I recently found myself itching for an escape -- to spend some quality time immersed nature (and away from my computer!) for a few regenerative days. But what to do when it’s only April, and the Rocky Mountains are still too wintery for comfortable outdoor sleeping and hiking? The answer: Canyonlands National Park. Late March through May is the prime season to explore the desert canyons, before the summer heat makes long hikes much more uncomfortable.
My friend and I chose to go backpacking instead of car camping, in order get as far away from civilization as possible; to explore some of the outer reaches of the park without being tied down to a campsite near the entrance. The choice paid off, and we witnessed countless natural wonders of creation in a way very few (if any) other landscapes can offer. The scope of the terrain in Canyonlands can only be described as epic. The Needles area in particular (at the south end of the park) is truly a hidden gem of the National Park system. It’s a beautiful display of tall, almost gravity defying spires, red canyon walls and rock features, formed by erosion over millions of years.
In our time there, we saw maybe 30 other hikers. The nights were absolutely silent. Even during mid-day, the trails were almost deserted compared to other National Parks. It was backpacking heaven!
Aside from the backpacking necessities (tent, sleeping bag, food, stove, rain protection, etc.), you’ll want to pack a good deal of water. The Needles District has a few water sources (bring a water filter!), but only 2 that remain year-round. If you come after little or no rain, be prepared to carry enough water for half your trip, with one fill-up mid-way on the Druid Arch trail (see more below). In the desert that means a lot of water, all-told a good percentage of your total pack weight.
You’ll also need to pack appropriately for the desert weather. Even in early spring, it can get fairly hot during the day. But as soon as the sun goes down, temperatures decrease rapidly. During our mid-April trip, nighttime temps dropped into the 30’s.
During peak spring and fall months you’ll need to reserve your backcountry permit at least 2 weeks ahead of time, or run the risk of getting inconvenient, out-of-the-way sites, or possibly have nowhere to camp at all. Anyone who wishes to camp in the backcountry must obtain a permit.
The National Park service states: “Reservations are recommended, but not required. Currently, competition is greatest for White Rim trips during the spring and fall and Needles backpacking trips during spring. For these activities, visitors should apply as early as possible. Campsites and permits not reserved in advance are available on a first-come, first-served basis at district visitor centers.”
Many trails ascend up and over one canyon, and down into the next, offering spectacular views of the surroundings.
There are so many natural spires, ampatheaters, caves, and holes, that the temptation go off exploring is constant.
Rock piles mark the trail all throughout the park, as signposts can’t easily be drilled into the rock surface.
Druid Arch is a must see – the hike itself, along with the massive arch, is stunning and is quite easily accessible. The Druid arch trail is a 4 mile round trip from the main trail in Elephant Canyon. 2/3 of the way to the arch, there is also a spring-fed water pool for you to refill your drinking/cooking water for the 2nd half of your trip.
All along the hike are water-eroded fissure, some of which have formed into deep caves, high up into the canyon walls. We were lucky enough to explore one of these caves.
With a single straight crack running its length, a beautiful glow of light streamed through, illuminating a narrow strip of rock floor all the way to the back of the cave. Visually it was reminiscent of a grand cathedral, and I couldn’t help but feel a reverence for the awesome power of nature.
Chesler Park is a great spot to set up camp for at least one of your nights in the park. It offers easy access to Druid Arch and the Joint trail (more below), two of the must-see “attractions” in the Needles. Chesler is an expansive, flat, grassy plain, surrounded on 3 sides by needle-like spires. It offers panoramic views of the desert canyons to the West.
Without the wind protection other canyon campsites offer, surrounded on all sides by tall canyon walls, Chesler can get a bit blustery and cold, so be prepared with gloves, hat and a good windbreaker for the evening hours.
The Joint Trail might be the most unique bit of trail in the park. After a quick flat section to the west of Chesler Park, the trail descends into one of many narrow rock fissures that exist between the massive sandstone formation dominant in this area of the park.
Once inside, you follow an almost perfectly straight track, with sheer, solid rocks walls rising at least a hundred feet on either side of you.
Through to the other side of this trail is what could accurately be described as a mushroom rock playground, with innumerable bulbous rock formations and caves to explore for those who wish to go off-trail.
All-in-all, my experience In the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park was nothing short of amazing. With proper packing and preparation, you’ll be free to enjoy every inch of the beautiful trails, taking the time to marvel at some of Mother Nature’s most awe-inspiring rock creations.
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