It’s been a tough month for our National Parks, which have been subjected to an attack on our nation’s public lands, the federal hiring freeze, and censure of their voice on social media, which I encourage you to learn more about on your own, but I wrote about here. For now we’re going to get back to regularly scheduled business, but don’t think that means we’re not still fighting the good fight. I called my state representative about all of this, and so should you. I encourage you to do some independent research and get involved in your own ways. And now, without further ado, let’s go back to Canyonlands National Park and talk about The Needles section.
As we learned from the post about Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park is divided up into three sections; Island in the Sky, The Maze, and The Needles.
As you can see on the map above, The Needles covers the southern section of the massive park. You’ll need to drive south from Moab for about an hour to reach the entrance.
Click here for directions.
Before you even get to the park itself, you’re going to pass the Newspaper Rock Archeological Site on highway 211. You can’t miss it off to the right.
ELEPHANT HILL TRAIL HEAD:
Elephant Hill Trailhead is the first place you’ll want to go, as it will lead you down into the heart of the gorgeous and awe-inspiring Needles formations and you’ll need the most time on this trail.
Unfortunately, due to some misinformation from an over-worked park ranger at an understaffed visitor center (due to it being the winter off-season), it was the last place we hit up. The road on the map is marked as an “unpaved 2-wheel-drive road”, but we were advised it was unplowed and not recommended unless you had 4 wheel drive at this time of year so we didn’t even bother to check it out until 3:00 when we had seen everything else. It turns out the road was totally dry dirt, flat as a pancake, and no problem at all for our Toyota Corolla. That being said, you generally want to heed the advice of park rangers and err on the side of caution, but in this case we were misinformed regarding road conditions. As such, we weren’t able to hike this trail into the needles themselves, something we could have done if we had started this trek earlier in the day. Instead, we were only able to reach this vantage point before we had to turn around due to an impending sunset and subsequent darkness:
Our only regret from this entire day is that we didn’t hike Elephant Hill first. This trail was fun to traverse, as there were stone staircases to climb, steep rock faces to scramble up, and tight canyons to squeeze through. You can make this hike as short or as long as you want, (see map above), while still being rewarded with some stunning views of the Needles even if you don’t make it all the way in.
We can’t wait to go back and dive into the trails that make up the heart of this park. Next time we’ll be starting here at sunrise.
If you’re looking for a quick and easy walk with some neat archeological significance, you’ll want to check out Roadside Ruin, which is located just past the visitor center.
This trail is only a .3 mile loop, which leads you to an ancestral Puebloan granary. It’s pretty cool to check out, and they have guide maps to tell you all about the granary’s historical significance as well as other things you’ll find along the trail.
BIG SPRING CANYON OVERLOOK:
Big Spring Canyon Overlook is a wonderful place to stop for those of any and all abilities. You basically get the same view whether you are parked in the lot or if you scramble across the rocks nearby.
There’s a deep canyon with a few giant monoliths, and it’s definitely worth a stop by to check out.
SLICK ROCK TRAIL:
Slick Rock Trail was a lot of fun to hike, but don’t expect much variety in what you see. This 2.4 mile loop has some amazing 360 degree views of the park, and you can even see Island in the Sky to the north, (see above). While it’s fun to scramble around the rocks and use the trail pamphlet to learn about things along the way, what you see from the beginning is pretty much what you get the whole way. It’s all AMAZING, but I’m just letting you know it’s okay to turn around early if the kids get tired.
One of the really cool things we made sure to check out when ever we saw it was the unique soil we had been warned many times not to walk on.
If you see anything that looks like this bubbling dark soil, DO NOT WALK ON IT. This biological soil crust is filled with something called Cyanobacteria. According to my follow up research on this National Parks website, Cyanobacteria is one of the earth’s oldest known life forms, so respect your elders. It is vitally important to protect this type of soil. When it gets wet, fibers within this living earth bind together, creating a protective mat that is extremely resistant to water and wind erosion. It’s the reason there is still soil left in this expansive desert environment for plants to grow in, which makes it so animals can live there as well. Otherwise this place would look like Death Valley. It’s super cool to learn about this stuff, so if you didn’t click on the link above, here it is again.
It turns out there’s a lot of places you don’t want to step, in Canyonlands. As you walk around the Needles section, you’ll see some of these potholes:
These potholes are so special they even have a fancy name: Ephemeral Pools. These pools collect rain water and sediment blown in by the wind, creating mini ecosystems that are home to tiny little crustaceans, insects, and amphibians. Did you know SHRIMP can live in the desert?? I didn’t either, but I learned they live in these Ephemeral Pools, which are extremely sensitive to outside disturbance. So as much as I usually encourage letting kids splash around in puddles, do NOT step in these pools or let your friends/family/children walk in them, even when they are dried up. You know the game “The Floor is Lava”? Here you can play “The Floor is Ephemeral Pools”. It doesn’t have the same ring to it, but it does have more of an impact. Like the living soil, these pools are extremely interesting to learn about, so be sure to check out this website to read up on why they are so awesome.
The trail is an easy .6 mile loop marked by cairns, which are the only way you’ll know where to go. If you visit in the spring or after a rain storm, bring a magnifying glass with you so you can check out all the little critters living in these pools for the short window of time you’re able to see them.
And that’s all the amazing stuff we saw at Needles, which took about 8 hours, so don’t expect to be able to visit more than one zone of Canyonlands per day.
The Needles section of Canyonlands National Park boasts incredibly scenic panoramas, but my favorite thing was definitely learning about the living soil and the stand-alone ecosystems within the potholes. Be sure to learn more about both in the visitor center, by picking up the pamphlets offered at the trailheads, or on the internet. There is so much to see and so much to learn, so if you are in the Moab area, make sure you hit up Needles. It manages to make you feel both big and small at the same time. Happy trails!
– C. Egli