive ahead of me - my goal was to reach The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park and the rest of the gang by the end of the day - a 21-hour drive. Crazy, according to ...everyone.
And so, when I pulled into camp at 12:30am, it was with big smiles and a "you're crazy" that I was greeted by Monte - the only one of the rest of our crew that was still awake.
We chatted and laughed for a few minutes, and then I was ready for bed - one of the best nights of sleep I think I've ever had in the tent.
- - - - -
March 24, 2019.
As I'd fallen asleep, I'd wondered to myself if there was any way I'd be up for sunrise. On the one hand, it's a time of day I love to see - the colors in the sky, the calm solitude of the morning as the earth wakes up; on the other, I wanted to sleep! And so, as it started to get light out, I have to admit feeling a bit of relief as I heard the light pitter-patter of rain drops on the tent.
No one likes putting a tent away wet, but for me, it meant another two hours of blissful sleep.
Still, by 7:30am, several of us were up and out of our tents. A round of introductions and how-do-you-dos were shared, and I got my first look at the surroundings - spectacular as ever in this part of the world. It was really too bad that I'd driven through all this in the dark the night before!
As the clouds cleared and things started to dry out a little, we got breakfasts made and camp put away - Monte having mentioned that he wanted to be at The Needles Visitor Center by 9:00am (opening) so we could get our permits and whatnot. We were right on time as we headed out.
It was when we got to the Visitor Center that we got our first several pieces of interesting news. When the Park Ranger heard where we were headed (Horse Canyon), I think his reaction was right along the lines of, "No you're not, that road is impassable quick sand." And then, to drive the point home he added, "It even says so on the web site."
Well, OK, we decided - we can just cut that part out and head south after enjoying our time in Canyonlands. To which we got a stern, "You're definitely going to hit snow on that route. Take some photos and bring them back here so we have some on had for others."
Hrmm - stopped in our tracks. This was going well already.
In the end, we worked out a route that we were going to give our best shot, and got our permit dates all settled for the new route, and then set off into the park and towards our first trail - Elephant Hill. On the way, a quick stop at Wooden Shoe Arch, named for obvious reasons.
Before long, we were at Elephant Hill. We all aired down, and then set off in two groups - having been warned several times that we had to do the initial climb and descent in groups no larger than three vehicles. This is because the road begins a steep climb immediately upon leaving the Elephant Hill parking area, and is clearly suitable for 4WD vehicles only. Almost immediately, a fun-but-intense-if-you're-not-ready-for-it stretch of hill-climb leads to a small turn-around pad some 150 feet above the parking area. This small, strategically placed flat area serves two vital purposes: it allows the vehicle to make a 180-degree turn before heading into the next switchback, and it provides an opportunity for anyone who might have second thoughts about continuing to turn around and make a hasty retreat back to 2WD land.
At any rate, it was a good thing that we split into groups, because while Monte and Brent (@PCBuilder14) were on their way up, another ranger came over to check Brett, Heather (@BossFoss and @MrsFoss) and my permits and "meter" us up the trail.
Being the first group(s) of the day, and clearly more prepared than other groups they encountered, we were released relatively quickly and it wasn't long before we were all back together again near the top of the first hill. It'd been a fun climb and a great "intro" to dirt - nothing too difficult, but still with lots of ledges and bumps, exercising our rigs from the get-go.
And the views from the top - breathtaking. Having never been to The Needles District of Canyonlands before, it nearly caught me off guard. It was like being surrounded by the Doll House from The Maze - needles everywhere in the distance, and colorful canyons in the foreground as we started down the back-side of the first hill.
Now, it turns out that this back-side descent is a bit interesting. See, the switchbacks are so tight that you can't actually make the turns in the forward direction - so you take the first one forward, then back down the next one, and finally take the last one forward again. Talk about a blast! We all made it with no problem and carried on, enjoying the scenery as much as the trail itself.
As we continued on our way, the trail was a great mix of dirt, rock, and ledge - nothing too stressful given that we were all reasonably prepared, but still lots of fun. We each took it at our own pace, all of our trucks clearly up to the task. Even the 3rd gen (Brent's truck) that was mostly stock was doing a great job negotiating it's way over the landscape.
With the possible exception of Boulder Basin, this may have been my favorite trail to date - the sunny day adding to the enjoyment for all of us.
We made frequent stops along the way, generally just after the more technical sections of trail so that we could all catch back up to each other. It was great to be in and out of the trucks, each time, Monte saying that we just had "one more" little rocky section ahead and then the trail flattened out.
Luckily for us, that was far from the case.
Section after section, the trail just kept going. And giving. Giving fun, that is!
And as we got further into the park, the views kept getting better. We were quite literally driving into The Needles. Of course, looking back on it, this probably should have been obvious to me before even setting out, but I enjoyed it immensely.
