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Dave and Jan's travels, day 112:
Canyonlands National Park

8th September
Canyonlands lives up to its name. An enormous park, apparently stuffed full of canyons great and small. We barely scratched the surface of the place. On arrival, we ensconsed ourselves in the campground. You can tell a park is aimed at the more self-sufficient traveller when there's no water in the campground, and a sign saying that firewood is available in Moab (over thirty miles away).

Next stop a quick tour of the major roadside sights before bed. Breathtaking vistas over giant canyons seem to be two a penny in this park. We did catch sunset at the "Green River Overlook" where it was lovely to sit on a rock and watch the colour of the canyon walls gradually change. By sunset the temperature had finally started to drop - this is not a cool place at all.

The next day was pretty astonishing. We had decided to check out a "slot canyon" in the Holeman Basin. First we had to get there, which meant driving the White Rim Road. This is marked as a "high clearance 4WD dirt road" (they also have 2WD dirt roads, and even "graded" dirt roads). Somewhat filled with trepidation, we approached a park ranger who said, "don't worry, you'll be fine". 

So off we go. Next thing you know we're on the most alarming "road" I've ever seen. My favourite bit involved a one in three gradient (really), on a bend, the road's about two feet wider than the car and it's hundreds of feet down to the river, the ground is slick rock with a few foot deep potholes, the brakes won't hold the car, and there are mountain bikers coming down ahead. Lovely. I'd go back, except I need to go on about half a mile to turn round, and once there I'd rather put the return journey off by continuing. The car (as usual) had no problems, but I for one have a few new grey hairs. Even on the flat the road looks like a (used) minefield except when it's a beach. And why does it always crumble on the "oh my giddy aunt how far down is that" side, not the reassuring solid rock side? And let me tell you, when you're poised on the precipice, you don't want to see a giant pothole in the precise place where you have no choice but to put the outside tire next. Call this a road? I ask you.

Anyway, eventually we make it to the "trailhead". Pausing only to change our trousers, we ventured into the slot canyon.

Now, I hear you ask, what's a slot canyon? It's what happens when two things come together. First, you need a "river" that flows in small violent bursts but whose river bed is bone dry most of the year. Second, you need a rock of very uniform density. The lack of weak spots at the sides means that virtually all the erosion goes on at the bottom rather than the sides of the canyon. After a few millenia, you find a canyon that can be hundreds of feet deep but only a few feet (or less) in width. Inside this dizzying corridor, strange fantastical curves are eroded in the rock. The colour streaked sandstone adds another dimension to a landscape that often looks like you're viewing it in a distorting mirror. Each little burst of water deepens the canyon, yet the sides retain the same curves that the first trickle had. You find yourself walking in linked 'S' bends for hundreds of feet at a time. Every so often you encounter a puddle or a steep climb: these can usually be negotiated cleanly with a foot braced against each wall. It's a strange and beautiful place, like nothing else I've ever seen.

It's also a little dangerous: a short local thunderstorm twenty miles away can generate a "flash flood" on a cloudless day. The narrowness means that what would be a few inches increase in level for a normal river turns into ten feet or more in the confines of the slot. Fortunately this did not happen on this occasion.

Eventually we traversed the road once more, and returned to civilisation, cock-a-hoop at both the slot canyon experience and at surviving the "horrendous harry" road in one piece. To celebrate, we took Beluga the car to a carwash. Having traversed the road with the windows open, we also now find that all our possesions are red sandstone coloured. The next day we set off to drive to Capitol Reef.


   (click thumbnails for a larger picture)

Canyon view

Rocks and river from the East Rim Road

Our first slot canyon

At the carwash, much, much later