Canyoneering In Moab, Utah

There was emptiness for miles. My head pressed against the glass of the van as we traversed the Sand Flats Recreational Area just outside of Moab, Utah. As the dust kicking up from the wheels collected on the windows, my hiking companions and I sat back watching the La Sal mountains rise over the horizon.

The rays of morning sun painted the ancient desert in hues of gold and dark red, while the van bumped its way across unkempt roads and our guide spoke enthusiastically about the deep canyons we were about to lower ourselves into.

I had come out to try canyoneering, a new take on hiking where one lowers themselves deep into the crevasses and walks across passages carved millions of years ago by ancient rivers. Our gear was simple: harnesses, helmets, climbing rope, and hiking shoes. We would be executing two rappels today: The first would be a 45 foot drop down a rock wall into the canyon, and the second would be a 75 foot free rappel (essentially a rappel where I would be left dangling in mid air) off the Morning Glory arch before a hike through Negro Bill Canyon.

The Sand Flats Recreational Area outside Moab ©Michael Restivo

Our van took a sharp curve uphill and came into the desolate parking lot. As I stepped out of the van I gazed at miles of vast landscape. The only sign of human habitation here was a small wooden outhouse at the edge of the lot, its face darkened and burned by years of neglect. As my companions filed out, their voices crackling with excitement, I heard only the dry desert wind whooshing through my ears. The eight of us and our two guides picked up our backpacks from the back of the van and after a brief safety talk instructing us to stay with the group, and don’t engage in any activity that some recent Hollywood movies have popularized, we set off along the winding trail towards the canyon.

Entering the trail marked by petrified sand dunes, the first sight that struck me was the perfect curving lines along the wall. These beautiful lines, gracefully curving in near perfect symmetry with the rock, were the effect of billions of years of carving by wind, sand, and water. We were looking back into the past and standing in ancient creek beds that had receded with the passage of time leaving the rock to oxidize in a spectacular dark red rust color. Our guide, who spoke of the land as if it was his child, told us about cryptobiotic soil, literally living soil, containing traces of algae and nutrients that promoted the growth of plants and life. One step of our boots in the soil, he explained, can destroy the nutrients and harden the soil, so it was imperative that we keep ourselves on the marked path.

Dropping farther between the dunes, we came across pockets of water, remnants from ancient rivers. Our group sidestepped our way across the rocks, avoiding falling into the cold springs. Coming across desert roses of brilliant crimson and emerald green prickly pears, our guide introduced us to some form of desert taste test, showing us which plants could be eaten for energy, or relaxants, or for seasoning bland camp food. He handed me a long stemmed red flower, instructing me to eat the leaves. Putting the flower in my mouth, it tasted silky and soft, but then I was hit with an unexpected spiciness, and a familiar burn that swept through my mouth: it tasted just like horseradish. I took a long swig of water to cancel out the burn as the group poked fun at my misfortune.

Our guide identifying prickly pears and desert roses ©Michael Restivo

As our group took a break, I took the opportunity to find a higher view (as a rock climber, my natural tendency is to hike up anything that’s remotely climbable) I rushed up the steep side of the sand dune, the hard circular ridges rubbed up against my boots as I found altitude. Stepping up over the rim, I was entranced by hundreds of golden dunes stretching out into the distance. The locals call this slickrock, tough, gritty rock that provides excellent traction for the mountain bikers.

Author climbing the petrified sand dunes ©Michael Restivo

When I returned to our group, they were rounding the last sand dune, and the trail disappeared into a deep crevasse: we had come to the rim of Negro Bill Canyon. My companions and I sat down on the side and allowed our guides to prepare our rappel rigging. They took a long length of climbing rope and wrapped it around the branches of a large tree. As our guide helped us into our harnesses, they threw the cord down the edge of the canyon. It seemed like minutes until we heard a comforting thump on the canyon floor.

