|Elephant Canyon, Needles, Canyonlands NP|
Just three months ago, I was ambling along avenue du Grand-Pré in Geneva, up from Gare Cornavin (the Central Station) where I had arrived minutes before. I was on my way to my former working place, the EFTA Secretariat, were I had spent five challenging years in the beginning of the 'nineties. Those were tumultuous times, when European history took a sharp bend, and I had been right in the middle of events. So, after all these years, I felt the urge to return to relive those ancient memories.
Suddenly, I came to an abrupt stop. At my left, the former orderly apartment houses on the avenue had been torn down and, instead, there rose a helter-shelter collection of strange artifacts. No straight walls or doors, all curved and "organic". Roofs shaped like mushrooms and colors ranging from light green to light mauve. I had discovered a modern city block, called "Quartier des Schtroumpfs
" (Village of the Smurfs), that was in stark contrast to more conformist modern architecture.
One month later, I got a strong feeling of déjà vu, when standing at the bottom of a deep cleft in Canyonlands National Park, glancing upwards at some curiously curved hoodoos, reminding me strongly of the mushroom houses in Geneva.
Our hiking Group of Eight had arrived in Needles
– a district of the park to the Southeast of Island in the Sky
–, lying just opposite the big Loop of the Colorado that we had seen from the Grand Viewpoint Overlook the day before. The distance, as the crow flies, is not large, some 10 kilometers or so, but it takes more than two hours to drive there, since it is quite impossible to go the straight route by car.
On foot, it would take you at least two weeks to go straight across, provided you can get passage across the Colorado. In olden times, a wagon train would certainly take at least a month to navigate the same distance. "Yes!", the Mormons did some tracking of that kind, urged on by their Prophets to establish new settlements across hitherto uncharted desert terrain. You may be interested in reading about such a venture, telling the story of a Canyonlands crossing by Mormons South of Needles
|Approaching Needles on route 211|
For our small hiking group the access proved much easier. You drive your car on US Highway 191, South from Moab, until it intersects with Utah Highway 211. Turning West on the latter, the road leads you directly to the district of Needles.
On the picture above, you see an impressive promontory in the far distance. This is the high plateau of Needles, the ascending of which would be the goal of our hiking trip that day. Looking at this pompous skyline of gothic spires, it suddenly became clear to me how the district got its name, even if the plateau itself constitutes only about a third of the whole area.
Although the access looks rather easy, with the asphalt road pointing in the right direction, visiting Needles is far more difficult than driving along on paved roads on the Island of the Sky, where you hardly have to leave your car to benefit from the various outlooks. Route 211 loses its coating soon after the Park entrance. From there on it is a question of driving VERY carefully on a dirt road to the trail head, called Elephant Hill.
After that, we are not speaking of a proper road anymore, rather, a dirt path navigable only by rough four wheel drivers, and that only if you can negate the harsh admonishments to desist, uttered by any ranger that happens to stand in your way.
|The rise upwards from Elephant Hill|
So this is a hikers' terrain and PARADISE. Rough it is to navigate in this beautiful land of hoodoos, but rich are the rewards. Instead of standing on top of the world, as you seem to do on Island in the Sky, you start your hike here deep down in a cleft, about as half as deep down as the Colorado (who is grinding its path just a few kilometers to the Northwest). Going from there, it is a question of striving forever upwards, upwards, until you arrive at the high pass granting access to the Needles Plateau.
You better carry enough water for the trip, for there is scant access to that essential fluid along the way, and NONE, once you are on top of the plateau. Still, there are brave and sturdy hikers who come fully equipped for a several days' hike in this astounding wilderness.
|Two ladies fully equipped for a lengthy hike|
But enough of preliminaries! Let's get on with our story. After having parked the car at Elephant Hill, the trail head, we had to overcome a steep incline, which took us about 20 minutes. Thereafter, a wide panorama opened up for us, since we had arrived at the seemingly endless expanse of the lower basin, that we could observe already from the various outlooks at Island in the Sky.
The trail was winding its lazy way towards a wide gray-to-white broad ledge that we could glance in the distance and that we would be following. We had arrived at the world of Cedar Mesa Sandstone
, among the oldest sandstone formations on the globe. In the far distance, the Needles Plateau beckoned us welcome with its manifold of spires, looking mauve from the distance.
Unfortunately, the weather did not appear promising. There was the threat of rain in the air and, in spite of the splendid surroundings, I could not avoid feeling gloomy.
|End of first ascent, Needles beckoning in the far background|
Most of the hike henceforth would be carried out in the realm of the Cedar Mesa Sandstone. At the outset, this used to be a layer, almost 600 meters thick, compressed and hardened by the enormous mass of almost two kilometers of stone layers above it, the latter formed during the middle and new ages of the globe.
