Needles District Loop, Canyonlands National Park

30 miles of adventure, dropping into and climbing out of countless canyons. Expansive rim-top views. Squeezing through a slot canyon. Did I take a wrong turn? This canyon wonderland doesn’t disappoint!

My route:

Needles District Map.PNG

Day 1

Squaw Flat Trailhead to Lost Canyon

9.5 miles

Backpack on and armed with a great weather forecast, I headed into the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park for 3 days of adventure.

The Needles District is about 40 miles south of Moab on Highway 191 and then another 40 miles west on State Road 211. I stayed outside the Park at a little motel in Monticello last night, I figured it would be a nice change from the hustle and bustle of Moab, but I probably would stay in Moab or camp in Indian Creek Canyon (along 211) next time. Monticello is small town, just a gas station, some motels and a few food outlets. I ate at the Peace Tree Café and had a pretty ordinary meal. It’s always good to see new places, but I’d recommend skipping this sleepy town, especially given that it was an extra 15 miles each direction further south on 191.

I parked at the Squaw Flat Campground, Loop A. The trail from there wasted no time peaking my interest. The first few miles were really varied, from easy slick rock scrambling to sandy trails through desert shrubs and flowering cactus.

My permit had me camping in Lost Canyon and I got to the trail heading into that canyon pretty quickly, so I decided to head out Peekaboo Trail, and boy was I in for a surprise. Peekaboo Trail is one of the prettiest trails (or routes, given most of it is on slickrock and guided by cairns) I’ve had the pleasure of walking. The trail started with an easy scramble out of the canyon floor up to the rim and from there it stayed on the slickrock for a couple of miles.

Returning to Lost Canyon, I started up the trail. It mostly followed a dry, and in parts flowing, streambed. I’d stopped at the Visitor’s Center on my way into the Park and the backcountry ranger told me this stream should flow to within a few hundred feet of my campsite. She also told me it was likely my last water source of my route.  So, given that i’d need to be filling up many litres of water, I decided to hike all the way to camp, unload most of my pack into my tent, then backtrack to fill up my water.

The plan seemed a good one, however when I backtracked I realized that the streambed was dry. Argh. I ended up having to backtrack an extra mile before I found water. I wasn’t expecting that! Anyway, it was a large pool of flowing water and so I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to pre-strain the water. Sometimes these desert water sources are fairly stagnant and debris filled and can really clog up a filter, but not this one. I drank as much as i could while I was there, then filled 9 liters of water and loaded it into my pack. Water is heavy, 2 pounds per liter, so I was glad i’d emptied out my pack before filling up.

My campsite was LC3, Lost Canyon 3. It was very quiet and peaceful, the only other sites in this canyon were a couple of miles back at LC 1 and LC2. I sat on a nearby log to eat my dinner. I’d decided to go stoveless for this trip so that I didn’t have to carry the extra weight of both the stove and water needed to make food. Instead I’d purchased some sandwiches back at the Peace Tree Café. I did my usual nightly stretching routine of holding a stretch on each major muscle group for 60-90 seconds, then crawled into my sleeping bag and was asleep soon after. It’s mid-April and night time temps are getting pretty warm, in the mid-50s, and so I slept really well.

Day 2

Lost Canyon to Devil’s Pocket

11.7 miles

I woke to birds chirping and sunlight filtering into the canyon. It was 7:30, that’s definitely a sleep-in on the trail! I lay in my tent looking out at some redrock on the canyon wall. Geez it was nice to be back in my tent, I really feel at home sleeping in the backcountry now.

I made my breakfast, which as always, means adding cold water to a Mountain House freeze-dried meal of granola with blueberries and waiting a few minutes. Can you believe i’m still not sick of that meal? Yum. I taped up my knee while I waited for it to be ready. Unfortunately i’d forgotten to pack my knee sleeve that I always wear on my right knee and with all of the scrambling yesterday it was feeling a little sore. I like my system for injury prevention now. I always carry some KT tape and I’ve got the taping guides for every possible injury downloaded on my phone. I’m a big taping fan, it just gives the muscles or tendons a break if they’re tight or aggravated.

I was on the trail by about 8:30. Yep, a late start, especially given that it’s the desert and rule of thumb is to put in most of your miles first thing in the morning before the day gets too hot. Oh well. I’d had a big week at work, it felt good to catch up on sleep.

