Lost in the Maze of Canyonlands National Park

Have you ever seen the movie “127 Hours” or, at the very least, heard its story?  If you have, you know that Canyonlands National Park can be a very dangerous place to roam.  AND, if you are at all like me, you have probably heard the many “I’m lucky to be alive” stories of hikers and backpackers getting lost among wilderness, backcountry trails – some to never find their way back.  Others, if they’re lucky, get rescued after spending endless days and nights lost and hopeless; starved, dehydrated and continually suffering all while ceaselessly seeking salvation.  Last May, my husband, brother-in-law and I lost our way, like many before us, amid the maze that is Canyonlands National Park.  As I’m clearly alive and well to share this story, our tale does not end tragically.  However, wisely use my tale as a tale of caution for it is certainly one that has all the trappings to result in total disaster.  It was also quite a rollercoaster ride of an experience, noteworthy of jotting down in my books.

So the story goes….

Lost in Canyonlands National Park
Photo by: Doug Michaels

Our journey began with what should’ve been a quick stop to the Visitor’s Center to acquire a backcountry permit.  Nonetheless, the rangers weren’t letting us run wild that easily.  Apparently, the three of us looked like unskilled hooligans who can’t hang in the heat of the desert.  This was my initial reasoning.  Now, I’ve come to learn that they had reasoning behind their concern and incessant questioning (still makes me mad – if I wish to get lost in the desert, that’s my prerogative ha!).

Once in possession of our coaxed permit, we began our imminent hike at Elephant Hill Trailhead.  Words of wisdom:  be sure to study the map carefully and bring a compass because it is considered a maze for good reason.  We begun our hike here, journeying through a network of trails including Joint Trail where we encountered a crazy cool slot canyon (highly recommend Joint Trail).  We had plans to set up our camp for the night in the backcountry area known as the “Butler Flats”.

Note: If you don’t wish to overnight camp, you can still make a day hike out of the trails – such as hiking to Druid Arch then back, etc.

Map of the trails in the Needles at Canyonlands
Map of the Needles District Trails in Canyonlands National Park by the NPS

However, not long into our hike, Doug, Cody and I lost our trail and had NO idea where we were.  Where did we go so wrong? I continued to wonder.  Adding to our confusion, we had been following trail markers known as cairns the entire time and thus, we had to be on one trail or another…RIGHT?!   Voraciously consulting our map, we were unsuccessful in pinpointing where it was that we took a wrong turn.  And we knew we had gone wrong because we were not seeing a single sign we were suppose to be seeing.

Previously, I remember coming to an intersection in which we had to choose “right” or “left”.  Unbeknownst to me, Doug and Cody chose to go “right” without much hesitation and therefore, I assumed they knew where they were headed.  EVEN THOUGH, in trueness to my nature, I questioned their decision as we headed right.  How do you guys know this is the correct way? I buggered.   I thought Butler Flats was in that direction, I pointed in the opposite way.  Needless to say, the doubt and heat were getting to us as we all grew agitated with one another.

The more we wandered in the wrong direction, the more wrong turns we continued to take (still following cairns mind you – which begs the question, who the hell put those cairns there??  NOT COOL).   We began to scramble to the top of mesas for clearer vantage points and all we could see was the road we drove in on out in the distance.  The only comfort this finding brought me was: at least we’re not TOTALLY lost.  We see a way back if need be.  This was the glimmer of hope and security I needed to push forward.  As long as we keep sight of a possible way out, we could continue to search for our correct way in.  

Still annoyed with the added miles and endless confusion of our hike, this newfound encouragement enabled me to stop and take in the views (and even snap a photo).

Lost in Canyonlands National Park
Lost in Canyonlands National Park.  Photo by Doug Michaels
Get my hiking boots (on sale) my clicking on the image below:

Determined to backcountry camp in Canyonlands and also determined to prove those pesky rangers wrong, I pressed on in stubbornness and excitement.  That’s the twisted thing: the thrill of the unknown and the unchartered is what makes an adventure a real adventure to me.  So, as unsettling as the whole scenario may have been, it equally sparked a rush of adrenaline that I can never quite resist – a relentless need for more.

As we trudged on for another mile or so, we came to a sand road wider than your average path and complete with off-roading vehicle tracks.  This must lead somewhere.

Finally all on the same page, we followed the sand road until we recognized a place on the map: WE WERE BACK ON OUR TRAIL!  Yay, we’re out of the danger zone!

Wrong.

Welcome to “Son of a Bitch Hill” (that’s its real name).

After trekking through scorching sand for miles with little to NO shade and climbing over unnecessary mesas and rocks to discover our way, we were BEAT.  And we were conserving water with quite the distance yet to go before nightfall.  The last thing we wanted to see was SOB Hill.  We climbed her switchbacks and unsteady rock paths up and up.  Reaching the top, I felt overcome by this places’ beauty and my tiny accomplishment.  The journey was starting to brighten.  Until…

Son of a bitch hill
Me on top of SOB Hill

I feel light-headed and my vision is blurry, Doug replied when I asked him what was wrong.  I could tell he was out of sorts.  THIS was NOT okay.  We were too far in to turn back now as the sun was beginning to set and we were nearing camp.

