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Canyoneering & Wild Camping in Canyonlands National Park

Canyoneering & Wild Camping in Canyonlands National Park

Girl walking through Horseshoe Canyon, Canyonlands National Park

I bounced around in my seat as the jeep sped past sandy expanses, across rocky roads under bright blue, sunshine illuminated skies. On my lap perched a cantaloupe melon, which I gave a Sharpie face to and named Keith. Keith Melon. Get it? I grew weirdly attached to Keith…before we sacrificed him for a final day breakfast, at least.

I’d found myself in this unusual situation on TrekAmerica’s Canyon Adventure tour. One of the highlights of the trip is a two-day 4×4 backcountry adventure across Canyonlands National Park – one of the lesser-known Southwestern USA National Parks.

Canyonlands National Park is divided into four main districts: Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Rivers and The Maze. It was the latter that we were heading out to explore, including a night’s wild camping and some serious canyon action.

We were picked up in the morning by a team from NavTec, who offer adventurous expeditions and activities in Moab’s surrounding areas. To begin with, the roads were pretty drivable still – but as we got further away from civilisation, it became clearer why the 4x4s were necessary!

Sign for Horseshoe Canyon in Canyonlands National Park Maze District
Horseshoe Canyon in Canyonlands National Park

Finding Petroglyphs in Horseshoe Canyon

Getting into Horseshoe Canyon, our first stop, was pretty easy. Well, it would have been if I didn’t have an awful sense of balance and hadn’t turned on my ankle and cut my leg, leaving the nice shin scar that I’m looking at right now. Coool. I basically hobbled my way into the canyon, as there was no way of going back, and by the time we reached the bottom, my ankle was mostly sturdy again, thankfully. The bottom of the canyon is pretty flat and easy to navigate.

After a short walk, we started to find petroglyphs – images carved into the rock. Horseshoe Canyon is particularly renowned for having some of North America’s most significant rock art – and the ‘Great Gallery’ is where you’ll find the bulk of it.

Petroglyphs on the wall of Horseshoe Canyon in Canyonlands National Park
Petroglyphs in Horseshoe Canyon, Canyonlands NP

The petroglyphs here have been dated back as far as 400 A.D. and 1100 A.D – and you’ll find yourself gazing up in wonder, that these ancient drawings have survived the elements to tell their stories to modern adventurers.

The hike back out was… challenging, definitely. I say ‘hike’, but there was a fair bit of climbing and clambering involved, and I’m pretty sure I used every muscle in my body at some point to haul myself out of there. Plenty of breaks later

Back at the jeep, I cracked open an ice cold beer – and it might just have been the best beer I’d tasted on the trip.

Can of Wolf Pup IPA being held up
Drink of choice!

Wild camping in Canyonlands National Park

I’ve camped in some pretty remote places, but our Canyonlands overnighter definitely wins the award for being the furthest from civilisation. I mean, probably. I had no clue where we were, other than somewhere with definitely no phone signal. And a portable toilet, set up behind some bushes.

With tents set up, we were soon enjoying BBQed burgers and potato salad, followed by smores around the campfire and warming hot chocolate. And beer, obviously. With nothing but the night around us, the cold crept in, but the campfire and multiple layers helped keep warm as we swapped stories.

Canyoneering Through High Spur Canyon

Our plan for the next day involved…another canyon. In Canyonlands National Park. Funny, that. When it comes to narrow slot canyons, the one that probably comes to mind is Antelope Canyon. Y’know, the one you always see on Instagram pics, with the traveller gazing wistfully upwards as the sunlight illuminates the narrow red rock chasm. But it also comes with restrictions and big queues, as a whole lot of visitors flock here to get their ‘gram snaps.

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A more adventurous and much quieter version? High Spur Canyon.

Group climbing on canyon rocks
Heading in to High Spur Canyon

As none of us were accomplished canyoneers, the guys from Navtec accompanied us on our descent into High Spur Canyon. Early on in the canyon, it’s pretty easy to walk through, with a couple of stones that required a little scrambling over. Later on, High Spur gets a bit dicier for your average hiker, with rapelling equipment required. So that section might be best avoided unless you’re an experienced climber – or at least with someone who is.

Thankfully I wasn’t too achy from yesterday’s excursion, because this one involved plenty more climbing. To get in quickly, we clambered down a rocky face, most of which I manouvered around on my butt. I also managed to slip on a rock and added another lovely scar to my legs – this time, right on my kneecap.

Inside High Spur Canyon

Between the narrow canyon walls, I had the chance to really release my inner child – climbing over rocks, shuffling through pathways that were barely the width of my backpack. If I was the type to be claustrophobic, I might have struggled slightly – but the payoff is that you get to enjoy all the beauty of a slot canyon, without being surrounded by hordes of tourists.

Sand Dunes in Canyonlands National Park
Sand dunes in Canyonlands National Park

After High Spur Canyon, it was a long drive back to Moab, where the first port of call was the showers. I seriously couldn’t recommend NavTek and the Canyon Adventure tour enough to anyone who wants to experience something active and thrilling on their USA travels. It’s made me determined to seek out more adventure myself, both when I travel and closer to home.

Hopefully with a few less injuries next time.