Eleven years ago I set foot in Canyonlands for the first time, a stop on our annual family summer national parks road trip. We spent a full day in the park, seeing as much as we could. But we knew we’d barely scratched the surface. This time around, I was determined to see more of this beautiful red rock wonderland.
It’s not possible to see all of Canyonlands in one day, or even two or three. Two rivers – the Green and Colorado, which merge in the middle of the park – form a Y shape, effectively dividing Canyonlands into three distinct sections. There are no bridges across the rivers; visiting each section requires a lengthy drive out and around. Today I’ll be talking all about the eastern section – The Needles. Located roughly 90 minutes southwest of Moab, it’s a bit of a drive… but getting there is a pretty journey.
While most of the sights can be seen from the road, Newspaper Rock warrants a stop. This collection of petroglyphs is located on BLM land and is easy to view, located just a few steps from the parking lot. It’s by far the largest collection of petroglyphs I’ve ever seen in one place. Archaeologists estimate that the carvings here span 2000 years worth of history and were made by the Ancestral Puebloan, Ute, and Navajo peoples, as well as by early European settlers. Newspaper Rock gets its name from the Navajo Tse’ Hane, which translates to ‘rock that tells a story.’ However, the precise meaning of these carvings remains unknown.
Upon reaching the entrance station, we made our way to Elephant Hill Trailhead for our first hike of the day. One thing to know about this trailhead: the last couple miles to reach it involves a narrow dirt road with a handful of completely blind curves. It was a little nerve wracking. But once you’re there, you have access to a network of trails that lead into Canyonlands’ backcountry. If you’re wanting to backpack or continue on the extremely challenging 4WD-only road beyond this point, you’ll need a permit. For day hiking, no permits are required.
We set off for a day hike on the Elephant Hill Trail, which right off the bat involves many stairs. If the brisk November air wasn’t enough to wake me up, the early morning stair climbing certainly was. Like most trails in Canyonlands, much of our path involved walking across slickrock from one cairn to the next. There are plenty of cairns and we never worried about getting lost. However, if we stopped paying attention for too long we’d find ourselves accidentally straying from the path.
Speaking of straying from the path, the bumpy red and black ground at Canyonlands is actually a living ecosystem called cryptobiotic crust. It’s a community of blue-green algae, lichens, bacteria, and other microscopic organisms that retain water and provide structure to the sand, thus preventing erosion. The water also allows desert plants to take root. This soil is extremely fragile and if crushed it can take years to recover in such a dry desert climate. If you need to step aside to let someone pass it’s best to step only on rocks.
From the first trail junction, options abound. There are probably around a dozen loop or out-and-back hikes that can be pieced together with all of these interconnecting trails. Our path for the day was out to Chesler Park Viewpoint. This required us to pass through The Needles themselves, which made for some fun sections of trail.
These red and white rock “needles” were formed by salt, of all things. I was very surprised to learn this. This area of the US used to be covered by an ocean, which left behind lots of salt when it receded. This salt was eventually buried by sand and compressed to the point that it began to flow like liquid, seeping upward and cracking the sandstone in a grid like pattern. The sandstone began to erode along these fissures. Thus, The Needles.
The Chesler Park Viewpoint is located between two of the needles; from here, we could see south to the remaining needles area.
But personally, our favorite part wasn’t the viewpoint. It was from a giant boulder shortly before. Not only did we have a panoramic needles view while we ate a snack, but we also had solitude and silence. Complete silence. There were no birds, no airplanes, no wind, nothing. For a long moment we just sat there, listening to the sound of nothingness.
After Chesler Park, we made our way back up the narrow winding road to see the rest of the park. There are four mini hikes in The Needles section and also some roadside viewpoints, and our goal was to see all of them. But first, lunch with a view at the picnic area.
Mini hike #1 was Pothole Point. A pothole is a sand-filled indentation in the slickrock. It may not look like much but – like the cryptobiotic crust – a pothole is actually a tiny ecosystem. Eggs and larvae lie dormant in the sand for weeks, months, or even years awaiting the next rainy season. When the pothole fills with water, the community comes to life. Because of this, it’s important not to step in potholes, even when they’re dry.
Next, all the way at the end of the road, was the Slickrock Trail. As the name suggests, this one involved a lot of walking on slickrock. It’s a lollipop loop out to four expansive viewpoints. This trail was… fine. But it wasn’t my favorite. It just didn’t really stand out to me in any way.
Next stop was Wooden Shoe Arch, which can be seen from the road. It really does look like a wooden shoe.
There are so many unique formations in this area; Pat and I had a lot of fun pointing out the different shapes we could see in the rocks. We spotted an eagle, a sarcophagus, a flying saucer, and sasquatch carrying a backpack.
We also ended up renaming this area ‘The Land of a Thousand Penises’ because… well, for obvious reasons.
Mini hike #3 was to Cave Spring, which was probably my favorite of these four short trails. Sandstone is a very porous rock and water easily seeps through it. Eventually the water encounters a harder, less porous rock layer and is unable to travel any further. When this happens, the water is trapped between the layers and forced out of the rock, forming a year-round spring in the desert. There is evidence that Native Americans (the Utes and Ancestral Puebloans) and cowboys (ranching took place in this area until the 1960s when the park was established) camped near the spring.
Our final stop was Roadside Ruin. This short trail climbs up to an old granary nestled in the rock.
And that brings me to the end of our Needles marathon. We’re early risers and fairly fast hikers, especially on this relatively flat terrain, so 5 hikes totaling 9.7 miles (15.6 km) in a day wasn’t a problem for us. If you’re not up for such a jam-packed day, you could shorten it by eliminating the Slickrock Trail (my least favorite of the five) or walking just the first 1.3 miles (2.1 km) of the Chesler Park trail to an obvious high point. You could also stay in Monticello rather than Moab, as it’s slightly closer. Or, you could lengthen your stay by a day or two and explore further in the Chesler Park area. We definitely want to return to Chesler Park for an overnight backpacking trip one day, which would allow us to explore more of this trail network.
Either way, I highly recommend a visit to The Needles. It’s so easy to overlook due to its more remote location, but it’s very different from the deep red cliffs of the rest of the park. We really enjoyed it and felt it was more than worth the 3 hours roundtrip driving time from Moab.
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: The Needles district of Canyonlands is located roughly 90 minutes southwest of Moab or 60 minutes northwest of Monticello in eastern Utah; there is only one road in or out (UT Highway 211)
- Fees and passes: $30 per car for a 7-day pass; interagency passes accepted
- Where to stay: There is a small primitive campground at The Needles that looked like it had some pretty neat sites. There are also some camping options on surrounding BLM land or in Moab. Also, hotels, cabins, etc. are plentiful in Moab and Monticello has a few lodging options as well
- Hiking: We hiked all 4 of the relatively short easy trails in this section plus the Chesler Park viewpoint trail; a complete Needles hiking guide can be found here
- Other: I really wish Canyonlands had done a better job of advertising how fragile the soil crust and potholes are. Little font on trailhead signs isn’t sufficient. There should be large signs at the beginning of each trail explaining why it’s so important not to step on these features