Sand in the ears. Sand in the eyes. Sand in the food, sand in the sleeping bag, sand in the nose AND sand in the toothpaste.
Welcome to Moab my friends, a red rock, sedimentary playground in the deserts of Utah, and the absolute most wonderful place to camp, despite the….
But there’s a point when camping out in nature that you begin to just not care about being sandy or smoky or grungy. That point began the moment I stepped out of the Jeep in Sand Flats Recreation Area, three miles outside of downtown Moab.
It began fairly early on Thursday morning the 14th when I picked up two friends in Carbondale, CO, crammed the Jeep to the brim, and headed west. It was a beautiful day, we had the next few days off of work, and it was the first time some of us were visiting this part of the country. The drive was an oreo-eating, spend-25-minutes-at-every-place-we-stopped dance party, until we finally arrived to the whoops and hollers from our six other friends already there.
By this time it was already 3 p.m. and, though the sun was still shining brilliantly through building clouds, we wasted no time in staking our tent spots and gearing up for a rock running, bouldering adventure. I would describe our view, but why not check it out yourself:
That lovely redheaded chica is Annie, who turns out to be one of the most adventurous and free-spirited people I’ve ever met. Our excitement for this new atmosphere pretty much left everyone else in the dust (sorry boys, but you were too busy playing Spikeball and drinking beer 😉 ). Needless to say, we had the BEST time climbing over every sandy rock we possibly could. Including this one:
Now this was epic, though it may not look it from this distance. See the tallest crown looking rock? (actually it looks more like poop in this pic)
The top of that was our goal, though we would only reach the base of it due to its hollow, less than sturdy formations. The pictures may not do it justice, but wait till you get to the video at the bottom—the height and view was incredible, and the climb to get to the base of the crown was just a little sketchy.
So I had my rock climbing shoes attached to my Camelbak, but when you’re this excited, ain’t nobody got time to change shoes. So up we went in trail running shoes, probably putting more trust in them than they deserve, finding small crevices in the sandstone to scale the wall and willing our tiny finger muscles to hold our weight.
Getting down was another challenge, and slightly less graceful. No need to see pics of that…
Next we found a hole in the rock, which, of course, we had to climb up to:
It was a glorious start to the trip, and we successfully got sandy, sweaty, cut up and dirty within the first hour. 😎
Then it was a game of SPIKEBALLLL before I decided it was time to take advantage of the weather—
…..of the Jeep that is.
Nothing better than a little off-roading before sunset. This would be the first of several off-roading adventures on this trip.
Be sure to check out the video at the end for more footage!
Afterwards it was chicken tacos, wine, watching lightning on the horizon, and the classic campfire. A great day turned into a great night with friends, and I fell asleep peacefully to the sound of coyotes and light rain against my tent.
* * *
Morning of day two, I woke up un-peacefully to cold, wind, and a broken back. The problem with small and portable sleeping mats is that they have to be small and portable.
Therefore thin as paper.
So I slept on a sheet of paper spread over a rock.
But I guess it was better than being snuggled in and comfortable, cause then I’d never want to get up to brave the chilly morning.
As if in sync, Annie emerged from her tent the same time I dragged myself from mine, and we quickly agreed a pre-breakfast run was just what we needed to wake and warm up.
I was soon kicking myself for not bringing the GoPro along, as the route we took wound through budding cacti fields, cracking creek beds, and deceiving caverns that turned out to be just shallow holes in rocks. But the most beautiful sight of all, as we crested a hill, was the cinnamon-shaded “Great Wall of Moab,” as Annie called it—the sedimentary layered Negro Bill Canyon—stretched out in the distance. It was a striking contrast against the cloudy sky, and, before we backtracked and lost sight of it, a single ray of sun broke through to light up its top. Breathtaking.
Several hours later, after breakfast, another fire, and a morning drive to try and unsuccessfully capture what I had seen on my run, we repacked everything and headed out.
Yes, I agree, one day was much too short in such an amazing place, but in such limited time there were so many other amazing places to see!
Unfortunately, the group I traveled with wasted no time in dawdling, with a stop at the grocery store, one stop at a diner, and another stop at the grocery store (apparently we’re pigs) before we even left the town of Moab.
