We figure the best way to train for thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, is, surprise, surprise, to go backpacking. After checking out Salt Lake City and before heading to Fort Collins, we spent six days backpacking in Canyonlands National Park, in Utah. We covered almost the entire Needles District of the park, camping at Chesler Park 4, Elephant Canyon 1, Lost Canyon 1, Salt Creek 4, and Salt/Horse, and exploring several side trails as well.
Canyonlands is one of the few completely silent places we’ve ever been. It is amazing, and a bit unsettling, to listen intently and hear absolutely nothing – no human sounds, no natural sounds – just utter silence. In a space devoid of sound, you begin to notice your breathing and your heartbeat. In the morning, the occasional bird call echoes through the canyons, which is quite beautiful as it breaks through silence and fades back into it.
We didn’t encounter many other hikers here. For the most part, we had the massive, often otherworldly landscape all to ourselves. This added to the intensity of the experience, which was personal and powerful.
The trails in Canyonlands are much more physically challenging than they appear on a topo map. The difficulty is a result of the nature of the trail. Often the trail will pass over huge expanses of rock, and small rock piles called cairns mark the way. In order to stay on track, you need to constantly be looking for the next cairn and they sometimes make an unexpected turn, go up a cliff, or pass through a hole in the rock wall!
Initially, it was alarming when the trail would turn down a steep rock face with no footholds. It appeared the rock was too steep to traverse. But the rock in Canyonlands is a form of sandstone called slickrock, which contrary to its name is incredibly grippy. Once we became accustomed to the slickrock, we found ourselves walking at angles impossible on any other surface. Luckily on the completely vertical portions, the rangers were kind enough to install ladders or notched logs. Still, we felt like climbers rather than hikers on portions of this trip.
The trail taunted us further with two stretches of exposed, sloping ice and snow covered rock. Fortunately we were prepared for this: we brought Microspikes. These are small metal spikes you can attach to the soles of your shoes, like the crampons climbers use, but smaller and lighter. This was our first time using Microspikes and they were great. We felt completely solid on the ice and snow mixture.
In true Pacific Crest Trail training spirit, there were long waterless stretches. At one point we had to carry 1.5 days’ worth of water each, and boy was that heavy, especially when climbing up rocky passes.The lack of water is part of what makes this landscape so unique and beautiful though. The plants and animals surviving in Canyonlands have adapted various techniques to deal with water scarcity and the occasional torrential rain. Cottonwood trees grow long, wide root systems to soak up any water they can find, while prickly pear cacti store water internally during dry spells. The cryptobiotic soil is alive as well, its surface a crust formed by algae, fungi, lichens, and mosses. Cryptobiotic soil takes decades to form, so it’s important to stay on the trail to avoid disturbing it.
There is water in Canyonlands, and Salt Creek Canyon is a reliable place to find it. On our way to the Salt Creek 4 campsite, we crossed Salt Creek 61 times in one day, and we repeated all 61 crossings the next day. While tiring, this allowed us to experience a more remote area of the park. We were certainly not thirsty!
Over millions of years, water has shaped the soft sandstone in Canyonlands to form a tremendous variety of beautiful shapes, including mushrooms, arches, needles, canyons, slot canyons, and washes. The terrain is a visual feast and a hiker’s playground.
A good topo map is important, though. It’s easy to get lost in all the geology. We especially enjoyed the Needles, which is a collection of towering rock pillars, and the Joint, a slot canyon just wide enough to walk through.
Beyond its geological sculpture, Canyonlands also contains human art in the form of ancient Puebloan pictographs. The pictographs range in age from hundreds to many thousands of years old. The meanings have been lost, but it is compelling to speculate, and to view something so mysterious but also strangely familiar.
This was a challenging trip, but very rewarding visually and aurally. Plus, hopefully we toughened up our feet a bit for the PCT!
Chris has added some additional images from Canyonlands at http://www.flickr.com/photos/myelectricsheep/sets/72157629627443609/