I’ve done many rappels, but there is always that one moment of apprehension where I realize I’m walking off the side into the dark expanse below. I watched my companions disappear over the rim and took my place on the side. Looking over, I couldn’t see the floor from the ledge that jutted out from the inside of the canyon. I passed the cord through my harness, took a deep breath, and cautiously shuffled my feet over the ledge. The cord in my right hand controlled the speed, and my guide above me disappeared as I descended into the dark below. My hiking mates cheered me on, my feet pushed off the ledge jutting out about halfway down and I expertly took long strides as the canyon floor came closer.

The ropes descending the first rappel ©Michael Restivo

Three quarters of the way down, I traversed to the right to avoid a large puddle at the base of the wall. My back hugged the wall and my feet touched just to the side of the water. I walked over, high fiving my companions, and as I unhooked the rope from my harness, I heard a splash followed by a yelp. The girl coming down after me had managed to land seat first in the water. We walked over trying to contain our laughs and helped her out of her harness.

Our guides made quick work of collecting our gear and quickly rappelled down. Looking up and seeing the crack in the Earth that we were standing within revealed a clear blue cloudless sky. As we talked about our first rappel, the sound reflected off the claustrophobic walls and we filed out to an opening on the far end. Passing through a keyhole-sized crack in the edge, we entered into a clearing deep between two canyons. A mountain stream trickled down from the side and I watched two falcons soar above, searching for their rodent breakfast, their cries echoing across the red rock. Our guides  led us to the rim of the canyon, and that’s where we came across Morning Glory arch.

Morning Glory arch is the 6th largest land bridge in the United States. It spans 243 feet across the canyon and 75 feet above the floor. Here we would be performing a free rappel. Instead of having the aid of the canyon wall as we had passing into the first canyon, we would be lowering ourselves in mid-air. The rappel would be faster as there would be minimal friction against the rock, and we would feel the full weight of the rope length pulling us towards the floor.

Morning Glory Arch and Negro Bill Canyon ©Michael Restivo

Gravity wins here. Our guides set up the rope and threw it over the edge. Walking along the length of the arch, it was amazing to think how perfectly formed it was. The wind running through the walls had eroded the rock over time leaving a near perfect half circular structure.

I was the last one down, so my rappel would be supplemented by the full weight of the rope. After watching my companions disappear over the arch, I started by backwards walk. My hiking boots scratched against the rust colored rock and I kicked down for about 25 feet, and then it suddenly gave out. I felt gravity pulling me down, and the rope started passing faster through my hands. Seeing my seven partners staring up at me, I gained control and put a better grip on my cord. Looking up I could see the rocky underside of the arch and the clear gaps between the canyon wall and the ledge. Feeling confident and excited I yelled out to my companions below and let the rope slide loosen through my fingers towards the end. At the final little drop I opened up my palm and landed on my backside rather clumsily. Laughing it off I high fived my hiking partners again and pulled myself out of my harness.

Our two guides executed a spectacular double rappel off each side of the rock and pulled the rope loose, letting it crash loudly to the ground. With the gear collected we began our hike out through Negro Bill Canyon.

The controversially named canyon is taken from William Granstaff, a mixed race cowboy who ran his cattle through the crack and lived in a cave high up on the side. Our guides took us to see the cave, sitting about 7 feet above the canyon walls, and its roof was blackened with the remnants of smoke and soot from over a century prior.

Further down the thin pathway our enthusiastic guide came too close for comfort to a black widows nest. A long uphill hike took us to a parking lot on the far side. The distance from the trailhead to the edge of the canyon had spanned five miles with an elevation drop of about 130 feet. In our short four hours we had traversed the desolate southeastern Utah desert through a petrified sand dune forest, dropped into the crack, and rappelled off a spectacular arch into the winding canyon below. Our guides drove us along the Colorado River back into town, and we ended our hike and our canyoneering adventure with some equally spectacular burgers.

 Author rappelling from Morning Glory Arch©Michael Restivo

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