Our Base Camp Near Castleton Tower

When we arrived in the town of Moab and went looking for a place to camp our first attempt was aborted by rain and our subsequent decision to go explore the Shafer Trail instead of setting up camp in a timely fashion. When we finished that adventure and drove away from the Island In The Sky Visitor Center is was about 5pm. We were hoping to come across one of those most precious of spots, an AT&T non-dead zone, as quickly as possible to figure out where we were going to camp for the night much less set up base camp for an extended stay as we explored the Moab area during the coming week. If I remember correctly we had to be very, very patient. We drove the entire 20 miles of Highway 313 from leaving the Canyonlands National Park boundary until it reaches Highway 191 and the added 5 miles south on 191 until we reached essentially the entrance to Arches National Park before AT&T decided we had entered an area worthy of their precious radio waves. Not wanting to search the web and drive at the same time we turned off on Highway 128 and immediately pulled into the parking area for Lions Park so we could safely surf. Happily we found mention of a good sounding spot further out Highway 128 and so began heading in that direction.

For about 20 miles we were treated to pretty spectacular views of layered red rock cliffs, rock formations and the river itself as we wound back and forth along the two lane road as it paralleled the Colorado River heading east on Hwy 128. We were eventually directed to turn off onto La Sal Loop Road heading into Castle Valley. All of 5 miles later we turned off at a small, unmarked dirt/rock road and 100 yards later parked at what would be our base camp for the next 5 days.

The View Up To Castleton Tower From The Parking Lot
The View Up To Castleton Tower From The Parking Lot

We heard this was called the Castleton Tower’s Climbers Campsite. We arrived on a Wednesday and so had to share the area with only one other person who seemed to be staying there for the long haul. On Thursday a couple of more cars showed up and by Friday the deluge of people coming to use this as the base camp for their rock climbing adventures was in full swing.

more cars in the parking lot on thursday
even more cars arrive on friday
full parking lot and campground on Saturday

The parking lot and campground were completely full and so the overflow crowd slept in their cars, vans or RVs out along the main road.

Overflow Parking And Camping On The Main Road
Overflow Parking And Camping On The Main Road

Not a big deal as we had gotten there early enough in the week to choose our preferred camping spot and we were gone almost every day out exploring the region. Literally everyone else who was there came to climb Castleton Peak itself or the rock formations known as The Priest and Nuns or The Rectory which are apparently some of the finest and most accessible rock climbing to be found anywhere. We saw teenage kids on up to 60+ year olds organizing and donning their rock climbing gear and then heading out on the one hour hike to get to the base of Castleton Tower before actual rock climbing could even begin.

A Can of Fieldwork Super Saint Thomas held up with Castleton Tower and the Priest and Nuns rock formations in the background
We Toasted Their Success With This Fine Double IPA
Doing Our Part To Keep Things Relevant To The Theme

Everyone was friendly and happy to meet Willow even the elderly and semi-grumpy old female dog who spent her days wandering around the campground looking for handouts from gullible campers.

Old dog we met at the campground
Hello Old Lady

She was obviously malnourished and dehydrated with her ribs and hip bones prominently visible and so we did what we could to help her out with food, treats and water. I forget her name. Her “owner” (certainly not a caretaker) called her something along the lines of Ilya, Aya, Enya but her collar had “Chezburger Willie” hand-printed on it so we just called her “old Girl/Lady.” She was wandering loose at all hours of the day and night. We heard her drinking out of Willow’s water bowl nightly at 1, 3 and 5am almost on the dot. She was a bit food aggressive and definitely not a fan of getting her rear end sniffed by Willow and so we made it a point to enforce some boundaries.

stanger dog looking into and wanting in to our tent
Sorry Sweetie, This Is Willow’s Tent

By the end of our stay it was obvious that she had filled out a bit mostly through her copious water intake as her owner did not leave water out for her and so she made generous use of Willow’s magically refilling water bowl. We’re glad we could do what we did but we still made a stop at the local Sheriff’s Office on our way out of town and filled out a report asking that someone make a “welfare check” on her and maybe school the owner on some minimal standards of care for canines. We can only wish her well now.

All the reports we heard from returning climbers let us know that the hike to the base of Castleton Tower was on the strenuous side but worth it for some of the views offered to the intrepid hiker. We decided to make our attempt one of the days we were there and started off at about 9am so we could hopefully beat the heat. Willow wore her Palisades Pack and carried 1 liter of water in each saddle bag which would serve both of our hydration needs.

Willow with her pack on on the path heading towards Castleton Tower
Setting Off Towards The Castle

There were more than a few serious rock scrambles and steep, tall, dry waterfall zones which were a bit challenging for me and downright impassable for Willow. To remedy that I attached our Just-A-Cinch leash with a true rock climbing carabiner on the end to the handle on her harness and hauled her fat ass (she’s not heavy, she’s my girl) up the rocks after I had made my way up first.

Willow wwaiting for me to help her up and over an obstacle
This Was One Of The Smaller Obstacles, The Largest Was At Least Twice This High
Another obstacle we had to get Willow up and over
Some Were Jumbled Rock Falls

Once we eventually made it past those obstacles we emerged at a clearing with the path heading off across a wash and then up the side of the base of the hill below Castleton Tower.

We were happy we had started when we did as this area was completely exposed to the sun and in the next couple of hours would certainly become inhospitable. Looking back the way we had come we were treated to some stunning vistas of the surrounding countryside which made the steep, dry, sandy, slippery switchbacks worth the extra effort. Depending on which way we looked we could see portions of both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks across the Castle Valley and into the distance.

