Backpacking in Canyonlands: Come Explore!

Backpacking in Canyonlands

Backpacking in Canyonlands National Park amazed us. It’s challenging, it’s hot and it’s fantastic. Come along as we hike the Alcove Spring Trail down to Moses and Zeus rock columns near Taylor Campground.

Steve and I boondocked on BLM land near the park before heading into it on a Saturday. Our camping spot was so windy that we put down our Happy Jacks in order to stabilize Cupcake. Let me tell you, we swayed back and forth for a while. Not to mention that we had to close all the windows when the dust rolled through. Everything got coated with the fine red dust. Maybe a half inch thick across our dinette benches before we got it all bundled up! It’s all in a day’s fun!

We entered the park and visited the main sights. You can read all about that here.

Canyonlands National Park: Hiker’s Paradise

Then we headed back to the Visitor Center to chat with a ranger about backpacking in Canyonlands. We saw some trails on the map and wanted to get some input into the best route for us. Plus you need a permit, so needed to chat with them for it.

Water in the Back Country

The only two options for backpacking in Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky are the Wilhite and the Alcove Spring Trails. Both have 1,300 foot descents into the canyon below, so that part is equal. But, according to the ranger, Alcove Spring has the possibility of water and it can connect to the Upheaval Canyon Trail which makes it a longer loop. It also has the possibility of water around the Syncline Trail, so that had great appeal.

Water determined our hike this time, as we didn’t have a great method of carrying more than a gallon or so each. I guess we thought we’d get some information and then come back the next day, but then the ranger was excited, so we got excited and we decided to go for it! Normally we carry our camelback water packs and/or Smartwater bottles. The big Smartwater bottles carry one and a half liters each and are perfect for backpacking. However, we only had our camelbacks (three between us) and smaller water bottles.

Plan vs Reality of backpacking in Canyonlands

So here’s the three day / two night plan the ranger helped us make.

  • Park at Upheaval Dome on Saturday night. Sleep in the truck camper. It turns out there is a lot of leeway in camping at non-camping areas when it’s about safety. The three of us determined that starting our hike early in the morning would be safer due to the heat. Therefore, it made sense for us to sleep in Cupcake.
  • Take the 1.4 mile road walk from Upheaval Dome to Alcove Spring Trailhead pullout.
  • Hike 5.6 mile Alcove Spring trail to Moses and Zeus rock towers and Taylor Campground (water maybe available)
  • Road walk along Taylor Canyon four wheel drive road for another 5.6 miles
  • Hike up Upheaval Canyon Trail 3.5 miles
  • Going into the Upheaval Dome trail 3 miles
  • Hike the backside of the Syncline Trail 4.9 miles back to our truck in the parking lot (water maybe available)
  • Return to Cupcake on Tuesday

Here’s the reality of our two day / one night trip.

  • Park at Upheaval Dome Saturday night.
  • Take the mile or so road walk from Upheaval Dome to Alcove Spring Trailhead pullout.
  • Hike 5.6 mile Alcove Spring trail to Moses and Zeus rock towers and Taylor Campground (water NOT available)
  • Spend the night and hike in reverse the next day

So we went from a 24 mile proposed hike, which we felt pretty excited about to a proposed 11.2 mile hike. Our Garmin clocked us at about 15 miles total with side trips. In the end, water was our determining factor for backpacking in Canyonlands.

Spending the Night at Upheaval Canyon

I haven’t worn my backpack for almost two years now. That seems crazy. But after I stopped hiking the PCT, my large pack stayed in my camper van and I used a smaller day pack for the rest of the trail. Then my larger pack moved over into our truck camper. And it’s been in here for a year. So taking it out again felt comforting, like being reunited with an old friend.

We pulled out dehydrated food and snacks and put together our backpacks for our first real adventure in a while. A range of emotions flooded through me. The old nagging of why did I quit hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Why didn’t I figure out how to suck it up and keep going with Steve? All of that combined with my excitement to carry everything I’d need for a few days and head out on a new adventure.

Steve and I got our backpacks ready and then settled in to watch an episode of Marvels The Defenders on Netflix. It felt a little wrong to be in the park in a non-camping area, but we had our $36 permit in the truck window!

Descending to the Canyon floor

After the early morning road walk to the Alcove Spring trailhead, we began our descent towards the canyon floor. The views are breath taking. I could say that again…simply stunning. It took up about five hours to get to our campsite, with some time in there for breaks and lunchtime.

