“When I peer into the future…I can foresee myself returning here for season after season, year after year, indefinitely. And why not? What better sinecure could a man with small needs, infinite desires, and philosophical pretensions ask for?”
–Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
It all started with a trip to Canyonlands NP in 2004. We took a long weekend during fall break and drove the 105 mile White Rim Trail in my 1998 Subaru Outback. The park service thought were were crazy, and more than one jeep driver along the trail gawked in disbelief as we rallied the dusty roads towards the White Crack campsite. It was quite an adventure, but not the first I’d had in the great outdoors. But something inside of me suddenly changed. Only years later did I realize how much that trip had affected me in a positive way, and how it would dictate my life in the future.
In June, I seized the opportunity to take trip back to Denver, this time during Moab’s off season. A couple hearty friends and I started to plan out the details using Backcountrypost.com, and The Needles District became our focus. Great bang for the buck, not too far away, and just enough backpacking to say we roughed it. We pushed off from City Park at 7:30pm, and I made the mistake of falling asleep in the back seat near Glenwood Springs. By the time we’d made it to the Swell, I awoke and realized the error. Instead of driving another hour and some change at 2am, we pulled off at the Hanksville exit and got cozy next to some cow patties. We were beat, but the night sky had never looked so good.
We hightailed it to Moab for a few supplies and breakfast, and completed the last of our drive to The Needles, an hour south of town. The Lexus made for a smoother ride than Derek’s old work van, and before we knew it we were suiting up for the next 2 nights and 3 days at the Elephant Hill TH, a famous (more like infamous) OHV climb that has left it’s fair share of stock SUVs broken and leaking in the desert heat.
We had been told that EC3 was a little tricky to find, so after completing the Chesler Park trail and entering Elephant Canyon, we started to look for a sign indicating our site. Once discovered, we found ourselves above the canyon floor, with enticing views of spires to the North and giant monoliths to the South. With just enough time to blast through a Mountain House freeze dried dinner, we were off again to find Druid Arch and bask in the sun’s dying light.
It was about 2.2 miles from EC3 to the base of Druid Arch, and were were running out of light. The arch is known for catching great morning rays, but I like to do things against the grain. Photographically, sometimes this works to my advantage. Other times…not so much. In this case we missed the orange light on the main attraction, but it was a clear evening and we had nowhere to go except explore up the wash past the beaten path. Here’s what we eventually found:
Okay. 2 nights in the desert, and we hadn’t frozen solid yet. The days were in the mid 60s, but the night temperatures fell to the low 30s as soon as the sun ducked behind the distant mountains. You don’t appreciate a campfire until you’re huddled in the dark with a headlamp and a book, just waiting for bedtime to roll around. It was also tough to get used to the bivy my girl had lent me, but it wasn’t so bad once inside my sleeping bag. After a restless night’s sleep the fringes of the world started to catch light. I was over listening to myself toss and turn, so I grabbed my camera gear and went for a solo mission to the plateau above our camp. What I found blew my mind:
I was looking due South toward the confluence of the Druid Arch Trail (left canyon) and Chesler Park Trail (right canyon) which cuts through the cleft in the sandstone wall (seen above) and climbs up to the grassy plains on the other side of the sculptured rock. The day had barely begun, but I had already seen enough to make the trip worthwhile. Luckily, the views had just begun, and this was our day to explore!
Kate and Derek decided to do some yoga and wake up, while I ran around looking for a way to get farther along the canyon rim.
Before heading back to camp to regroup, Derek and Kate found a great ledge overlooking our campsite (EC3) on the other side of the wash. After some fun scrambling, they were in position and I snapped a few quick shots.
By this point we were pretty stoked on the Elephant Canyon, and were convinced we could camp on higher ground away from prying eyes. Even with our desire to stay closer to EC3 the next night, we agreed to at least explore Chesler Park on the far side of the great sandstone wall that separated the two zones. It was a quick few miles with light daypacks on, and we soon discovered a world quite different than that we had grown weirdly accustomed to. A land of sagebrush and prairie filled our view, dotted with massive stands of slickrock as far as the eye could see:
It was then and there we made the right decision. Why come all this way for the same (amazing) views as the night before? Why not find a change of scenery and explore Chesler Park as well? We ran back to camp, cooked another freeze dried meal, and set off to find the westwardly facing campsite of CP1.
At this time the night before, we had already missed the dying sun from the depths of Elephant Canyon. From CP1, we not only had an hour more of sunlight, but the temperature stayed warm until later as well. We were tired and gritty, but felt just fine in the arid nook we would temporarily call home. After yet another freeze dried meal, we posted up and got ready for the final sunset of our desert trip:
The night before we had spent a good portion of time exploring up and down the Druid Arch Trail. Once in Chesler Park though, we didn’t stray far from our campsite. Instead of checking out the nearby overlook, I set up shop right next to our site and played around with the remaining battery my Canon Rebel T1i had in store. Here’s what my camera captured:
I awoke in my bivy for the third morning, and was finally getting the hang of its claustrophobic nature. The night hadn’t been as cold, and fatigue from the previous day of exploring had worn off. Unfortunately, we still had a 7 hour drive ahead of us, and that didn’t count the hike out. Instead of exploring the Joint Trail as planned, we packed up our remaining rations, and completed the Chesler Park loop back to Elephant Hill.
One final “pass” lay before us, and then it was smooth sailing back to the car. I’ll call this “Chesler Spire Pass” for lack of a better name. It was on the northern side of Chesler Park and offered gorgeous views toward Moab and the La Sal mountains. The descent was steep, but nothing overly tough after the scrambling we’d done over the last few days. All in all it was a good final touch to our trek.
Now that I’m back in Maine and I’ve been able to pour over the images I’ve captured, I have reflected on the best parts of the trip. We had such a blast, and got to experience a little bit of everything The Needles had to offer. With that said, here are the things I would have changed if given another chance:
- There were numerous springs all along Elephant Canyon, and especially the Druid Arch Trail. We lugged waaaay more water than needed, and this created a long first day (weight-wise). There was a perfect spring at the base of EC3 where we camped, and this should have been our primary source and landmark to find our way back to camp.
- I wish we had seen Druid Arch from the traditional side, and during early morning light as well. Sunsets don’t really happen in Elephant Canyon unless there are clouds, so more time during the early hours would have been beneficial from a photography standpoint.
- Chesler Park 1 was a good final camp spot, but we should have stayed on that side first. Elephant Canyon was much more spectacular if you like deep canyons and giant stone monoliths. To stay at CP1 first and then hit EC3 as a grand finale would have been my first choice looking back.
- Given more time, we would have explored the Joint Trail and/or Devil’s Kitchen. There are countless places to friction climb in The Needles, and these would have been as good as any.
- Last but not least, I would have used a polarizing filter on my Canon 28-135mm lens. The harsh desert sun did a job on the colors, and I had to post process to get some of that color back. My Canon 10-22mm is my go-to in most cases, but the landscape there is HUGE, so you really need to have some zoom to show the true grandeur.
Anyway, thank you for spending the time to read this blog. Hopefully my insights have sparked your adventurous side, and will lead to you finding the time of your life in The Needles District as well! Cheers!