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Canyonlands’ Needles District

By Ann Driggers

The timing is darn near perfect. No sooner have the leaves dropped in the high mountains, than the searing summer heat of the deserts vaporizes for good. With moderate temperatures and glorious sunny days, late fall is the primo time to be a desert rat. We have plenty of opportunities for that in our neck of the woods. This past weekend Chad and I spent several days ferreting around the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, and immersed ourselves into the quintessential desert south west landscape. Despite its relative remoteness the area is rich with history of human habitation from 2,000 year old petroglyphs to 100 year old cowboy camps. On our first day we rode our bikes around the park roads visiting the points of interest along the way.

  newspaper rock.jpg

On our second day we made a foray deep into the stunning landscape. There’s a huge amount to see so we tried to pack in as many sights as we could and set out with a fairly ambitious itinerary but with options to cut it short if needed. Leaving from the Elephant Hill trailhead we first hiked 5+ miles to Druid Arch. For the most part the ‘trails’ were cairned routes across slickrock and along canyon bottoms making for a more backcountry experience than we had expected from a National Park. Although the morning had started with a downright chilly 24 degrees, it wasn’t long before the desert sunshine had us stripping down to t-shirts. Upon reaching Druid Arch we stopped for lunch and basked in the warming sun for half an hour.

Druid Arch.jpg

Next we backtracked 2 miles to the reach the cutoff over into Chesler Park. Along the way we found a fissure in the rock and decided to follow it. It was a bit of a squeeze - if any part of your body is more than say 34 inches around or 7 inches wide, you are not getting through - but definitely worth it as we happened upon an incredible place.

surprise slot.jpg surprise slot2.jpg

I was excited to finally arrive at Chesler Park, a grassland area surrounded by needles and other rock formations, having seen so many beautiful photos of the area. It lived up to my expectations and more.

At this point we were feeling pretty spry and made the decision to continue hiking on the Chesler Park loop trail which would add a few more miles to our day. The first section was the Joint trail which followed a ‘joint’ or crack between the rocks. Although not as tight as the previous slot and it was nonetheless a fun part of the hike with some scrambling involved.

joint downclimb.jpg

We finished up the loop and started on the trail back towards Elephant Hill, arriving back about 7 hours after we set out. We covered 15 miles, but surprising to us was the amount of elevation gain. Our GPS reported 3,400 feet of climbing on the route. I guess there were a lot of ups and downs between the canyons, parks and mesas. Luckily a summer of mountain adventures had prepared us well for being desert rats.

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