I loaded all my gear into my pack and then turned my mind to the water situation. I really hate carrying a heavy pack, so I wanted to carry only what was necessary to get me through the next 36 hours. I settled on 7 litres and drank the rest. I modified my water carrying plan for this trip. Ordinarily I keep a liter in pockets on each side of my pack and then if additional is needed, carry the rest on the top of my pack. However I knew i’d be carrying a lot of water on this trip, and so I added to that 2 water pouches on a carabineer that I can clip to the shoulder straps on the front of my pack.  As I walked off I was immediately glad i’d done that, it really helped to keep the weight distributed well.

The trail made its way to the head of the canyon then a series of cairns had me scrambling up to the rim. I’m really not very comfortable with heights and there were a few places with mild exposure that made me feel a bit uneasy, especially with the heavy pack I was carrying. Definitely not easy scrambling up slickrock wearing a pack that’s trying to pull you backwards off it. But slickrock is only slick if it gets wet, and when dry actually provides for really great grip.

I made it to the rim, and was so glad I had as the scenery was incredible. Kind of felt like I had been abducted by aliens overnight and was now wandering around on a different planet. The view across the Park from the ridge was breathtaking. I got my first look at the Needle formations that are the Park’s namesake. Like all of Southern Utah, many millions of years ago this Park was at the bottom of an ocean and layers of sediment settled and formed layers that are now visible in the rock. Needles are tall rock features that are formed by a checkerboard of fractures in the sandstone that has eroded and formed spires of rock overtime. Other rock features in the area are called mushroom rocks and result from a hard layer of rock on top of weaker layers that erode more quickly. Like all of southern Utah, it’s actually very easy to imagine the evolution of this landscape overtime as the rock tells the story in a very obvious way.

I dropped down into Squaw Canyon and met up with the main trail coming from the Squaw Flat trailhead. To my delight and surprise there was a pool of water near where i joined the Squaw Canyon Trail. While i was carrying enough to get me through, bonus water is always welcome. I drank over a liter and replenished my supplies.

The trail climbed out of Squaw Canyon and I was once again walking through an extra-terrestrial looking landscape. I was doing a good job of cairn spotting but all of a sudden I was faced with a scramble up a steep slope or climbing into a slot. I didn’t see cairns either way. Hmm…

I figured the route went up the rock, so up i went. Cairns returned but were quite sporadic and something wasn’t feeling right. Usually when i get that feeling I backtrack to the last place where i definitely knew i was on the route, but that was at the bottom of the steep rock and I didn’t want to downclimb it because there was a lot of exposure below it that i wasn’t excited to deal with. After wandering around for a little while and jumping over a gap between two sections of slickrock i saw a lone cairn on the edge of a ledge. Walking over to it i noticed the drop was quite high, hmmm. I walked the full length of the ledge in both directions and the cairn did indeed mark the lowest point. Fuck!

It wasn’t super high, but high enough that if i landed wrong i could roll an ankle or something and I didn’t want to get myself into that kind of trouble. It was overhanging, so i couldn’t see what the rock looked like below the ledge.  I took my pack off and lay on my stomach to feel below the ledge to see if there were any foot or handholds that i could use to get down it safely. There was one good hand and one good foot-hold but they were in weird spots. I sat for a minute and took in my predicament. This still felt better than down-climbing the rock I’d scrambled up, and obviously others had landed up here given that there were cairns.

First order of business, I needed to get my pack down. I wasn’t going to throw it down because the rock below led to another ledge on the edge of the rim and I wasn’t excited at the prospect of it rolling off the ledge. So, I figured I’d lower it down with the rope i use to hang my food bag. I wasn’t hanging my food on this trip, but I’d left it in my bag for just this reason. Glad I did! Before parting with my pack I decided to take my GPS device out and secure it inside my skirt pocket. I lowered it down but left the rope coiled on the rock next to me incase i needed to hoist it back up for some reason.

Next order of business, get myself off the ledge. Hmm. I didn’t like this! I crouched with my face towards the rock ready to downclimb. There was a thin crack at foot level in front of me and then a good hand-hold about 6 inches down the rock face. Then a foot-hold about a two feet down. If i could make that move, then i could get down from there without issue. I psyched myself up for it twice but talked myself out of it both times. Shit! My palms and feet were sweaty. I clambered away from the ledge and took my shoes and socks off to dry them. I definitely didn’t need any slippage going on inside my shoes for this.

