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Saturday, September 5, 2015 : Canyonlands, the Needles


Today, we have no appointment before dawn, so we do not need to wake up too early. Hey, we even have time to chat with the family back in France on Skype.


After breakfast, we leave the hotel. We refuel the car just outside Moab. A clerk from Quebec describes me the anti-fraud device embedded in automatic gas pumps that, 9 times out of 10, makes me rush to the counter to get my card authorized, instead of directly paying at the pump. It's basically a technical difference between how zipcodes are encoded on cards in Europe and in the States. Quite predictably, they're different.


We drive US Route 191 southward, toward Monticello, and we turn right onto Utah State Route 211 toward Canyonlands National Park, a park divided in three parts by Colorado and its tributary Green River. We already visited the first part of Canyonlands, Island in the Sky, 5 years ago. Today, we are visiting the second part, The Needles. And since the 165 miles on our roadmap today are not going to keep us busy for too long, we essentially spend the day in the park.


As ever since we started this trip, we are not too bothered by traffic. Anywhere we go, there is hardly anyone. Between US Route 191 and the Needles visitor center, about 35 miles, we barely cross half a dozen vehicles.


Newspaper Rock, UT-211, près de Monticello, UT

Newspaper Rock


About 12 miles after leaving US Route 191, we make a stop at Newspaper Rock, a Utah State Historical Monument. It is an almost vertical rock, like a wall, on which locals have engraved all kinds of drawings. Representations of animals, hunters, warriors are certainly not controversial, but I have my doubts about the pattern that looks like a watch near the top left corner. Either it is not as old as the other ones, or it is not a watch. The oldest engravings are more than 2,000 years old.


Anyway, this rock more that deserves a stop. It is maintained in excellent condition by a natural deposit of manganese and iron, fixed by precipitation and bacteria.


Nobody really knows the true meaning of Newspaper Rock, or even whether there is one. Perhaps it is the manifestation of some early form of sprituality, or perhaps it is a forerunner of the Facebook wall.


Naturally, there is no way to touch the rock itself. A railing keeps visitors at a safe distance.


Utah State Route 211, between Monticello and Canyonlands National Park

Utah State Route 211, between Monticello and Canyonlands National Park


Shortly after Newspaper Rock, the valley becomes wider and vegetation sparser. The road gets straight, with a beautitul view of the mesas around us. We stop for a short while, to take pictures at street level.


Once more, we are right in the middle of a western landscape.


Shortly before Canyonlands National Park entrance, we make a quick stop at Needles Outpost, a local trading post.


Canyonlands National Park entrance

Canyonlands National Park entrance


We are at Canyonlands National Park entrance,  and the sky has turned pretty stormy. A few minutes later, there is some downpour. Fortunately it is short, and the weather gets better as the day goes by. Good thing, for it would have been a pity to visit this park with our raincoats on.


We stop for a few minutes at the visitor center. A young female ranger, who once lived in Besançon, France, but later forgot she used to speak French, tells us everything we need to know about this park and others. We make the best usage of her pretty detailed information to make our plan for the day. Instead of one long trek, with significant chance to end up soaked (at the time, the sky is still threatening), we rather choose several trails of varying lengths and strenuousness. We are thus going to enjoy different aspects of the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park. It is the choice of diversity.


The Needles district includes many trails that ought to be reserved to SUVs. With our Camaro that has not been designed for such roads, we refrain. Promised, next time, we rent a 4x4.


Roadside Ruin, Anasazi granary, Canyonlands National Park  Roadside Ruin, Ancestral Puebloan granary, Canyonlands National Park

Roadside Ruin, Ancestral Puebloan granary


Not far from the visitor center, our first stop is at Roadside Ruin, which almost deserves its name. It can be reached after a .3 mi. walk.


As the picture shows, it is an Ancestral Puebloan granary, which we can tell by its round shape and tiny openings. Those who built it very smartly did so under an alcove in the rock, its content being sheltered from bad weather by a natural ceiling.


I am always awestruck by 13th century ruins in such an excellent state of preservation.


Limestone needles, Big Spring Canyon Overlook, Canyonlands National Park

Limestone needles, Big Spring Canyon Overlook


We have now reached Big Spring Canyon Overlook, the end of the paved road within the park. Starting from here, we have to walk.


As its name shows, Big Spring Canyon Overlook towers above a relatively shallow canyon. But considering the surrounding dryness, I can't figure out what that Big Spring is all about. At the bottom of the canyon, despite the downpour a few minutes ago, the riverbed is absolutely dry !


