A continuation of our Spring Break trip earlier this year…
After a few days in Moab, Arches National Park, and the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands, it was time to move on. Due to the crowds of people focused around Moab, it had been pretty much impossible to camp. And that’s if your idea of camping is setting up within a few feet of noisy, hulking RVs. Furthermore, the thought of making a reservation to camp just seems blasphemous to me. The Needles District of Canyonlands is over a 70 mile drive to the south, so we thought if we got an early of enough start, we might just score a campsite in the remote center of the park.
After leaving the main highway, we began our drive towards the park. Along the way we stopped at Newspaper Rock, one of the largest known collections of petroglyphs. The first carvings at the Newspaper Rock site were made around 2,000 years ago, left by people from the Archaic, Anasazi, Fremont, Navajo, Anglo, and Pueblo cultures. There is much to look at and ponder on this rock.
Further in along the road, the landscape becomes more dramatic, with giant red cliffs towering above. There looked to be much to explore, and we weren’t even officially in the National Park yet. Many of the unique rock features are named, like Six Shooter Peak.
The first thing we wanted to do when entering the park is find a campsite. We drove on past the Visitor Center, and into the campground loops. It looked like a nice quiet campground, but there was not a single space left. I was sure we would have found at least one! We decided to go back to the Needles Outpost just outside the park entrance. It’s a private campground, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I worried we’d have more of the same craziness we saw back in Moab. As it turned out though, it was well maintained, and had many nice tent sites right up along massive red rocks. The office is also a little store, has camping supplies, food, and a small selection of beer. It was uncrowded, so we got just the site we wanted. We setup camp, then headed out to do some hiking.
The Needles District forms the southeast corner of Canyonlands and was named for the colorful spires of Cedar Mesa Sandstone that dominate the area. Our goal for the day was to take it easy, and do some of the smaller hikes near the park road. There were dark clouds rolling in as well, and we didn’t want to be too far out anyway if it started raining. Our first hike, a distance just long enough to stretch our legs, took us to see an ancient Puebloan granary along the Roadside Ruin Trail, a place once used for storing food.
Next up was the Cave Spring Trail. Although another short hike at just over half a mile, there was much to see and experience. The trail first takes you by an old Cowboy Line Camp, various petroglyphs including hand prints, and by cave spring itself. Although just a trickle, this spring must have been a life saver for travelers through the region at one time.
The Cave Spring trail eventually leaves the ground, climbing up ladders to a slickrock trail above. The rock formations, including the rock you’re hiking on are mushroom shaped. This is caused by rock that is more quickly eroded away at the base. It makes for a bizarre looking landscape.
There are many potholes on top of the slickrock, and some have even collected enough blowing dirt to form little mini ecosystems in the rock, supporting plants like cactus and grasses. Also among the plants is cryptobiotic soil, a biological soil crust composed of living cyanobacteria, green algae, brown algae, fungi, lichens, and/or mosses. It’s very fragile, takes years to create, and is easily damaged by boots. It’s also everywhere, along with numerous caution signs not to damage it. You may think you can just openly roam land like this, but there is fragile life everywhere. Thankfully there is much slickrock to walk on that lets you navigate without fear of trampling something. Still, there was much evidence of careless people, especially near the proximity of the trailheads.
The Pothole Point Trail was next to explore, another short trail that was mostly on slickrock. As the name suggests, the rock is full of potholes. It must be fun to watch this area in heavy rain, watching the potholes fill up with water, spill over into other holes, finally draining to the washes below.
Once on top, the Pothole Point Trail wanders through some giant boulders sitting on top of the slickrock. All around are views of mushroom rocks, needles, and canyons. It was definitely the closest thing we’ll ever get to exploring another planet.
Eventually the rain made good on its threats, and quickened our pace back to the trailhead. Not long after returning to the car, the rain stopped, and we found a picnic area to cook up some hot soup. Not sure what the weather was going to do next, we decided to go to the Visitor Center, and then back to camp.
Once back at camp, the weather cleared up considerably. Kristy wanted to take a nap, and the boy and I wanted to explore the rocks above. It turned out to be a fun climb. There were many little features to explore, and most took a little route finding to get to. When we got as high as we wanted, we took time to enjoy the view.
After climbing back down, I took a little time to sit on a rock and enjoy the silence of the desert. After being around lots of people, jeeps, ATVs, and motorcycles, the solitude felt wonderful. There wasn’t even a breeze at this moment. A crow flew above me, and I could actually hear the feathers cutting through the air as it changed directions.
The boy and I visited the camp store to get some supplies for the evening. Marshmallows, and a couple single cans of beer. We found a suitable roasting stick on the way back to camp.
As fancy as the hotel was back in Moab, it didn’t compare to our campsite. Campfire, cocktails, dinner, and a spectacular desert sunset.
The next morning we decided to do one more hike before leaving the park to head to Colorado. The weather was perfect, and allowed us to get further out this time. For a few hours, we explored the 2.4 mile Slickrock Trail. The trail is almost entirely on slickrock, so you must follow the cairns to navigate the loop. Along the way there are many opportunities for further exploration, and we also took the time to just sit and enjoy the view.
The Slickrock Trail was a good last hike. It was a little sad to be leaving Utah, but the excitement of exploring Colorado was enticing too. We left the park the same way we came in, then headed southeast for Cortez and Mesa Verde.
Visiting the Needles was definitely one of the high points of our vacation, and we only caught a glimpse of what the area has to offer. It’s a place we’ll have to come back to for more exploration, and take some of the longer trails out into the needles.
More photos of this trip on Flickr HERE.
Canyonlands National Park – Needles District Website