trip essentials - travel safely, hike respectfully
Driving and vehicles
I always pick up a rental stock SUV with 4WD, though that’s getting more difficult with rental agencies. They don’t want you going off road with their vehicles (and expressly forbid it in the small print) so will often palm you off with a 2WD version of what you think is a 4WD vehicle. There’s no point trying to book a 4WD in advance as you’ll be offered what’s in the compound that day, so do check first before accepting it. I look for a 4WD/AWD badge or a high/low gear selector. If neither of those is evident then ask. Another option might arrive shortly. Note that the tyres on rental vehicles are for standard driving so they won’t be up to serious off-roading.
It’s possible to drive many of the dirt roads in a passenger car (I once saw a Toyota station wagon on the White Rim Trail), but in rapidly-changing weather conditions 4WD gives you extra peace of mind. Remember that the smooth sandy road you drove in the morning can become undriveable in the afternoon after a fleeting storm – even with 4WD. If that happens you just have to sit it out until the surface dries out a little. That can take an hour or a day. The same is true of flash floods. The dry wash you crossed with ease can quickly turn into a raging torrent. Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to cross it until the water has subsided and the wash has dried enough for you to move on. If the banks of the wash have been eroded you may also need to do some repair work, so bring along a collapsible spade.
Check your vehicle’s water and gas before you leave – you could be a long way from any assistance. And if you do need help, bear in mind that a tow could cost you in excess of $500.
These are obvious do’s and don’t’s but I’ll write them anyway.
Always let someone know exactly where you’re going and when you intend to return. And let them know you’ve returned, or every agency on the Colorado plateau will start looking for you - if you're lucky. Ideally, find a hiking partner unless you’re very confident in your route and abilities.
Don’t try to do too much in one day. The average street walking speed is around 3mph. Canyon hiking speeds can be half that. As a rule of thumb a 3-5 mile hike will take half a day with rest stops and photo opportunities.
Be aware that canyon hiking often means a lot more effort coming out than going in, so allow extra time (and water).
Avoid walking on cryptobiotic soil. It’s what holds everything in place and without it there would be serious erosion. It takes decades to form and seconds to destroy, along with the vegetation it supports. If you come up against it and you can’t walk around it then retrace your steps. None of the hikes on this site require you to destroy this vital natural resource.
PLEASE DON'T CLIMB ON RUINS OR LEAN AGAINST THE WALLS. If you compare old pictures of Anasazi ruins with those of today you’ll notice how much they’ve changed. A lot of this is down to pot-hunters and cattle, but increased visitation over the past 30 years or so has had a noticeable effect too. Will there be many structures standing 100 years from now, or will future visitors just see a pile of rocks? They may have been there for centuries but they’re more delicate than you think. And don’t take or move pottery or other artifacts. They have more meaning left where they are. Let others discover them for themselves. If we all take care of these ancient structures then we may be able to avoid the BLM or park rangers limiting visitor numbers, or even closing sites off.
Wear sturdy trail shoes or lightweight boots with ‘sticky rubber’ (often Vibram) soles. They’re best for slickrock, though be aware that wet slickrock is like ice with any kind of sole. Cover your head and neck from the sun and wear plenty of sunscreen. Take a light waterproof jacket and leave some warm clothing in your vehicle in case you have an unexpected overnight stopover. In Spring and Fall you’ll need extra layers with you.
Binoculars are useful for spotting distant ruins high up on canyon walls. And take a flashlight with spare batteries. Hiking out in the dark, trying to locate cairns, is difficult.
Take plenty. At least a gallon a day per person. The average altitude in these parts is around 4000 feet so you may not feel as thirsty as you would at sea level. That doesn’t mean you’re not dehydrated. Add the often intense heat in a country with little shade and you can see why it’s important to be careful.
And it’s no use have a multi-gallon container in your vehicle if you don’t have enough in your pack, so make sure you have enough with you at all times. I use large bladders with a hose, rather than bottles, because you don’t have to stop to drink.
Don’t rely on water sources as many are seasonal and still need purifying. It’s sensible to carry some Iodine tabs with you for emergencies. Iodine kills just about everything, including you if you take for more than a few days.
Remember, if you’re thirsty you’re dehydrated. And if you’re not, drink some water anyway.
None of the trips listed require camping overnight so I generally travel light on the trail with enough food and snacks for the day. However I always carry extra in the vehicle in case we do get stuck somewhere overnight.
Maps and route-finding
Large scale topo maps are widely available for all the trips listed here, on paper of as a download. Usually, though, I manage with the smaller scale Trails Illustrated maps as there’s generally enough detail to get you started. Then I rely on custom maps from guide books or Google satellite images I've printed out.
Do take a good map with you on the trail and make sure you can read it. Can you identify features you see on the map when you’re on the ground, and vice versa? A desert hike on a lonely trail isn’t the best place to practise your map-reading skills. If you do get lost that very simple guidebook trail map may not help you determine where you are. Most trails direct you to a destination with carefully-placed cairns but you shouldn’t rely on them. Some people kick them down or build others in the wrong place to keep hikers away from certain sites.
Learn how to use a compass and take it with you. I’ve found it’s also useful for driving wilderness roads. A GPS can give you extra peace of mind, even if you just use it to note the position of your car for your return hike. Often, one bend in a canyon can look like another and it’s saved me time on a few occasions.
