Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Needles District

October 27 - 28, 2003

Dave Svilar, Jill Wolverton



"That was delicious," Jill exclaimed while licking her lips to savor every last bit of the night's dinner.  It was a monumental night - my golden birthday - 27 years old on the 27th.  A special night and a special birthday require a special dinner.  I put my fork down after cleaning the final drops out of the can of Bush's Baked Beans, "yes Jill, truly delicious."  The can of beans (retail $1.75) marked one of the few times in the past year I had personally spent over $1 for dinner, but I didn't spend the rest of the night worrying about the extravagance of my expenditures.  A golden birthday happens only once in a lifetime.

Knowing this was the first birthday I would spend without my mom, Jill was kind enough to fly from Seattle to Telluride to pay a visit.  After a few days in the Durango/Telluride area we set off on the afternoon of my birthday for Canyonlands National Park.  The park has several entrances all providing the visitor with different options in which to enjoy the park.  My preference was to be in the canyon instead of on top of the canyon, so we chose the Needles District which promised to put us in the midst of the spectacular sandstone formations.  At first glance Canyonlands didn't seem like a canyon.  In fact, at second glance it still didn't seem like a canyon.  From a distance Canyonlands is more of a wide open space and less like a canyon in the sense that there seems to be no large chasm or no deep gorge like the Black Canyon I had visited the week before.  To gain the most from a visit to Canyonlands one needs to get on valley floor where the various sandstone spires, flash-flood drainages, and peculiar desert fauna can be observed up-close.

Just after staking claim to one of the last remaining campsites in the Squaw Flat Campground, Jill and I set off almost a 1/2 mile down the trail towards a large rock formation to watch the sunset.  I brought my camera and tripod expecting something spectacular, but the high clouds muted the colors.  Just as I was about to put the camera away, and 20 minutes after the sun had dropped behind the horizon, the evening awarded us for our patience.  Like the final twitch of a roadkilled housecat the sun flared up for one last brilliant gasp.  Undersides of high cirrus clouds which had so stubbornly remained in the evening sky to ruin our sunset were now glowing intense shades of pink, orange and red.  Directly below on the horizon, jagged, silhouetted rock formations jutted into the spectacular sky like.... needles.  Jill wanted to cuddle.  I told her to save it for the campfire, and took some pictures.

BLAZING The sky gives us a treat after sunset.

After stumbling back to camp over the rocky trail with a single headlamp we downed the can of beans - a rewarding meal.  Although we received last dibs on the campsite it was still beautiful.  Scrubby pines provided privacy and an overhanging rock wall provided a perfect backdrop.  Upon stoking a fire, light from the flames cast our shadows on the overhanging wall making the shadows appear to dance with each flicker of the flame.  If not for the presence of an elderly couple parked in an adjacent site sitting in an R.V. it would have felt like we were cowboys in the old west.  Nonetheless, with bellies full of canned beans reinforced by the mood of the fire it was an ideal time to have a deep discussion about our lives.

ON FIRE Transfixed by the glow of the fire, Jill's thoughts burn with a desire to quit her job.

Unfortunately Jill went first and the mood was ruined.  Although new to this site, the story of Jill fits in well with some of the other hapless characters here.  She moved from her home state of Minnesota to Seattle in 1999 dreaming of a place where mountains meet the water.  As a top young student and athlete Jill went on to college to double major in computer science and math, while spending her free time going to nationals as a member of the track team.  Post-college she rode the successful momentum of her first 22 years into a managerial position.  Certainly this was a girl who was going places.  Smart and motivated with a smile bright enough to melt a polar ice cap her midwestern family and friends believed the sky was the limit.  However, somewhere between another late night at the office and a Seattle traffic jam Jill made a bold decision.  She decided that work and $$ weren't her life's priorities.  To the horror of her family and college mentors she ditched the managing job and went to Peru and then learned how to bartend.  Unfortunately, the reality of a mortgage settled in and Jill returned to her old job in a low-end data entry position.  This brought her to the position she's in today - showing up to the office at noon, singing at dive karaoke bars until the wee hours of the night, and skipping out of the office flying to places like Honduras or Telluride each month.  This sort of lifestyle couldn't persist much longer - she couldn't own a house and be a slacker.  She faced the sort of impasse that haunts every 20-something who wants to make enough money pursuing their true passions without selling out to the cubicle world.  The conundrum that had become Jill's life was discussed at length under the twinkle of the campfire until both of us were so depressed we couldn't lift another log onto the fire.   