We made haste for Butler Flats, per Doug’s request, racing against the setting sun and Doug’s impending illness.

Once we reached the Flats, our place of camp, the misfortune didn’t abate as we had all hoped.  Rather, Doug grew sicker and began to violently vomit unable to keep down any fluids.  It was quickly evident to both Cody and I that he was at risk for severe dehydration and heat exhaustion.

Uneasy, Cody and I both discussed what our next course of action may have to be were his conditions to worsen.  One of us would have to stay with Doug and one of us would have no choice but to run back for help in the dead of night.  Cody knowing CPR and being more proficient in these techniques, I knew in my heart I should be the one to go.  Again, unnerving.

We continuously laid cold compresses on Doug’s forehead and gave him water, ceaselessly checking on him as he laid inside the tent.  As Cody and I cooked our supper, we could hear him moaning and groaning in discomfort.

 

Get our camping cooking supplies here (click on the image below)
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Worried for my husband’s safety and what ill will the night may withhold, I was barely able to fully appreciate the stunning sunset and desolate, wild location that was our camp.

Cody and I made the executive decision, if the night were to go well, that we would wake up before the break of dawn to hike the heck out of there and avoid further heat exhaustion/dehydration.

As the moon shown brightly, Doug was finally able to keep down water and rest peacefully.  All was well and I was able to relax and breathe easy.  I swiftly fell into a deep sleep, but not before relishing the beauty of this wild place; staring up at the non polluted + starry sky and listening to the howls of passerby coyotes.

It was as if God, himself, snapped his fingers and gave our hike out a 180 degree turnaround.  The next morning was nothing short of a heaven-sent experience.  Perhaps it was due to the fact that the day before was so chalk-full of mishaps and misadventure that I was EVEN MORE grateful for every step we took on this glorious morning.  As John Muir says, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he/she seeks”.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it over and over again: this couldn’t ring more truth.   I learned how to better love + appreciate the good along with how to better cope with the bad through these two “night and day” hikes.  After all, our hike in was as opposite to our hike out as an opposite can be.  Moreso than “night” is to “day”.

Our hike out in summary:

We all woke up before dawn, as planned, and witnessed a divine sunrise at an extraordinary overlook.  We climbed and wiggled through slot canyons and came across a herd of mule deer grazing in an utterly tranquil setting.   We hiked the correct trails and took all the right turns amid a golden hued solitude.

Hiking in Canyonlands National Park
Photo by Doug Michaels

Overall, the experience was a blast and a total highlight of my Utah adventure.  There’s something so wild to me about carrying everything you need on your back and letting your two feet carry you throughout wildness – connecting with nature and soaking in your surroundings to the fullest.  To me, it’s of the utmost soul fulfillment.


 

The Needles in Canyonlands National Park
Photo by Doug Michaels

7 lessons learned from our Canyonlands backcountry adventure:

  1. Park Rangers know a thing or two and I will further heed their advice from now on, regardless of my stubborn will.
  2. The dangers of total wilderness are REAL.  The wilderness should be feared and respected as much as loved and enjoyed.  I learned firsthand how wrong a single hike in the wild can go and was blessed beyond measure that ours didn’t end in tragedy.
  3. Always bring enough water (which we did) for possible fails and the proper survival tools (which we also did..but almost did not).
  4. Stay calm through the frustration + confusion of being lost.  Calmness will enable you to utilize better judgement
  5. My “relentless need for more” could’ve been costly.  It’s pivotal, at times, to swallow pride and realize when to relinquish your strong will.  Always be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses.
  6. GO WITH YOUR GUT FEELINGS.  Trust your instincts.  I had a gut feeling when we turned “right” that we should’ve turned “left”.  Guess what?  That is, indeed, where we went wrong from the start.  But we went wrong much more after, yeppp.
  7. Don’t let it take misfortune to appreciate the everyday miracles.  Never take for granted the beauty that is LIFE.  I appreciated a single mule deer sighting at dawn more than ever due to the prior misfortunes, but it shouldn’t take those turn of events to make one comprehend the insurmountable blessings around us.

 

To watch this hike unfold, check out my VLOG:

 Needles at Canyonlands National Park: Overnight, Backcountry Hike

To read more about Canyonlands and all that Southern Utah has to offer (including more phenomenal hikes) check out my post:

Unearthly Utah: The Ultimate Road-trip Guide

Dinosaur Tracks in Moab Utah
Dinosaur Tracks in Moab, Utah. Read my Unearthly Utah Guide above to see more!

As always,

Much love and happy travels,

Mindy


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Lost In the Maze Of Canyonlands

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