A Little Of That Snow Would Be Nice Right About Now
Willow on the path closer to Castleton Tower
Getting Closer To The Castle

About 20 minutes further up the hill from the above picture we reached that wall of rock that is just above the shade line and came to an abrupt halt. Had I brought one of the climbing ropes we carry in the Tacoma with us on this hike we could have progressed farther. As it was though we only had the 6-foot long leash with us and that wasn’t enough for me to climb up that face and still have enough length to haul Willow further. There were a couple other paths that looked like they took the long way around but those were also extremely narrow and most likely unsuitable for my dork of a dog. My active imagination could see her bumping into a rock with a saddle bag and falling to her death which would make me and everyone who has ever know her really, really sad and I’m sure she would think that would suck as well. So…nope, too bad so sad. That was as far as we could go with the minimal amount of gear we had brought with us and we turned around and headed back down the way we had come.

As we came back to each of the chutes, rock falls and dry waterfalls we had earlier made it up this became a good exercise in getting Willow used to our version of a “trust fall.” In this test she is still wearing her harness and has a rope (in this instance the leash) attached and I coax her out and over the ledge and then lower her down to a safe level. We have found that gentle verbal persuasion along with noticeable resistance on the rope can reliably get her over her natural aversion to going over high ledges and falling off cliffs. She now “gets it” and slowly walks off the edge as the tension on the rope increases until she ends up with all four paws off the ground and then she slowly and calmly air walks as I lower her to solid ground. I then toss the leash or rope down to her level and make my way down to meet her where we always have an enthusiastic reunion and celebration of that recent heart-rate-raising activity.

Once we made it back to camp and had our fill of lunch and fluids we headed across the road to find the source of the water sounds we had heard each time we had found ourselves towards the entrance to the campground’s road. After scrambling down the side of the roadway and walking a hundred feet or so we came to Castle Creek. Willow, starting life as a desert dog with a dearth of water and then learning to swim and be a world-class wader under my tutelage, immediately made her way into the clear, cold water and had a blast.

Willow sitting next to Castle Creek
A River Runs Through It (Castle Valley)

She romped and explored for 15 minutes or so blissfully happy to get her toes wet. When she was finished with her explorations she came back to my side as is her standard procedure and we returned back across the road and to our campsite.

When we had first arrived here we noticed a structure up on one end of the camp. When we went to check it out we found a truly old-school, primitive pit toilet, missing its door, giving off an overpowering stench of ammonia. Had we not known that ammonia is actually very hard to ignite in air without an added catalyst we might have worried it would burst into flame at any moment or cause a localized Bhopal-type disaster to anyone unlucky enough to set up camp below it. We obviously did not have the equipment to test the air but, inside the wood walls, it seemed that the parts per million concentration was pretty damn close to the lethal levels which are above 500 ppm. We’re talking a vicious, eye-watering, nose-burning stench and so we were absolutely thrilled, thrilled I tell you that we had our Dometic toilet with us so we could stay out of that stinky cloud. We found the door sitting around the backside of the walls, laying down in the weeds and then, of course, we decided that since we had our tools with us we would see if we could fix it for those who were brave enough to sit in that toxic environment.

The Door Brought Around To The Front
The Door Brought Around To The Front

Right away we saw that the original builder had used 2″ wood screws to attach pieces to 2x4s which is a recipe for failure as, once the screw has made it through the 2×4, there is all of an 1/8th of an inch of threads left to do the actual attaching. So we made the decision to drive the 45 minute trip back into Moab, each way, so that we could go to the local hardware store and buy some 3″ wood screws to make the repair properly. We also really only needed nine screws of the correct length to make our repairs but the hardware store did not have a 10-pack and so we were forced to buy the 40-count box. Once we got back we propped the door on our tool box so it would sit at the correct height, replaced the important screws with the correct length options and tested the locking latches to make sure they all lined up and worked properly. Once everything looked good we took 15 more minutes and replaced many other screws with the longer, stronger version to hopefully strengthen the structure against the winds that came slamming through the little side valley the campground was situated in on a regular daily basis.

That night we enjoyed the view as the sunset painted Castleton Tower and its neighbor rock formations in a nice, warm glow.

Castleton Tower and nearby rock formation in the twilight glow
Our View At The End Of A Productive Day

For the next couple of days we left each morning to go explore various areas or specific 4×4 trails around the Moab area and then returned at dusk for dinner and sleep. One day we headed farther out on Hwy 128 to go explore the Onion Creek, Fisher Towers area. Another day we explored the Dome Plateau area. On our way back from that adventure we pulled over and took a picture of Castleton Tower and its nearby relatives from the opposite side and a decent distance from where we were staying.

View Of Castleton Tower, The Rectory and The Priest And Nuns Rock Formations from 10 miles or so back up hwy 128
Heading Back Towards Our Campsite On The Other Side Of Castleton Tower, The Rectory and The Priest And Nuns Rock Formations

Like many public campgrounds that do not need a 4×4 vehicle to get to the Castleton Tower’s Climbers Campsite is best experienced during the early to mid-week lull between the crowds arriving later in the week to enjoy their chosen recreational activity. Situated about 25 miles outside downtown Moab it does mean you have to plan your supply runs so as not to make the 1.5 hour round trip drive into town and back for essentials such as booze and, you know…food. While the campground is free it is on privately-owned land and donations to the Utah Open Lands Association are greatly appreciated and towards a good cause. We considered our repair of the toilet door our contribution. As a base camp and staging area for that week’s explorations in the northeast corner of the general Moab area we found it to meet our needs with only the minor annoyance of too many other people having the same idea as us. We’re not as original as we’d like to think 😉

Get out there and explore.

Eric & Willow

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