Rock Hard Playground: Canyonlands National Park

Nothing but Utah could have pulled me away from the mountains of California. We ended up skipping most of Colorado (stopping only at Mesa Verde) in order to lengthen our time in the Sierra. But Utah is a place I had been yearning to explore, and not for the 4% beer. Mysterious photos I had seen of the bizarre red rocks had been drawing my attention for years.


Hiking in the Needles – Canyonlands National Park

On our journey from California to Utah, we of course stopped at the Grand Canyon (see Finding the Real in Surreal, a post from 02/07/18). Apparently marching down and back up the Grand Canyon equipped with a full pack was not as harmless as it had seemed at the time. I was sustaining a back injury by the time we arrived in Red Rock country in November. Though I was not well enough to camp in the backcountry of the spectacular Canyonlands, at least I now have a good excuse to return.

Instead of disappearing into the backcountry, we spent a night at Superbowl (a cheap BLM campground outside the south entrance station) and day-hiked the needles area of the park. The desert is both a beautiful and terrible place. The trails of Canyonlands weave in and out of gorgeously sculpted rocks of varying shades of red, orange, and white; reminiscent of some otherworldly adult playground: but one that you could become easily lost in.  And is there a worse fate than being lost in the desert? The days are long and hot and water is scarce here.  This is a place where only the hardy survive: most humans are only visitors. And yet we are drawn to these places for their mysterious beauty and their tranquility. After only two days exploring the needles, we found ourselves absolutely exhausted by the difficult terrain.


Overlooking Little Springs Canyon – Canyonlands National Park


Little Springs Canyon – Canyonlands National Park

On our first night in the park, we only had a couple of hours to explore before sunset. We hiked the two-mile Slickrock Loop for some great views of Big and Little Spring Canyons and of the needles in the distance.  The trail followed rock cairns over huge slabs of white slickrock. Here we got our first taste of the difficulties of hiking on slickrock. Though the cairns were frequent and relatively easy to follow on this short hike, we still lost sight of them a few times. Furthermore, the hard uneven ground kept us constantly alert. By the time we finished the hike, dusk was approaching.


Sun receding behind the needles – Canyonlands

Still, there was enough daylight left to explore cave spring—a freshwater spring which had provided refuge for cowboys and Indians alike. We first came upon the old cowboy camp under a cave-like space in the rock.


Cowboy Camp at Cave Spring – Canyonlands

Closer to the spring, faint red pictographs indicated the presence of ancient peoples. The best part of this mile-long loop, however, was climbing a ladder to get atop the “cave”. Here, we witnessed the full, fantastic sunset above the needles.


Sunset atop Caves Spring – Canyonlands National Park

After a refreshing night’s sleep at our beautiful campsite, we headed back into the park for a long day-hike through the needles. We left from Elephant Hill and hiked to Chesler Park and the Joint Trail. If we had thought the simple Slickrock trail had been difficult to follow, it was nothing compared to these backcountry trails. We hiked through canyons, over huge slabs, and between massive rock formations, all the while relying on rock cairns to lead the way as no path could be beat upon the hard rock trail.

The needles were amazing to explore. They were formed by water which seeped into fractures in the uplifted rock, eroding as it seeped and leaving the monoliths behind. We also saw many huge mushroom rocks. The landscape all around us had been changing and shifting for centuries, and was eroding and changing still. We were witnessing but a small moment in the history of this landscape.


Mushroom Rock – Canyonlands National Park

Midday, we stopped at an overlook to enjoy some lunch. I spilled a couple of raisins over the cliff on which we sat—a huge mistake. This brought a fearless raven upon us. Unabashed, he harassed us throughout our lunch.


Lunchtime Overlook – The Needles


Lunchtime Onlooker – Canyonlands National Park

After lunch we came upon some of the backcountry campsites, and I became instantly sad that we wouldn’t be spending the night in the solitude. Considering the lack of water, however, I knew it was best for my back not to carry ten liters of water out here.  We then proceeded to the Joint trail, where we hiked through narrow fractures in the rock. The linear rock walls extended 100 feet above us as we made our way through the labyrinth.


Joint Trail – Canyonlands National Park

At certain points, the path dropped suddenly and we had to scramble down rocks. There was even a rickety ladder at one point to help us get down.


Joint Trail – Canyonlands National Park

Eventually, our path became more open, but still with many turns through rock walls. We missed one turn, and ended up having to backtrack to find the cairn path again.


Opening of the Joint Trail – Canyonlands

We then came to a backcountry road which we walked along until the footpath returned. By this time, we were quite exhausted from the long day of route-finding. As soon as I found a decent place to sit down, we sat and had a snack and listened to the desert silence.


Backcountry Road – Canyonlands National Park

“The desert says nothing. Completely passive, acted upon but never acting, the desert lies there like the bare skeleton of Being, spare, sparse, austere, utterly worthless, inviting not love but contemplation. In its simplicity and order it suggests the classical, except that the desert is a realm beyond the human and in the classicist view only the human is regarded as significant or even recognized as real.” – Edward Abbey




View through faces in the rock – Canyonlands

We trudged along, still enjoying the scenery despite our exhaustion. It was evening by the time we completed the remaining miles back to the FunBus, after which we headed out of Canyonlands. Though I would have loved to stay longer, we had plans to meet my cousin in Moab. On our way out, we made it to Newspaper rock with just enough daylight left to view the ancient petroglyphs. No one knows what exactly the meaning of newspaper rock was to the Ancestral Puebloans, but it certainly seems to have held a lot of significance to them. Never have I seen so many petroglyphs in one place.


Newspaper Rock (State Historic Monument)

With the necessary scrambling and route-finding involved in hiking here, Canyonlands is a great place to explore if you’re looking for a fun way to get a great workout.  Just remember that the desert wasn’t designed with mankind’s comfort in mind: make sure you are prepared to carry plenty of drinking water and endure the hot sun (even in November). As I like a challenge almost as much as I like a desolate trail, I will certainly return here in full health to complete more hikes. Next time I hope to explore the ever-more challenging Maze section of the park.

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