OUT: Haggerty’s Hikes May 31, 2009

Needles District in Canyonlands offers perfect getaway

Bill Haggerty’s hiking group looks at a pictograph on the Peekaboo Springs trail in Canyonlands National Park



Mallory Pilcher threatened me.

As we lounged around the Wooden Shoe group campsite in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, the terror of Grand Valley lacrosse, peered under her hat and sneered, “I’d better see my name in this article.”

“No problem,” I said. “Kay Nanga Maray.”

Our Tibetan Monk companion on this trip, Lobsang Kedup, taught us that.

Kay Nanga Maray. No problem.

We had no problem camping in the desert southwest, no problem hiking on these spectacular trails through the Needles District, no problem with no cell phone service.

Well, most of us had no problem with that.

And we had no problem getting along, as long as Mallory was there to keep us in line.

And her sister Emily, the Crypto Cop (“Don’t step on the cryptogamic soil. It’s alive, you know!”) And her other sister Olivia, recently returned from Northern Arizona University and totally full of knowledge.

And their mom and social director of the universe, Peggy.

And the weather. It did rain a bit.

But other than that, Kay Nanga Maray. No problem. The temperatures were fabulous and the gnats were nearly non-existent.

The Needles District forms the southeastern portion of Canyonlands National Park.

This high desert region of the Colorado Plateau is noted for its colorful Cedar Mesa Sandstone pillars that spring out of the desert floor with amazing irregularity. There are hundreds of them stretching southwards for miles, forming a jumbled and at times hostile landscape. Yet, this area also has many fascinating arches, domes, canyons and signs of ancient Indian life such as ruins and rock-carvings.

And with all this rain, the desert was as green as I’ve ever seen it.

Lobsang was impressed. We all were.

Even Mallory.

To reach this area from Grand Junction, take Interstate 70 west to Crescent Junction.

Take the U.S. Highway 191 South exit, exit 182, toward Moab. Stop for a break in Moab, then continue heading south on U.S. 191 for another 40 miles. Turn right on Utah Highway 211 and drive 35 miles further west. (Note: Don’t take the Needles Overlook road. Utah 211 is a few miles further south on U.S. 191.)

Utah 211 is a great paved drive that runs across open grassy land for a while before descending along Indian Creek Canyon. Cliffs along the upper part of this canyon are world renowned for rock climbing. This road also takes you past Newspaper Rock. It’s now a historical monument and you really should stop if you’ve never seen these prolific petroglyph’s.

The road crosses the creek about six miles before the park boundary. Apparently the Pilcher’s experienced flash flooding on this stretch the night before we arrived, so watch for such things.

The only campground within the park at Squaw Flat is an ideal base camp for day hikes to popular destinations like Chesler Park, Druid Arch and the Joint Trail. There are 26 sites available on a first-come, first-served basis. Bathrooms, fire grates, picnic tables, tent pads and water are available year-round. Group size limit is 10 people and two vehicles. Maximum RV length is 28 feet. Fee is $15 per night. Squaw Flat typically fills every day from late March through June and again from early September to mid-October.

The Needles District also offers three campsites for groups of 11 or more people which must be reserved well in advance. The Squaw Flat Group Site can hold up to 50 people and 10 vehicles. The Wooden Shoe Group Site can hold up to 25 people and five vehicles. The Split Top Group Site can hold up to 15 people and three vehicles.

Nightly fees are $3 per person.

Holy cow, I just realized I owe Peggy money.

The signature “Needles” are first glimpsed as the road crosses the park boundary. Just past the boundary sign is a turn for the Needles Outpost. This private facility offers gas and a few groceries, gifts, ice cream bars and a campsite. It does not have contact lens solution, nor will you discover cell phone service here. Forget about it.

The Needles Ranger District Visitor Center is just beyond. You must obtain a backcountry permit here for many hikes in this district.

My favorite hike is the Chesler Park Loop, a six-mile trek that takes between four and six hours and leads into the main stretch of Needles. However, there are 55 miles of marked trails here and hundreds of features of interest — arches, ancient ruins, river overlooks, rock formations — that can be reached by foot or by four-wheel drive vehicle. There are also numerous roadside viewpoints and four easy, self-guiding footpaths (Roadside Ruin, Cave Spring, Pothole Point and Slickrock Foot Trail).

You can handle any of them. So can Mallory Pilcher.

Kay Nanga Maray.


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