The temperature was plummeting and the sun, an orange ball dropping towards the horizon. We were in the sixth hour of a three hour hike. I could see the car in the parking lot tantalizingly close, maybe a mile and a half away, except for the fact that we are standing on the edge of a five hundred foot tall mesa and at the end of a trail. Despite my orienteering certification, USGS maps, and search and rescue experience, we’ve taken a wrong turn and are now lost in the desert with one liter of water left to share.
We did not have enough water to backtrack to the car.
The desert is beautiful and extraordinary place to visit, and deadly. The danger of the desert can be mitigated with simple planning. Even when going to a national park, desert preparedness is necessary.
Carry water. You need to drink three to four liters per day—more if doing something strenuous—even when you are not thirsty. Coffee, soda, and any other sugar or diet drink is like drinking nothing at all. All of these dehydrate you. During a lengthy hike or extremely hot day, a non-sugar electrolyte replacement drink should be one of those four liters. When you feel thirsty, you’re already partially dehydrated.
Wear hats. The desert sun and ultra-violet rays are brutal, even on cloudy days. There is nothing like a sunburned scalp to help you remember to wear a hat. The brim should shade your eyes to avoid damaging your retinas. There is virtually no moisture in the air to diffuse the sun’s rays and you’re nearly a mile above sea level.
Carry snacks. It can be miles and hours between stores. Carry salty snacks, granola, trail mix, peanuts or nuts. True power bars—not candy pretending to be power bars—are good to carry along with things like trail mix.
Carry a map or guide. Whether it is a USGS topo map or a park trail guide, having something you can follow is a prudent idea.
Do not rely on cell-phone GPS or maps. Phone- and tablet-based GPS (global positioning system) and mapping software are work by triangulating you location between cell towers. Cell signals are sparse and non-existent throughout much of the Colorado Plateau. A true GPS receiver tracks satellites—Garmin or deLorme are reliable products—is the best. Remember, in desert heat, batteries drain quickly; carry spares.
Carry a survival kit. Available online or outdoor stores, two- to three-day survival kits are inexpensive and a must for any drive or hike into the desert. You may need emergency food and water until help comes.
We settled in the shade of a rock and prepared to spend the night, planning on hiking out in the morning when the weather was cooler. Although we didn’t expect to find service, we tried to call 9-1-1. My friend stood with her cell phone raised in the air seeking a signal, she turned and asked, “Do you have text on your phone?” I did.
“Try a text message,” she suggested, “it takes less power to send than a phone call.”
I composed a message to my son. “This is not a joke,” I started. I pressed send. Holding my phone up like the Statue of Liberty, I kept listening for the “sent” tone. Suddenly, I heard the “messages waiting” tone. Pulling down the phone, I saw I had four AT&T bars. The text sent, I immediately dialed 9-1-1. We were extraordinarily lucky. Most backcountry areas do not have cell service. Although our mistimed trip depleted most of our water, we were well-hydrated, and we had a 48 emergency kit in each pack. The ones I carried included foil packets of water.
Sheriff’s Search and Rescue volunteers reached us three hours later with electrolytes, water, and lights. Did we make mistakes? You bet! We started late, we weren’t familiar with the trail, and when the terrain didn’t feel right—we should have backtracked. Did we misread our map? No. It turns out the USGS Topo Map shows the trail in the wrong location. We were in the right location on the wrong trail; the real trail was 150 feet west and not visible from our perch.
We were extraordinarily lucky. One month later, a honeymooning couple from the Midwest hiked the same trail. She died from heat stroke and he was hospitalized with extreme dehydration.
Staying at the Park: Neaby Kayenta, AZ, has a Hampton Inn, and two locally-owned motels, the Kayenta Monument Valley Inn and Wetherill Inn. Across U.S. 163 from the Park is Goulding’s Lodge – a historic lodge where almost all the actors to have filmed in the Valley hung their hats. In the Park itself is The View, a Navajo-owned property that opened in 2010. Every room has a view of sunrise behind the buttes. Gouldings and the Park have campgrounds.
Getting to the park:A family visit to Monument Valley is a memory and an experience. Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park is located on U.S. 163 in the center of the Navajo Nation in northeast Arizona and southeast Utah—the state lines run through the Park. It’s 6-1/2 hours from Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, and longer from Albuquerque or Las Vegas. The nearest regional airports are Flagstaff, AZ (three hours) or Cortez, CO (two hours). From Phoenix or Flagstaff, take U.S. 89 to U.S. 160 at Tuba City, go east to Kayenta, and north on U.S. 163 to the Park. While there are organized bus tours, Monument Valley is best reached and explored by car.
Image source (top): Eric Jay Toll
Eric Jay Toll is a travel writer living in Scottsdale, Arizona. During their childhood, he dragged his two children (sometimes kicking and screaming) from one coast to the other and parts of Canada. His blog, For Whom The Toll Bells, is at EricJayToll.WordPress.com. Eric’s travel writing appears regularly as the Four Corners travel writer on Examiner.com. He has been published in USA Today, LiveStrong, Trails, and Golflinks and is a regular contributor to eHow.com. He is an avid camper, an accomplished chef and not bad with a camera. His son, Michael, turned 29 in May 2011.