Eye for the Needles
CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK, Utah – I inadvertently saved the best for last when it came to spring break trips with my daughter during her primary education days.
Hannah and I have gone on desert trips nearly every spring break since she was in kindergarten. We’ve seen some of the greatest national parks – Chaco Canyon, Zion, Capitol Reef and the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands. We’ve also visited Colorado National Monument, Bandelier National Monument and the special-use areas of Hovenweep and Cedar Mesa.
They all have their charms, one way or another. We scrambled down a precarious canyon, and then scaled the other side to see the spectacular Moon House Anasazi ruin. We took cover in the relative calm of Capitol Reef and its fruit tree orchards when there was a sandstorm engulfing the surrounding desert. We pondered the mysteries of Chaco Canyon after hiking out to lonely outlying ruins.
So while racking my brain last winter trying to decide where to go this March, I was delighted to realize I hadn’t taken Hannah all these years to my favorite place – the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. I’m not naive enough to say I know that place like the back of my hand – the Park Service only lets you see a fraction of it. I know there are lots of natural and manmade wonders off the beaten trail. However, I know the hiking trails there pretty well. And I never get sick of them.
Hannah and I found the campground at Needles full when we pulled in shortly after noon on a recent Saturday. The drive is about 90 minutes southwest of Moab. Usually, I wouldn’t bother to even check a park’s campsites if there are suitable alternatives nearby, but Squaw Flat Campground is no ordinary place. The sites are mostly spread out for privacy and interspersed among odd rock formations guaranteed to fascinate campers young and old.
To my delight, we found a site just outside of the park that I’ve used in a pinch for the last 25 years. We staked our claim, headed into the park and did a nice warm-up hike that first afternoon. We gladly shifted into a spring frame of mind and exposed the white, wintery skin of our limbs to the sun.
On our first full day, Sunday, we tackled what I think is one of the most spectacular hikes in the park – or anywhere for that matter. We warmed up with a quick pace through the sand flats of the Squaw Canyon Trail outside of the campground. We soon peeled off onto the Peekaboo Trail and eventually left the sandy desert floor for the slickrock expanses. About 2 miles into the hike, we were on a slickrock divide that offered incredible views in every direction. The La Sal Mountains were visible to the northeast, the Abajos Mountains were to the southeast and the Henry’s poked up on the far western horizon. Sandstone formations, ranging from hulking domes to others seemingly sculpted into minarets dominated the closer views.
We split off the Peekaboo Trail and plunged into Lost Canyon, a special place that provides a true desert treat in every season except, I suspect, the hottest months of the summer. We started trudging through dry sand in the wash. After a while, we noticed the sand was moist. A little further we encountered water. The trickle eventually turned into a small stream, then a series of pools of varying depths. The dry wash transformed into a lush landscape. I don’t know much about plants but appreciate them. Fern-looking greenery clung to cracks in sandstone walls where water was seeping through the rock. Green reeds carpeted parts of the canyon floor. Hannah and I dubbed the reeds the “Johnny Quest” plant because the cartoon adventure character once escaped the bad guys by using one of the hollow reeds to duck underwater.
We were a bit too early for much to be blooming, though there was purple-
flowered locoweed, a few Indian paintbrush and a yellow-flowered plant we couldn’t identify.
The coolest thing about Lost Canyon is the songbirds. You don’t even have to be quiet as you approach the water to notice an increase in the chirping. No doubt there are numerous critters roaming around at night in this lifeline in the desert. A ranger we encountered later in the day said deer access the narrow canyon for its water and that there are black bear, though they stay small for lack of protein.
We climbed out of Lost Canyon via a steep side canyon, intersected again with Squaw Canyon then climbed back onto the slickrock for a delightful mile of cruising before plunging into Big Spring Canyon. The loop is always throwing something different at you. An iron ladder is required at one spot to navigate a slickrock ledge. Another spot requires a steep climb or descent, depending on direction of travel, in a dry pour-off pool.
While Hannah was thrilled with that hike, she hadn’t seen nothing yet. The next day, I took her on a hike that is probably easier but also more scenic. The 11.5-mile Chesler Park loop takes hikers into the heart of The Needles, multi-colored sandstone spires that look like alien spacecraft that came to rest and turned to rock. It always makes me hungry when I hike in there. Some formations look like chocolate ice cream topped with marshmallow while others appeared Hannah and me to be root beer floats.
The hike from the Elephant Hill trailhead starts flat, then makes a few interesting climbs and descents before leading hikers to the base of the impressive Needles. The treat of the loop is the Joint Trail, which leads through a long, narrow slot (thus the name Joint) and into a grotto, where hikers tend to build hundreds of rock cairns, the small piles that mark trail routes. For some reason, the park rangers insist on coming through periodically and knocking the piles down, only to start the process over.
Spring in the desert isn’t my favorite time. There are usually too many people and too much poor desert etiquette. Some people trample the fragile desert crypto soils. That always makes me cringe. Others talk at the level they would in a New York subway. The worst offenders are those that discard tissues.
The trails in the Needles absorb crowds pretty well, but it got tiring on a Monday during spring break hiking the Chesler Park loop and running into a fair number of other hikers.
It was worth the annoyance, though. When your kid is going off the college, you never know how many more spring breaks you have together.
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Winter sports practices were officially allowed to begin last week, Jan. 18, after the Colorado High School Activities Association was given a variance from the state’s health officials. Games were allowed to be played starting this week.