Hike to Tower Arch in Arches Nt’l Park (1.7 miles each way)
Return to Delicate Arch in Arches Nt’l Park (1.5 miles each way)
Drive the La Sal Mountain Loop State Scenic Backway
Thursday, May 20:
Hike Elephant Hill to Squaw Flat, Big Springs, Squaw Canyon Loop (12.5 miles) in The Needles District of Canyonlands Nt’l Park
Friday, May 21:
Drop Maddie and Mikayla off at Canyonlands Regional Airfield
Drive from Moab, Utah to Tulsa, Oklahoma
There’s no better way to kick off the summer than a week in the desert! Maddie and Anna figured out the exact days they would both be free from school and work, invited all interested parties to come along, and set off to explore some of the best that Southeastern Utah has to offer. It’s hard to come to Moab and not see amazing things that make you feel like you’re on another planet, but we’re here to tell you some of things we think you really can’t miss AND how to make the most of your trip.
Step One: Where will you stay? Moab is literally surrounded by BLM campsites. If being the closest to the action is most important to you, look for sites on HW 128, headed toward Castle Valley. These sites are north of Moab, so you don’t have to drive through the town to get to Arches and Canyonlands Nt’l Parks. However, they are first-come, first-serve. We wanted to be able to guarantee our spot before arrival. We also knew we wanted to spend time in the Needles District, which is an hour’s drive south of Moab. For these reasons, Ken’s Lake Campground was the perfect home-away-from-home (even when the wind was so strong that it broke BOTH of our tents!).
Step Two: The National Parks. You could easily spend years exploring Moab without ever stepping foot in Arches or Canyonlands National Parks. But you wouldn’t. We spent two days in each park and absolutely still have unfinished business in both. Our number one recommendation for Arches–get up before the sun. Even with the new timed entry program, Arches National Park sees a lot of people every day. We started our Devil’s Garden hike at 6:30 am and were one of maybe five cars in the parking lot. By the time we finished the loop around 10, there was a line of cars out the parking lot and down the road. Other ways to avoid the crowds in ANP: get off the beaten trail (Tower Arch is 8+ miles down a gravel road; needless to say, we didn’t have to share with many other hikers) and take advantage of lulls in the crowd (we braved the heat and exposure to hike to Delicate Arch at 2pm and were rewarded with having the most crowded place in the park to ourselves). Our number one recommendation for Canyonlands National Park is getting off the pavement. Even in Island in the Sky, which is the most visited district in the park, hiking to Murphy’s Point was far less crowded than Grand View and just as spectacular. The Needles district was our favorite adventure from our trip. As previously learned in GCNP, we believe that you can’t just view a canyon from the top. There’s no better feeling than being amongst it. The Needles is also far more isolated and rugged. Maddie worked to combine trails and maximize our experience/mileage in the district but even with careful planning and signage, it was a little difficult to navigate (pro of being raised by Glen Petersen–you learn to be really good at reading maps, even in the age of phone navigation). Don’t forget your maps on the trail!
Step Three: Other things to see and do. Moab is an adventurer’s dream; we truly only scratched the surface and CERTAINLY didn’t bring enough gear to do the desert justice. Some of our favorite experiences in the area were outside the parks. Maddie heard about Mill Creek from a local on her flight, and it was the perfect introduction to the area. In addition to getting our feet wet in the waterfall, we explored the cliffs and found a naturally-occurring rock tunnel. Castle Creek winery is possibly one of the oddest places we’ve ever been, but where else could we live out our Moira Rose fantasies? Dead Horse Point left us all speechless with an unmatched sunset. We got to see petroglyphs and pictographs that reminded us of the original stewards of the land. And, of course, no trip to Moab is complete without time dedicated to the Colorado and Green Rivers, which have shaped the landscape, sustained life for millennia, and continue to anchor the area’s natural and cultural history. Avery, our rafting guide, also just happened to be a fellow John Wesley Powell fan (he literally had JWP merch). All in all, if you’re spending time in Moab, don’t forget to explore all the area has to offer outside the national parks.