And then, we reached the one spot in the trail that Monte hadn't been sure about when we'd set off. Rather, he had been sure that it would be no problem for the three of us with first gen Tacomas, but Brent's third gen was quite a bit wider - some 8" wider to be precise. "The Squeeze" as it's known, is a tight section of trail that threads it's way through granite walls on either side - in the end, just wide enough for Monte to guide Brent through, with his mirrors folded in.
By now, we'd all been enjoying ourselves long enough that we were starting to realize that lunch would be a good idea. Not to worry, we weren't far from a great destination to enjoy our sandwiches at the confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers - so after a quick chat on the plan, we got back in the trucks and made tracks the last few miles to the trailhead at the end of the road.
Our bellies full - we'd smartly decided to eat before the short hike to the confluence - we made quick work of the half-mile trail to the overlook, where we got a view that was apparently "just OK," according to Monte and Devin, who mentioned that the delineation between the Green and Colorado rivers wasn't as pronounced as it had been on their last visit.
Still, I'd say it's a good day when you see two rivers join in the middle of one's meander!
We hung out for a while just enjoying the view and savoring the moment. We said hello to a few hikers that passed, wondering how jealous they'd be when they stumbled upon our trucks just a little way up the trail - their hike having been a more strenuous 9-mile affair, on which they'd likely started out the day before.
And, eventually, we decided it was time to get underway. We weren't in any big rush, but we also knew that between us and our planned camp just outside of the park was a good 12 miles of road that we'd want to enjoy - our pace slowed by the surroundings.
Even as we made our way back up from the confluence, I found myself in and out of the truck on several occasions, to capture sections of trail we'd driven just an hour or two earlier - the Silver Steps for instance, especially nice in the opposite direction.
We continued on, again into The Needles. Again, Monte trying to remember the terrain from his previous trips, with varying levels of success. Again, none of us caring that when he said there was "just one more" rocky section, that two or three would crop up almost immediately.
Eventually, we got to S.O.B. Hill - what I'd venture was our most technical section of trail so far (though I suppose that one could argue that depending on their perspective of the initial up-and-down switchbacks). A sharp 90º turn that connects two adjacent rifts/valleys, this was the only section where any of us sustained damage on the trip - Brent's bed hanging just far enough back that his bumper dropped onto some rocks as he made his way around the sharp turn.
Just a nice excuse for that aftermarket bumper if you ask me.
The rest of us with first gens made it through just fine, our taller tires and better departure angle making our lives easier - and soon, we were on our way west again, now in the heart of the tall needles.
As if our drive hadn't been beautiful enough all day, it now got really hard for me to not be out of the truck every few hundred feet. Monte would later say that he'd taken fewer photos that normal - something I laughed at, knowing that I'd been left in the back of the pack, able to stop whenever I pleased - no need to worry that I was holding anyone up.
Does it get any more glorious?
Eventually, we'd made our way through the heart of The Needles - the views opening up once again in front of us. We were nearing the edge of the park - and our camp site - and still, it was hard not to stop and admire the enormity of the landscape around us. Egg-shaped boulders that had been split open as if to make a giant-sized breakfast; spires balanced on narrow bases, their pointed tops reaching towards the sky; walls of rock towering around us.
And to do it in a place where the roads were fun and the crowds were limited - that was just the icing on the cake.
In the end - and despite our best efforts at slowing ourselves down - we made reasonably good time. That, combined with Daylight Savings Time, meant that we were in camp around 5:30pm with plenty of light to goof around and explore our surroundings - a nice change given our propensity (or at least perceived propensity) to end up at camp just as it's getting dark.
The first order of business - naturally - was to get the tents deployed.
Then, it was everyone for themselves. And that meant - among other things - it was time for a bit of bouldering.
This being the first night we were all together, we also started a tradition - at least for this trip - that I really appreciated: dinner when we got to camp. On past trips, dinner often takes a back seat to relaxation - we all get setup around the camp fire, and before you know it, it's dark and cold and you have to go off and scrounge up dinner. I much preferred Heather's approach (and we all followed her lead) of getting dinner taken care of right away. Cooking, eating, and cleaning are all so much more enjoyable when it's light (and not freezing) out!
Dinner's consumed, we were all now in relaxation mode - breaking up into various groups to chat about various things. Some enjoying the camp fire, others likely checking out and discussing various truck modifications.
And then there was sunset. It had been a beautiful day - just enough clouds in the sky to make it interesting - and that meant a nice sunset to boot. First of course, the orange light filtering through the atmosphere onto the red rocks around us.
And then, the light in the sky.
For me, it was a fitting end to what was a special day in Canyonlands - friends new and old, enjoying the outdoors and all it had to offer, thankful for what we'd experienced and looking forward to more.
We gathered around the fire and chatted about our plans for the days to come - our plans a bit up-in-the-air given the earlier warnings from the Park Ranger, but all of us looking forward to whatever was in store. And, as we called it a night relatively early (another great tradition on this trip) we all knew that we were in for a treat the next day - assuming that is, we could actually complete the 12+ mile hike to Druid Arch.
But now we're getting ahead of ourselves...