Thursday, October 25, 2012

Canyonlands' Needles

Our campsite on Lockhart Rd with a view of Six-shooter Peak
After Bluff, we make a fuzzy plan to head north through Moab to I-70, then west for a few miles and back south down Highway 24 to Highway 95 to view Natural Bridge National Monument and the Valley of the Gods.  It's basically a loop from Bluff that will bring us almost full-circle.

Our first stop is Canyonlands National Park, the Needles District.  There are three districts in Canyonlands: the Needles in the southeast which is not as heavily visited because of its distance from the highway and it's one road in and out; the Maze in the southwest which is even less visited because it has only 4-wheel drive roads and hiking trails in it; and Island in the Sky in the north and the most popular district.  These three districts are naturally divided by the Green and the Colorado Rivers which meet within the park and divide it like a pie into the three sections.  One district is not accessible from any of the others, so you have to drive in, have your visit, and drive back out and around to the next district.  However, Canyonlands is a beautiful park.  We were here in 2009 for a one-day visit and managed only to drive the scenic road through the Needles District.  This time, we will hike the trails and spend more time soaking in the spectacular views in at least the Needles and Island in the Sky districts.

Because we are somewhat remote where we camp, we let Grady out of the trailer for walks.  However, one day he chases something out from under the shrub next to our trailer.  I see it out of the corner of my eye and realize it's a small snake!  I grab Grady, who tries to outrun me by circling the tiny plant the snake has coiled up in the middle of, and I hear a rattle!  Yikes!  The stupid cat wants a rattlesnake.  I manage to grab Grady and put him in the trailer.  The snake is only about 8 inches long and as big around as my finger.  We later learn from a park range that it's a Midget Faded Rattlesnake and definitely poisonous; would likely have killed the cat because of Grady's size and the amount of venom injected.  It would only make us sick.
Grady's Midget Faded Rattlesnake
Climbers are popular in Canyonlands because there are so many vertical ridges and mesas.  These are a very dark reddish-brown and usually covered in "varnish" - a dark staining from high concentrations of iron oxide in water runoff.  In this varnished rock, you often can find petroglyphs which are ancient drawings and symbols chiseled into the rock.  Pictographs are wall paintings and can also be seen here.  Like much of the southwest, nomadic groups of hunter-gatherers inhabited these areas from 8,000 BC to 500 BC.  About 2,000 years ago, people began to farm crops and keep livestock.  They are known as the ancestral Puebloan (formerly Anasazi) and Fremont people.  They lived here from about 900 AD to 1,200 AD.  These are the people who built the dwellings and ruins we see on cliff walls.  It is not known why they left; it is thought that persistent drought was the cause. In more recent years, ranchers used this parched, unforgiving land to graze cattle and their evidence is everywhere.  Many horses and cows are still here today.  Some areas also experienced mining booms (and busts).  But everywhere, there is history - cultural and natural.

Marilyn overlooking the Needles
The Needles District is full of rock formations called - surprisingly - needles.  They are formed in the red and white striped sandstone by water and wind erosion.  There are several long hikes here in excess of 8 miles.  Brad and I max out at about a 7 mile hike, especially if there is a big elevation change.  Remember, if you go down into a canyon, you have to come back up; and vice-versa!  After a long chat with the ranger at the Visitors Center, we decide to take two hikes (on different days): Chesler Park Viewpoint (6 miles) and Squaw Canyon/Big Spring Canyon loop (8 miles).

How does a rock balance like that!?!
The Squaw Canyon trail meets Big Spring Canyon trail about 1/2 way around the loop.  Even though this trail is long (7.8 miles), we decide to tough it out!  The hike through the two canyons is pretty, but not spectacular.  However, in the very middle of the hike, to get from one canyon to the other, we have to scale up the "slickrock" (smooth sandstone which is very grippy and easy to scale) and cross the ridge between the two canyons.  The elevation rise to get over this ridge is probably about 400 feet.  We scramble up a dry water run-off (it looks more like a smooth, slow water slide), and the view from the top is magnificent.  We can see "Six Shooter Peak in the far distance, which we also have a great view of from our trailer.  It's a huge triangle of rubble with six spires on top of it at an elevation of over 6,000 feet.  The desert floor is about 5,000 feet.  Here at the top of the ridge, the rock is dark red with stripes of white and orange below.  These stripes represent the numerous times (apparently 30) that ancient seas have covered this landscape and receded, leaving behind mud or sand deposits which compact into stone with their own weight over millions of years.  But now we have to descend.  The description of this trail follows: "The route between the canyons climbs steep grades that are dangerous when wet and may make people with a fear of heights uncomfortable."  Uh - yeah!  Fortunately, it is neither wet, nor are we afraid of heights, but walking on such steeply sloped rock is terrifying, and the drop is far to the canyon below.  No railings, no cables to hold onto - nothing!  But we survive and actually feel exhilarated.  We did it!  Walking through Big Spring Canyon is prettier than Squaw Canyon, but by mile 6 I just want to be back at the parking lot!  The entire hike takes us almost 6 hours, although we stopped along the way for lunch.  AND, right before this hike we took a short 1-mile hike just after sunrise to get the best photos of the Needles.  So it's been a long day and we've tallied almost 9 miles of hiking - beyond my limit!
Taking a break before climbing up near the peak to cross this ridge

This is steeper than it looks and quite scary!  Called "slickrock"
Red rock formations in Chesler Park

Ahh, Chesler Park.  It's "only" a 6-mile round trip hike with fantastic views of the Needles and Elephant Canyon throughout the entire trek.  There are a few spots where we hike through a narrow split between two humongous rocks just barely wide enough for our shoulders.  we look up about 100 feet to the full height of these rock walls.  Wow!  There is also a lot of scrambling up and down water runoffs, some of which are smooth slickrock and others are thin layers of red clay hardened into rock at a 45 degree angle.  To get to the Chesler Park Overlook we have to hike up and between two needle formations through a steep pass where the wind just whistles through.  At the top, we see the expanse of a valley surrounded the red and orange sandstone needles and spires eroded at different levels.  Some are still tall and others have eroded almost to the ground.  Even the sand here is dark pink because the rock is such a dark red colour.  Such beauty and solitude, although we see a lot of people on this hike today.  It is probably a more popular hike because the scenery is so incredible.  There are also several backcountry campsites out here and we see people at them.  All water has to be carried in - I have trouble carrying the weight of enough water for just me for a few hours.  Some of these guys are carrying 60 pounds of gear!  I prefer my tricked-out trailer!
Brad in a crevice along the Chesler Park Overlook trail

Marilyn in a water runoff on the Chesler Park Overlook trail

Our view for our picnic lunch near Chesler Park

Returning from Chesler Park, the trail climbs through a narrow pass
For the Needles District of Canyonlands, I highly recommend the Chesler Park trail from the Elephant Hill parking lot.  Elephant Hill is a-whole-nother ball game.  This 4-wheel drive road requires a permit and a beefed-up, special 4-wheel drive, high clearance vehicle, as well as a driver with lots of technical experience driving in these conditions.  Some sections require you to go up a steep incline by driving forward, then backing up the next section, then forward, then backwards, because full turns are impossible.  No thanks.  But it's supposed to be quite the adventure!

Next, we'll head to the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands to the north.  Tomorrow - stock up on supplies in Moab.

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