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.


Comments (6) -

2/16/2010 5:53:45 PM #

Chessler Park is incredible.  It has been many years since I have been to Canyonlands but has left an indelible mark in my memory.  Unique in a land of wonder.  Thanks Dan.


2/17/2010 7:58:15 AM #

Thanks Dan. I really enjoy your writing and your photographs. I get a real taste of your adventure, I almost feel like I was there.

Melinda Gardner

2/17/2010 2:44:35 PM #


Thanks for the great post and photos.  You guys make me miss the west!

Tim Keeler

2/18/2010 1:07:51 PM #

Thanks for the comments on this blog and for visiting the Summit Hut website.  Canyonlands NP is one of those places where you can't really exaggerate the beauty and feel of the landscape.  Get 1/4 mile from your vehicle and you feel like you are the first person who has ever been there.

Dan Davis

Dan Davis

2/22/2010 3:09:19 AM #

Hi Dan,

I am visiting the surroundings of Tucson in march and would like to meet you there. I want to know more about nature around, and especially about saguaro park, as I saw you were a park ranger. I want to learn what you know about it !

Thanks !


2/22/2010 10:16:31 AM #

Hi Lou - Thank you for visiting the Summit Hut website.  I would be happy to meet with you at one of the two Summit Hut Stores in Tucson when you arrive.  The staff at the Summit Hut is also very knowledgeable about the area.  I will send you a seperate email to work out the details and look forward to talking to you in Tucson.


Dan Davis

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!