Backpacking Canyonlands National Park

Date hiked: 06/24/17 – 06/26/17


Wilhite Trail: 5.2 miles (2.4 miles south on White Rim to Candlestick Campsite)

White Rim Road: 17.7 miles (.4 miles from Hardscrabble A to Hardscrabble B)

Upheaval Canyon Trail: 3.7 miles (1.8 miles along White Rim to get there)

Southern half of the Syncline Trail: 2.9

Total: 34.1 miles

Head Count (how many other hikers I saw): About a dozen jeeps on White Rim Road.  Nobody on either hiking trail.


Three days in the triple digits and fifty-five pounds on my back, plus a dangerous lack of experience. It may not have been the best idea, but it was more than worth it.

Canyonlands has been an unexpected favorite having never hiked in the desert before last year. When backpacking became a part of my life, I knew I’d be making a trip out here eventually.

But a backpacking trip to Canyonlands starts well before you plan on hitting the trail.

Any overnight trip into these wild backcountry lands will require a permit and a reservation. During the cooler peak seasons (April – May and September – October), you’ll likely have to reserve these at least three to four months in advance.

It was mid-April when I’d first gotten this plan in my head, and the closest weekend I could book was June. Here in Colorado, the snow was still falling. Bundled up in my apartment, doing everything I could to stay warm, the heat was the last worry on my mind. But I should have known better.

I knew from the onset, this was going to be hard. So I took the liberty of affording myself every advantage I could and booked a loop that, for the most part, never strayed far from familiar territory. And with my affinity for loops, that left me with few options to satisfy the mileage I was after.

0. Map2_LI (3)

I settled on a descent along the Wilhite Trail to the south, then a short trek along White Rim Road to my final stretch up Upheaval Canyon and the southern half of the Syncline Loop.

The greatest limiting factor affecting backpackers in Canyonlands is the water. Silt makes filtering water from the Colorado and Green Rivers difficult, and the scattered springs aren’t always reliable. So that leaves only one other option.

Over the past month or so, I’d slowly gotten myself used to lugging about twenty-five to thirty pounds of gear on my back, but here, I’d have to tote all of my water in with me.

On my back.

That meant an extra thirty pounds. Not to mention the gallon I was carrying in my hand. It was about sixteen liters in all.

The first time I strapped that load onto my shoulders, I regretted this in an instant.

It was a moment of truth. I could shove that pack back into my car, and drive away safe, but defeated. All of that time and energy I put towards planning, and that money spent to secure my campsites; gone. Or, I could just see what would come of it. I’m not one to shy away easily.

Parking at the Syncline Loop trailhead, the first 2.8 miles of my journey unfolded along Upheaval Dome Road. I was glad for the early start as it gave me an opportunity to test the weight out on flat land without much of an audience.


The Wilhite trailhead from a winter hike.

Leaving Upheavel Dome Road behind, the Wilhite trail travels first across the arid mesa top for half a mile before reaching the crux of the route at the rim of the canyon. From here, expert switchbacks navigate an ancient rockslide to an exposed ledge perched alongside the mesa. One final push looses the last three-hundred feet to where it meets with the canyon floor.

Going into this, the long uphill haul gave me the most anxiety with the pack, but top heavy and unstable, this is what I really should have been worrying about. I was hyper aware of the vertigo-inducing drop beside me with every boulder that threatened to topple me over, and each deep steep I needed to take. It took longer than anticipated, but with the worst of it behind me, it was a long three miles down the dry wash of Holeman Spring Creek to White Rim Road and Holeman Slot.


Holeman Slot is an anomaly in Canyonlands National Park. The softer Navajo Sandstone most conducive to forming slot canyons can only be seen in higher altitudes of the park. This slot was formed by seasonal streams eating away at the White Rim Sandstone. He blends in, but as you can see from above, lizards make themselves at home down here.

I was trying to get out of the sun before the day really heated up, and daydreams of the shade under my tent got me through the grueling two and half miles I had left of White Rim Road to my home for the night at the Candlestick Campsite.


It was the kind of campsite I always dreamt of; grand views, true solitude; but until the sun went down, it was anything but.

I set up camp and got my tent erect. But the shade I was hoping for under my rain flap was nonexistent. Thirty seconds under that sauna, and I was sweating bullets. If I couldn’t find any relief inside my tent, I was hoping for a juniper, or at least something tall enough to rig up a makeshift roof with my tarp. But the highest growth I found were hip-high grasses.

