Backpacking Utah’s Colorful Landscapes

Backpacking in Utah, particularly in the southeastern and south-central parts of the state is a unique experience. This is a colorful landscape of canyons, mesas, and vertical buttes framed by snow-capped mountain ranges and broad forested uplands. This Canyon Country landscape is like no other area of planet Earth, and to explore its wild backcountry on foot is a challenging and breathtaking experience. It is challenging because you have to know where to find water and how to navigate the rugged often vertical rock-walled topography without putting yourself in mortal, gravity-induced danger. But for those with a sense of adventure, who are not hesitant to seek out the unusual, a Canyon Country backpack trip will be a magical week that you’ll never forget!

Most of southern Utah plus northern Arizona, far southwestern Colorado and northwest New Mexico is considered to be part of the Colorado Plateau geologic province, an area of ancient beds of sedimentary deposits, now exposed as sandstones, limestones, siltstones, conglomerates and related sedimentary rocks. Except around the fringes where the snowy mountains rise, the Colorado Plateau landscape is primarily high desert. Most of the region is over a mile above the sea. The Utah Canyon Country, in particular, is a colorful land of rolling plateau broken by rugged anticlines of tilted rock and juniper, rising over a thousand feet above the general plateau surface. There are also vertical buttes and isolated sky-island mesas. But for most people, it is the canyons – often sheer-walled – that define this landscape. Many of the deeper canyons have lovely perennial streams, flanked by lush verdant growths of riparian vegetation – willow, cottonwood, boxelder, hackberry and a few non-natives such as tamarisk and the annoyingly thorny Russian Olive. There are also some true insults to the landscapes’ original wildness, like strip mines, coal-fired power plants and of course the infamous Glen Canyon Dam and its impounded “Lake” Powell, which flooded the former rich and beautiful Glen Canyon of the Colorado River. But except for the massive “Lake” Powell, such insults are dwarfed by the immense landscape; they are few and far between (so far). Fortunately, much of this landscape remains wild, with numerous big chunks of true wilderness sprawling across and dominating an otherwise sparsely-settled small town, rural region.

A trip to  Canyon Country quickly illustrates why this land is often called the “Painted Desert”. It is an unbelievably colorful landscape indeed. Many of the exposed rock formations are distinctively red, due to large amounts of iron oxide. So we find ribbons of clear cool water flanked by intensely green jungles (gold in the autumn) of water-loving plants against a backdrop of deep red towering vertical canyon walls – usually streaked with dark deposits of mineralized “desert varnish” – all under an impossibly blue Utah desert sky. There are arches and natural bridges. And in some places, the plateau surface above the canyons consists primarily of gently sloping to nearly flat areas of naked tan to red sandstone broken only by patches of sand, scattered dunes, and widely-spaced desert plants such as juniper, sagebrush, rabbitbrush, blackbrush and single-leaf ash. These tough shrubs provide a conservative but welcome touch of greenery to the red and tan “slickrock mesas”. What a world! Honestly, the first time I saw southern Utah, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Even a drive through this magical place is an experience to be remembered; but you need to hike into the backcountry to really appreciate it. And of course, backcountry Utah backpacking is what Big Wild Adventures does.

There is so much to see and experience on a southern Utah backpack trek. In addition to the jaw-dropping scenery, on some of our routes we explore ruins plus pictographs and petroglyphs of the Ancient Puebloan culture that thrived in, and then disappeared from Canyon Country about 900 years ago. In addition, even though most of this region is true high desert, there’s plenty of wildlife, even though the most native creatures are thinly spread across this big land. Think elbow room. Like the desert plants, the animals of Canyon Country require room to breath. And forage. But there they thrive, and over the years we’ve seen a great deal of desert wildlife both large and small. From tarantulas and rattlesnakes to coyote, gray fox, beaver, mule deer, and bighorn sheep, there are plenty of native desert animals. Bird life is often conspicuous. Turkey vultures rule the skies and can often be seen floating upon rising thermals, searching for carrion below. There are also golden eagles, ravens, red-tail hawks, owls, plus waterfowl along the larger streams; and especially on our spring trips, there’s an amazing variety of both migrating and nesting songbirds.

Next blog, we’ll take a specific look at the three areas of southern Utah where we run our multi-day wilderness backpack treks. In the meantime, feel free to peruse our various Utah hiking adventures. There are lots of great Canyon Country photos accessible from this page, plus descriptions of each of our Canyon Country treks. So if you are thinking about having a really amazing and unique wilderness experience, come join us in the wilds of southern Utah!




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