Before we go for a walk, Marie snaps a few pictures, including the one above, showing those odd limestone needles. They seem to have all been sculpted the same way. I assume that erosion caused by wind must play a part. Indeed, we are on top of a mesa, a completely unobstructed place. Today, the air is quite still, but when the wind blows, it must blow hard and carry the sand grains that have shaped the needles on the picture.


We choose Slickrock Trail, a 2.5-mi. trail, about 2 hours assuming we take all our time. It turns out that the rain that threatened us a moment ago decided to leave us in peace.


Mesas seen from Slickrock Trail, Canyonlands National Park

Mesas seen from Slickrock Trail


Slickrock Trail is a beautiful trail on top of the mesa. On the right, eastward, sight goes tens of miles away, up to the mesas in the distance. When we get close to the edge, we can see a few dozen feet below us a wide plateau covered with dry, scarce and tough shrub. This is where we stand the best chance to see bighorn sheep, a supposedly common animal in the area.


Bad luck, we can't see any. We assume that bighorn sheep are smarter than visitors and stay sheltered, waiting for cooler hours to wander outside.


The Needles, Canyonlands National Park

The Needles


On the left side of the mesa, sight does not go that far, but still extends to the needles in the background, which this district of Canyonlands National Park takes its name from. We can see the various limestone layers of the Colorado Plateau, bright red for the hardest ones, almost white for the softest ones. As everywhere else in the area, classical erosion phenomena sculpted those needles : water, wind, and freeze-thaw cycles.


The top of the mesa is basically a slick white rock, battered by winds, where no fertile soil can hold. We better understand why vegetation is so scarce !


Biological soil crust, Canyonlands National Park

Biological soil crust


However, at places, the decomposition of dead plants, with the help of some physical and chemical phenomena, produces some natural soil. On the picture, the underlying ground is light brown. The dark material that covers it is a vegetal deposit undergoing decomposition by bacteria. It is an extremely thin and fragile natural compost. It is therefore absolutely excluded to step on it, because it would take many years to regenerate.


Everywhere in the park, signs explain what that darker soil is, and why it is necessary to treat it with the greatest care.


It is a living material.


Slickrock Trail, Canyonlands National Park

Slickrock Trail


The start of Slickrock Trail wanders along the right rim of the mesa, and a loop takes us back to the left rim, along Big Spring Canyon, on the way back.


This picture was taken at the far end of the trail. The weather is now bright and, on this light-colored rock, we profusely sweat. We abide by the common recommendation of taking a lot of water with us. Marie and I each have a half-gallon water bag in our backpacks. We also have some food, fruit, cereal bars and cookies.


Cairns used as trail signs, Slickrock Trail, Canyonlands National Park

Cairns used as trail signs, Slickrock Trail


Slickrock Trail's way back also passes on this very light-colored, almost slick rock. Of course, no signs can be planted in such a hard ground. The trail is indicated by the small stacked stones cairns that we can see here and there on the picture. Most often, the path is clearly visible. At times, though, cairns can't be seen so well, and some care should indeed be taken. Rather than stubbornly walk forward and risk getting lost, we recommend taking some time to watch for the 2 or 3 coming cairns. It is hugely reassuring.


Even if Slickrock Trail does not have much elevation gain, the trail is rather long, about 2.5 mi., with a few branches. From the far end of the trail, there is no direct view of the starting point. At places, cairns are therefore the only way to get directions.


The most common applications do not give GPS waypoints in such a remote place, and mobile networks are next to non-existent.


But don't worry, we did not get lost, and walked safely back to the parking lot.


Pothole Point, Canyonlands National Park

Pothole Point


Our next stop is at Pothole Point, pretty close by. The trail is short, .6 mi., with little elevation gain. It goes around a big dome-shaped rock, in which water erosion has carved lots of cavities, the so-called "potholes", where the place takes its name from. Potholes are supposed to fill with water and host a vibrant life shortly after each rainfall.


Since it rained a little as the time we arrived in Canyonlands National Park, we expected to watch this vibrant life : larvae, worms, and so forth. Actually, short of a few worms, we can't see anything.


Cacti, Pothole Point, Canyonlands National Park

Cacti, Pothole Point


Still at Pothole Point, on top of the rock, we can see a few cavities where sand accumulated, and was later used as soil for plants, mostly the less water-demanding ones such as cacti, to grow on.


The picture shows the a stark contrast between the absolutely bare rock and the relative density of cacti that built up on the sand accumulation.


Cacti and dragon fruit, Pothole Point, Canyonlands National Park

Cacti and dragon fruit


From close up, we can see that the cacti still carry what remains of their fruit. those red balls called dragon fruit. Now, at the end of summer, those fruit have been dried and shrunk by sunshine. It would be interesting to come back toward the end of spring, when dragon fruit are at maturity.