In the Needles district of Canyonlands, the two kilometers of upper and younger stone have been eroded away completely during the past 30 million years, leaving the remaining hardened Cedar Mesa shell wide open to the onslaught of the seasons.
Cedar Mesa stone is gray-to-white in its virgin state, but takes on various shades of red, depending on how much iron was contained in the waters originally filtering through it. Erosion is eating away also at this layer with a vengeance, the results showing as gothic spires, rounded hoodoos and even flat ledges, depending on the way seasonal influences are allowed to play on the rock.
|Hiking on Cedar Mesa sandstone ledge. Barrier of Cedar Mesa hoodoos in the distance|
After having trudged along a flat ledge for half an hour or so, we were approaching a barrier of hoodoos that seemed quite difficult to penetrate, seen from a distance. And, indeed, this would prove to be difficult. But before we came close to it, something else caught my interest. I suddenly saw a group of youngsters busy with preparing their breakfast on one of the hoodoos.
I believe that they had spent the night on this lofty hill; if so, I hope they had down-feathered sleeping bags with them. Morning temperatures had hovered around zero, when we had left Moab in the morning! Still, spirits seemed to be high on top of the hill and the group saluted me with glee when discovering that I was taking their picture. What youthful exuberance! How could I abstain from following their example and recovering my spirits?
|Hikers rising from their sleep on Cedar Mesa hoodoo|
On to the barrier now! It turned out that the only passage through was a very narrow crack in one of the huge hoodoos. So narrow was the passage that I had to take off my rucksack and slide through sideways in the most constricted section of the slot.
The picture below does not really convey the full sense of claustrophobia you could feel when navigating this passage. Fortunately, there is a video on Youtube that can let you partake in a similar venture. I would encourage you to have a look at it. Just click on the word VIDEO
|Entering the Crack|
Mumbling to myself "Durch diese hohle Gasse muss er kommen!" I slowly navigated through this narrow slot. There was a downward slant in it and eventually, it widened into a cave-like opening, through which we could discern Elephant Canyon down below and, between the hoodoos, the rampart of the Needles Plateau, this time already closer.
|Exiting the Crack into Elephant Canyon. In the distance Needles Ramparrt|
After having slided down the canyon slope, our guide decided that we had done enough for the morning and chose a nice spot for lunch. A nice spot it was indeed, we were resting on a rise above the trail, surrounded by hoodoos, watching fellow hikers passing by and munching contentedly on our sandwiches. In the mean-time, our guide Ingemar was busy studying the map, since, as he told us, there was a confusion of trails on the Needles Plateau and it was a challenge to identify the right path across.
|Our guide contemplating the map, whilst the group was having lunch|
This turned out to be the last quiet moment of the day! For, ahead of us now lay the arduous task of surmounting a rise in altitude of almost 800 meters, in order to gain access to the high plateau. Step by step, we labored upwards, always encouraged by the marvelous scenery that was ever changing in color and shape.
Now and then I found, nonetheless, the time to glance backwards and gauge the distance we had already covered. In the picture below you can see, not only three hikers that had to take a rest from the hard exercise, but also, in the far distance, Island in the Sky and Dead Horsepoint, two plateaus we had been standing on only the day before!
|Hikers on hoodoo. In the far distance Island in the Sky and Dead Horse Point|
Our energetic Group of Eight was carrying on without respite, that is, until we found a pictorial setting on which to show off before engaging in the final onslaught. What a group of hardy hikers we were! Not a drop of sweat visible on our relaxed faces ;-) More importantly, the picture also shows a glimpse of the high pass that would grant us access to the high plateau. It is located on the far right of the picture, where a large dominant stone group tapers off into an opening in the rampart.
|The Group of Eight gearing up for the final onslaught|
The following picture was taken when walking along that high pass. It also demonstrates the massive resistance to access provided by the wall of "needles" surrounding the plateau.
|Along the pass to Needles Plateau|
After this looong climbing exercise, it was a relieve to arrive at the saddle and begin the descent towards the inner section of the plateau. Below you see the first section of the path towards the within.
|First steps into the interior of Needles Plateau|
Just after having taking this picture and turning around, I was suddenly overcome by the scenery opening up to me. The sky lightened up, the sun started to shine and the landscape suddenly sprang to life! I hate to admit it, but at this moment, I LOST IT, getting overcome by an intense experience of photographic frenzy.
