Okay, maybe I could say a few more words about it...
This vast "wilderness of rock" in the Colorado Plateau is comprised of three areas: The Needles about 45 miles south of Moab, Island in the Sky just a few miles from Moab and Arches National Park, and The Maze to the west (only accessible by 4WD or backpacking).
We stopped in the southern Needles area for two nights and visited Island in the Sky for the day while we were staying near Moab. While Island in the Sky is much more accessible (most of the park is a scenic drive with optional hikes, whereas in The Needles you need to hoof it to see the really stunning beauty), these two areas are very different and we highly recommend both if you're in the area.
The hikes. Once again we let the park rangers plan our treks for us; once again they did a fantastic job. Hiking here is not for everyone - it can get bloody hot, there's no forest canopy to shade you, and trails in the parks are usually primitive and marked by cairns. (Staying on marked paths is mandatory - the cryptobiotic soil here and in many other Utah parks is protected. This is one reason pets are not allowed in most areas of the park, so if you visit consider leaving Fido at home.) Hiking here was definitely for us, though!
Day One (first day in The Needles): We didn't get started until after lunch, but that didn't stop us from doing an 8-mile hike around the Big Spring Canyon/Squaw Canyon loop... because we're ridiculous like that sometimes. In our defense, it was a pretty flat hike.
views from Big Spring Canyon hike
Big Spring Canyon
so many desert cacti
The trails wound through canyons, up and down gently sloping canyon walls, and into small meadows of desert foliage. It was a stunning hike.
around mile 5
near Squaw Flat
That night was a lovely combination of Patrick's birthday and the full moon, and we were treated to the moonrise over the canyon while a park ranger gave a really interesting moon talk (including some interesting political history about moon exploration in the 1950-60s). Love those ranger talks!
we like tha moon
Day Two (second day in The Needles): We figured a 15-mile hike was a good way to kill the leg pain from the day before. That's what you would do, right?
We started at Elephant Hill, hiking through the valley to Druid Arch. After that we hooked up with the Joint Trail and meandered back through Chesler Park. It was a long, hot, beautiful day.
meadows right before the Joint Trail
The Joint - the trail goes on like this for about a quarter mile
nearing the end in Chesler Park
Day Three (our day trip into Island in the Sky): We started with a few scenic overlooks in the northern part of the park.
Shafer (!) Canyon
Next we hiked the trails to the Upheaval Dome overlooks. Upheaval Dome is a giant crater that was created either by a big salt bubble popping, or a meteorite. The former is way more fun to picture than the latter but whatever the cause, the effect is pretty breathtaking.
our money's on the salt bubble theory
After Upheaval Dome we walked on a whale... well, an eroded rock that looks like a whale from the road.
thunderheads looming in the distance
Green River overlook
Grand View Point overlook
Around 25 miles in three days... worth every muscle ache. Many more pictures here.
The campsites. We only stayed in The Needles (where there is nothing but a small, expensive, often-closed market for many miles, so plan accordingly). There is a campsite at Island in the Sky as well, but it didn't appear to have much shade or shelter from the off-and-on rainstorms so we're glad we stayed at our craptastic RV park while we took our Island in the Sky day trip.
- Squaw Flat campground (we chose site #22 on loop B)
- Pros: quiet! no artificial light! very spacious campsites! easy walking access to trailheads! (can you tell we really loved this campground?)
- Cons: no showers (but in the desert, who cares) and the 100° weather (but that's not the park's fault!)
The food. Have I raved about Trader Joe's pre-cooked brown rice as a camping lifesaver? It's not something I would buy for regular consumption but for car camping it's really, really handy. Just throw it in whatever you're heating up and after a few minutes, it's totally edible again.
Anyway, here are some things we enjoyed at Canyonlands.
Patrick's Tex Mex birthday dinner
roasted veggie salad with toast
I don't have a photo of our third night's dinner after our Island in the Sky visit... I suspect that's because it was raining cats and dogs and we ate another boring salad in the car while waiting out the storm.
The summary. The Needles area ended up being one of our absolute favorite places on the whole road trip. The fact that it was the first of our "Mighty 5" might have something to do with it, or it could have been that we knew nothing about it before visiting (just like how the international places we knew nothing about ended up being some of our favorites).
Canyonlands National Park. We loved it. You should go there.
the (real) end