By Michael Lanza
We follow a zigzagging line of stone cairns over waves of slickrock in the backcountry of the Needles District of Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. Cliffs and 300-foot-tall sandstone candlesticks tower around us, in more shades of red than Crayola has yet replicated, glowing in the warm afternoon sunshine of late March. Five adults and four kids from three families, we traverse slabs, scramble in single file up the smooth, dry bottom of a narrow water runnel, and pump out calf muscles walking straight up steep ramps. In the desert Southwest, trails haven’t learned the axiom of Euclidian geometry that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. We’re navigating a maze without walls.
Above us, a long, sandstone ridge forms a 200-foot-tall wall, mostly of sheer cliffs, separating Big Spring Canyon from Squaw Canyon. Just below a saddle in that ridge, we use hands and the balls of feet to smear delicately up a short but steeper slab, where a slip could result in a cheese-grater slide and tumble back down to the bottom.
Out of habit and instinctive parental concern, I offer to carry any kid’s backpack up the slab. But they all basically shrug off my offer—while, I can’t help but notice, being kind enough not to openly laugh it off. To them, three 13-year-olds and an 11-year-old, this minor challenge represents a welcome flash of excitement—a mild adrenalin pulse they will remember as one of today’s highlights, not something to worry over. Then each of them scrabbles expertly up it.
In the slickrock pass between the canyons, we drop our packs for a break and to enjoy a view that would make Dr. Seuss smile. Stratified cliffs stretch out in three directions. Stone towers, with bulbous crowns bigger around than the column on which they sit, seem ever at the verge of toppling over: On top of flouting generally accepted rules of geometry, this Alice’s wonderland ignores the laws of physics. I’m not sure that’s good for backpackers tromping through here who are used to their environment simply behaving the way it’s supposed to behave.
After the snacks have been consumed and the pictures taken, we shoulder packs again and the four kids lead the way down into Squaw Canyon, amused by the continually circuitous route of cairns through a place where you can see for miles and still not be able to see exactly where you’re going.
The Needles District of Canyonlands
I’ve come to southeastern Utah with my son, Nate, and daughter, Alex, and our friends and frequent adventure partners the Serios (Vince, Cat, and daughters Sofi and Lili) and Jeff Wilhelm and his 21-year-old daughter, Jasmine. We’ve planned a spring-break week of backpacking and dayhiking to explore the Needles District of Canyonlands and Arches National Park. First up is this overnight, short, easy hike up Big Spring Canyon and down Squaw Canyon, followed by a dayhike to the incomparable Chesler Park area of The Needles (lead photo at top of story). Then we’ll base camp at a rented condo in Moab for a few dayhikes in Arches.
The Needles District and Arches harbor the kind of geological oddities that fascinate both kids and adults. I’ve walked in the past to almost every spot we’ll visit this week. But by returning with my kids, I can relive vicariously, through them, that magical experience of seeing all of this for the first time.
One of the four geographically distinct areas of Canyonlands National Park, the Needles District covers the high plateau and canyons south and east of the Colorado River and south of Moab. The Colorado and Green rivers subdivide the park’s districts—the other three being the Island in the Sky, The Maze, and Horseshoe Canyon. And the rivers themselves provide a platform for water-based adventures like the classic, multi-day float trip on the Green through Stillwater Canyon, and one-day or half-day, beginner-friendly canoe trips on the Colorado, supported by Moab-based outfitters that will rent you the canoe and water gear and pick you up by jetboat in the afternoon.
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With its trail network and backcountry campsites, the Needles is the district of Canyonlands most conducive to backpacking—although you’re limited in how far you can hike by the scarcity of water, forcing you to carry a lot of it. From our route’s last reliable water in Big Spring Canyon, we’re hauling all we’ll need for nine people for the rest of our first day through our second day.
While that can make it challenging to backpack with kids who can’t yet carry their share of gear and food weight, it just requires recalibrating your sense of how far your family can hike and how many days you backpack.
After the Needles District, hike the other nine of “The 10 Best Backpacking Trips in the Southwest.”
Erosional forces working over unfathomable gulfs of time formed this arid and tortured landscape; but it looks more like the work of giant children squeezing mud from their fists. The desert Southwest has a way of defying comprehension, even among people who’ve come to know it well. I can only imagine what it looks like to the eyes of these kids, since it wasn’t until adulthood that I first gazed in awe and disbelief on this region.
A mile down Squaw Canyon from the pass, we reach our designated campsite near the junction with the Lost Canyon Trail. Tomorrow, Jeff, Jasmine and I will explore the geological abstractions of Lost Canyon, along with the Peekaboo Trail, while the others take the direct route down Squaw Canyon back to our cars.
Tents go up, cook stoves come out. Night falls early in March, gifting us with one of the darkest and most star-riddled skies in the country.
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Hiking to Chesler Park has the quality of approaching the Emerald City in the land of Oz: Chesler’s outsized, multi-colored towers of Cedar Mesa sandstone form a castle-like rampart on the horizon, looming ever larger as you near it. The day after finishing our overnight backpacking trip, we’re dayhiking some 11 miles out-and-back to Chesler. As our party spreads out on the trail, Nate and I hike together, scrambling atop smaller rock formations along the trail and passing between two close sandstone walls that form a narrow corridor.
The long, morning shadow of 300-foot-tall pinnacles falls over us as we walk up one of the Chesler Park Trail’s few steep sections. At a break in the row of pinnacles, we stroll through a sort of natural doorway into Chesler Park. It’s pretty much as I remember it from a backpacking trip here many years ago: a horseshoe of sandstone spires arcing around a patch of desert about a mile across. We walk to a couple of ledges overlooking Chesler and the badlands outside its walls, where white-capped mushrooms of stone sprout from the earth and yet more burnt-red spires rise in the distance.
I try to persuade the kids to hike a couple miles farther, to the other side of Chesler Park, where the Joint Trail passes through a very narrow, sheer-walled slot in solid rock that I know will delight them. But today, I get no takers. The sun’s hot, our hike will cover about 11 miles without going out to the Joint Trail—and the kids know we’re headed from here to a condo, our first showers in a few days, and real food and ice cream. So I surrender to a wave of momentum that I can’t stop, and we turn around to hike back out.
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Arches National Park
About a mile-and-a-half out the Devils Garden Trail in Arches National Park, just past Landscape Arch—the park’s largest, spanning 306 feet—the trail appears to terminate abruptly. But it doesn’t, a fact made obvious by the hikers ahead of us on this popular trail, leaning forward into a steep, narrow, stone ramp ascending between cliffs. We follow the traffic toward some of the more remote arches in the park’s Devils Garden area, Navajo and Partition.
Within the first hour of hiking into Devils Garden, we had already visited Landscape as well as Tunnel Arch and Pine Tree Arch. Later, two of us will take the half-mile walk out to Skyline Arch. Yesterday, we spent a couple of leisurely hours walking around the park’s Windows Section, ogling and scrambling around a veritable riot of sandstone bridges that boggle the mind: the twin North and South Windows, Turret Arch, and Double Arch, all within a short walk of one another.
Several years ago, when these kids were too young to remember much of their first visit to Arches, we hiked them down the flat, mile-long Park Avenue trail, below signature formations of Arches National Park like the Three Gossips and the Courthouse Towers. We also took them on the 20-minute walk around Balanced Rock, a sight so improbable to them that the term “balanced rock” embedded itself in my children’s vocabulary, as a term referring to any random assemblage of rocks, however tiny or ephemeral, that appeared top-heavy.