This happens to me only rarely, but when it does, it lets me completely lose my sense of time and space. The only thing that counts in such a rare occasion of spiritual excess is the rectangle of the camera viewer catching piece after piece of landscape, like a fisherman catching fish with his net.
For about fifteen minutes, I was click-clicking away at the scenery around me, getting ever more excited by the exquisite compositions I imagined myself catching on film. I must have taken at least a hundred pictures in quick succession within those minutes and many of them turned out to be rather swell, I am proud to say. Let me show you a small collection of the outcome.
When I woke up from my photographic rapture I discovered, to my dismay, that I was all alone in this wide landscape of hoodoo, sagebrush, pinyon and juniper. No fellow hikers to be seen, not even on the horizon! I started to get worried; would I be able to trace the right path to follow? Fortunately, there was only one, even if barely discernible in all this splendor.
|View of Chesler Park from the Plateau Rim|
So I started to run along that sandy path, hoping to soon regain my fellow hikers. Unfortunately, the landscape got the better of me, forcing me to stop more often than not to take additional pictures. Still, in between the takes, I was pushing on with speed. Eventually, to my great relief, I saw a lonely member of our group standing between some huge boulders, no doubt left as sentinel to watch out for me, the straying outlier!
|Lonely Member of the Group of Eight, waiting for the straying outlier|
Soon I was able to join the full group again, which was standing at an outlook just at rampart's fringe, where one could get a marvelous view towards the East of the wide basin underneath. Here the guide welcomed me with a slightly furrowed brow – for a Swede this means that he is quite upset – querying me with deceptively mild voice whether I would prefer to retrace the route back to the trail head rather than continuing with the group (since far more than half of the distance still had to be covered on the trail planned by him).
I assured him that I would behave forthwith and not stray behind in the continuing journey. Thus placated, the guide urged us on, leaving me, unfortunately, no time to take compositions of the view. Still, you can see the hoodoo guarding the outlook, as well as a wee bit of the plane underneath – at the picture's far right.
|Voodoo at Needles Plateau rim, guarding the Eastern Outlook|
From this outlook we went straight West, into the interior of the Needles Plateau, which is called Chesler Park
. Surprisingly, landscape and nature in the plateau's interior is nothing like that on top of Island in the Sky. Instead, there lies a bowl-shaped prairie, beautiful to behold from a distance and hiking within. This used to be even grazing grounds for a ranch, before the district became part of the National Park of Canyonlands. Imagine this, in the middle of sagebrush desert! And without any discernible source of water!
|Chesler Park, with beautiful bunch grass|
The grass you can see in the picture looked nowhere like the grass known to us in Europe. It is in fact the native American sort, called Bunch Grass
. This blue green variant has deep roots and is evergreen, in contrast to our sort. Despite its hardened nature, it is almost extinct in the Southwestern US, since our grass has taken over, ever since it was imported, hidden in the hide of cows, by the Spaniards in the 16th century (see The Green, Green Grass of Ho-ome
). I was surprised to see it here, reigning in sovereignty, despite Chesler Park having been grazed by cattle for many decades.
Most probably, the chemical composition of the soil, or the lack of shallow ground water, has protected it from the more delicate European grasses. Either way, I was delighted to see this prairie that must have looked the same since before white man invaded the continent.
Let us continue the discussion on a scientific vein for a while. How come that the top of a plateau in the Canyonlands is shaped like a bowl and has a prairie to show for it? To answer this, take a look at the picture below, which was taken by Doug Sherman
, a fellow photographer with a keen interest in geology.
Let our imagination play for a while. Some 60 million years ago, the Cedar Mesa stone layer was hidden underneath almost two kilometers of other stone ayers. Around that time, the outer crust of this enormous mass was still located at sea level. Gradually (geologically speaking), and before the general rise of the Colorado Plateau, a section of it got an uplift, which started just North of Needles and, as a result, tilted a section of the Plateau Westward all the way down to what now is Monument Valley. This rise, called the Monument Lift, resulted in a deep fault on its Eastern flank, which brought the venerable layers of Mesa Verde sandstone closer to the surface.
Now remember that underneath the oldest sandstone layers on the Plateau resides the so called Paradox Formation, a thick layer of salt with very peculiar characteristics (see A City Built on Salt
). Subject to high pressure, it becomes almost viscous (geologically speaking). Into the multitude of "cracks", having appeared in the overlaying stone layers due to the uplift, salt started to percolate from below, following the road of least resistance. In rare occasions this penetration was so powerful as to shove aside large fractured masses of stone and form a sizable "bubble" (This was occurring deep down in the interior of the crust, not visible from the surface at the outset).
