Have you ever wandered through the desert in the middle of winter? It’s quite a remarkable experience. Wandering through massive sandstone walls and exploring rather otherworldly terrain is even more special when covered in snow. This time, the trip was all for one specific arch located deep in the backcountry of Canyonlands National Park. We entered through Elephant Canyon which really did make us feel like we were walking along with elephants. This hike was absolutely beautiful but not for the faint of heart. 12 miles up ladders, through slot canyons, down stairs and over steep, snow covered slickrock. We also may have gotten slightly off trail a couple of times… We made sure to pay close attention to our route and any turns we made along the way to ensure that we would have no problems getting out of here. This journey was one that I will never forget.
We started off the trip camping right outside of the Needles District of Canyonlands. We found a nice little spot on side of the road but decided to venture further back to see what else was in the area. So glad we did because just around the corner we found a beautiful campsite tucked away in the rocks. We arrived in the evening right after sunset so we set up camp and relaxed around the fire. It was chilly out there. So we warmed up with some whiskey and got to bed fairly early, eager to explore in the morning!
We woke up and I have to admit, it was tough to get out of the sleeping bag. Chilly mornings are sometimes best spent in the tent until you can motivate yourself with the imaginary smell of coffee brewing. Got up and climbed around the rocks by camp and explored for a bit. Such a rad spot and we decided we will definitely be staying here again another night. It looked like there was some weather in the distance but that soon cleared and the sun touched the desert floor, thawing our bodies from the brisk evening.
Cooked up a quick breakfast before packing the car. Since we were planning on doing a 12 mile hike we wanted to get a fairly early start. We were however, having a great time exploring camp and still pretty tired from the drive so didn’t exactly rush out of there. When doing longer hikes it’s always important to be extra prepared. Especially in the off season when not many people are around. We started off with enough light but figured the sun could go down in the canyon earlier than its supposed to set so we made sure to pack headlamps. Also, I’ve had experiences in the desert where I ran out of water so I always pack extra hydration. Otherwise, be sure to bring a knife, snacks, camera and some good vibes! As soon as we were about ready to start, it began snowing. I wasn’t really planning on bringing my big jacket because once I get going, I warm up pretty quick and don’t really need it but I ended up packing it just in case. Last thing I wanted was to be lost out there in a blizzard with no jacket.
I usually have a pretty good sense of direction and it’s fairly easy to follow cairns along slick rock trails. However, this time we were walking along and it came to a point with literally no where to go. There were about 3 cairns leading to this point and a few areas that could be a trail but lead nowhere. We were super confused and started walking back when we spotted some fellow hikers up ahead. I don’t know if the route we ended up on was intended for something else but it was pretty deceiving. Anyways, we got back on the correct trail and the rest was fairly easy to follow. This whole area was just spectacular! We passed through this slot canyon that was super dark and narrow but added a unique element to our hike. Another favorite section was this one ladder. You climb up about a 10′ ladder and then there is a pole drilled into the rock that you need to pin your foot against and kind of walk across to get all the way across. It was definitely a strenuous hike and we were ready to be at the top already.
We continued the trek weaving in and out of canyon walls occasionally getting off trail and having to backtrack. It was so pretty and fairly easy to get lost if you are not paying close attention. Especially being covered in snow. We had to be approaching the last bit of the trail when someone alarmed us of the steep icy section. We pressed on and wasn’t exactly sure where she was talking about because a lot of areas were steep and icy. We finally reached the “steep” section she mentioned and it was in fact a slippery climb to the top. As we reached the summit of the trail, we saw people looking behind us and didn’t realize that the spot we longly awaited was right there. Crazy that you literally can only see this from one small part of the entire trail. It was one of the most magnificent arches perched up at the top of Elephant Canyon and strongly resembled Stonehenge.
My whole vision for shooting this spot was having some sun flare in the middle of the arch. When we arrived, the sun was a little too high and since we had a long trek back, we knew we couldn’t stay all too long. It was nice relaxing for a bit and taking in this amazing view. Right as we were about to leave, the sun snuck behind one of the rocks to the left of the arch and illuminated the foreground. To get a good sunflare, I always shoot at and aperture of F10-F14. I got even more than what I was expecting out of this shot! The light snow covering made the frame that much more epic. Couldn’t have timed this better if we wanted to!
The hike out was beautiful as well and thankfully had no issues with following the trail. The rocks illuminated with a slight evening alpenglow and made for a spectacular sunset. We were definitely chasing the end of blue hour by the time we arrived at the car but it was well worth the feat. Got back to camp and passed out almost immediately under another magical Utah sky. It was a long day and got some much needed rest after an amazing adventure.
It’s always so rewarding doing longer hikes. I don’t typically do over 10 miles unless I am backpacking and planning on sleeping somewhere along the trail. But that had to be one of the most satisfying and diverse trails I have ever done. 10/10 recommend. Woke up and made some food before hitting the road. There were a couple more places on the agenda.
I have a huge appreciation for Native American art and love hunting for the most epic petroglyphs. The one I found on this trip has got to be the largest array I have ever seen. I honestly didn’t know what to expect but was completely blown away. I just wish that I could understand the story and what this message was trying to say. I will admit that I used Photoshop to clear out some of the graffiti on this wall. Really sad that people feel carving their name into somewhere as sacred as this is acceptable. You would think it’s common sense but apparently not. You can see a small portion of the graffiti they tried to scratch out in picture 2.
The last spot we had time for was a quick off the road stop but was absolutely beautiful. From the outside it looked like a tiny hole in a rock however, if you hike up the wall, through the hole and scale across a slight cliff on the opposite side, it opens up to this massive looking glass arch. I don’t think I have ever had an issue needing to shoot at a focal length greater than 16mm until now. We found some cool vantage points and also a badass cave that I would love to spend the night in. Who knows! That might just have to happen one day.
We started making our way back home and decided to take the scenic route, 128 out of Moab. If you have never done that, definitely worth it at some point if you are heading east. It’s about the same distance, just way prettier. The La Salles had a fresh blanket of snow and the drive was spectacular. There was this tiny town we stumbled upon and it looked almost sketchy to stop in but so glad we did. It was this little art installation and was very interesting. There was this snake van exhibit and it even had a little mini ramp. It was covered in snow but I will 100% be coming back to skate this at some point. Sometimes the little stops in the middle of the desert are worth it… even in winter.
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