Below is a photo of the sign for the turn toward Canyonlands NP and the Needles District from Highway 191 about 35 miles north of Blanding and 40 Miles south of Moab.
For the past ten days, we have been traveling through a part of the world known as the Colorado Plateau. The name has little to do with the state of Colorado other than the Great Colorado River that bisects the plateau originates in Colorado. It is the distinct nature of this landscape that draws me back year after year to explore. This is my sixteenth visit, and there is so much I haven’t seen. It is easy to hit the high points by simply driving, but seeing the depth and beauty of the area requires a level of commitment that I no longer can manage. No matter how many canyons, hoodoos, mesas, and pinnacles you might see, there are always more to explore.
“The Colorado Plateau is actually a series of erosionally-dissected plateaus with elevation tops ranging from 5,000 to 11,000 feet. There are several small mountain ranges within the Colorado Plateau. The highest elevation of 12,700 feet is found in the La Sal Mountains of Utah. The lowest elevation is 2,000 feet in the Grand Canyon of Arizona. The Colorado River and its tributaries have carved many deep and narrow gorges across the region .”
“Nearly 200 named sedimentary rock formations of nearly all geologic ages crop out in canyons, escarpments, mesas, and buttes throughout the Colorado Plateau region. The physical properties of the different rock units give rise to the variety of colors, shapes, and erosional characteristics. Mountain ranges of volcanic origin across the region include the La Sal Mountains, Henry Mountains, Abajo Mountains, and Boulder Mountain in Utah. Mountains on the Colorado Plateau in Arizona include the Chuska Mountains and the San Francisco Mountains.”
Canyonlands National Park lies at the heart of the region. Canyonlands has four distinct units that make up the park, each requiring a drive to a different area. From the Island in the Sky area you can see two other units, the Needles District, and a bit of the Maze, but the fourth and most remote unit, Horseshoe Canyon, requires a long drive on dirt roads to access the amazing canyon with the Ghost Wall as the prize at the end of your long drive and 3 mile hike.
With two nights scheduled in Blanding, we had the perfect opportunity to drive north to visit the Needles District on Saturday the 25th. It did not matter that we would be passing by the same turnoff when we headed north to Moab the next day. We wanted a leisurely exploration of this most southern section of Canyonlands NP
Just before the turnoff, there is a distinctive monolith rising from the surrounding plain that has no visible name. It is a great landmark for knowing when you are approaching the turnoff toward the Needles District.
There is much to do and see in the Needles if you are a 4-wheeler or a biker. There is even more to explore if you can do extensive backcountry hiking. For us, the main trailheads were our destination, with a chance to experience just a little bit of what the Needles has to offer.
The first stop on the way to the park is Newspaper Rock. The collection of petroglyphs concentrated on this one sandstone wall is incredible. Ancient designs, images of animals, six toed footprints and six fingered handprints mingle with historic petroglyphs of hunters on horseback.
As we continued west toward the Needles District, we enjoyed great expansive views of Wingate Sandstone cliffs topped by thin layers of Kayenta sandstone below the characteristic white domes of Navajo Sandstone. We stopped at the visitor center which was partially open with masks required. With the help of the ranger, I purchased a neck scarf depicting all the sandstone layers in order of high elevation to low elevation in relation to where they exist in the Colorado Plateau. I can simply whip off the scarf from around my neck to figure out in which formation we are hiking or driving.
I wanted to check out the Squaw Flat Campground where I camped in 1997. There are two loops in the campground, with loop A being first come first serve, and loop B requiring reservations. Although the sign at the park entrance said the campground was full, we saw a few empty spots in Loop A. There are no hookups at Squaw Flat in either loop, but the bathrooms are state of the art with hot water, a dishwashing sink and showers.
I took the photo above from a spot in the Squaw Flat campground in Loop B. Looking up from that spot I could see the slickrock shelf I climbed when my friend Shera and I were camped in Squaw Flat Campground Loop A in 1997. Below is the photo that I took in 1997 looking down on the campground from the same shelf I photographed from below on this 2021 trip.
After driving around the campground, we continued toward the end of the paved road to the trailhead for the ten mile Overlook trail. Permits are required to hike this trail to a place where you can see the confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers in the heart of Canyonlands.
Walking a bit around the beginning of the trail was enough for us and we enjoyed a light snack sitting on the rocks watching the parking lot fill up with cars, campers, travelers, and kids. Chere was amazed at how cool the sandstone felt even in the hot sun.
After our relaxing break at the end of the road, we returned to the trailhead for the Potholes Trail. The day was heating up and the parking lot here was thinning out. By the time we started up on the trail we had the area almost to ourselves.
The trail is just a bit over half a mile with very little elevation gain. It offers great views in all directions of Canyonlands.
The trail that goes close to the base of the Needles and Chessler park meadows is at the end of a 6 mile round trip moderately difficult trail. We didn't attempt that trail on this trip.
We saw the distant Island in the Sky to the north where we planned to visit when we camped in Moab later in the week.
We could see a tiny bit of the Dollhouse, in the Maze district, basically inaccessible unless you are willing to do some extensive high clearance 4 wheel drive roads or hike up from the Colorado River at the confluence as I did in 1993 when I rafted Cataract Canyon.
The potholes are interesting, but more so at a different time of year when there is still water in them and the little shrimps that lie dormant waiting for rain have hatched.
It was a lovely hike for the four of us.