While i was sitting there i decided that i wanted to walk back and look at the down climb of the other rock. So i grabbed the rope, looped it behind my back and hoisted my pack up, one inch at a time. Boy, this was going to be harder than i thought. Then, snap! I was sitting there with a pile of rope and it sure didn’t feel like my bag was on the other end anymore. I had to cut my rope last summer when it got stuck in a tree and i’d tied it together with a knot, well, the max load of that knot is obviously less than my current pack weight. I jumped up and peered over the ledge, hopeful that my pack was sitting there and hadn’t tumbled off into the canyon below. It was still there! Phew!

Okay, now i’m committed. I was getting down that ledge. Feet and socks dried out, I was ready to get this thing done! I got back in crouching position, jammed my fingers from my left hand as far into the little crack as i could, found the other hold with my right hand, made an awkward move to get my foot onto the foot-hold and then lowered myself down. Yes! Finally! Glad i’m on my way down this thing. Getting from there down to the bottom was easy. Phew! My heart was beating so fast! Here’s my ledge from above and below:

I put my pack on and looked for my route. No cairns. Argh, c’mon! I could only go left, straight or right. Left and straight dropped off the rim. So, right it was. After a minute or so i spotted a cairn. Yay, then i found a nice shaded spot under the ledge and decided it would be a good time to get out of the hot sun, rehydrate and get some food in me. As is usually the case for me in the desert, I was carrying some electrolyte tablets. I feel like it keeps me better hydrated and means i can get away with drinking a little less water. I dropped one in my water and drank up, I was already feeling better.

As I sat there munching on a bar I started wondering how much more technical this route would get. I was very surprised that ledge didn’t have a ladder. There wasn’t anything in the permit or the trail signage indicating technical terrain was to be expected along any of the established routes in the Park. Hmmm.

I started towards the cairn and then looked for the next one. No cairn. Argh, c’mon! There was a small rock sitting on top of a larger rock, maybe that’s it? You need to be pretty careful deciding what is and isn’t a rock pile marking the path vs a rock that’s just landed there from above, and given that this whole Park is rock, they’re everywhere. I decided it was worth scoping out and headed for it. From there a gully dropped down into a canyon, i couldn’t see any cairns but the surface was dirt and I could see footprints. I followed the footprints down the gully a little ways, something didn’t feel right, this isn’t the route. I continued on though as i wanted to eliminate it as an option, the gully soon dead-ended and i made my way back up to the rim. Where is this fucking trail? It felt like i was back on the CDT!

I went back to the cairn up on the rim and searched around for another one. I eventually landed up seeing some up along the rock adjacent to the ledge i’d been sitting under. One, two, then a whole family of them at the entrance to a slot. What? I’m sure that it was the other end of the slot that i’d decided not to go through earlier. Just because i was dying to know, I headed into the slot and sure enough that was the route. I’d missed it! No wonder everything had felt off and that ledge was more technical than i’d been expecting, i hadn’t been on the route at all. Relieved to know i was now back where i needed to be, i turned around, climbed out of the slot and continued along the now well cairned route.

I googled this when I got home and the photos below are what I found on another blog, the route definitely seems to go through the slot. You can understand why I didn’t think that was the route, it seems too tiny to squeeze into with a pack on. If you’re reading this for trail recon before a trip, I’d ask the Ranger at the Backcountry desk about this part of the route so that you’re better prepared than I was!

The next mile or so afforded more gorgeous views from the slickrock rim as it made its way to the ridge between Squaw Canyon and Elephant Canyon. The descent into EC was really pleasant given that there were 2 ladders to assist with down climbing the rim. Still can’t believe I missed that slot and had to do what I did to get off that ledge!

Here’s the pics from Squaw Canyon to Elephant Canyon:

Reaching the canyon floor in Elephant Canyon, I was happy to be off the rim for a while. To my surprise there were a couple of pools of water along the way. I sat there for a while and drank nearly 2 liters, unexpected water is so great! If you’re coming through here I wouldn’t count on this water source year-round, i’m guessing it disappears sometime in May.

The trail in Elephant Canyon was busy with hikers and trail runners. If you park at Elephant Hill you can day-hike out to Druid Arch, and I think that’s who i was seeing on the trail. I wasn’t there for long as my route took me back up onto the rim and into Chesler Park. More stunning rim-top views. Wow, this is a really really neat Park to be traversing.