Fortunately, the weather had turned pretty sour, so there was no need to rush to the new campsite, which was just outside Goblin Valley State Park.
So early afternoon we FINALLY got on the road and headed further west, hoping to out-drive the lingering storm.
Now here’s a word of advice if you ever drive in this part of the country:
NEVER PASS BY A GAS STATION.
I was a dummy for doing that, and an even bigger dummy because I knew I shouldn’t have.
But hey, who would’ve thought the warning “No service station for 100 miles” sign would come ten miles AFTER the service station….
Luckily, we were making a turnoff that changed 100 miles to 35 miles, with the campsite sitting halfway between. And the gas station was actually built into a mountain! So even though me being a dummy tacked on an extra hour, we made the most of the beautiful drive, more adventure, and extra time with good friends.
The other friends we were supposed to be meeting before driving into the campsite, however, were not quite as happy for the wait; but with the continued downpour and driving wind, there was not much else we could’ve been doing anyway. Fortunately, the rain stopped when we finally reached our stakeout, about three miles outside of Goblin Valley down rough and jagged terrain.
Unfortunately, the wind did not stop, and would soon prove to be far worse than the rain. A large, sandstone mountain served as our backdrop, with whimsical rock formations jutting out to create “pockets” for campers and tents. Problem was, the wind was barreling from the direction we were facing, so this pocket did nothing but helplessly trap us against the endless, whipping sand.
On the bright side, I don’t think I’ve ever camped in a more awesome spot—this was truly a remote, wild place.
And some more:
As soon as we set up, Annie and I were off exploring again, climbing into slot canyons and racing through open plains. The withering remains of a creek cut through a tiny canyon to the west, and, the next morning, (again) before anyone else was up, we jumped in the Jeep and headed further on the rugged land to check it out.
The air was cool and the clouds formed eerie shadows over the cliffs to our left and the creek canyon to our right. There was no one else around, no movement other than swirling dust devils, and the jutted, misshapen sand forms reinforced our notion that we had somehow found our way onto Mars.
Yes, we were in a space rover driving across the Red Planet.
Our space rover did another excellent job of carrying us over high dirt mounds, heavy dips, and through the dying creek itself. Sandy profiles turned to muddy ones; the Jeep got a nice make-over.
We headed back to camp only to head out to the fantastical realm of Goblin Valley—the place where the formation of Mars must’ve originated. Standing on the edge of a maze of sandstone spires, gargoyles, and pinnacles protruding from millions of years of eroded earth, it’s easy to see why people call these structures “Goblins.” It’s one of the coolest places I’ve ever been lost in, and made better by the fact there was hardly anyone else there to disrupt the aesthetic feeling of isolation.
After about two minutes, Annie and I completely lost sight of the rest of the pack, and, after about two hours of wandering through the labyrinth, we still unsuccessfully found them. We decided the best way to solve this was to jump back in the Jeep and leave them.
Backtracking to camp, we came across a sawtooth Jeep road that stretched far into the distance, with nothing but a large mesa called Molly’s Castle Overlook breaking up the view. This was probably the most intense off-roading we did during this trip, over pretty sizable and sharp stone beds, and up rock crests that scraped the rust off of the 2L gear.
Molly’s Castle was pretty neat to see up close, and we decided to get a picture standing in a large, open dip in the formation, unknowing that the mesa was blocking seriously angry wind that practically blew us away when we climbed up.
Sand-blasted, hungry, and wiped out from the beaming sun, we made our way back to Goblin Valley with the intention to finally regroup with our friends. Instead, we passed out in the front seats of the Jeep after gorging on a lunch of chips and salsa.
When we awoke about an hour later, the rest of the group was literally climbing up out of the valley—perfect timing.
The sun was just starting to dip behind the cliffs of our campsite as we made our way there, Annie and I racing ahead of the highway cars that couldn’t handle the craggy roads.
Now here’s where the real camping experience begins.
We were in the middle of belting out a song about a quarter mile from camp when Annie suddenly pointed to a ball sitting on the side of the road. “Hey, isn’t that the guys’ Spikeball ball?” she said.
