a conversation with the earth guidebooks + guided hiking
Hiking from here to WOW: Utah Canyon Country

Hiking from here to WOW:
Utah Canyon Country

Sample from Introduction


Humans can't survive without dreaming. Deprived of our nightly flights of imagination, our sanity disintegrates. Likewise, deprived of mystery, our soul withers.

Some think they need only answers. But the need for mystery is greater than the need for any answer.

And just as sleeping summons our dreams, hiking is an invocation to mystery. Especially if we're hiking in the most mysterious land of all: the vast, earthen sculpture known as southern Utah.

The soaring arches, bulging walls, towering spires, and fiery colors eventually, inexorably lull hikers into a state of contemplation in which we ponder and are strangely soothed by life's enduring mysteries.

We're aware of the scientific view. We've heard about the processes that shaped this topography. What geologists tell us makes sense. We don't question how. We wonder why. We seek a transcendent explanation.

Could aimless physics really be responsible for creating such a bizarre and sensuous wonderland? Or was there intent? The intent to inspire play and elicit joy among all creatures who wander here?

Romping like children--across slickrock, into labyrinthian canyons--we sense nature's intent. It ignites our curiosity, powers our limbs. But it remains a mystery. And it keeps us returning, to steep ourselves in it rather than solve it.

Fall asleep, plunge into the recesses of your subconscious mind, and you awaken not necessarily with answers, but refreshed. It's the same when you return from a southern-Utah sojourn, your boots covered in Navajo sandstone dust, your mind empty and clear.

Canyon country is the land of waking dreams.

Sample of a Premier Trip

Trip 66 — PEEKABOO

location Canyonlands National Park, Needles District
round trip 10 mi (16.2 km)
elevation gain   940 ft (287 m)
key elevations trailhead 5180 fat (1580 m)
highpoint en route 5360 ft (1634 m)
lowpoint in Salt Creek Canyon 5070 ft (1546 m)
hiking time 5 to 6 hours
difficulty moderate
map Trails Illustrated Canyonlands National Park / Needles & Island in the Sky


Many other canyon-country hikes are longer, wilder, lonelier, more challenging, more scenic. But the Peekaboo trail gets straight A's: amusing, amazing, awakening. It's the piece de resistance of slickwalks. Think roller coaster, on foot. It ramps up, runs along ridges, nips over saddles, wraps around fins, hops onto bluffs, contours through drainages, slides into chutes, fakes left, veers right, even pops through a tiny window to earn its name. About the only thing it doesn't do is lose you along the way.

Fantastically tortuous terrain like this is common in southern Utah canyon country. But much of it would bamfoozle even a champion orienteer. What distinguishes the Peekaboo trail is that it's clearly indicated on maps and precisely cairned by national park rangers, allowing the average hiker to confidently follow its sinuous course. And unlike many slickrock areas near Moab, only hikers are allowed on Peekaboo. No mountain bikes. No motorcycles. No jeeps.

Although the national park refers to it as a trail, most of it is actually a route with nothing but the occasional cairn to indicate the way. You can follow a trail mindlessly. A route, especially a slickrock route, and this one in particular, requires you to be fully engaged. Often, the way forward is a mystery until your boots are upon it. Twice, there wouldn't be a way forward if not for strategically placed ladders. This is land you must grapple with mentally and emotionally, as well as physically. That's why Peekaboo is an extraordinarily fulfilling hike.

Rejuvenating is another way to describe it. Parents are forever going on about the pleasure of seeing life through their children's eyes. Well, hiking can top that easily. It can make you a kid again. Surprise, discovery, wonder and delight are impossible to suppress while giddily romping the Peekaboo. Ultimately, the experience transcends even the innocence of childhood, offering a sense of grace, of sanctification.

Which begs a question. Was it really just the mechanical processes of geology that aimlessly wrinkled this land? Or was there intent? The intent to inspire play and elicit joy among all creatures who wander here?


Before your trip

If you intend to dayhike in the area for a few days, try to camp at Squaw Flat. The campground has water (spring through fall) and toilets. The 26 sites, each with picnic table and fire pit, are available first come, first served. If the campground's full--which it usually is during peak season--arrive by 10 a.m., watch for someone to leave, then claim their vacated site.

by vehicle

From Moab, drive Hwy 191 south 38.5 mi (62 km). Or, from Monticello, drive Hwy 191 north 13.5 mi (21.7 km). From either approach, turn west onto Hwy 211, signed Canyonlands National Park, Needles District. (A few miles north of this junction is a road west signed Needles Overlook, which is not your destination.)

