|Elephant Canyon, Needles, Canyonlands NP
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
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.
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
|Two ladies fully equipped for a lengthy hike
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
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
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
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 here!
|Entering the Crack
|Exiting the Crack into Elephant Canyon. In the distance Needles Ramparrt
|Our guide contemplating the map, whilst the group was having lunch
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
|The Group of Eight gearing up for the final onslaught
|Along the pass to Needles Plateau
|First steps into the interior of Needles Plateau
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
|Lonely Member of the Group of Eight, waiting for the straying outlier
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
|Chesler Park, with beautiful bunch grass
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.
|Air view of Chesler Park Photographer: Doug Sherman
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
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
|Hikers resting on descent to Elephant Canyon
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
|Elephant Canyon widening
|Needles mesa. In the background the barrier with narrow passage to Elephant Canyon
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
|Utah Highway 211 in Indian Creek Valley
|Cattle from Dugout Ranch. The two Six-Shooter Peaks to the right
|Cattle from Dugout Ranch in Indian Creek Valley
|Back to "civilisation" on US Highway 191 towards Moab