Needles District, Canyonlands National Park (UT)


Canyonlands is a sprawling national park. It has three distinct districts, separated by great distances. There is no way you can see all three in a single day. Staying in Moab is the best way to experience the two most popular. Even still, you have to do some driving.

The distance between the Island in the Sky and Needles districts of Canyonlands is over 130 miles. From Moab alone, it took us 1.5 hours south on Hwy 191, then west on Hwy 121 to reach the Needles visitors center. Island in the Sky is in the opposite direction from Moab, another hour from there. Island in the Sky affords panoramic, spectacular views of the canyons from vistas along the high plateau. Needles is lower in elevation and has trails that get you up close to many interesting rock formations, including arches, spires and domes.

What makes the rocks at Needles interesting are its alternating layers of contrasting colors, red and white, both Cedar Mesa sandstones formed from two different sources of sand that was deposited here over 250 millions years ago. About 15mya, uplifts caused the Cedar Mesa sandstone to crack and form square joints that water later penetrated and eroded into the current pillar and spire shapes.

The Needles has many trails, some very short, others much longer that require overnighting. We only had time for the short ones.

The Roadside Ruin trail, only 0.3 mile long, led us past an ancient granary nestled under an alcove, which you cannot approach except by camera.

Ancient granary

Ancient granary

The Cave Spring Trail is more interesting, only because you can walk up to ancient Indian rock art and cowboy camp exhibit, both under large, cave-like hollows in the mushroom-shaped rock formations. The caves not only supplied shelter but were important sources of water that was captured and percolated through the sandstone after rains. The camp, similar to others like it, provided a comfortable environment for cowboys who could spend months tending to their livestock in pasture. Many of the original furniture and implements are still on display. The loop trail (0.6 mile) includes two ladders that you must climb in order to complete it. The trail also goes past interesting rock pillars, desert plants (including the yucca, a most important resource for the ancestral Puebloans) and cryptobiotic soil. The last portion of the trail finishes over hard slickrock that provides views to the surrounding scenery and mountains.

Remnants of a cowboy camp

Remnants of a cowboy camp

Ancient Puebloan pictograph

Ancient Puebloan pictograph

Shelter provided under eroded rock formation

Shelter provided under eroded rock formation

Yucca plant in the midst of cryptobiotic soil

Yucca plant in the midst of cryptobiotic soil

Side-blotched lizard

Side-blotched lizard

Potholes are featured along the Pothole Point Trail (0.6 mile) that were formed on the slickrock by abrasion, erosion and water. Potholes are basins or depressions in the sandstone where storm water can collect, providing an enclosed ecosystem for tiny crustaceans and toads whose life cycles are compressed to the time it takes for the potholes to dry up. In other words, these buggers have to get down in a hurry to procreate. Remarkably, they lay drought-resistant eggs that wait for the next rainstorm.

Now dry potholes await the next rain for tiny life to hatch

Now dry potholes await the next rain for tiny life to hatch

Various layers of Cedar Mesa sandstone erode at different rates to create these unusual rock formations

Various layers of Cedar Mesa sandstone erode at different rates to create these unusual rock formations

At the end of these short hikes, we piled into the car to make the drive back to Moab. The longer hikes in the Needles district promise more spectacular rewards, but these will have to wait for another time.

Island in the Sky District, Canyonlands National Park (UT)


Upheaval Dome

Upheaval Dome

There is a gaping hole in the earth at the end of the west fork of the Island in the Sky scenic drive. An enormous crater lies ominously in one section of Canyonlands National Park. Upheaval Dome (above) was long thought to be a collapsed salt dome, but many geologists now feel that it is a meteorite impact crater that struck 65 million years ago, which would date it to the extinction of the dinosaurs. It’s hard to imagine what an impact like that would have on life as well as the surroundings. The entire crater is hard to see from the two lookout points close to the parking lot, but a loop hike around the rim provides a better sense of its size. Aerial photographs clearly dramatizes its immensity.

Near Moab, Canyonlands is a showcase for thousands of canyons carved by the Colorado River and its tributaries. The park is divided into three districts roughly defined by the Colorado and Green Rivers which converge from the northeast and northwest, respectively, to become just the Colorado in the form of a giant “Y” (as this Google map shows): Islands in the Sky in the center of the “Y”, the Maze to the left and the Needles district to the right.

When you gaze at the canyons from the park overlooks, they look as if they were formed suddenly. For instance, the plateau beneath the Grand View Point Overlook seems like it collapsed in places to form the deeply incised finger canyons. The lightly colored plateau was made possible by a relatively hard white sandstone that caps the softer Organ Rock formation beneath. Further afield, looking down to the Colorado River, it isn’t hard to imagine that a tremendous force of some kind caused an implosion to create the outlines of what we see today, perhaps the meteorite that created Upheaval Dome not far away. The current accepted theory is that erosion over millions of years carved out the valleys.

Canyons visible from Grand View Point Overlook

Plateau of hard white sandstone visible from Grand View Point Overlook

Spectacular canyons visible from Grand View Point Overlook

Spectacular canyons visible from Grand View Point Overlook

The park is not visited nearly as much as, say, its neighbor to the south, Arches National Park, but not for the lack of natural wonders. Its remoteness is much to blame; there are no accommodations, other than campgrounds, within 30 miles of the park entrance to Island in the Sky or 50 miles of the entrance to the Needles district. The Maze district might be the most inaccessible area in the U.S. park system. The park’s isolation alone makes it hard to experience any of the its districts within a single day and precluded our taking several more of its hiking trails.

One of the world’s most photographed arches is here in Canyonlands. Mesa Arch is the popular subject of sunrise shots when the rays of the rising sun illuminate the underside of the arch (such as this photo). You have to be a dedicated photographer to get up before dawn, drive over to the trail (from wherever you’re staying — a good distance if you’re not camping), find your way in the dark to a good spot and set up your tripod and camera before the sun makes its appearance over the horizon. Not so ambitious, we were there around noon. While the arch itself is not particularly photogenic from the trail, the view over the rim is impressive.

Mesa Arch

Mesa Arch

We did see ancestral Puebloan art and ruins here more than any park we had visited up until then. On the Aztec Butte Trail, there are ancient ruins, including a granary along a narrow ledge overlooking a valley.

Ancient granary

Ancient granary

En route to the Needles district along Route 211, we stopped at a dazzling display of petroglyphs etched on a rock. Newspaper Rock State Historic Park preserves the panel that represents the work of the ancient Puebloan, Navajo, and Mormon settlers. There is even some contemporary graffiti. The rock is now fenced off to prevent vandalism. The term “newspaper” was used to describe possible stories that the ancients carved on the rock.

Newspaper Rock

Newspaper Rock

Geology notes: Canyonlands lays bare over 300 million years of sedimentary rock. The broad plateau visible from the Grand View Overlook is the White Rim sandstone. It serves as a hard cap that prevents faster erosion of the layers underneath, giving the canyons their distinctive appearance. There are vast salt deposits underground as there are throughout this part of the Southwest, an indication that the area used to be submerged in ancient seas.