Heading west on Hwy 211, pass Newspaper Rock--a must see--at 12 mi (19.3 km). Reach the visitor center at 33.5 mi (54 km). Continue about 2.5 mi (4 km) generally southwest following signs for Squaw Flat campground. Turn left to enter campground loop A. The paved trailhead parking area is just ahead. Shortly before the road ends, park on the left, near the toilets. Elevation: 5180 ft (1580 m).

on foot

A sandy path departs the trailhead, near the toilets. Follow it south. Reach a fork within two minutes. Right (southwest) leads to Big Spring Canyon (Trip 65) and Druid Arch (Trip 70). Go left (southeast) toward Squaw Canyon.

In 330 yds (300 m) ascend over a small slickrock bluff. After a sandy stretch, traverse another, similar bluff. About 20 minutes from the trailhead, reach a junction at 1.1 mi (1.8 km). Right (south) probes Squaw Canyon (Trip 65). Go left (southeast) on the Peekaboo trail, soon among gambel oaks.

About 40 minutes from the trailhead, ascend slickrock to 5240 ft (1598 m). Then drop 40 ft (12 m) and curve left (east) following cairns. Descend from red slickrock to white, to yellow, to black. Curve right (south) to where a metal ladder grants passage over a ledge.

Even with the ladder, the descent requires awareness. From there, go left (south-southeast) on white-and-tan slickrock. The route then drops into a sandy wash and becomes a trail among cottonwoods, juniper and pinon.

Heading southeast, the trail rises out of the wash onto sage flats. Reach a junction at 2.6 mi (4.2 km), 5060 ft (1542 m), about 1 1/2 hours from the trailhead. Right (south) enters sandy Lost Canyon and loops 6.1 mi (9.8 km) back to the trailhead via Squaw Canyon. Continue straight (east-southeast) across the wash, to follow the Peekaboo trail.

After ascending over boulders onto yellow slickrock at 5250 ft (1600 m), the trail heads south and is once again a slickrock route, which it remains until just before the turnaround point at Peekaboo Camp. Wooden Shoe Arch is visible northeast.

Cross a minor saddle. Contour right (south-southeast) on red slickrock. Following cairns, curve around the head of a drainage. Then turn left (north) to another saddle between knobs--about 15 minutes from the previous, minor saddle. North and South Six-shooter peaks are visible east-northeast.

Cairns lead right (east), descending slightly. Curve into an increasingly astonishing rockscape. The route goes right (south) through a 15-ft (4.6-m) wide gap. Descend a chute. Ahead is a towering wall.

Again curving around the head of a slickrock drainage, the route briefly traverses a very steep slope. This sharply angled section is short--just a few yards (meters)--but falling here would cause severe injury. Neophytes and acrophobes will be unnerved. If you're hesitant, turn back. Experienced canyon hikers who enjoy friction-walking on precipitous slickrock will proceed--aware but unworried.

Follow cairns curving right to the head of another drainage. Contour north-northeast until reaching the Peekaboo trail's namesake window, at 5360 ft (1634 m). Actually a hole in a fin, the window is just big enough for an adult to scrunch through.

On the other side, curve right (south), then left (east), contouring around the head of yet another drainage. Tall cottonwoods are now visible below (east) in Salt Creek Canyon. Soon, Peekaboo Camp (a backcountry site frequented by four-wheelers) will be visible southeast.

Having hiked about 2 1/2 hours from the trailhead, you're now on a slickrock arm that juts into the canyon but is still high above it. Ahead, the route will descend to the canyon floor. Don't turn around to avoid re-ascending. It's worth continuing to see the ancient rock-art panel near Peekaboo Camp.

Hike northeast along the center of the arm, aiming for its end. Angle right, dropping toward the canyon. Near the bottom of the arm, follow a cairn right (south-southeast). Cairns then lead northeast. Still on slickrock, pass low trees to walk under a shallow 10-ft (3-m) high overhang. Follow cairns down into a joint, where a 15-ft (4.6-m) ladder facilitates the final, sheer, 20-ft (6-m) descent.

Immediately beneath the ladder, curve right (southwest) to reach dirt in Salt Creek Canyon, at 5070 ft (1546 m). Don't drop the remaining 50 ft (16 m) to the wash bottom. Instead, contour right. Follow a path near the edge of the crumbling, undercut bank.