Last weekend some friends from California came out to visit us in Moab. Jeff and Krista aren’t big mountain bikers or trail runners so we had to get a little more creative than usual with our activity planning. After getting a taste of canyoneering last week at the Medieval Chamber in Moab and knowing that both Jeff and Krista have some climbing experience, I thought that planning a canyoneering trip would be the perfect way to see a lesser traveled part of the Moab area.
A little research on local routes made Elephant Butte in Arches National Park stand out as a good possibility for us. The route guide that I found described excellent views of the park and surrounding Moab area, we’d only need to carry one rope, and we wouldn’t have to worry about crossing any water. All of this was perfect for us so we got our Arches canyoneering permit online and prepared to head into the park the next day.
After surviving the long lines into the park (they ended up letting us in for free because the line was backed up into the highway, creating a hazard), we made the short drive in to the parking lot at the base of Elephant Butte. Having never done this route before, route finding was tricky in places, but we followed the description from the guide and picked our way up through the lower fins of the butte, careful to avoid any ancient cryptobiotic soil underfoot.
Things soon started to get steeper and it wasn’t long before we were doing some fourth class scrambling up slickrock slides.
Eventually, we heard voices above us and to the south which we figured to be a group waiting in line at the first rappel. We scrambled up towards the voices and made quick work of a short section of 5.4 climbing right before the first rappel station.
A large group of about 15 college students were gathered at the top, waiting their turn to get down the ropes. Knowing that their group was huge and moving slowly, they were kind enough to let us hop on their rope ahead of them so we could keep on moving. Jeff, Krista, and I did a quick safety talk, reviewing all the points necessary to set up and complete a safe rappel. With a plan in place, I rigged my rappel device and was the first to take the plunge down to the base.
Everything went smoothly on the first rappel and we were soon on our way to the summit of Elephant Butte. 20 minutes of third and fourth class scrambling brought us to the top where we took off our packs and enjoyed the 360 degree views.
Since we had to make a rappel on the approach in, the route out required a slightly different path down the wash adjacent to our entry point. Walking down the steep slickrock was more difficult than the approach up. I made a poor footwear choice and my toes were pounding into the front of the shoes at each step.
We were soon at the top of the second rappel and it was time to get the ropes set up and harness back on. Anyone who has done any long climbs knows that the trick to moving quickly is having excellent rope management skills — mine are terrible. It took a few more minutes than it should have to get the tangles out, tie stopper knots on the ends, get the rope hanging, and check the anchor. The important thing is that I was confident that the setup was safe and that we’d have a good rappel down.
Confident in Jeff and Krista’s abilities and wanting to make sure we were all safe on the bottom, I was the first to get on rappel. The descent turned out to be a lot more fun than the first, an easy lead in to about 40 feet of free hang down to the bottom.
Once all of us were safely on the ground, we pulled down the rope, packed everything up, and started back towards the car. We had about a mile of ground to cover and were careful to stick to slickrock or washes whenever possible to avoid the delicate desert soil.
Elephant Butte turned out to be the perfect day trip for us. We didn’t get to experience any of the famous slot canyons of the southwest, but we did get some stunning views and had a blast scrambling through the third, fourth, and (short) fifth class sections.