Land, Water and People: Rediscovering the Needles

It was quiet. Really, really quiet. No jets overhead. No breeze rustling tree needles. Even the birds had taken a break. And the view… gray sandstone shelves that can be walked on, topped with mounds and tall towers of red sandstone. The ancient sedimentary rock was subdivided by drainages filled with jade piñon and juniper trees. Taken as a whole, the landscape formed a complex of canyons, ridges, domes and pinnacles.

My friend Pam and I were in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. It had been more than 30 years since I had hiked in the Needles and it had been nearly as long for Pam. Whereas I had visited the Needles just a couple of times to do some backpacking trips, Pam had spent entire winters camping in southeast Utah and knew the area well. For that reason, I happily deferred to Pam’s suggestion to hike to Chesler Park, an area I had never been to before, but was very special to her.

We stood there quietly on the ridge feeling the warm sun against our skin and taking in the incredible view. Suddenly, a raven’s caw broke the silence as it glided overhead, its black silhouette first against the crimson turrets and then the cloudless blue sky. We started walking again as the raven disappeared from view. The ashen sandstone was hard below our feet. Gray and white wavy lines, the result of millions of years of erosion, formed beautiful patterns as we continued towards our destination.

Pam and I had compared work schedules and decided to go on a long weekend camping trip a couple weeks earlier. We hadn’t decided where to go at that point; we figured we would watch the weather as the weekend got closer and then figure it out. We settled on a general location three days before the weekend and made the final decision just one day in advance. It was fun waiting until the last moment to determine where to go.

We descended down the slickrock ridge to the dry wash below. Piñon and juniper trees, rabbit brush, and an assortment of other shrubs, herbaceous plants and cured out grasses sparsely covered the canyon floor. Large areas of black, cryptobiotic crust filled in the spaces between plants holding the loose sand in place while light colored trails, created by deer and other wildlife, crisscrossed across the dark ground.

One of the great things about living in the San Luis Valley is the easy, four-season access to large expanses of spectacular public lands. Within just an hour’s drive from anywhere in the valley, we can explore two and a half million acres of national forest, national park and Bureau of Land Management land. It’s also only a half-day drive to the red rock country of eastern Utah and a day’s drive to the hot saguaro cactus studded mountains of Arizona. We live in an area where it is easy to make spur of the moment recreation plans.

The trail continued to wend its way over and through the sandstone maze. At one point, the trail dropped into a slot canyon. I watched as Pam walked through the narrow gap in the rocks, her shoulders barely free from scraping against the walls. I thought about how the park service folks must have had fun figuring out the route for this trail.

Eventually, we came to a towering red wall topped with pinnacles several hundred feet above our heads. The trail followed along the base and then climbed to a narrow gap. We crossed through the gap and a large park opened up before us. The park was a sandy expanse filled with grass, saltbrush and a gray leafless shrub. Several hundred yards away, across the open ground, tall, red sandstone monoliths rose up from the desert floor while house-sized, gray sandstone mushrooms clustered to one side. I looked over at Pam as she scanned the scene and her smile was as big as Chesler Park.

Mike Blakeman is the public affairs specialist for the Rio Grande National Forest. He spends much of his free time scrambling around the mountains with a camera in his hand.