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.


Red Rocks and Psychics

by Dan Davis Saturday, November 28th 2009

There is an intense and spiritual place at the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau in northern Arizona where canyons, spires and mesas are carved into and out of the red sandstone layers.

Often associated with vortexes, crystals and new age psychics, there is no question that there is something special going on around Sedona. But it has nothing to do with vortexes.  I have experienced the same feelings deep in Matcatamiba Canyon and in the middle of the Pinacate - it is simply the land.

Sedona 1 
Canyons, Buttes, Mesas and Slickrock around Sedona

So, go ahead get it out of your system and look at the t-shirts, aromatherapy oils and past life regression astrology reports in the shops in Sedona.  Then head out of town and into the canyons and along the slickrock where the magic is real and the mysteries are free.

For hiking opportunities, this country is hard to beat. If you want a beautiful, intimate and easy hike to introduce yourself to the canyons, head west out Dry Creek Road to Fay Canyon, Boynton Canyon’s less visited sister.  Grab your camera and a set of trekking poles and enjoy the three mile round trip hike up the canyon that takes you by Fay Arch.  Continue on up the canyon beyond the arch for a private glimpse of this diverse ecosystem and remnants of an ancient dwelling. Throw in a few more ravens and it would be perfect.

Sycamore Canyon, western neighbor of the more famous Oak Creek Canyon and considered more scenic by many, is accessible by foot and an ideal place to go for some secluded backpacking or longer day hikes.  Trailhead access is west of Cottonwood as well as south of Williams up on the rim.  There are more difficult hiking and backpacking opportunities in the Red Rocks/Secret Mountain Wilderness Area.  Administered by the Coconino National Forest, find more information at

Oak Creek Canyon, with its more than 5 million visitors a year (more than the Grand Canyon), is full of swimming holes, hiking, campgrounds and fly fishing.  I’ve been assured that brown trout lurk in the upper sections of the creek, but brookies are the only ones that seem to like my flies.  This is an ideal place to go hiking with children because it has it all – easy trails, scenic beauty, natural and cultural history, and perhaps most importantly, the classic childhood boredom remedies of wading and looking under rocks.  In warmer weather, consider a hike into the West Fork in the canyon.  Water shoes or sandals are a must, as there are many creek crossings on this magnificent hike.  The parking area fills up early, especially on weekends, so try this one during the week.

A drive up the 13 mile historic Schnebley Hill Road dirt road affords sweeping panoramas of the region.  The road is a bit bumpy but suitable for passenger cars. You can’t go wrong stopping anywhere along the road and taking a short walk along the canyon floor.  After a climb of over 2.000 feet to the overlook, turn around and head back into Sedona or continue on to I-70 through the ponderosa forests if you are going on to Flagstaff or Phoenix.

Sedona 2
Canyon hike west of Sedona, Dry Creek/Vultee Arch Road

Prehistoric rock art and ruins dot the region.  Palatki and Honanki ruins west of Sedona, and Montezuma Castle, Tuzigoot and the V Bar V Heritage Site in the Verde Valley are just a few worth visiting.  Try the drive out Dry Creek Road west of Sedona, past Doe Mountain and Palatki Ruins and Red Canyon to Loy Butte and park along the road where there are no other vehicles.  Wander along the southern face of the butte, perhaps the most sacred place (in my mind, at least) in the area.  Strange feelings surround this spot.  Stop at one of the ancient dwellings at the base of the cliffs, sit quietly and experience it without conversation and your drive back out will be much different than your trip in.

Winter is no excuse to stay home.  If you are lucky enough to be there after the intense quiet of a fresh snowfall, white covering the vibrant reds and greens and the cobalt sky covering it all is not something you will forget.  Wander down to Oak Creek where the lazy summer pools, riffles and waterfalls are all of a sudden sparkling crystalline sculptures and sit and listen to them awhile.
You may even start to wonder if there really is more to it than simply the land.

Sedona 3
Sandstone towers along Schnebley Hill road

Looking for an alternative to expensive or chain dining?   If so, the Page Springs Café, about 12 miles south of Sedona off of highway 89A on the Page Springs Road is the place.  Overlooking Oak Creek, the café’s rustic setting, good food, reasonable prices and charm is the signature of this local favorite that’s been there forever. 
Red Rock Passes are required to park along the roadside in the area and can be purchased at many locations around Sedona.  The full range of lodging is available in the area.  Some Forest Service campgrounds in Oak Creek Canyon are closed in winter, so check before you go.  Primitive car camping is permitted on adjacent Forest Service land.


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!