My buddy Chris and I had previously visited Echo Park in northwest Colorado and bushwhacked up the mesa to see the confluence of the Yampa and Green Rivers near Steamboat Rock. Chris suggested the Confluence Overlook above the Green and Colorado Rivers as a nice complement to that trip, and Utah’s Canyonlands sounded like a nice mild-weather fall backpacking destination. As the trip approached I could see the forecasted afternoon rain showers on the first day, followed by clear weather. We had initially planned to hike across Big Spring Canyon to set up camp after the first night, then backpack into in Elephant Canyon for the second night. The Overlook is about 5 miles from Big Spring.
I arrived at the Canyonlands a bit later in the afternoon than expected so we decided to car camp the first night at a dispersed sight not far off the road to Big Spring. That turned out to be a fortunate choice, as just as I began to set up my tent a light rain quickly turned into a blowing wet snow storm. My rain jacket wetting out almost immediately. I had only set up my X-mid one other time camping under perfect conditions; the inner and rainfly pack up attached and the tent blew about wildly as I tried to stake the corners. As this was my first time setting up a trekking pole tent in the red Moab sand, I hadn’t even thought about the need for sand stakes. My “ultralight” tent stakes were pretty worthless that day, especially with the relentless wind and rain. I thankfully had plenty of extra shock cord in my truck to tie some sturdy, longer guy lines that I could use to anchor my tent to big rocks. I finally did get the tent set up, and was impressed at how well it held up during the overnight ice storm.
The next morning I thought that maybe just sleeping in my truck might have been a better option, until I realized my truck doors were completely iced over. I had to boil a couple pots of water to pour over the ice before I could open my truck door. I waited for the sun to come up over the rocks behind our camp site to break down my X-mid, and as advertised the silpoly material had not absorbed water despite the intense storm.
We parked at the Big Spring Canyon trailhead and entered with a Needles North at-large backpacking permit. These sites can be reserved at recreation.gov . We had also packed in wag bags as you have to pack out your poop & paper in the Canyonlands. We carried in about 2 gallons each of water, but on this trip there was plenty of water in the slickrock potholes thanks to the snowstorm. Rangers had let me know in a planning call ahead of the trip that the Colorado River was not really accessible from the Confluence Overlook, and that the silty river was a filter-killer anyway.
The hike down, then back up Big Spring Canyon with our backpacks was not easy but served as a good confidence builder. We had decided to set up camp early and found nice area on the slickrock out of site of the trail, then slackpacked to the Overlook. In our unexpectedly hectic morning I had forgotten to check that my phone had fully charged, and I didn’t realize until we were a couple miles in that I had less than 10% battery left. I had planned our route on GAIA and had it downloaded to my phone. Thankfully Chris had fully charged his phone and had the area map downloaded. In the end we were able to navigate our way to the Overlook cairn to cairn without too much difficulty, although it is definitely a good idea to hike this way with a partner to help spot the cairn markers. The route had some fun obstacles to climb up and down but nothing technical. We had agreed on a conservative turnaround time to allow plenty of time to get back to camp, and were happy to reach the Overlook a few minutes ahead of schedule.
We were thankful to see the space ship rock marker for our camp as we got back just ahead of sunset. The wind was moderate overnight and the big rock / little rock staking for my trekking pole tent held up. My free standing BA Tiger Wall tent might have been a better option on the slickrock, although I had been grateful to have my X-mid for the prior night’s epic storm. The next morning we enjoyed an easier hike back across Big Spring Canyon without much water or food to carry. This was a challenging but really fun adventure given my limited prior hiking experience in a canyon and desert environment.
Photos courtesy of Chris Genereux