The Needles

by Dan Davis Monday, February 15th 2010

Utah’s a place that just gets better the deeper you get into it – that’s just a plain fact, and that’s a good thing today.

The wind just blew the Bluff town limit sign down so I don’t know where I am, but I know I’ve spent some time here before. That doesn’t bother me right now since I’m thinking more about the big chip in my new truck windshield left by a passing stock truck, which my friends think is pretty funny. No matter, we’ll be heading north out of Monticello past the Abajo Mountains and then west near the familiar giant beehive rock and downhill into the Needles.

Of the three districts of Canyonlands National Park, the Needles contain some of the most diverse landscapes on the Colorado Plateau. As you pass Newspaper Rock, catch a glimpse through the portal to Beef Basin on the left and North and South Six Shooter Peaks fill your windshield, you just know there’s something special ahead of you. As the canyon opens up and gives way to grassy plains, fantastic spires the color of Neapolitan ice cream rise up to the south. This is a land where the prose of Edward Abbey, Tempest Williams and Stegner lose all their eloquence – you’re in there, in person, right in the middle of it all.


Woodenshoe Butte and Squaw Flats

The Squaw Flat campground is nestled among the cliffs and makes a good base for exploring the area, or you can choose to backpack into some of the most spectacular country you will find anywhere. Interesting cultural and natural history ranger programs are offered evenings at the campground amphitheatre. Basic supplies are available just outside the Park boundary at a private campground store.

In Chessler Park you fully expect the mad hatter and white rabbit to bolt out of a sandstone slot in the cliffs and run across the trail. This beautiful and fanciful area is accessible by a tough 4WD road or moderate hiking trails. I couldn’t quite make it up Elephant Hill on the road the last time I tried. The hiking trails in the district aren’t just corridors to get you somewhere, they offer up both intimate and epic landscapes every foot of the way.

Fremont era shamanic and extraterrestrial rock art images jump out of the desert varnish on the walls of the southern canyons – colorful giants with horns, antennae and cyclopean eyes. Many years ago I found a sandal and parrot feather sticking out of the fine silt under a tiny overhang far above the floor of a canyon I won’t name. I’ve often wondered what else was under that sand and hope the artifacts still sit there undisturbed.


Newspaper Rock Petroglyphs

It’s fitting that the living symbol of wilderness (not wolf, eagle or grizzly) flies above and lives on this land in large numbers. The omnipresent ravens are wiser than a lot of people and certainly much smarter than I am, as evidenced by their easy access to my food despite my best efforts. It’s a small price to pay, however, for the joy of sitting and watching their aerobatics on the warm thermals or just listening to their strange purring and gurgling conversations while they hop along the slickrock benches.


Colorado River Overlook

When you leave the area, a drive up the paved road to the BLM Needles Overlook will give you a spectacular panoramic view of the Needles district and the soaring cliffs of the Island In The Sky to the north and the far off mystical Maze across the river. If you used to camp up here when it was at the end of a long bad dirt road and you were the only person within 20 miles of the overlook, you may tear up a little when you see the parking lot, restroom and campground. Still, one of the best views in southeastern Utah remains unchanged.

If you are going south when you leave, an excellent breakfast can be enjoyed at Grandma’s Kitchen in Monticello on East Central Street.

The Bluff town sign is back up, so we step into the market and back in time and pick up some Bit-O-Honeys for the trip home.


Rincon Peak

by Dave Baker Tuesday, January 19th 2010

Among all the high places surrounding Tucson, Rincon Peak, at the southern end of the Rincon Mountains, is on my “top three” list of the area’s most beautiful peaks (the other two are Cathedral Peak and Mt Wrightson).

 Rincon Peak

Rincon Peak seen from a view point near Manning Camp

It is tall, massive, pleasingly shaped, and capped with a distinctive granite dome. Standing alone, separated from the rest of the Rincon range by Happy Valley Saddle, it rises high above the Vail area east of Tucson. Rincon Peak is nice to look at!

According to a Park Service history of Saguaro National Park, some of the earliest American visitors to Rincon Peak were probably loggers harvesting timber for use in the valleys far below. An Army officer surveyed Rincon Peak in 1890 looking for a heliograph site and “encountered a logging trail which led to the top of the peak”.

Taking a break near Happy Valley Saddle

It takes hard work to reach Rincon Peak’s summit. The Miller Creek approach described here is far and away the most popular route, but demanding, with a 4,300 foot elevation gain and a round trip distance of about 16 miles. Adding to an already long day is the drive to the somewhat remote trailhead on the east side of the mountain range. Some parties break the climb up by camping half way at Happy Valley Saddle, but this strategy is complicated by the fact that water sources at the Saddle are somewhat unreliable. So, day trips to Rincon Peak are often the norm, but an early start and headlamps are recommended.

