Trip Planning- Canyonlands National Park, Needles District

Have you ever smelled the desert after a cool rain?  How about early in the morning when the earth laden air is cool to your lungs and the desert is moody and silent?  I know it’s weird, but one of my favorite things about the desert is its smell.  Sure, it mostly smells like dirt but at the same time it is the cleanest smell I can think of.  Yes, even more so than spring breeze laundry detergent.

The desert is a magical place- in a brutal, Game-of-Thrones kind of way.  Life has taken on some extreme forms to combat, live, and thrive in this harsh environment.  The canyons will bake any living organism foolish enough to underestimate them into crisps.  The vegetation is dry and will probably poke or cut any animal that comes too close to it.  Yet, even with all of its hostility, the desert really is a special place.  I didn’t always love it.  I used to hate it- but if you give it just a sliver of a chance, it will grow on you.  The desert and canyon lands are harsh, windswept, and full of color.  They are silent, dry, and you can see across the universe at night.  The desert is a place of meditation and adventure in equal doses.  What better of a place to spend a few days in early March!

First and foremost, it was hard to pick a destination this time around.  I always have a few bucket list locations floating around in my head at any given time.  There are the great, big epic trips- like touring India for six month; and then there are the equally fulfilling but easier trips, such as visiting the Grand Canyon, which is initially where I wanted to go.  The problem with the Grand Canyon and many other national parks is that they are extremely popular.  This means there are more regulations in place for visitors.  For instance, to get a back country permit into the Grand Canyon (a requirement for hiking from one rim to another, which was my original plan), you really need to apply about six months in advance.  Even if you do this though, you are still entered into a lottery.  Besides having to get a reservation to sleep on the ground in the back country, there are other countless rules and conditions that you must follow.  That’s why most of my adventures tend to be in national forests.  If on a whim I decide to go on a camping trip, I just hop in my Jeep and head for the hills.  National forests, BLM land, and other agencies are much more lax in their rules and regulations.

I don’t want to sound condescending of the park service.  I am not.  The fact is that they have a lot on their hands.  The land set aside to form national parks are some of the most pristine, gorgeous, and unique lands in the world.  This is why you have Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Canyonlands, Arches, Zion, the Grand Tetons…. the list just goes on and on.  America’s greatest idea was in fact a fantastic idea!  Unfortunately though, as humans’ numbers continue to grow and as the wild places continue to shrink, our parks will be visited more and more. Every year the Grand Canyon alone receives more than 3,000,000 visitors.  So we do need rules.  We do need these stupid reservations, because frankly, I don’t want to be in a surreal, isolated wilderness with a million other yuppies drawing graffiti on the rocks and carving “Steve loves Lisa” in the bark of trees (don’t do that, folks, please?).

I digress.

The Canyonlands National Park is a very unique place.  Located several miles away from Moab, Utah, it is a large park that encompasses over 300,000 acres.  It is so spread out and the terrain so rugged that the Park Service has divided the land into three distinct areas.  There is the most accessible and very vista-prone “Island in the Sky” district, the extremely remote, rugged, and canyon riddled area aptly dubbed “The Maze,” and lastly, the area I will be spending my trip, “The Needles” district.  The Canyonlands appears set aside from time.  It is stoic, forbidden, and mysterious.  Its deeply carved canyons, chutes, and pinnacles offer unlimited amounts of exploration but are very unforgiving.  However, even though this barren landscape may appear to be a static picture, it is really a living, breathing macrocosm- constantly changing and flowing and forever providing refuge and nourishment for all of the wild things.

The formation of the Canyonlands is very interesting whether you are a fan of geology or not.  It’s just plain impressive.  A very, very long time ago, before the Rockies were formed, there were vast inland oceans covering the Western U.S.  Over a long period these seas gradually receded and left many layers of sand and mud.  In the following years, nearby mountain ranges would form and slowly erode away (there are even traces of sediment found from the Appalachians!) and this sediment would add itself to the already impressive “cake” layers of rock being formed.  The times got even drier and as the mountains continued to erode, massive sand dunes covered the Canyonlands.  Over the years, wet and dry climates fought for control.  From inland lakes and swamps to dry deserts, the area experienced a lot of change.  For the most part though, the Canyonlands probably appeared a lot like the Midwest- gently sloping plains with varying types of semi-arid grasses and shrubs.  Eventually, a new type of geologic force would show itself that would change everything: the rising of the Colorado Plateau.

The Colorado Plateau is a large area of uplifted land found in the four corners area of the US.  This plateau was formed during the Laramide orogeny, a period of massive geologic upheaval that raised the land from sea level to upwards of 14,000 feet over a period of time.  During this time the interior of the land was cut off from the ocean for good.  This is also when we see most of the dramatic erosion that created the Canyonlands taking place.  The interesting thing about the Laramide orogeny is that even though it lifted the surrounding land by a tremendous factor, the land remained very stable and hasn’t buckled or suffered extreme folding or faulting.  For such a large land mass to be lifted so high, this is unusual.  The fringes of this mass, though, really felt the tension and stress from all of that uplift.  The Canyonlands lay among this region and it is for this reason that they have undergone such dramatic and beautiful change.

As this large mass of land slowly climbed into the sky, erosional forces increased more and more.  The land that forms the Canyonlands felt the brunt end of this force and the increased water runoff from the early Rockies compounded with the stress and fracturing that the Canyonlands were undergoing led to some of the most impressive geological formations on the planet.  Rivers ripped and carved out sloughs deep into the ancient rock exposing layers that hadn’t seen the sun for hundreds of millions of years, some for billions.  The lighter sandstone layers higher up were repeatedly sliced by water’s intrusion and simultaneously sand blasted, forming intricate and delicate slot canyons that shine with colors ranging from orange to pink.  The many arches found in this area were created the same way.  The pinnacles, or hoodoos by some, were created by water slowly seeping within the stone, freezing, expanding, thawing, and carrying out the sediments.  These processes are not occurring with the same vigor as before, but they are still present and this land will continue to change for a very long time.

As I stated earlier, I am going to be in the Needles District.  The Needles, along with the Maze, are some of the most remote parts of the park and some of the most remote land in the contiguous U.S.  It was these attributes that attracted the late and great author, Edward Abbey, to live in and write about these lands in his book “Desert Solitaire.”  It is these attributes that continue to attract visitors today, including myself.  I have planned and reserved a trip entailing of three nights and four days in this awesome landscape.  Day one will be a leg-burning 10 mile loop, ascending and descending into multiple canyons and rock formations.  That night me and my compadres will sleep under the stars, which, by the way, this park has a lot of.  The next day

A very rough outline of the trip.

we will head out towards Hell’s Kitchen, hike around the photogenic Chesler Park, and crawl through a tiny cave and slot canyon called Joint Trail.  We will camp out at Chesler Park that night.  The next day will be shorter, about six miles, and we will be headed South towards Druid Arch.  This is a very monolithic looking arch, and very sturdy.  It doesn’t have that delicate form that most people associate with arches.  That is OK, though, because we will be camping near the arch in some dispersed camping areas.  On this part of the trip I am hoping to get some good night photography landscapes of the stars behind this primal structure.  Overall it will be a great trip and I am very excited to immerse myself into a landscape that combines divine beauty with remote ruggedness.  This will be a trip where every emotion, view, and blister will be earned.  I don’t think I would have it any other way.
Have you ever been to this area?  Is there a place you think I would like to check out?  Do you just have questions about this area in general?  Maybe you are planning a trip?  Whatever your thoughts and opinions are on this trip, I would still love to hear what you have to say.  Thank you for your interest in my adventures and for “coming along!”


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