What a great trail view

Backpacking feelings…

On the morning of backpacking trips I get a little nervous. It’s like my belly is full of writhing snakes and I’m very unsettled. This nervous feeling happens on big trips and shorter ones. It even happened on the Pacific Crest Trail if we took a town night in a hotel. The next morning I’d get all anxious again, even though we’d already hiked so many miles. So it was the same on the morning of starting this trip of backpacking in the Canyonlands. I mostly felt nervous about water, but it’s also about the unknown terrain. About the possibility of one of us falling and being injured. The nervousness generally dissipates within the first hour of hiking, but it’s a real challenge for me.

All that to say, as we began the 1,300 foot walk down the side of Island in the Sky, a feeling of elation quickly surpassed my nervousness. Did I mention the views are breath taking? Well they are. My feet however, did not feel elated or care about the views. I wear a half size larger hiking shoe than regular shoe. Generally I stick with Altras, which are light weight runners that have a very sturdy, rock-guard sole. But this descent was so steep in places that my toes were hitting the ends of my shoes. Not ideal. I stopped to tighten my laces in hopes of preventing blisters. And it seemed to work. I got hot spots, but no blisters.

Settling in with the weight

Carrying the 20-23 pound backpack took some getting used to again. I’ll definitely see what else I can cut out prior to our return to the Pacific Crest Trail in July. Steve has about six hundred miles left, so we’re headed back!

We’ve been day hiking a lot lately, so I keep adding weight to my day pack, just trying to get used to the feel of it again. A day pack is really no comparison though. Putting on my backpack again and feeling its weight settle onto my hips felt so familiar that I got a little teary eyed. Only for a second though. Then I felt it digging into my shoulders and into my under arms a bit. Adjust, adjust and hike for a bit. Adjust some more. Guess I’m a little heavier now than the last time I took it off, so definitely had some adjusting and settling to do before I felt comfortable.

I’m 55, but I think I’m still fairly nimble. However, once I put that pack on, all nimbleness walks out the door. Backpacking in Canyonlands means I have to step more carefully and much more purposefully on this huge downhill. It only takes a little bit of forward momentum and I’m stumbling along in danger of a face plant! So carefully placed footsteps among the steep gravel and slickrock, along with my hiking poles, gives me more confidence.

What’s slickrock, you ask?

Slickrock is a new term for me. According to Wikipedia, “The name “slickrock” was used by early settlers of the area to describe the sandstone because of the low traction between horses’ metal shoes and the rock’s sloping surfaces. The same is true today for cyclists who use shoes with metal cleats while riding the Slickrock Trail. Slickrock also becomes slick when wet.” I found that information on the internet, so it must be true! Let me show you what it looks like. Here’s a picture from Canyonlands’ Grand View trail.

Slickrock trail at Grand View

Making our way to the canyon floor

Once we got off that crazy descent, the trail wove through greenish rocks and low bushes. I counted 11 lizards throughout the day. Number six was a real fatty about three times bigger than any of the others. Unfortunately, they move too quickly for me to get a photo of. It was great hiking through this portion with all the huge towers of rock surrounding us. It’s a new kind of environment for me and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Backpacking in Canyonlands
There I am walking across the canyon floor!

At the very bottom, we came to a dry riverbed, which became the trail for a couple of miles. The whole day we hiked downhill, but now it was a very gentle grade. We walked through gravel and deep sand, searching for the longer areas of slickrock when we could find them. It was a lot easier to walk on!

Backpacking in Canyonlands
Walking along the river bed

lunchbreak in the shade

We enjoyed lunch under a tree, sitting on a piece of Tyvek another PCT hiker gifted me. Thanks VFAT! It sure makes for a nice, light weight ground cover while taking a break. Backpacking in Canyonlands is hot and thirsty work. Later on in the day, we sat in the shade of some boulders for another break. Laying back on the cool rocks felt heavenly.

We finally got to the area of Moses and Zeus, tall sandstone formations rising about 900 feet into the sky. Once again, I don’t know how they got their names, but the towers are popular with rock climbers. The area is closed right now due to lambing among the big horned sheep. We didn’t actually see any wildlife (beyond the eleven lizards) but we sure looked for some.

Setting up camp

We found an empty Taylor Campground when we arrived. But we still ended up finding a tent spot just below it that offered a little more solitude. Good thing too, because later in the day a huge group of people drove and mountain biked down Taylor Canyon Road and camped for the night. There must have been twenty tents dotting the landscape. They were super friendly, but you know, the whole introvert thing…we just like each others’ company.