If you do have a serious problem on the trail or lonely dirt road don’t expect a ranger to happen along and bail you out. All of the roads here are patrolled by BLM or Park rangers but not every day. When you sign in at a trail register you’ll often see that they may drive that trail once a week, sometimes even less.
Don’t expect to be able to use your phone. While the number of cellphone masts has increased over the years much of the area isn’t covered so you may not get a signal. At the bottom of a canyon you certainly won’t.
If your vehicle is stuck you’ll need to walk to the nearest highway and flag down a car. If you’re stranded by a flash flood you’ll have to sit it out.
If you have a medical emergency treat the injured party as best you can. If it’s serious and you need to get help, leave the person as comfortable as possible, preferably in the shade (make a note or take a photo of where they are), with plenty of water and don’t rush. You may injure yourself. If it’s a more minor injury think about turning back. Continuing may exacerbate the problem.
If you get lost, stop. Keep calm and stick together. I know it’s a big dent to your pride but it happens. Check your map again. Retrace your steps to the last cairn. Look for a familiar boulder or tree or footprints in the dirt. If all else fails, make yourself conspicuous and sit tight and wait. You did tell someone where you were going and when you were expected back, right?
First aid essentials
Carry a basic kit in your pack and learn what to do in a medical emergency.
Check out the local conditions before you head out, either from the web, TV, Ranger Station, BLM office or visitor centre. Conditions in one place may be very different to those just 10 miles away.
Keep your eye on the sky. In the summer monsoon season thunderstorms can roll in fast. A storm over the next ridge, or even miles away can severely affect the watercourses where you are. In this dry climate rainwater tends to run off and not soak in, so if you’re in the bottom of a canyon a flash flood could be heading your way. The first signs of this can be a noticeable increase in the wind coming down canyon, or you may notice tha change in the colour of the water, followed by a roar of impending water. Now’s the time to head to higher ground – at least 20 feet above the bottom. On your hike you may have noticed debris high up in the trees. You need to be higher.
WATCH OUT for lightning – If a storm is about to hit and you find yourself in an exposed location and far from your car, seek lower ground or an alcove if that’s possible. If that's not possible, avoid trees and crouch down.
In terms of when to visit, Spring and Fall are the best times as it’s cooler, but you’ll find the trails busier. Summer is quiet and many trails are devoid of anyone, but it’s very hot and storms are unpredictable.
Most kids don’t know it but southern Utah is a theme park in its own right with plenty of adventure for everyone. Many kids (5+) enjoy the challenge of canyon hiking. For the younger ones, strenuous hikes are out of the question, but there’s still much to do, even for them. Give them trail snack rewards for spotting interesting things: the first lizard, buzzard, ruin, pottery shard, the next cairn etc. Get them involved in the journey as much as the destination. Warning: keep children closely supervised at all times. Keep them in sight and encourage them to drink regularly. This is not a walk in the park.
Where to stay
For Canyonlands and Arches National Parks, Moab is the obvious choice. It’s a lively tourist town on the banks of the mighty Colorado with numerous motels, B&Bs and rental condos and can be fully booked (early) over US public holidays. It has everything you need, including trip outfitters and mountain bike and 4WD rental, except seclusion. There are many trailheads within the city limits.
Further south, Monticello, Blanding, Bluff and Mexican Hat have plenty of options and these are good launch points for Cedar Mesa, Comb Ridge and Monument Valley trips. I have to plug Recapture Lodge in Bluff as a personal favourite. The owner, Jim Hook, is a font of local trail knowledge.
In south central and south eastern Utah, Torrey is a good base for Capitol Reef National Park, Escalante for Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and Springdale for Zion National Park.
General tips and warnings
This site contains a list of recommended trips and some (hopefully) useful info.
It’s your responsibility to do your own research and plan the trip sensibly so you arrive back safely. You’re on your own.
Please remember that the trips you read about here are a personal selection and, thus, very subjective. If you don’t agree with any info, please let me know why.
Here are a few tips for your trips:
DON’T step on the crypto – There’s plenty of cryptobiotic (or cryptogamic) soil in Southern Utah and it’s common to arid areas the worldwide. You can spot it by its almost black, knobbly appearance. It’s a biological crust, sometimes 6” deep, comprised of algae, lichens, mosses and fungi. It protects plant life by retaining moisture and stopping soil erosion – and it’s critical for the desert environment. One foot or a tire track in the wrong place and you’ll scar the landscape for decades. Follow existing trails and do whatever you need to skirt around these areas.
DON’T step on the ruins. Better still, don't tread too closely to walls as this could erode the foundations on which they were built.
DON’T cross a wash in flood – People have died doing this. Instead, stick it out until the waters have subsided.
PACK IN raingear and a first aid kit (make sure you check it before you leave).
PACK IN your mobile phone – Down canyon it’ll probably be useless but up on the mesas there’s a better chance of a signal now than just a few years ago. In an emergency do try to be specific as possible about your location.
PACK OUT trash – Most of the trails I’ve traveled have been trash free. Let’s all help to keep them that way.
KNOW your limits – Please don’t try the 15-miler in 100 degrees heat if the most exercise you’ve had is walking from the parking lot to the supermarket. Start small and build up. And when you’ve hiked down a canyon remember that it will take you longer to hike back up – sometimes twice as long, depending on the terrain.
AVOID going alone – If you’re injured you may need help there and then.
DON’T PANIC if you’re injured or lost – There’s a whole book of advice on hiking safety that could be written here but I’m going to leave it to The Hiking Dude. This guy puts it forcefully and succinctly.