This probably has happened when Chesler Park was created. A giant bubble of salt, a globe rather, could have formed, shoving aside the fractured Mesa Verde stone above it. This salty blob would have been substantial, measuring almost 1.5 kilometers in diameter, but residing for eons underneath a thick layer of covering stone.
|Island of rock in mid-Chester Park|
However, after the general uplift of the Colorado Plateau, around 30 million years ago, erosion took off with a vengeance and razed off almost 2 kilometers of stone from the thick crust, eventually exposing the salt bubble to the erosive powers of the seasons. The salt would have melted quickly, leaving behind it a half-dome shaped empty underbelly. But nature abhors vacuum and this hollow bowl would have been filled in an instant (geologically speaking) with alluvial soil, giving rise to the present parkland, fecund enough for grass to grow in. Amazing, isn't it?
Salt continues to play a role in sculpturing the landscape in Needles. To the West of Chesler Park, salt, after having penetrated fractures, as described above, continues to gradually dissolve and disappear into the neighboring Colorado River, widening the fractures in question and rendering them into deeper valleys, called Grabens
Having thus satisfied our thirst for geologic interpretation, time to return to our hike! After a prolonged promenade through blue-green grass, and having had a look at an isolated island of rock in the middle of Chesler Park, it was time to retrace our steps Eastward and regain the plateau rim. We chose, however, to take a more adventurous descent than ascent route, starting about half a kilometer South of the saddle we had traversed on the way up.
|Descending Chesler Park down to Elephant Canyon|
This part of the hike proved to be of almost alpine quality, leading us down around and below huge rock boulders and steep slick rock slopes. All in all, a delight for yours truly, as a former mountain hiker. I was lucky to be clad in shoes with a good rubbery grip, permitting me to navigate also the slanting slick rock with relative ease. Some other group members were not so lucky and had to spend some effort to descend on those rocks! But we all made it down in good spirits, helped by some refreshing stops now and then among those delicately colored rocks.
|Hikers resting on descent to Elephant Canyon|
All in all, we made good speed downwards and arrived soon in the upper reaches of Elephant Canyon. Up there, the canyon was a relatively shallow wash, with huge stone slabs at the bottom. The title picture shows this part of the canyon. Along and through the slabs you can see in the picture, water would quickly gush down at full speed, as soon as it started to rain.
Fortunately, the threatening clouds of that morning had turned off South, the sun having chased away all risks of flash flood. So we could continue our journey down the canyon in peace and at a reasonable pace. This was to the best, since we had still some six kilometers of rough terrain to navigate and the hour was getting late.
|Hikers in upper reaches of Elephant Canyon|
The further down the canyon we trudged, the more bucolic became the surroundings. Eventually, the canyon started to open up and, after some more circling among slabs, sand and grovel, we found ourselves back were we had eaten our lunch, so many hours and experiences since.
|Elephant Canyon widening|
Now we really had to rush, so as to return to the trailhead in good time; this left scarce time for picture taking! Let's just take a quick look back at the barrier with its crack we had to pass through one more time. If you look closely at the picture below, you can actually get a glimpse of it, located as it is between the two large red boulders in the background.
|Needles mesa. In the background the barrier with narrow passage to Elephant Canyon|
After this picture, the end of the trail was near. But at that stage, I began to feel the burden of age and low sugar level. I simply had to stop for a while and could not continue the hike at a good pace. Slowly moving ahead, I could but watch my fellow hikers disappear in the distance; still, the track ahead was clear and I knew that our Group of Eight usually took a leisurely 15 minutes of rest at the end of a hike before urging our guide onwards.
Slowly but surely, I tumbled down the final descent towards the trailhead. I was glad to take my time about it, however, since this let me observe a strange object on the opposite wall of the Elephant Hill wash. I did not trust my eyes at first: could there really be a car sitting on one of the large boulders opposite my position? Sure enough, this was a four-wheeler, attempting the VERY ROUGH trail onwards from Elephant Hill, and stopping after the first ascent to let the travelers ponder whether to continue the trip. After ten minutes' discussion, they decided to turn back and disappeared behind the boulders on their way down the cliff.
|Four-wheeler on Elephant Hill|
This about wraps it up for us. But I should not forget that we had a nice return trip back to Moab in late evening sun! So let me round up this over-long tale by showing some pictures from route 211, about where the grazing ground of a famous old farm, the Dugout Ranch
, is meeting the highway in the picturesque Indian Creek Valley.
|Utah Highway 211 in Indian Creek Valley|
|Cattle from Dugout Ranch in Indian Creek Valley|
Finally, to show you the difference between conservation activities in federal/state reserves and commercial activities, have a look at this abomination along route 191.