Chesler Park is a flat grassy meadow and surrounded on all sides by towering needles. This is the jewel of the park for many hikers. While i was up there I ran across a day hiker from Japan and he was pretty freaked out because he didn’t know where he was. I brought up my GPS and showed him exactly where he was on his map. He was very nice and thanked me many times. As I saw him rush off in the direction of the trailhead, I started wondering how many people bite off more than they can chew in this Park. He had a tiny pack, i’d be surprised if he had more than a couple of liters in it.

I walked across Chesler Park admiring the view and started down towards the Joint Trail. I’d read about this part of the trail before i got here, it sounded awesome… a long and very narrow slot canyon. Yippee, happy to be here and experiencing it myself!

The slot was as awesome as I imagined. In places it was barely wide enough to squeeze through with my pack, it was much colder inside and the wind really ripped through part of it. It was neat to look up at the thin strip of light at the top of the slot.

I stopped for an afternoon snack when I emerged from the slot canyon. I studied my map and it looked like I was within a few miles of my campsite. Yay. I was expecting today to fly by given that I only had to make it 12 miles, but between the challenging terrain and the stunning views I kept stopping to photograph, the miles had gone very slowly. Keep this in mind when route planning in this area.

There was a privy at the bottom of the Joint Trail, which I took advantage of. You can’t poop in Elephant Canyon or Chesler Park, so keep this privy in mind if you’re doing this route, saves you carrying a poop bag!

The final few miles went by quickly. A mile of road walking (gotta have some in all of my trips, don’t I!) along a backcountry jeep trail and then a really pretty trail down into Devil’s Pocket.

I arrived at the sign to my campsite DP1, Devil’s Pocket 1, and was happy to see it was in the middle of nowhere. I’ve been really happy that each of my sites have been so secluded. This one was really pretty, sitting between two big rock features.

I set up camp, ate my sandwiches, did my stretching and climbed into my sleeping bag. Right after I did the wind picked up, with a vengeance. It was blowing so hard that sand was blasting through my tent and my tent was flapping hard. I put all of my electronics inside my sleeping bag and cinched it down around my face so only my mouth was exposed. I positioned my mouth away from the wind and fell asleep.

Day 3

Devil’s Pocket to Squaw Flat Campground

9.5 Miles

I don’t know how long the wind continued to blast me last night, but when I woke in the morning it had stopped and the inside of my tent was totally coated in red sand. Like, a thick layer of sand was on and in everything!

I am constantly happy with how well my Zpacks tarp tent does in a storm. The fabric is very thin and it isn’t free-standing, so I always worry the tent stakes will rip out and the whole thing will collapse around me, but it never does.

I ate breakfast, broke camp, did my dynamic stretching routine and was on the trail by 7 a.m. The trail started through a grassy meadow below a long wall-like stretch of red rock. I walked right by the Devil’s Kitchen campsite, a group of sites accessed by a backcountry jeep road. Then the trail turned east and I was headed back up onto a rim again.

The next couple of miles were really easy walking. The views from this north side of the park were expansive, looking away from the park towards the La Sal Mountains. I ran into a day hiker that thought he was on a completely different trail to the one he was on; he thought he was on Big Spring Trail and he was no where near it. I showed him where he was on my GPS, after some head scratching he thanked me and I continued on my way.

I stopped for a mid-morning snack overlooking Elephant Canyon, a spot about a mile north of where i’d crossed EC yesterday. The trail dropped into the canyon and then climbed back out and continued its journey along the rim.

The final few miles were great: rim hiking, canyon hiking, easy trail and incredible views. Wow, this has really been a great loop to hike. As is always the case when i’m on my way to a trailhead, my thoughts were almost completely of whether I should order a pizza with my beer or a cheeseburger and fries. I settled on a burger, after which point I think my hourly mileage doubled.

I arrived at the trailhead by noon, traded my hiking shoes for chacos, changed into a clean shirt and was on my way to the Moab Brewery for that burger and fries! Another great trip in the bag. I highly recommend this loop.

Thanks for reading.


3 thoughts on “Needles District Loop, Canyonlands National Park”

  1. These are amazing moments that you shared. It is awesome that you enjoy great outdoors and make it a priority to have fun in the sun!

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