Step Four: Safety first (or fourth). We are so fortunate to be able to recreate in wild spaces, but we can only do so when we remember that they are wild. spaces. Bring a lot of water wherever you go. If you think you have enough water, bring a little more, just in case. Any time you have an opportunity–in town, at the park Visitor Centers, and at Lions Park at Junction 191 and 128 –refill your water bottles. In addition to being hot and dry, (classic desert), most of the hikes we took in Moab were really exposed. Which leads us to safety tip number two: sunscreen. We packed sunscreen on our hikes to reapply throughout the day. Anna and Maddie both tend to tan instead of burn, but our sweet, sweet friend Mikayla was not so lucky. So, we also packed an extra shirt to cover her shoulders when needed and bought spray-on aloe to use anytime the sun won. Even in the car, the sun was incessant. Anna’s right shoulder ended up way darker than her left because of the open sunroof. As always, we want to recommend asking the rangers for recommendations and safety tips before going out on any trails. We also learned how important it is to bring and be able to understand your map in the backcountry.
Once again, we were unable to avoid a few absolute clusters. Firstly, both of our tents broke because of the gust-level winds. Maddie fixed (?) hers with duct tape and hair clips before ultimately throwing it away on our last morning. Anna didn’t realize hers was broken until she tried to set it up to use for Articulation Bootcamp, but both tents have since been replaced and upgraded. Anna’s check engine light also decided to turn on for a little while, just to keep the gang on their toes. Maddie got temporarily stranded on a cliff face that she tried to climb upfront, instead of taking the trail (which, while she was clinging to the rock, several older adults traversed the actual path with ease). Possibly most disappointing about the unsuccessful rock climb is that she actually got about a foot from the top before getting stuck, and then had to backtrack with Anna trying to coach from the top. Anna threw up profusely the second to last evening at camp, which tragically had to be cleaned up with plastic spoons. And, just like in GCNP, our perfect weather came to a close on our last morning, when we were woken up to buffeting winds and rain at 4am. Instead of trying to go back to sleep, we decided to just pack up, throw away Maddie’s tent, and leave town a few hours ahead of schedule. This worked fine for Anna and Brooklyn, who were driving, but it meant that Mikayla and Maddie had to sit outside at the Airfield until it opened. Thank goodness Olivia Rodrigo had just released her debut album that day.
Devil’s Garden: a nice lil primitive trek, plus SO! MANY! ARCHES!
Ladders on the trail in the Needles
Finding our own naturally-occurring City Museum at Mill Creek
Getting to fan girl about JWP and learning about female explorers and cow bandits from Avery (the one that got away)
Maddie surprising Anna by bringing a graduation cap on the trail because Anna skipped her make-up graduation ceremony to come explore the desert
Meeting a river god (we think) while hammocking and cooling off in the Colorado river
Seeing a sunset proposal at Delicate Arch and taking swigs from our Fireball flasks to celebrate (because shooters are illegal in Utah). Fireball, once again, we are begging you to sponsor us.
Watching the most perfect sunset and seeing the stars slowly come out at Dead Horse Point (and realizing Mikayla and Brooklyn have the same eye prescription–soulmates)
Junior Ranger Program & Trail Advice at the Visitor’s Center
Hike the Rim Trail from Mather Point to South Kaibab Trailhead (2.3 miles each way)
Wednesday, Nov 25:
South Kaibab to Bright Angel Trail (17 miles)
Thursday, Nov 26 (Happy Thanksgiving!):
Bus tour from Bright Angel Lodge to Hermit’s Rest
Sunset hike from Yaki Point Road to Cedar Ridge (5 miles)
Friday, Nov 27:
Drive to Tulsa, Oklahoma
Please recognize that we mean no disrespect when we say this, but not everyone can do South Kaibab to Bright Angel in a day, and, if we’re being honest, not everyone should want to do this hike. It’s hard. Seventeen miles is already a daunting task, but the elevation gain is brutal, not to mention the reversal of the hike (usually you get to coast DOWN the mountain for the second hike; the nature of hiking in a canyon is that your second half is when things get really hard). What we can say is that, if it is physically accessible to you, no trip to the Grand Canyon is complete without going down the Canyon at least a little bit. From the rim, the Grand Canyon seems almost like a canvas background, like it isn’t quite real. Once you descend, even a little bit, the scale and grandeur take on new meaning and your experience of the Canyon is far more intimate (and less crowded). Our recommendation to you? South Kaibab Trailhead to Cedar Ridge. This 3 mile loop gives you amazing views, is steep but attainable, and allows you to see what it’s like to be within the walls of the Canyon without killing yourself. We made it to Cedar Ridge for sunrise on our full hike and returned for sunset on our last evening. Because why watch the sunset from the rim when you can just hike another quick five and get it all to yourself?
