Area man rescued from Canyonlands National Park in Eastern Utah

Drew Butler
The Daily Ardmoreite
"Builder" Bob Crittendon spent three and a half days lost in Canyonlands National Park in Eastern Utah before being found by park rangers on a search and rescue mission.

On Thursday, July 29 "Builder" Bob Crittendon set out on a 10.8 mile roundtrip trek in Canyonlands National Park in Eastern Utah to see a unique geological formation known as the Druid Arch. Crittendon estimates the hike should have taken between five and seven hours, but after finding himself lost and off trail, he ended up wondering the desert for three and a half days. His time in the desert ended when a team of park rangers on a search and rescue mission found him the following Sunday evening.

Crittendon said he originally decided to go on the hike after hearing how beautiful and interesting the Druid Arch was. A friend was supposed to join him on the trek, but ultimately decided not to go. As an experienced hiker, Crittendon did not see any issue with going alone.

"I was in Moab, Utah the night before I was supposed to go to Canyonlands, and I wasn't able to go to sleep," he said. "So I just decided to drive on ahead and make the hour and a half to two hour drive while I was still awake to make the most of my time. I got to Canyonlands at about 2 a.m., and drove straight to the trailhead. That was a mistake because what I did not do was stop to get a map. That next morning I woke up at around 7:30 and saw some other people headed off onto the trail and decided to go ahead and get going."

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Crittendon headed out with a few bottles of water and some nutrition bars. The trails in Canyonlands are marked with what are known as cairns which are stacked piles of rocks that signal the way along the trail, and he had no problem getting to the Druid Arch. It was on the way back when he got lost.

"I think what happened is I just got fatigued and quit paying attention," he said. "I was walking through a creek bed which was part of the trail, but you had to watch the cairns to know where to come and go out of the creek bed. At some point along the way, I realized I'd gone too far."

There was no cellular service, so making a call for help or using his phone to find a map was out of the question. Crittendon noted that if he had been better prepared he could have downloaded a map of the trail onto a hiking application that would have given him directions through earphones telling him where to go.

"Once I was off the trail, I ended up spending the night under a ledge as a thunderstorm came through," he said. "I was able to stay pretty dry with a rain jacket I had with me, but I could hear a tremendous flow of water underneath me. I wasn't worried because I was well above it, so I slept sitting up underneath the ledge."

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Crittendon snapped this photo of the Druid Arch in Canyonlands National Park. The 10.8 mile round trip to the arch and back was supposed to take somewhere between five and seven hours.

On Friday morning, Crittendon got up and was able to make his way back to the trail where he ran into two hikers. He told them what had happened, and they gave him a bottle of water since he had long-since run out of fresh water and had been drinking the mountain water he came across in puddles. 

"I got started again, and I'm still puzzled about it but I got lost again," he said. " I tried backtracking, and I can't give an explanation other than I was just a tired 66-year-old man not making the best of observations. That time when I got off the trail, I never found it again."

Crittendon estimates he walked between 20 to 25 miles that day looking for the trail. At one point he spotted a black Suburban driving up a mountain, and he tried following it. While hiking, he found a shaded area to rest and get out of the sun, and he fell asleep.

"While I was asleep the Suburban went back down the mountain, so I missed my chance of making contact," he said. "I tried to follow its tracks back down and ended up getting to a place where I needed to get out of the sun. I kind of made a camp where the tracks crossed a creek, and I found some mountain water sitting in puddles. I had a water bottle to fill up, and I had a bladder that I carried with me that you could fill up with 100 ounces."

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He stayed there for the night, and the next morning he returned to attempting to follow the tire tracks. He found what he thought might be the trail and followed it for several miles. It did not lead to the right area. Then he came to a sign that said there was a Jeep trail in 4/10ths of a mile.

"I got to the Jeep road and walked a bit, and that's where I found what I humorously called my summer palace," Crittendon said. "I found a place that had more water on it than I had found elsewhere, and I came to the conclusion that I was getting nowhere by walking around. So I just decided to make my home there."

On Saturday evening he put some rocks across the Jeep road that would have directed anyone passing by to his location. Sunday morning he went across the road and climbed to the top of a hill and spelled out "HLP ME" in 40 foot letters with the scrubby vegetation in the area. He also put his yellow florescent shirt atop his hiking poles to attract any attention while he remained in the shade.

These efforts did not lead to anyone finding him. But his shouts for help earlier in his trek did.

"As I was hiking I would call out 'I'm 66 years old. I'm lost. I'm out of food, and I need assistance,'" he said. "I had done that I don't know how many times over the last couple days, but one of those times someone had heard me. They tried calling back, but in those canyons there you never know which way the sound would carry so I didn't hear it."

These hikers made it back to the ranger station and reported Crittendon's calls for help. The rangers had seen his vehicle parked in the parking lot, and deduced the owner of the car was likely the person calling for help. Park rangers were able to open the car and used the information found inside to contact Crittendon's wife.

"She didn't know I was lost," he said. "I'd given her my agenda for the next four days, and she just thought that I was in an area that didn't have good coverage. She was frustrated, but she thought that was why I wasn't checking in with her."

It was about two hours after contacting Crittendon's wife that rangers found him. A team of four rangers had set out with two searching on foot and two searching in a Jeep. They also sent a helicopter to search.

"I heard the helicopter and started walking towards it waving, but they never saw me," he said. "They were making surveying loops, but the loops were moving away from me instead of towards me. I realized that wasn't going to be the answer, so I turned around and walked back to the summer palace."

As he was heading back he heard a loud speaker, and he looked up and saw a Jeep on the road. 

"The weirdest psychological thing that happened was I would see stone formations and think I was looking at a pickup with aluminum wheels," he said. "Then when I got closer I would see it was just a rock and my mind was filling in the blanks. When I saw that Jeep, there was a part of me that asked myself if it was real. So I started waving and walking in that direction. The best description of what I was experiencing at that moment was that I was walking to the Jeep as fast as I could because I was scared that if I didn't get there soon enough it was going to disappear."

Fortunately the Jeep and the two rangers with it were real.

Crittendon confirmed that he was the man they were looking for, and the ranger asked if he needed any medical assistance. After telling the ranger he was fine, he helped move the rocks he'd placed across the road. The rangers then helped him gather up his backpack and supplies and everyone drove to pick up the other rangers on foot. After an hour and a half drive, they arrived back at the parking lot with Crittendon's car.

He then drove behind the rangers for about 15 miles to get to the ranger station. It was at this point that he said the best experience of the whole ordeal awaited him.

"This car came driving up, and the rangers' boss goes up to get something out of it," he said. "His wife had cooked me a casserole so that I would have some cooked food when I got out of there. I think that has got to be one of the greatest acts of simple compassion that I will experience in my life."

After eating some casserole, Crittendon discussed with the lead ranger where he went wrong. He admits his biggest mistake was not taking the map.

By this point it was after 10 p.m., so Crittendon drove to a nearby hotel to spend the night. He then drove to Childress, Texas where there was a station to charge his Tesla and stayed the night again. The next morning he drove home.

Crittendon said he was never really scared during the entire ordeal. He's just thankful he was able to make it through.

"I'm just glad that God has given me a mind and a body that didn't let me down," he said. "I know my mind played some tricks, but it didn't let me down."