Rincon Peak summit monument

The summit monument

Park your car at the Miller Creek Trailhead just off Mescal Road (32.15188 N, 110.48173 W, WGS84), about 15.5 miles north of Exit 297 on I-10. This is a dirt road, but medium clearance passenger vehicles should have no problems other than having to drive slowly through some sections. Walking west from the parking area you soon reach a fence with two gates – the Miller Creek Trail passes through the left one. After a mile or so in the bottom of Miller Canyon, the trail strikes uphill towards Happy Valley Saddle on steep hillsides strewn with boulders, Manzanita and oak trees. At the top of this first long climb you catch a great view of Rincon Peak’s rocky summit and come to a trail junction with the Heartbreak Ridge Trail. Bear left (south) here, and walk a half a mile through a lovely Ponderosa Pine forest to another trail junction where you turn left (south) towards the final push up Rincon Peak. The steepest and most strenuous section of trail is very near the top, but it eases up a bit as you pick your way up the final granite cap to the summit. Enjoy the magnificent views and take a well deserved rest, but don’t linger too long – it’s a long way back to the trailhead!

Evening sky above Miller Creek

Late in the day above Miller Creek

Season: Fall and spring preferred. Winter snow and dangerously slippery ice can impede or halt progress altogether on the high north facing slopes near the top. During summer months this hike can be very hot especially in the lower elevations, so early starts and an ample supply of water are recommended.

Water: A water source near Happy Valley Saddle campground is seasonal and unreliable. Bring plenty of your own.

Difficulty: Very difficult. Sixteen miles round trip and 4,300 feet of elevation gain tells the story! Get an early start and bring a headlamp just in case.

Note: A $6 per night camping permit is required from the Park Service for camping at Happy Valley Saddle. An application form is available here.

Maps: Green Trails Saguaro National Park; or National Geographic Arizona digital map software.



Click Map for larger image


Linda Vista Trail

by Dave Baker Monday, January 11th 2010

The Linda Vista Trail is really a network of three or four trails, all tucked under the north side of Pusch Peak in the Catalina Mountains north of Tucson. Very easy to access, trailhead parking is just a few hundred yards off Oracle Highway. This is a great place to enjoy a high quality yet short hike; especially for those living or staying in the Oro Valley area.

Along the Linda Vista Trail

Rugged hillside above Linda Vista Trail

The trail traverses a rich Sonoran Desert landscape along the base of mighty Pusch Ridge. Linda Vista delights with quiet little desert nooks, grand views across the Oro Valley area, and just a taste of the rugged and steep hillsides that leap up towards the high reaches of Pusch Ridge. It is wonderful and surprising to find such enjoyable hiking so near civilization.

Oro Valley from the Linda Vista Trail

A view of Oro Valley

Find the trailhead a few hundred yards east of Oracle Road on Linda Vista Blvd (3.1 miles north of Ina Road). The Linda Vista Trail network allows one to put together a variety of hikes, including short in-and-out walks, and longer loop hikes up to about 2.5 miles in length. (At the far end of the main loop, watch for a trail junction marked with a blank, metal sign. An old hiker’s route to the top of Pusch Peak leaves the Linda Vista Trail here and heads uphill into a steep and rocky canyon. This steep and difficult route has a completely different character than the mellow Linda Vista Trail loop.)

Saguaro nursery

Young saguaro cacti sheltered by a palo verde “nurse tree”

Season: Fall, winter and spring. This low elevation hike can be very hot in the summer, take care.

Water: None. Bring your own

Easy to Moderate: The Linda Vista Trail network offers several loop opportunities up to 2.5 miles in length, with a maximum elevation gain of about 480 feet.

Note: Dogs are not permitted in this area.

Maps: Green Trails Santa Catalina Mountains.


Click Map for larger image


Saguaro Census 2010

by Dave Baker Wednesday, January 6th 2010

Its census time again. Saguaro National Park is looking for volunteer help to conduct the third Saguaro Census since 1990. The Park conducts a saguaro cactus census every ten years, which curiously coincides with the U.S. national population census.


This past November, four Summit Hut staff volunteered for census work with the Park as part of our 100 Days of Service program, where Summit Hut donates staff time and labor to local environmental and outdoor causes.

We had a great time counting and measuring cactus, and contributing to the knowledge and understanding of the Park’s saguaro population. Plus we learned a whole lot about the health of our saguaro forests and the local ecology along the way.

The Park could use your help too. Its fun! Six census outings are planned for January, beginning January 8th.

Read more about the Saguaro Census here.

To make a volunteer reservation and get more information, contact Don Swann or Kim Diamond at 520.733.5178, or email


The Authors

Dave BakerDave Baker

I'm Dave Baker, founder of Summit Hut, an independent outdoor retailer based in Tucson, Arizona since 1969. As an experienced and passionate hiker, climber and backpacker, my blog is intended to be an informative and interesting look into the outdoors and the outdoor industry.

Dana Davis

Dana Davis

I’m Dana Davis, co-owner of the Summit Hut. I mostly enjoy hiking and road biking though I often do other things to keep it interesting (mountaineering, motorcycling, backpacking, climbing, you name it!) My biggest challenge is sometimes finding the balance between career, family, and fun but it’s working out so far!

Dan Davis

Dan Davis

I'm Dan Davis, after retiring from the National Park Service as a Ranger and manager, I worked for the Summit Hut until 2009, then retired for good (maybe). I'm now spending my time traveling around the southwest writing and working on my nature and fine art photography business.

Emily Gindlesparger

Emily Gindlesparger

I’m Emily Gindlesparger, a member of the Summit Hut floor staff. Since moving here from the Midwest, I’ve been taking advantage of all possible adventures in Arizona: rock climbing, mountain biking, backpacking, whitewater kayaking, caving and trail running; I’m always excited to see what’s next!