No Straight Lines: Backpacking and Hiking in Canyonlands and Arches National Parks
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.
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.
Hiking to Chesler Park has the quality of approaching the city 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.
And some years before my kids came along, my wife and I, with friends, explored the Fiery Furnace area of Arches, a labyrinth of narrow, shaded canyons. (See Make It Happen section below for more information.)
Some of our national parks—and vast areas of the largest parks—are managed as wilderness, meaning there are no human-made structures (except features like trail bridges across rivers), and exploring those places requires a significant investment of human energy and time. I’m good with that, and my children years ago reached the age where we could take them on all-day or multi-day hikes into wilderness.
But there’s also merit to having some parks that are more accessible and family-friendly (like many of the best natural features of Yellowstone). That’s the character of Arches, where some of the best of the park’s more than 2,000 catalogued arches can be seen on short hikes, by children and adults who can’t walk very far.
We luckily grab one of the last open parking spaces in the sizable trailhead parking lot at the Delicate Arch Trailhead, little more than an hour before sunset. Despite the late hour—or actually, because of it—a steady parade of hikers moves up the trail toward the park’s most famous arch, so well known it appears on Utah license plates. My daughter, Alex, and Vince Serio and his daughter, Sofi, are my hiking partners for this short adventure on our last evening in Moab.
We join the procession, hoping to reach Delicate before the last rays of sunlight on this calm, clear evening have faded from it.
Around America and the world, there are iconic spots where people gather, on foot, just to watch the sun rise or set on a scene of rare natural beauty. I’ve had the good fortune to enjoy a number of those experiences, from the summit of Cadillac Mountain in Maine’s Acadia National Park to the top of Poon Hill, overlooking the Annapurna Range and the 8,000-meter peak Dhaulagiri on Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit.
Delicate Arch in Arches National Park is one of those places.
We make the mile-and-a-half hike in time to watch the sunset burnish the salmon-colored Entrata sandstone of Delicate Arch an even deeper burgundy. The flat-topped arch’s keyhole gap frames the peaks of the La Sal Mountains on the distant horizon, their spring snow gleaming white in a bath of sunlight. Given the shape of Delicate Arch, it’s easy to understand why it was called “the Chaps” and “the Schoolmarm’s Bloomers” by local cowboys. A sizable crowd, perhaps 70 people, has formed, and a small, stunted forest of camera tripods rises from the slickrock. Alex and Sofi grin and whisper to each other, maybe feeling a bit like they’ve stumbled unexpectedly upon an odd sort of party that was kept a secret from most people.
Slowly, the line demarcating the sun’s direct light creeps up the arch. Then the day’s last sunlight extinguishes itself, and what looked like a bright light glowing inside Delicate Arch appears to flicker out.
Like party-goers reluctant to go home, we linger a few more minutes, then turn around and start the walk back.
NOTE: See all of my stories about hiking and backpacking in southern Utah, including “Ask Me: Advice on Dayhikes in the Southwest.”
A coalition of conservation groups is working for the permanent protection of 1.8 million acres of U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land surrounding Canyonlands National Park through the creation of a Greater Canyonlands National Monument. For information, see greatercanyonlands.org.
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR families and dayhikers and backpackers of all experience levels. Backpacking in the Needles District of Canyonlands requires at least a basic understanding of hiking and backcountry camping in the desert, including current information on the availability of water. Trails in the Needles District and Arches are generally well marked and do not have significant elevation changes.
Make It Happen
Season Spring and fall are the prime hiking and backpacking seasons in the Southwest.
• We backpacked an overnight, 7.5-mile loop from Squaw Flat campground in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park up Big Spring Canyon and down Squaw Canyon. On our second day, some of our group hiked directly down Squaw Canyon back to the cars at Squaw Flat, while others added five to six miles to the trip by hiking down Lost Canyon and partway out-and-back on the Peekaboo Trail. People often dayhike either of these loops (as I have in the past). But we wanted to spend a night in the Needles backcountry and were not successful in getting a permit for camping in the more popular Chesler Park area.