For anyone hiking in GCNP, but especially you full senders who want to try to full hike in a day, there are a few must-do things. Take lots of water. Pack trail food; our go-tos are Cuties, Nature Valley granola bars, and applesauce packets. Dress in layers because the temperature changes throughout the hike are no joke. Bring hiking poles. Let me say that last one again, because, until this trip, I (Anna) kind of thought hiking poles were for old people. However, for once in my life, I was wrong. They saved our knees on this trail. I seriously do not think I could have done it without them. We are now forever advocates for poles.
We also recommend going to the Ranger Station or Visitor’s Center before hiking. The National Park officially has to recommend that hikers do not do the full trail in a day, for obvious safety reasons, but staff and rangers will give you off-the-record assurances or alternate suggestions. When we went to ask about ice conditions and whether or not we needed spikes for our shoes–another important question for would-be hikers–the woman we talked to sized up our group before explaining what we needed to know to be successful. While her belief that we could do the hike ended up being the last push we needed to take the plunge, we would have made different plans if she was adamant that we couldn’t do the trail. Trust the rangers’ opinions and recommendations; chances are they know more than you. We also, as always, highly recommend reading AllTrailsreviews. They are super helpful for determining challenge level from various real-person points of view. They also have details about the trails that maps and guidebooks don’t; the more you know going into a hike, the better.
Lastly, if you are committed to making it down and up in day, you need to consider logistics. When we went in November, the bus services were limited. This means that the shuttle that goes all the way back and forth to both trailheads in the summer only ran one way and only ran part of the way. Check what buses are running and when before your trip. Luckily, we had two cars, so we could drop one off at the end of the trail and then come back to the bus stop at the Visitor’s Center that would bring us to South Kaibab. If you don’t have a second vehicle, you may need to hike extra mileage to get back to your car or to the bus station. The Rim Trail has pretty much no elevation change and runs from South Kaibab to Hermit’s Rest, hitting the Visitor’s Center and Bright Angel along the way, but it does require the additional walking after an already pretty sinful trek. Another important detail is timing. We did our hike in 9 hours (8 hours of trail time with an hour at the bottom), but we planned our day around the possibility of it taking much longer. Starting predawn allowed us to not worry about time and to enjoy the sunrise on the trail. Our last recommendation? Train. We technically didn’t, but we finished a trail outside Tucson the Saturday before that was shorter but had the same elevation gain. Using this trail as a frame of reference helped us realistically determine if we could handle going down and up in a day.
Should you go in November? We say, overall yes. Here’s what you need to know.
Yes, it might be 12° at the Rim when you start hiking or go to watch the sunrise. However, it also might be 78° Indian Gardens (the halfway point on Bright Angel) come noon. We say these particular numbers because that was the temperature change during our hike. If you pack nothing else (except hiking poles) bring clothing that layers.
Check ice conditions before you hike. Talk to rangers or look at the weather report written at the bus stops.
Even in the cold, bring more water than you think you need. During the winter months, there is only water available at Indian Gardens and Phantom Ranch. This means there is no water available on the recommended day hike portion of Bright Angel and no water at all on South Kaibab. Our trick? Bring and refill disposable water bottles because they’re lighter and can be compressed once you don’t need them. Just make sure you recycle afterward 🙂
Check bus routes before you arrive in the park for the day. We mentioned before the potential challenges associated with going point to point. In November, Hermit Road is also closed to private vehicles, so you can only get to Hermit’s Rest or any of the other waypoints on the bus line. We loved this as a day-after-the-trek activity.
Any adventure has a few bumps in the road, and this trip was no exception. Our first problem was traffic; we were delayed hours between Tucson and Phoenix because a horse trailer crashed and released several horses to run around the interstate. We ran into traffic again right outside the park. Between the delays, we had to pick between seeing the sunset at the Canyon and setting our camp up with the last rays of daylight. We picked sunset (and no regrets!!), but that we meant pitched our tents in the dark. Roadblock number two was forgetting the hammer for our tent stakes. Maddie used her law textbooks instead. The result of setting up in the dark was that our rain hood was on sideways; this let the cold in a little more than we may have wanted. We did get lucky with our timing, however. The snow held off until the day we left, but we did have to drive through the blizzard to make it back to the Blessed Midwest.
Taking Fireball shots at Phantom Ranch–the bottom of the Grand Canyon ! (Fireball, please sponsor us, we’re begging you)
Watching the sun rise at Cedar Ridge during our hike to the bottom
Brushing our teeth under the moonlight next to the Canyon when we slept in the park
Following the mules down past Skeleton Point and seeing the Colorado River for the first time on our hike
Getting the sunset to ourselves down in the Canyon for our last night