Rain in the Canyonlands

Camping at the Canyonlands Squaw Flat campground has been idyllic.  The air smells of Juniper and desert sage, and from our shady site amongst the red sandstone formations I can see little lizards scuttling around each morning, hunting silently for tiny insects. The campground has been dead quiet, and the weather has been just about perfect.

The ranger we met at the visitor center said that later in the day there would be a chance of thunderstorms, possibly featuring hail, but as late as 11 a.m. there was hardly a cloud in the sky.  Still, we planned a light day of hiking the shortest trails in the park, so we could take it easy and get back to shelter if a storm popped up.

The women’s bathroom at the visitor center had a unique color chart on the wall, entitled “How dehydrated are you?”  Eleanor and Emma were a little mystified by it at first, since it only featured shades of yellow.  Then they got it.  The men’s room has no such chart.

These days Emma has finally graduated from a tattered purple backpack that suited her when she was five, to a adult-sized pack that has such niceties as a hip belt, lots of adjustment points, pockets, and a place for a water bladder.  Zoe the stuffed cat, however, still comes along on every hike with her head poking out of a zippered compartment.  We are happy to maintain that tradition for as long as Emma likes.

Like a lot of the big western parks, Canyonlands Needles district is mostly backcountry, but you needn’t go far to see lots of interesting things.  Just a short walk from the roadside are “Roadside Ruin” featuring a granary from about 1200 A.D., and Cave Spring, which features a century-old cowboy camp and ancient pictographs.

The fatigue I’ve felt recently was still with me as we did these simple hikes, and the heat approaching upper 90s didn’t help.  I finally gave in to the temptation that had been dogging me all week, and took a siesta after lunch, during the peak of the afternoon heat.  Then we attempted a longer hike, Slickrock Foot, which features four viewpoints along a 2.4 loop trail.  But as we began the hike a thunderstorm began to form to the southwest and menace us with flashes of lightning in the distance.  If it came our way, I didn’t relish the idea of being caught out on slickrock, entirely exposed and a mile or more from the car.  After going less than 1/4 mile, we decided to abandon this hike for another time.

That storm ultimately missed us, but it was a good idea to get back to the Airstream to secure the vent fans and awning in case another storm developed.  To stay close to home, we took the Squaw Flat hike that left right from the “B” side of the campground (about 500 feet from our campsite).

This hike crosses plenty of the famous Utah slickrock and also takes you through a variety of other terrain:  narrow crevices, under rock overhangs, through shallow washes lined with trees, and culminating with a steel rope handrail up a steep massif of red sandstone.  It packs a lot into a mere two miles.  I would have enjoyed it more if I didn’t have to keep an eye on the quickly-moving rainstorms that were passing by.

That evening during dinner one of the storms finally targeted us.  It was one of those moments when you are reminded of why you have an Airstream.  Our neighbors, nice folks with a couple of small boys, were forced to quickly clear their picnic table and huddle in their tent as the heaviest rain began.  We just kept on eating dinner, watching the tumultuous rain out the window and listening to the rolling thunder echo through the canyons.

As the rain cleared I could hear a newly-formed stream rushing by the back of our campsite.  A miniature flash flood had occurred in one of the little washes, and a couple of small waterfalls were pouring off the slickrock.  This brought out all the children, who reveled and splashed in the water for a few minutes until the waterfalls dwindled to drips and the stream reverted to a sandy wash.

In a place where only eight or nine inches of water fall annually, this little storm was a significant event. The soil was penetrated to only about 1/2” and the water vanished like a puff of smoke, but it was a life-giving event for every plant and animal in the area.  For us larger mammals, it brought lovely cool evening temperatures for our last night in Canyonlands.

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