• Alternative Needles backpacking trip (my original plan): Make an overnight or three-day, approximately 20-mile hike through Chesler Park and Elephant Canyon. Day one, hike about six miles to Chesler Park to camp. Take a side hike about three miles out-and-back on The Joint Trail, which passes through a very narrow slot canyon. Day two, 1.5 miles to campsite EC2 or EC3, plus a four-mile, out-and-back side hike to Druid Arch. Day three, hike six miles out via Big Spring Canyon. (Camping in Chesler Park and Elephant Canyon in the Needles requires packing out human waste in “wag bags” provided by the park.)
• After our Big Spring-Squaw canyons overnight trip, we dayhiked about 11 miles from Squaw Flat campground out-and-back to Chesler Park.
• From Moab, we made day trips to Arches, hiking around the Windows Section, Devils Garden, to Skyline Arch, and to Delicate Arch.
• Other hikes in Arches:
• I attempted to schedule a guided hike through the Fiery Furnace, a maze of tall, sandstone fins and narrow canyons, but the ranger-guided hikes were booked; schedule one in advance of your visit. See nps.gov/arch/planyourvisit/fiery-furnace.htm.
• Park Avenue is an easy, very scenic, one-mile trail below the Courthouse Towers and Three Gossips, not far into the park. It’s a point-to-point hike; if you have only one vehicle, one driver can walk back the relatively flat mile to retrieve the car and pick up the rest of the group.
• To reach the Needles District, from Moab, drive 40 miles south on US 191, then turn right (west) onto UT 211 and continue about 35 miles to Squaw Flat campground and trailheads. It’s a 90-minute drive from Moab.
• The entrance to Arches National Park is on US 191, five miles north of Moab, Utah.
Permit A permit is required for backpacking in the Needles District of Canyonlands, a popular destination, so reserve your permit at least four months in advance (see Contact below). See more information and check backcountry campsite availability at nps.gov/cany/planyourvisit/backcountrypermits.htm. No permit is required for dayhiking in Canyonlands or Arches, with the exception of the Fiery Furnace in Arches (see The Itinerary, above).
Map Trails Illustrated Needles District: Canyonlands National Park map no. 311, $10; (800) 962-1643, natgeomaps.com. The free park map is sufficient for hiking in Arches, where trails are obvious and well marked.
• The 26 campsites at Squaw Flat Campground in the Needles District of Canyonlands are available first-come, and the campground typically fills every day from late March through June and from early September to mid-October; see nps.gov/cany/planyourvisit/squawflat.htm. If you don’t get a site there, try for a first-come campsite on public land on the north side of UT 211, several miles east of the entrance to the Needles District; there are bathrooms and picnic tables. We looked at the private campground at Needles Outpost and thought it was unpleasant and overpriced.
• Devils Garden Campground in Arches National Park is located 18 miles from the park entrance and is open year-round. It has potable water, picnic tables, grills, and both pit-style and flush toilets. Its 50 individual sites ($20 per night, 10-person limit) and two group sites must be reserved in advance at www.recreation.gov.
• Water is scarce in the backcountry of Canyonlands and not available along hiking trails in Arches; know where you can find reliable sources when backpacking, and carry enough for dayhikes. Water is available at the Needles visitor center and at Squaw Flat campground.
• Spring and fall temperatures can swing by 40° F between day and night in southeastern Utah, presenting everything from very hot sun to strong winds and snow flurries. Be prepared for any weather. Summer days often hit high temperatures over 100° F.
• Learn how to identify and avoid stepping on biological soil crust, aka cryptobiotic soil, which is a delicate, living organism that helps prevent erosion that would otherwise make it impossible for many other desert plants to grow.
• Arches National Park, (435) 719-2299, nps.gov/arch.
• Canyonlands National Park, (435) 719-2313, nps.gov/cany. Backcountry Reservation Office, (435) 259-4351. Needles Visitor Center, (435) 259-4711.
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