Awash in the Canyonlands

Taking Risks
  |  Gorp.com
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park

There are thousands, probably tens of thousands, of hikes in the canyonlands area, which includes not just Canyonlands National Park, near Moab, Utah, but the entire Colorado Plateau, encompassing the Four Corners region of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. H. J. thought that the 40-mile trip down the Paria Canyon, a well-known route that requires no special climbing skills, would make a perfect introduction to the area. And, indeed, I learned on the first day of the hike why H. J. has been coming back for so long — why, in fact, humans, as evidenced by the region's trove of petroglyphs and pictographs and Anasazi ruins, have been attracted to the place for thousands of years. The canyonlands are, quite simply, some of the most mesmerizing, beautiful terrain on Earth.

The Paria River has cut deep into the soft sandstone, hundreds of feet deep, and the walls of the canyon are striated in bands of pink and red and ocher and copper and gold, smoothed by water into intricate rippled patterns and glazed by the sun. In the heart of a canyon, nature is stripped to its barest elements — rock, water, sky. There is the silty, chocolate milk colored river, murmuring and trickling and, under normal conditions, not much more than ankle deep. There is, far above, a thin strip of sky, providing only the slightest hint as to the upcoming weather. Otherwise, it seems as if the world is made of pottery; every bend in river brings a different morphing of colors, a sudden interplay of curves and shadows, a new set of walls.

Route finding, in canyoneering, is not a worry: Follow the river. We didn't even have a map. The trip would be finished when the Paria spilled into the Colorado, and not a step sooner. There, we'd hit a road and hitch back to our car, parked at the start. The Paria hike begins as a wide canyon, the riverbanks green with sage and tamarisk, the walls pitted with tiny, smoothed caves, alcoves room enough for one. Soon, though, the walls rise up and pinch shut, the vegetation thins, and the canyon is the width of a one-lane road and there is no choice but to walk in the water.


Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 8 Nov 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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