top of page
  • Writer's pictureElderberry 1

Red Rock Backcountry

We’re shaking the red dirt out of our sleeping bags, back from a desert backpacking weekend in Canyonlands National Park.

We try to take advantage of long weekends when we can—and we aren’t the only ones. The parks are usually packed on holiday weekends, and it’s nearly impossible to get a campsite anywhere when everyone is trying to get their own time enjoying the outdoors, so long term planning is the name of the game, especially if you’re hoping to get to a popular or well known park.

I made a rookie move this year and failed to plan ahead for this holiday weekend. By the time that I got around to it, not surprisingly, many of my first thoughts about where to go weren’t available. But first thoughts aren’t only thoughts, and there were still some options open. With some poking around I found backcountry permits were still available for the Taylor Canyon zone in the Canyonlands Islands in the Sky district.

Clouds were rolling in as we waited to get through the gate and by the time we got the trailhead it was actually raining. It was a good reminder that inclement weather happens even in places you don’t expect it—like a solid rain in the desert—so it’s best not to automatically ditch some gear (like rain jackets and pack covers). The trail down into the canyon was steep (which we knew would be the case from looking at the trail profile) with some scrambly parts, but nothing too wild, and we made it to the bottom fairly quickly.

The weather started to clear around the time we set up camp, although all the water in the canyon made for a heavy layer of dew in the morning and we had to pack up wet, but we were able to dry everything out while we ate lunch at the low point of the loop by the river.

We were wishing for some of that cloud cover to come back on day two-- the trail is completely exposed and waxed and waned through the sand on the way back up Upheaval Canyon. It was hard to follow at times and there were no fresh tracks ahead of us (two trail runners did come up behind us as we rested in the shade under an overhand in the stream bed at one point, surprising all of us).

The intense sun meant we'd gone through a fair amount of water over the course of the day and when we did a water check before crawling into the tent we found that after rehydrating dinner we only had a little over two liters left between us. We decided to head out early in the morning for the climb out of the canyon to do as much of it in the shade before the sun topped over the rim as possible and to keep the water for the walk rather than use it to make breakfast.

We only had a bit of sun on us at the end, and only after we'd finished the most strenuous part of the climb, and were back at the truck and to the bottles of water we'd cached there by nine o'clock.

Where: Canyonlands, Island in the Sky District

What to know:

  • No reliable water sources-- it looked like it might be possible to get down to the Green River if you had to, but it didn't look like it would be easy. There weren't any other water sources on the trail so we carried everything in, which is something to consider in planning. I started with 5.5 liters-- one liter is roughly a kilo (2.2 pounds) in weight, so I had a little over 12 pounds in water alone at the beginning. And we were still running low and had to skip breakfast and coffee on the second morning.

  • Full exposure-- and I was feeling that on the second day, especially after lunch. There were occasionally places where an overhang offered some shade, but for the most part you're out in the sun. It depends on your tolerance for heat/sun, but late May is really the last time before the Fall that I'd consider doing this one. We've been to Canyonlands before, and have been on the same weekend, once to the Needles District and once to Salt Creek Canyon, and we've had both rain (and one year lightening) and blazing sun. It was in the 90s at the hottest part of the day, but in the sun it feels pretty relentless, especially when you're carrying a pack.

  • Unmaintained trail-- the maps indicate that it isn't maintained, although that isn't strictly true. There were cairns marking quite a bit of it, but it wasn't as well marked as some trails, and there were definitely places (especially in Upheaval Canyon) where it seemed to peter out and disappear. On the other hand, it's a canyon and you know what direction you're generally headed, so there isn't as much danger in getting lost, but you could spend time (and water) wandering around trying to re-find the trail.

Canyonlands is the largest national park in Utah at almost 340,000 square miles, so there is a lot to see. It was great to get the chance to explore one of the parts that sees fewer visitors and to have some quite time listening to the birds (so many birds) and the rain and to watch the moon rise.

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page