The Cheyenne, Wyoming winter can needle a person. You know the feeling. Caged and cramped, it seems like everything and everybody is poking and jabbing, random acts of accupuncture. “Give me a break!” Consider a spring break to Utah’s Needles, the southeastern district of Canyonlands National Park. These skyward pinnacles of red rock won’t needle you. They just might bring you a good laugh and the relief you’re looking for.
Every landscape has its mood: the awe of our high peaks; the gloom of the northwest forests; the peace of an eastern woodland. The mood of Utah’s Needles? Simple: Happy.
The Needles are fun. Yes, weird–these rows of sandstone spires, mounds, mushrooms and pinnacles–and whimsical–with canyons that wind and twist between them. So why “happy”? I think it’s the colors: tawny orange, creamy eggnog, dusty pink, layered in horizontal stripes against that brilliant blue expanse of high desert sky.
The trails were built just for fun, too. When most parks were set aside trails were already in place, trails made to take trappers, miners, hunters or fisherman someplace that they would rather be.
Not so here. In 1964 when congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared this expanse of wilderness a park there were few trails. The young people that the park service unloosed created trails that are at the places you want to be, trails that ascend canyons to their apparent dead ends–where you find an essential ladder wired in place to take you up and over and another ladder down into the next canyon. Trails that lead through narrow straight slots, with stair steps cut just where needed to take you on and on, shooting through the cool darkness into the blazing light. Trails that grant views of ancient rock art, Anasazi granaries and the monumental Druid Arch.
How to explore it.
There are essentially two ways that adventurers explore the Needles. One is to camp in the park’s Squaw Flat campground and venture out during the day, carrying lunch and the ample supply of water you will need. Depending upon the season there may be no water along some of the most scenic journeys. The plus side of the day-hike option? Lighter loads. The down? Missing out on the night silence, on the splendor of sunrise and sunset when the pinnacles can light up, fiery beacons of vibrant orange.
From Squaw Flat some choose to take four wheelers or mountain bikes down precipitous Elephant Hill, following old ranch roads to reach two trailheads on the western side, then hiking in. The best sites here can only be reached on foot.
The other way is to backpack into the canyons, toting gear, food and ample water, as well as a good filter to pump from rare potholes and rock tanks. This allows you to end and begin each day with a light show, the sun igniting first one view, then another, settled in at one of the nicely placed and well-built backcountry campsites. With less backtracking, you could see more country with fewer miles.
Big Springs Canyon to Druid Arch.
The Big Springs hike is one of those leading up to a ladder, over the top and down a ladder into Squaw Canyon, then through a slot into Elephant Canyon. The hike up Elephant to the square monumental arch reminiscent of Stonehenge is magnificent. As a day hike it is long, dark to dusk, about 16 miles round trip. I recommend a night at campsite Elephant Canyon 2.
This may be the most popular trek in Needles. The destination is a broad open expanse of grass ringed with red rock walls and rock needles held together side by side. It looks like the needles were lifted into the sky. The truth is stranger. The park floor simply dropped, little by little as the salt deposit deep beneath it dissolved in ground water and flowed into the Colorado River. If you make it to Chesler Park don’t miss the Joint Trail, a fun descent into an improbably straight shear-walled crack that extends for more than a quarter mile through the rock. Chesler Park campsites 3, 4 and 5 are all fine, tucked up against the sheltering walls. Nearby are samples of cowboy rock art.
A lesser known destination, the “kitchen” is a monumental rock sliced with all manner of shoulder-width passages, at higher and lower levels, routes that provide rough and ready teens with fun and challenge. Backcountry site Devil’s Pocket 1 is close and secluded or campers can stay at one of the Devils Kitchen sites which may be shared with 4-wheelers who come in a different way.
This ramble leads across a high slick rock bench before dropping into Lost Canyon, one of only a couple that has a stream of flowing water. Hikers here are looking for mysterious rock art, including the “yellow man” and three white, ghost-like figures, as well as granaries and an inaccessible ancient pueblo dwelling that can be spied from the canyon floor.
Following a medieval labyrinth, like the one at Cheyenne’s botanical gardens, is supposed to be a spiritual exercise. Taking you deep within that you might find something inside yourself, and then guiding you back out to carry that new enlightenment into the world. Entering–and exiting– canyonlands does that for me. Or at least it provides a relief from the pressure of a long, high-plains winter.
If you go
From Cheyenne, Wyoming drive the 450 miles to Moab, Utah, then continue south 40 more miles to the Needles turn off, Utah 211W. (NOT the Needles Overlook road.) Continue into the park, about 25 miles. It’s about a ten hour drive. On Utah 211 you will pass Newspaper Rock State Park, a must see site where Native Americans have blanketed a large rock face with carvings. 1.9 miles past the rock is an unmarked pull out where a trail leads south across Indian Creek into Shay Canyon where hundreds more petroglyphs can be seen on the cliff faces. 2.7 miles past Newspaper Rock are more petroglyph panels on the cliffs facing the highway.
The park entrance fee is $10 per vehicle, car camping at Squaw Flat is $15 per night, first come, first served. Drinking water and toilets are provided. If the campground is full, there is more camping at the privately owned Needles Outpost, just outside the park entrance at $20 per night. Showers are available there, as is a general store and café.
Backcountry campsites are in high demand in the spring so an advance permit is needed. Permits, which cost $15 per party no matter how many nights you are reserving, are available through the Canyonlands web site at www.nps.gov/cany/ or by calling the backcountry desk at (435) 259-4351. You will want to have a hiking and camping plan in mind. While a basic map is on the web site, the detailed “National Geographic Trails Illustrated Needles District Map” is invaluable and shows all campsites. Exploring Canyonlands & Arches National Parks by Bill Schneider is a fine guidebook to all trails in the area.
Permits are not mailed but are picked up at the backcountry desk on the day of your trip. This gives you the opportunity to ask rangers about trail conditions, weather forecasts, and most importantly, likely water sources. You will also want to borrow a Kevlar food sack to keep rodents out of your site and your grub. The loan is free but the rangers require a $50 deposit, by credit card, refunded when you return the pricey bag.
The weather in southeast Utah in the spring is notoriously changeable. Beautiful, warm sunny days can be suddenly transformed by howling winds filling everything with sand, by sudden snow storms or torrential downpours. Be ready to adjust your plans if needed.
Moab is not far and offers all that a traveler could want, including great restaurants, motels of every stripe, gift and gear shops. My pick for breakfast is the Jailhouse Café on 101 N. Main; for dinner you can’t go wrong at Miguel’s Baja Grill on 51 N. Main. If you need to pick up some clothing or gear for hiking, climbing or camping see the good people at Gearheads Outdoor Store, 471 N. Main. The Moab Information Center at Main and Central will help you find out all there is to do and answer any question you might have about the area.