After Pothole Point, we are back on the main road of the park, to Squaw Flat, turning on an unpaved road, relatively wide and in a good enough condition so we can ride it with our Camaro. Of course, I am a little cautious with the grip, which is nowhere near the one on a paved road. And since the place visibly attracts plenty of visitors, we indeed cross a few vehicles on that 2-mi. stretch.


Elephant Hill, Canyonlands National Park

Elephant Hill


That road brings us to Elephant Hill, a central trailhead. A number of hiking trails start from here, as well as an unpaved trail, much more difficult than the one that brought us here. That trail ought to be reserved for 4x4s and ATVs.


At first, we look for the elephant-shaped hill that gave the place its name. It's a mystery. No rock matches. We end up choosing Chesler Park Trail, a rather long trail, with the promise that we are ready to turn around if necessary.The trail begins with a stair climb, steep, narrow and quite exacting for the knees, with an elevation gain of roughly 130 ft.


At the top of the stairs, we finally have our "eureka" moment. I turn around and see the elephant just in front of us, showing its back, on the other side of the small canyon we just climbed from. It is the one shown on the picture.


On Chesler Park Trail, Canyonlands National Park

On Chesler Park Trail


We proceed on Chesler Park Trail. After an exacting start, the trail is now a lot easier, with no other difficulty than a now hard-burning sunshine. On sand, the path is quite straightforward to follow. At a few other places on bare rock, well, we do as everybody else, we follow the cairns like we did a moment ago at Slickrock Trail.


The climb takes us up to the edge of a large field of needles, the ones where this part of the park takes its name from. Our side of the cliff is already in the shade, but the tips of the highest needles are still in the sun. Marie wanted to show this beautiful contrast in a picture.


Close-up on the Needles, Canyonlands National Park

Close-up on the Needles


We are about half-way up Chesler Park Trail but, if we are still willing to visit other places in the park, it's time to turn around.


Marie takes this beautiful picture of the needles still in the sun, with nice shades of red, light brown and white. Meanwhile, I climb another few hundred feet. I reach a pass overlooking a large amphitheater-shaped field of needles, not as large as Bryce Canyon's, which sets a record of its own kind, but with a nice view, surrounded by shrubs.


We then walk back to Elephant Hill and drive away. We made no effort to walk Chesler Park Trail to its end, and we were damn right. After the stairs at the beginning, Marie's sciatic is alive and well.


Cowboy camp, Cave Spring Trail, Canyonlands National Park

Cowboy camp, Cave Spring Trail


Our last stop in Canyonlands National Park is at Cave Spring, a large rock circled by a .6-mi. trail. From the main road, a .6-mi. dirt road, wide and in good condition at the time of our visit, leads to the parking lot. It is a very easy drive.


The beginning of the trail passes in front of an old cowboy camp, sheltered under a natural alcove in the rock opening on a small canyon. Men used to live there for extended periods in what was not yet a national park, from the 1880s to the 1960s. The camp has been disused since then, but most of the furniture and equipment is still there, carefully protected from bad weather by the rock alcove and from visitors by a fence.


The canyon itself could be fenced at its end, which allowed to use it as a cattle pen.


After the camp, the trail climbs on top of the rock by a sturdy ladder, then leads back to where it started from. It is an easy walk, about 20 minutes, without any real difficulty.


Mesas, Utah State Route 211, near Canyonlands National Park

Mesas, Utah State Route 211


It is now time to leave Canyonlands National Park. Our road to Blanding is short, about 75 miles.


We pass thru the same western landscapes surrounded by mesas as on our way in, still on Utah State Route 211. I can't help but show them again.


Wild turkey along Utah State Route 211, près de Canyonlands National Park

Wild turkey along Utah State Route 211


At some point, Marie spots wild turkeys in the scrub along the roadside. I barely have time to stop, and Marie can snap a few pictures before the birds scatter away.


We then meet US Route 191 again, which we follow up to Blanding. On our way, a short but severe storm reminds us that in mountain regions, weather can change rather fast. Good thing we did not have this one while in the park ! When we arrive in Blanding, rain has just stopped and everything is soaked wet.


We stay for the night at the Quality Inn, now a Rodeway Inn, a basic but quite decent hotel for its category, which we chose mostly for its location. Then, as each and every night, we look for a place to have dinner. Tonight, it is very basic : I bring pizzas from the service station next door. We are not ready to drive back into town and look for a restaurant.


Now, Marie just has to heal the sunburns she got during this otherwise beautiful day.

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