I got out, picked it up, and confirmed that it was. “Weird,” I said. “Wonder how it got all the way out here.”
Shrugging it off, we continued driving and singing until I spotted a sleeping bag thrown against the side of the sand mound that encircled our camp. “That sucks,” I said to Annie, “Wonder if that was from the people who camped here before us.”
I continued driving, but we stopped singing, the horrible idea beginning to dawn on us.
And then there we were, parked before what was left of our camp. Eight tents originally set up, three now standing. Coolers overturned. Articles of clothes and gear thrown around the perimeter. Sand swirling over everything. O.m.g.
I slowly walked to my tent, which was considered one of the three still standing, even though it had completely flipped upside down. I hesitantly unzipped the opening, afraid of what I would find, and my fears were confirmed: with my duffle bag inside left open, every single thing I brought was thrown out into the tent, mixing into piles of dirt and sand that had magically flown in.
I zipped the opening closed and just slowly backed away.
By this time the rest of the crew pulled in behind us, everyone gawking as they emerged from their vehicles. One by one, each assessed the damage of his/her sleeping quarters, and the hunt to track down everything that was missing began.
Some things were back where the sleeping bag on the sand mound was, other things out in the field. Five tents were down for the count, either from gashes in the walls or poles snapped in half.
“Dude, where is my tent??” one of my friends yelled.
It was just….gone.
“Maybe check inside that slot canyon?” Annie suggested, pointing to a skinny crack in the cliff.
“There is no way my TENT is in THAT,” was the reply.
Well, it was there, not just inside, but somehow blown around the curves and bends, deep into the canyon.
As I rounded the corner to search another slot canyon, a fluttering something above me caught my eye. “Uh, is anyone missing a sleeping mat?”
“Well, I found it.”
Everyone gathered around to gape at the sleeping mat just chillin’ a good 70 feet up the sand wall.
Obviously the mother of all dust devils decieded to pancake our exposed stakeout, so there was a decision to be made: pack up and leave and get home by midnight, or full-on embrace the situation and stick it out for another night—somehow.
But the wind was brutal, still smashing into our rock wall with hurricane force. My vote was quickly falling towards leaving, but a few in the group were determined to stay, even if it meant sleeping totally in the open, in just a sandy sleeping bag.
And that actually ended up happening—we stayed, we built up a protective stone wall around the fire, we huddled together, we made tacos and s’mores, we drank, we laughed, we stargazed, and we made do with sleeping quarters as best we could—most in cars, Annie and I on a borrowed air mattress in my tent, and one, brave soul cocooned in that sandy sleeping bag, out in the open.
In the morning, I opened my sand-crusted eyes to a pile of sand in front of my face, freezing and smushed against the tent wall, the air mattress completely deflated, Annie lying on it pretending it wasn’t, and me not on it at all.
So that marks the third night of sleeping on paper-covered rock.
The wind had died down, but not enough to stop the endless sand torrents, and it was another battle trying to pack up everything while covering our faces. With a little bit of everyone’s things in everyone’s cars, we slowly made our way back, out of the desert and back towards Colorado’s snow-capped peaks.
We stopped in a diner along the way, and, as I washed my hands pink again, I looked at myself in the mirror for one of the first times in three days.
My eyes were fried from sand and smoke, I smelled of smoke and dirt, my skin was gritted in dirt and sand…
But this is camping, and this is the desert. So I embraced the crap out of it. I embraced the feeling of getting back to nature, living and breathing it, eating and sleeping and brushing my teeth with and clothing myself in it. I embraced my record-breaking pop-tart, s’mores, and peanut butter diet I indulged in in those three days, and the 1 hour 50 minutes worth of adventure I captured and would later spend 24 hours editing. I embraced being surrounded by close friends to become closer, and to one day be able to bond with them over the memories made in Moab.
So Moab, you’ve stolen my heart, and I will be back!
Here’s a video highlighting everything I just wrote about. Check it out!
Thanks for watching and keeping up with my journey—stay tuned for next week’s post, which will probably highlight the intense hike/snowboarding trip I just took!
Venture on… 🙂