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Canyonlands National Park Canyonlands National Park

23rd June 2010

Fierce Heat Whilst Hiking Through the Needles

    Today was a day for exploring another part of Canyonlands, the Needles. I headed south out of Moab knowing that it was going to be a long trek getting there. The route would follow a letter J course and my destination was 80 miles away.
    On the dusty outskirts of Moab I passed what looked like a collection of sheds by the side of the road. I had to smile when I saw the sign "Morris's Last Resort Cabins". This rented accommodation must have been the last resort for some folks who had traveled a long way to find Moab fully booked up in peak season.
    The road south was full of long straight stretches and fast moving. I drove through dustbowls and occasionally a green oasis where the land was being irrigated. About 15 miles south of town I noticed on a large cliff which the road passed directly by, a sign in 10' high white letters, "Hole N' the Rock". Around the cliff on the other side was a transport cafe with similar large letters emblazoned on the cliff face above. Although the cafe was not strictly inside the boundary of the national park, how did they get away with it?
Petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock
    I reached the bottom of my J and started a long drive north-west to the Needles region. I paused as I passed view Newspaper Rock, a petroglyph panel etched in sandstone that records approximately 2000 years of early man's activities. Prehistoric peoples, probably from the Archaic Basketmaker, Fremont and Pueblo cultures, etched on the rock from B.C. time to A.D. 1300. In historic times, Utah and Navajo tribesmen, as well as Anglos, left their contributions.
    There are no known methods of dating rock art. In interpreting the figures on the rock, scholars are undecided as to their meaning or have yet to decipher them. In Navajo, the rock is called "Tse' Hane'" (rock that tells a story).
Wooden Shoe Arch
    The continued drive was through a wide valley between never ending mesas, well at least not for the next 20 miles. This valley was also irrigated in parts, but very few buildings could be seen.. I pulled into the visitor centre for a more detailed map of the trails in the Needles. Unlike Island in the Sky where it was possible to see the overlooks from spitting distance of a vehicle, the only way to see the Needles properly was to drive to a trailhead and hike in from there. I also enquired about the likely temperatures to be encountered today. It was currently 82 degrees F but expected to rise to 95 degrees F in a couple of hours. Hiking in that heat was going to be hard.
Biological Soil Crust, formed Slowly by
Living Organisms and Their By-Products
    Hiking to the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers initially appealed to me, but once I learned it was over open country that didn't show much of the Needles, I dropped the idea; besides I don't think I could have carried all the drinking water required. I checked with one of the officials about trails that would give me a good overview of the Needles, and I was recommended the trail from Elephant Hill trailhead to Chesler Park. With that goal in mind, I headed off to the trailhead, stopping off to take in the view of Wooden Shoe Arch.
    Having parked at the trailhead, I loaded up with bottles of water, fruit and trail-mix and climbed up the steep rise at the very beginning of the trail. The sun was already high in the sky and fierce. The trail followed a winding route, with many climbs and descents, sometimes through narrow chasms. There were many stretches where total silence pervaded the trail, no birds or even flies could be heard. The only wildlife I saw were the ubiquitous lizards scurrying between rocks and sagebrush.
    I met a few hikers coming in the opposite direction. Perhaps they had the right idea and had set off early in the morning when the air was cooler, which was fine if they were camped near here. We'd exchange greetings and check with each other that we were feeling OK and had enough liquids with us; the sort of camaraderie you'd expect out in this remote, hostile environment.
Chesler park with Tops of Needles as far as the Eye Could See
    One of the couples I met was seeking a brief escape from the merciless sun in the shadow of a huge cliff. I joined them and chatted for a while. The chap had spent a year at an Oxford College in 1963 when he was 14 years old. He had never been back since, but hopes to one day. We talked about Canyonlands, and I told him how I was introduced to the area through a book that my youngest daughter had bought me a few years back. I discussed the other books that had motivated me into making the trip. The fellow then recommended a book called "Desert Solitaire: a Season in the Wilderness" by Edward Abbey, who told of his life as a seasonal park ranger during the late 1950s in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, and of his trips down the rivers. Ironically, while the book encourages its readers to protect the wilderness by leaving it alone, thousands of readers have flocked to Moab in a hope of finding their own piece of solitude. It was the sort of book I wished I'd read before the trip, but perhaps if I read it now I could relate to it better. We went our separate ways, and I followed the cairns to my destination.
    Cairns were placed at very regular intervals along the trail, and were essential in some areas where the route crossed large stretches of smooth rock. I, and no doubt many others, was very grateful for the cairns, since at times the route taken was not at all obvious. To lose one's way in this area and environment could prove fatal.
    I reached the edge of Chesler Park, and before even taking in the view, I gorged myself on fruit, trial-mix, and very hot water. From where I was standing, I could see right across Chesler Park and the myriads of 'needles' it contained.
    The Needles were formed many millions of years ago, when the sandstone layers above a salt layer exerted so much pressure on the salt that it turned into a plastic state. The whole sheet of sandstone then proceeded to slowly slide towards the Colorado River. In the process, the sandstone layer fractured into a grid like pattern. Over aeons of years, corrosion had eaten away at the crevices to form the Needles.
A Close Up View of Needles. Note how the Harder White Sandstone has formed Mushrooms over the Softer Red Sandstone in Some of the Rows
    After taking my fill of the marvels before me, I headed back along the trail, meeting a few people who where still heading out on the trail. The numbers hiking out here were not large, maybe a reflection of the remoteness, severity of some of the hikes and the heat. I overtook one guy who had stopped to take in the view, and he wanted a cigarette break. I gently admonished him for the latter, and he took it in good spirit. He jokingly said that this wonderland beat Chicago any day. I suppose he was experiencing one form of desolation that was a total contrast to the desolation he had come from; the demise of the American car industry had devastated Chicago.
    On reaching the van, I could feel my fingers swelling up, the onset of dehydration. I drank as much water as I could take and headed off back to Moab. After a refreshing shower, I headed to the local Chinese restaurant. The food would contain plenty of salt and help to replace the day's losses. The portions they served though were well over the top. Whilst eating, I reflected on the day. The hike, which would normally be a stroll for me, was sheer hard work in the heat. But it gave me chance to see Canyonlands eyeball-to-eyeball as it were. It was a remote, hostile environment that could be very unforgiving. Yet at the same time, it held its own beauty and mysteries. On balance, I enjoyed the day tremendously.
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Uploaded from Canyonlands Campground, 555 South Main Street, Moab UT 84532 on 24/06/10 at 15:10

Last updated 25.6.2010