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Thread: Five Days in the Needles

  1. #1

    Five Days in the Needles

    May 1-5, 2018

    A few weeks ago I spent five days backpacking in the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park. This was my second week of backpacking in Utah, the first being a modified Zion traverse. The Needles is a well-traveled and well-documented area so I will keep the report simple and only go into more detail on a couple of off-trail explorations.

    The basic itinerary was two back-to-back two-nighters.

    Day 1: Elephant Hill trailhead to Chesler Park (CP2).
    Day 2: CP2 to Devil's Pocket (DP1) via the Joint Trail with a side trip to Virgina Park.
    Day 3: DP1 back to the trailhead, then drive to the Squaw Flat trailhead and hike to Lost Canyon (LC3) via Big Spring Canyon.
    Day 4: LC3 to Elephant Canyon (EC3) with a morning day hike up a side canyon of Lost Canyon.
    Day 5: Druid Arch day hike, then back to the car

    I booked my campsites about 3 mo. in advance, by which time most of the sites had been reserved (reservations open 4 mo. in advance) which accounts for the odd itinerary. Nonetheless all campsites were great. Total mileage was around 45-50.

    It rained consistently the first two days, which was a blessing: The first two days were cool (highs in the 50s -- the previous and following weeks highs were in the 80s) and for the second trip I never needed to carry more than 1L of water because it was everywhere.

    I took over 400 photos, but have pared it down to about 80, with some additional commentary in the captions.



    In case I did not embed the album correctly here is a Direct link to the Flickr album


    More detail on a couple of side trips.

    Day 2 side trip: Virginia Park

    It's only a few miles from CP2 to DP1 so when planning this trip, I started looking for possible day hikes in the area. Virginia Park caught my eye on the map. I looked it up and found the NPS website stating that it is closed to visitors because the grassland is a research area. I assumed the closure referred to the meadow and not the surrounding slickrock, so I decided I would hike to the boundary of the park and see what I could see. The route to the park was straightforward with basic map and compass skills, up Chesler Canyon the up a side canyon. There is a giant balanced rock at the beginning of the side canyon leading to VP. The only tricky part is once you get to VP, you have to somehow make a 30 foot climb up onto the level of the meadow. I was able to scramble up some slickrock, a route I had scouted on Google Earth. Staying on the slickrock, I began walking toward the meadow where I saw two guys out there. They saw me and started walking toward me. One of the two was a park ranger. He asked me how I had gotten up here. I told him I had scrambled up some slickrock and he seemed satisfied with that. He said that if I had continued a little further up the wash I would've seen a sign explaining that Virginia Park was closed to all entry. I said I was aware of that but thought it just referred to the meadow itself. He said no, it refers to the whole space. I said I could clear out right away but was cool about it and said that since I was there, I could go ahead and hang out for a while. I asked him what they were up to and he said that this was one of two days per year when they come out to check on an ongoing experiment to monitor the grassland. I asked him what sorts of findings the experiment had produced so far. He explained that Virginia Park is the largest grassland in the entire Colorado Plateau that has never been grazed. As such, it presents a unique opportunity to study native grasses. He said there were 12 different species of grass in VP. In contrast CP, which was grazed seasonally in the winter for a number of years, has diminished populations of several of the species. At Squaw Flat, which was heavily grazed, they've been unable to reestablish many of the grasses, where cheatgrass is a dominant invasive species. After our chat, he suggested I take a different route out of the park, a natural tunnel that leads back down to the side canyon past the sign that he mentioned. For those considering making this sidetrip in the future, well, now you know even the periphery of the park is off limits. Frankly, hiking the side canyon to the park was more interesting than VP, which is very similar scenicly to CP. I think time would be better spent exploring further up Chesler Canyon and other side canyons. I did check out one other side wash of Chesler Wash and it was really beautiful.

    Day 4 side trip: A side canyon of Lost Canyon

    Once again I had only a few miles between campsites, so I had planned a morning day hike up a side canyon of Lost Canyon, south of LC3. The entrance to this side canyon was completely overgrown so I had to do some bushwhacking to even get there, but soon it opened up into a broad sandy wash that led a mile south into a massive circular amphitheater rimmed by 400 foot sandstone walls. Below these walls was a broad slickrock shelf, and I decided I'd try to get up on top of that shelf. Once again I had scouted out a possible route on Google Earth, and headed straight there. It was a fun climb up a side-side canyon with a few four foot pour-offs to negotiate but nothing treacherous. Just before reaching the top I looked up and to my surprise saw a small three room Anasazi dwelling just under the shelf. A totally unexpected find that was the highlight of the trip. There was one main dwelling with three small rooms (too small for me to fit in) and a couple of other rooms separated from the other three. There was a deep waterhole nearby, just below the lip of the shelf. After hanging out here for a while, I continued up to the shelf and roamed around for a bit, soaking in the views. Had I been at LC3 another night, I would've happily spent the entire day exploring this area.

    Closing thoughts to help others with trip planning:

    -- Elephant Hill to Chesler Park is a day hiker superhighway. You are within earshot of day hikers more often than you are not. The other popular day hiking route was the Squaw Canyon - Big Spring Canyon Loop, but that was not nearly as crowded, I would see about one group per hour. I saw very few people on other trails, most backpackers seem to set up camp very early in the day.
    -- My low clearance rental car had no trouble getting to the Elephant Hill trailhead
    -- Off-trail hiking here is fairly slow going as the washes are very sandy, but on the other hand my side trips were the highlights of the week

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  4. #2
    Great report! Looks like the Flickr embed tool isn't working, they must have changed it. I'll take a look when I get some time, thanks for the link!

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