My only relief came in the form of the outhouse included with every backcountry campsite. For four hours as I waited out the sun, I sat in the structure’s shallow umbra, drinking my water by the liter to stave off heat stroke and dehydration for another day. It wasn’t ideal, and not something I particularly want to experience again, but it got me through the worst of it.


Watching the sun go down on Buttes of the Cross in sweet relief.

With an early start, the entirety of my second day involved a trek across White Rim Road. This was my longest day mileage-wise, but save for a short three mile section at the tail end of the route, level ground persisted.

I felt confident going into this. After seeing half a dozen Jeeps drive past my campsite the previous day, I knew if I did run into trouble, I was bound to find help not far behind.


Leaving Candlestick Tower.

I kept a steady pace going the first ten miles, but six hours must be my limit with backpacking. It was about the time I hit a wall both days. It didn’t matter the first day, I was nearly to my campsite already, but here, I still had five miles left to conquer, not to mention the dreaded switchbacks of Hardscrabble Hill. At least I lost a good ten pounds from my pack with the amount of water I downed the night before. And, better than that, one group of Jeepers on White Rim Road stopped to offer me a cold beer and sunscreen, then refilled my gallon. They saved my life.

I had my Sawyer Squeeze and good stack of coffee filters on me, but I didn’t have high hopes of finding any outcome other than a clogged filter going that route with the silty Green River.


Looking past the Green River towards Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.


Steer Mesa.

After another mile, Bighorn Mesa rises from Potato Bottom and its set of three campsites. With no way around it, a four-hundred foot climb known as Hardscrabble Hill unfurls to wrap a ledge (known as Walker Cut after the rancher who blazed it) on more accessible land before dropping down to Hardscrabble Bottom.


Looking back down on the Green River and the lower half of Hardscrabble Hill.

From a high vantage point near the Fort Bottom trail, I could spot my campsite four-hundred feet below me at Hardscrabble Bottom. And from what I could see, it looked to be everything the first night wasn’t – shade and water, but that same solitude and those vistas which brought me here. The only thing which stood between me and that oasis was a tiring two mile downhill battle.


My campsite was the right-most sandy patch by the water.

It wasn’t until the ants came out of their holes and the mosquitoes and flies made themselves known that I realized this site might not be all it was cracked up to be. They came as a minority, then out of nowhere, blossomed into a swarm. After testing three different sites, I finally found a spot that seemed only to attract the few loner ants out on a distant scouting mission for the colony. But the wildlife did have one silver lining in the buck who’d come out of hiding every once in a while.


I found a way through the dense tamarisk to sit at the water’s edge and cool down (that is until a spider crawled across my foot).

Swamped by hordes of mosquitos and flies in the morning, I took my camp down as fast as I could and skipped breakfast in favor of the quick snacks I could eat along the way. I knew I didn’t have much left ahead of me today, and I was nearly back to my normal backpacking weight.

Only 1.5 miles remain of White Rim Road before reaching the mouth of Upheaval Canyon, but continue another .8 miles down White Rim Road, and you’ll find the Labyrinth campsites.


The four mile Upheaval Canyon trail joins the Green River at Upheaval Bottom to the Syncline Loop, gaining the first 250 feet of your exit. Until the canyon narrows around the wash, keep an eye out for cairns as the route threads shortcuts where the wash meanders.

At the confluence, the easiest and quickest way up would be to head right onto the southern half of the Syncline loop, a three mile route gaining the last 1,500 feet. Head left onto the northern half, and you’ll have a longer class-3 scramble ahead of you through whats known as “the Breach”. Not an undertaking I was willing to tackle with the backpack.


The road in sight! Not much remains of the trail from here. This hike nearly took everything out of me, but that feeling of elation at the end, knowing my mind and body could go through this and still see another day, was worth every miserable step I took.


0. Map


(From Moab): From Center Street, drive North on U.S. 191 (Main Street) for 11 miles, then turn left onto Utah 313. After 14.6 miles, continue straight onto the Grand View Point/Island in the Sky Road. After 5.7 miles, pay at the fee station, then follow the road another 7.4 miles, where you’ll turn right onto Upheaval Dome Road. The parking area is 4.8 miles beyond the intersection.

43.5 miles; 57 min

Fees: $25/car to enter Canyonlands National Park

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