Dinner With The In-Laws: Elk Ridge to Canyonlands 2008 – By Ryan H

-Two Toyotas, two rental Rubicons, nine adults, and six children aged 3 to 8.
-Add ample southeastern Utah solitude, some canyon country slickrock, and dash of rain-soaked clay.
-Stir well for five days and ~100 miles.

This was the main dish I planned months in advance, and served at the beginning of October, 2008. The dinner party included the entire selection of in-laws–bros, sisters and associated offspring from as far away as Missoula, Montana, as well as the matri- and patri- arch of the clan who flew in from Philadelphia. And me, plus my two kids. Oddly enough, my wife had to cancel her dinner reservation at the last minute, but that’s not an important part of the story.

Now that I’ve killed the culinary metaphor, on to the the trip report.

We picked up two shiny red Jeep Rubicons from Farabees in Moab, and headed south to Comb Ridge, where we camped in a nice grove of cottonwoods near Mule Canyon. The first night out in the wild with this many kids can be a bit of a circus, but we settled into a collective groove remarkably quick. We were soon playing and feasting and doing our best to reduce the volume of beverage we would have to transport to our next camp.

The next day we had nice private hike in the north fork of Mule Canyon, under a threatening–but dry–sky.

We finished off the day with a quick drive to an overlook of nearby Arch Canyon. The drive served as a good warm-up for the inlaws in the rentals–not at all difficult–but requiring low-range and four wheel drive. The view needs no words. Keep your kids on a short leash:

On day three we packed up the vehicles and headed toward Cottonwood Wash and the Abajos. We stopped by the mouth of Arch Canyon to see some ruins and get the clean trucks a little dirty.
The Kindergarteners worked on their homework assignments:

We left Arch Canyon for a bumpy dugway that would lead us up and over to Cottonwood Wash. The sky was darkening and drizzling, but spirits were still bright.

This second leg of our journey would take us up to the forested terrain on Elk Ridge.

The plan was to make a quick traverse north, across the flanks of the Abajos, and descend into Beef Basin and the Needles beyond–where we would camp and play for a couple more days.

My wife and I had scouted the route with the kids a few weeks earlier, and I had no concerns about completing the journey. The growing rain however, was shaking my confidence. By the time we reached the high point of the traverse–near the junction with a long spur the leads west over the Dark Canyon Plateau–the rain was heavy, and the clay-rich soil was saturated. The tail of my Land Cruiser was breaking loose at the slightest turn, and I soon had little to no control over my trajectory on the incredibly slick and greasy roads. The mud-tire equipped Jeeps were fairing only slightly better. Slow and cautious progress down the initial slope toward Beef Basin proved incredibly dicey. I barely kept myself out of the ditch and–after finally getting myself turned around–I had quite a fight getting back up the gentle grade to the rest of the party.
With a long descent of a couple thousand feet ahead of us, we had reached the unexpected crux of the whole trip. Although I had recently traveled the route, I was uncertain of the details ahead. Sliding off the shoulder and into the shallow ditch was one thing–sliding off even a small cliff was another.

After a wet and sober discussion of our predicament, we opted to bivouac up where we were–somewhere between 8,000 and 9,000 feet on the flanks of the Abajos–and wait out the rain. We would re-evaluate tomorrow.

Our impromptu camp was wet, cold, and muddy–but far from miserable. We shamelessly deposited the children in the 4Runner with a portable DVD player and a stack of DVDs, while we fired up the stove and finished off the whiskey.

That night the rain hammered the tents and blew out several grommets on our canopy, but by morning everyone was cautiously optimistic. The mud had not diminished, but at least it wasn’t raining.
Me and one of my bro-in-laws hopped in a Jeep and slowly slid down the road while the rest of the clan waited up at camp. With only a few rain-free hours, the muds had settled enough to get down the road with something resembling control and–after seeing no real hazards to slide into or off of–we spun our way back up the trail to rally the troops.
We were going to Canyonlands.

The descent was a long controlled slide–much like negotiating the worst of icy winter roads–but without incident.

The drizzling rain was beginning to return, but in no time at all and rather abruptly, we left the wet clay and scrub oak, and entered the familiar and friendly slickrock and sand of Beef Basin. The caravan took advantage of a break in the rain with a quick stop at the tower ruin for lunch.

As we approached Bobby’s Hole and the descent into the Needles, I offered the wheel of my Cruiser to my mother-in-law. She had grown up Jeepin’ and hadn’t driven off road in years. She was grateful and I got to take photos.

We soon found ourselves at a sheltered camp just south of the National Park Boundary. As if reading some emotional cue signaled from our party, the rain left and the sun came out within minutes of our arrival.

The kids were turned loose to get dirty, play with sticks, and take advantage of some nearby rock.

The next day was all sunshine and blue sky. After several happy pots of coffee the gang loaded up and headed into the Needles to hike the Joint Trail. Along the way we enjoyed the twists, turns, and scenery of Devil’s Lane and the Grabens.

As far as short hikes with kids go, it doesn’t get much better than the Joint Trail:

The view on the way back to camp was just as good as on the way in:

One more, final night at our climbing rock in the Needles, and we would load up the rigs for the drive home. To think that only two nights ago we were not sure if we would even make it to Canyonlands. One could easily think that the trip had passed almost as quickly as the weather. The beautiful thing was that the drive out would not be an anticlimax.

The Needles and Elephant Hill are as beautiful as any place I’ve been, and just plain fun to drive. I was able to take all the drivers and their rigs (rental or otherwise) well past the comfortable bounds of their limited off-road driving experiences–and it was all smiles the whole time.

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