We set up our tent and then laid inside for a while, partly dozing, mostly laying in our own sweat. Finally there was shade from the nearby rock towers. We ran to it like dogs chasing cats! Ah, the heavenly shade. As the evening came, we enjoyed wandering around the area without our backpacks to explore all the goodness. It really was a beautiful area.

Return Trip – Backpacking in Canyonlands

The next morning I was awake at 6 and ready to hike while it was still cool out. Steve, however, didn’t rouse till around 7:30. I tried to be still and let him sleep and I even dozed off again for a bit, but really I was ready to tackle that big hill before the heat of the day. We ate some breakfast and tore down the tent before making our start.

A little reading to start the day!

The return trip along the riverbed was just as fascinating to me as the day before. I’m constantly picking up rocks, it’s my thing. But the ranger had been very clear not to take rocks or fossils or any kind of artifact we may come across. I did pick up a very shiny rock, maybe quartzite, but I only kept it long enough to catch up to Steve. Then I sadly let it drop back to the ground.

Our return trip only showed me ten lizards, although I was hoping to break yesterday’s record. Oh the little things that amuse me so! We didn’t even see a rabbit or a chipmunk and those two are usually everywhere! Maybe it’s just too hot in the area for them.

hiking back up that mountain!

The morning grew hotter and hotter. I think it was scheduled to be about ten degrees warmer without the breeze we had yesterday. I don’t do so well in heat, especially going uphill. We met up at the bottom and shared some peanuts, then I headed out a few minutes before Steve did. He caught up quickly and then went on ahead. We kind of hike our own hikes part of the time and then stay together chatting at other times.

Well, I’d take a few steps then take a break, then take a few more steps. Literally, stairs cut into the rock at some places and then loose gravel and then large boulders that you scramble up. This is a beautiful trail, but it’s not easy. The trail also needs more marking. You follow rock cairns along the way, but sometimes they’re knocked over by wind or missteps or they’re just not as close together as you might hope. Other portions of the trail are easier to follow, but going up the canyon side, they’re simply harder to discern. Backpacking in Canyonlands is different than other trails we’ve hiked, which are actual trails. This was more like the suggestion of a trail marked by some intermittent rock cairns.

Sometimes, I give myself some negative self talk, but I really didn’t have that experience this time. Instead I just felt very tired, much more quickly than I expected to. So the trek up felt very hard. There would be small stretches of dirt, like an actual trail and I’d feel so happy to reach them that I was almost bouncing. But then the boulders where I’m literally climbing up onto them would just wear me out.

There may have been a small panic

At one point, both Steve and I missed the trail. He was enough ahead of me that I missed it on my own, not because I was following him. But he was struggling to find his own way back up to the trail so didn’t realize I’d caught up. So then I also had to scramble up the side. Obviously most people missed the real trail because where I went up was covered in footprints. It was like being at the Great Sand Dunes when we were climbing them for fun. We’d slide back down just as fast as we went up.

Well that’s how this portion of “not trail” felt, my feet just kept sliding back down. I might have gotten overly emotional, not crying, but certainly hyperventilating. Unlike the sand dunes, I had 800 or 900 feet of rock beneath me. It was a tenuous couple of moments where I simply stood still trying not to slide down. I looked Steve in the eye and said I just don’t have any more in me. He said sure you do, come on up. So I did. He was right. Like normal.

He stays so calm and guides me patiently. He’s surely the best backpacking partner I could ask for.

Backpacking in Canyonlands
What a happy hiker!

Continuing up from the canyon

Closer to the top is a lot of slickrock, which is actually fairly easy to hike up. Way better than the loose gravel parts. It made the last half mile or so much better to hike up. I could actually stop more safely to turn and look at the views. When I’m paying such close attention to each footstep, I sometimes forget to look out over the whole picture. It was nice closer to the top when I could look around more.

We got to the top and then had the road walk back to the truck and Cupcake. Funny, had we known we’d only go overnight, we would have stayed at the trailhead parking area and save some miles. But what an easy walk compared to that climb! Time to eat some lunch, take showers and then a nap!

We stayed another night at Upheaval Dome and then hiked up to its first lookout the next morning. I’m telling you, I felt sure-footed like a gazelle without a backpack on! So, I guess the question of this post is whether or not I’d go backpacking in Canyonlands again. Especially knowing that all trails in Island of the Sky have a 1,300 foot descent/ascent to and from the canyon floor. The answer is yes! It was hard, sure, but that’s just part of it. The views, the solitude, the experience with Steve. All of those make it so worthwhile.


  1. Blake’s Seven

    Nice to see the Kindle in action

    • mcgarveysan

      We love those Paperlights! So lightweight and the battery lasts forever.


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