TheBigOutside Blog

Michael Lanza, creator of and Northwest Editor of Backpacker Magazine, writes about hiking, backpacking, climbing, backcountry skiing, paddling and other self-powered outdoor adventures

Archive for Utah

Plunging Into Solitude–Exploring Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park

We stand on the rim of an unnamed slot canyon in the backcountry of Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park, in a spot that just a handful of people have seen before us. We’ve arrived here after hiking about two hours uphill on the Navajo Knobs Trail, and then heading off-trail, navigating a circuitous route up steep slickrock and below a sheer-walled fin of white Navajo Sandstone hundreds of feet tall, stabbing into the blue sky. Now I peer down at the narrow, deep, and shadowy crack that we have come to rappel into, and feel a little flush of anxiety.

By making the 100-foot drop into this slot canyon, to be followed by three more rappels, we will commit ourselves to going all the way through it—there will be no option to climb back out the way we’re going in. We know the walls will close in to about two feet or less apart. We also know that one long horizontal traverse through that claustrophobic chasm will require employing the rock climbing technique known as “chimneying,” where you press your feet, hands, and back against opposing rock walls, and meticulously reposition feet and hands one at a time to inch slowly sideways as you would climb up or down a chimney.

My wife, Penny, looks at me and asks gravely, “Are you sure about this?”

Neither of us is worried about ourselves. We are thinking about the two little people in our party who have never done anything quite like this before: our 11-year-old son, Nate, and daughter Alex, who turned nine a week ago.

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Mid-life Crisis: Hiking 50 miles across Zion National Park in one day

La Verkin Creek, swollen and bellowing with spring snowmelt, charges past us like a stampeding herd of bison—with a force and noise level that can make a reasonable person question the wisdom of stepping into its path. Deep in the Kolob Canyons in the northwest corner of Utah’s Zion National Park, it’s tearing enough dirt from its banks to turn the water muddy brown, making it impossible for us to gauge its depth. The pitch-darkness of shortly after 5 a.m. doesn’t help in that regard, either.

We need to get to the other side.

West Rim Trail, Zion National Park

Seven of us are just two hours and a bit over six miles into an ambitious plan that we are reluctant to abort. If all goes well, our odyssey will culminate about 18 hours from now on the other side of Zion, with us hiking a bit over 50 miles, traversing the entire park in one day.

So we point headlamps at the torrent and explore the riverbank for a safe place to ford, everyone fully aware of the dangers of a fast-moving creek.

As some of us discuss possible crossing points, we notice that Mark has taken off his shoes and socks and slowly waded in alone. Conversation stops as everyone watches him probing with and leaning on his poles, taking slow, difficult steps forward. The creek rises to his knees, then his thighs, then his crotch. It escapes none of us that Mark, while one of the strongest hikers in our group of friends who have all logged 30-mile days and longer, suffers from a form of vertigo that causes him to stagger down a trail when hiking by headlamp in the dark.

Now he’s fording a raging creek… by headlamp in the dark. I don’t think I’m the only one among us contemplating what to do if Mark gets knocked over and swept down La Verkin Creek.

Two-thirds of the way across, he stumbles in the pushy current, struggling to stay on his feet…

Read the entire story and see photos and a video from that trip at See other stories about outdoor adventures at