Travelers’ Tales in Utah’s Canyonlands

The trail is rough and hard to follow, marked chiefly by cairns; water is intermittent; and if something bad happens help is not at hand

The Druid Arch in Canyonlands National Park
The Druid Arch in Canyonlands National Park Image courtesy of Flickr user terratrekking

Whenever my brother John tells me he’s planning a trip, right away I start angling to go along because he likes places no one else would think of, usually backpacking destinations in the great outdoors. It doesn’t hurt that he has the necessary gear and skills. I doubt I’d know how to pitch a tent or light a camp stove if it weren’t for John. When we pack up in the morning, he stands over me like a Marine, making sure I shake out the ground cloth before I fold it up.

In the car on the way we don’t need the radio; we pass the time arguing, usually at high volume.

I drive the highways, then he takes over on dirt roads, bombing over sand traps and potholes while I shriek. He hates things to go smoothly; when they threaten to he puts an edge on the adventure by telling me we might be low on gas or lost, a stratagem that made me insist on turning back halfway to the isolated Maze District of Canyonlands National Park. Both of us vividly remember the episode, forever defining us as travelers: I’m the wuss, he’s the nut.

But that’s another story. This one’s about the best trip we ever took, to Fish and Owl Creeks in the badlands of southeastern Utah. How John found out about the 16-mile loop trail on BLM land descending about 1,500 feet into a pair of narrow canyons that scrawl across an otherwise empty space on the map I do not know. He’s got a secret file folder full of such expeditions, I guess.

We reached the trail head about 50 miles north of Mexican Hat with afternoon shadows lengthening over the plateau, known as Cedar Mesa. That’s mesa, not butte; if you don’t know the difference between the two, you’re too much of a greenhorn to tackle Fish and Owl, which should not be attempted by inexperienced hikers, according to a map we got from the BLM. The trail is rough and hard to follow, marked chiefly by cairns; water is intermittent; and if something bad happens, help is not at hand.

For all these reasons, I advocated camping on top that night and starting out the next morning. But John overruled me, herding me into Owl Creek like a goat boy. We had to scramble down big boulders—me mostly on my tush—before reaching the bottom of the canyon, which narrows as it descends. Occasionally, I took my eyes off the trail long enough to appreciate the view at our shoulders of precariously stacked hoodoos and Cedar Mesa sandstone cliffs. Meanwhile, John was ever on the lookout for Anasazi rock art and cliff dwellings said to be hidden on benches above the creek.

By the time we finally stopped and set up camp, I was feeling surprisingly comfortable in the wilderness. John made freeze-dried lasagna for dinner and invited me to drink as much bottled water as I liked, thereby lightening the load; no problem when we ran out, he said, because—yum, yum—he’d use his purifier to treat the brackish water we found in sloughs.

I slept tight that night, blinking my eyes open to see a dark sky full of stars when I rolled over in my bag.

The next day’s hike took us deeper into Fish and finally to its confluence with Owl, where we turned downstream. Owl had stretches of running water, small hanging gardens and sandy shoulders where the path was easy to follow. I was ambling along when I realized my brother had stopped, bending over the trail where he’d found a mountain lion track.

Or were things just going along too smoothly for John? I bet on that.

We doubled back at one point, in search of a natural arch described on the map, but never found it. A mile or so short of the exit back onto the mesa, by which we’d close the loop, we found a second campsite, ringed by cottonwood trees, close to a flowing section of the creek. I took a dip, dried off in the sun, and figured I’d found paradise in a crack below Cedar Mesa.

More freeze-dried comestibles for dinner, another night in the bag, followed by a very stiff climb out of the canyon, John showing me where to step. For the last bit he took my backpack so I could manage the climb out, then handed it up to me when I got on top.

We were resting before finishing the last lap back to where we’d parked when a car drove up. A man and woman got out, preparing to start the loop hike the other way round, from Owl to Fish. Only, they didn’t have a map. So we gave them ours, crumpled and splotched, but no less welcome, told them about our beautiful second night campsite and exchanged addresses, promising—as travelers often do when they cross paths in outlandish places—to later exchange notes on our adventures.

I forgot all about it, though I could have told them how I made John drive 100 miles out of the way that day to clean up in a public swimming pool and buy groceries in the town of Blanding before car-camping that night at Natural Bridges National Monument, where John made sure I knew the difference between a natural bridge and an arch.

We went on from there to the infamous Maze and to a family reunion in the Colorado Rockies, where I celebrated my 40th birthday by climbing 14,259-foot Long’s Peak. So by the time I got home several weeks later those were the stories I told about the trip.

A couple of months passed and then I got a letter with a Boston return address from the couple John and I met at the lip of Owl Creek, enclosing the map we lent them and telling a tale that made my skin creep.

They found our cottonwood campsite and settled in, then woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of screaming, hair-raisingly high-pitched and so close at hand they’d have sworn someone was being tortured just outside the tent.

Only one creature makes a noise like that: a mountain lion.

It went on for 30 minutes, at least, while they huddled inside, scared out of their wits. Then it stopped, though they didn’t go out until morning, when they found tracks right outside the tent. Each print was as big as a hand, with pad and four claws clearly marked.

I’d never want to come that close to a mountain lion, though I admit I’m a little envious it happened to them, not us. Never mind. I’ve appropriated the story; it’s mine now, too, because I’ve been to Fish and Owl. Travelers tales are like that. Free to pass around.