Our moods were quickly lifted by the thought of sleeping out under the night sky and the hike we had planned for the next day.  The night was surprisingly warm, so instead of confining ourselves to a tent we scrambled up onto one of the mushroom-like rock formations near our campsite to find a flat place under the stars.  To our delight, the eroding sandstone mushroom provided a depression with soft sand perfect for sleeping two.  We tucked into our respective bags and stared at the moonless black sky.  I tried to impress Jill with some facts on astronomy, but this just put her to sleep, so I resorted to quietly staring out at the desert night on my own.  Canyonlands brochures boast that this sparsely populated area of Utah is one of the finest (and few) places in the United States in which to view the night sky.  The same high clouds that were there for sunset stayed throughout the night, but there was a large enough hole in the clouds to see that this would be a superb place to star gaze on a clearer night. 

We didn't need an alarm clock as we were awakened by the first light.  Knowing we probably had a long day ahead we arose as soon as the sun peaked over the horizon.  We feasted on instant oatmeal, packed up camp and set off down the trail.  The Needles District provides an entire maze of trails leading through mulitple 'canyons' or what I would call drainages.  Perhaps the best feature of these trails is that you can hike a long ways without ever seeing any off-road vehicles which are so prevalent and irritating in this part of the country.  A person could easily spend several nights out exploring new portions of the trail.  The one problem is that all water needs to be carried unless drinking from a cesspool sounds appealing.

COZY Jill sucks the last bit of warmth out of her bag before rising to hit the trail.


NO PARKING A sign on the toilet door reminds Jill to not get comfortable in the latrine.

Hiking in this area is unlike anywhere else.  The uniqueness of the place is due to a landscape of two-tone sandstone, hardy pine trees that seem to find root in pure rock, and spires and arches that defy the forces of both erosion and gravity.  We had difficulty making progress down the cairn-marked trail because I kept wanting to take pictures.  Luckily, besides my own mother, Jill is the nicest person I know, so no matter how many times I stopped or told her to pose she didn't seem to mind.  We chose to make our way south through the more 'challenging' Big Spring Canyon hiking mostly on the classic 'slickrock.'  Several times we passed over narrow slots in the rock which required a step or hop across a deep crack.  One slot in particular seemed like a good place for a picture, so I requested that Jill find the widest part of the crack and jump.  Of course the jump required at least 8 feet of horizontal and any kind of miss would have resulted in a fall of almost 40 vertical feet down onto a pile of rocks at the bottom of the slot.  Jill was a long jumper, so I thought it would make a perfect photo opt.

Jill wasn't as certain.  "I'm your girlfriend, don't you value me?"

"I value good pictures.  Just jump." 

After several hesitations Jill made the jump and hit the other side with such a thud that the rock itself shuddered.  "Take it easy on the rock Jill," I joked oblivious to the fact that she might be hurt.  In typical Jill fashion, she continued to hike without muttering anything close to a complaint.  Not until another mile of trail had passed did I notice the blood dripping from her palms.  In her desperation to stick the landing over the deep slot she had hit the rock almost head-on.  Bloody knees and hands didn't seem to dampen her mood so we hiked on enjoying the ever more impressive landscape.

DO OR DIE Risking life and limb Jill long jumps the slot.


FOLLOW THE CAIRN Jill follows the stacks of rocks marking the slickrock trail.


WINDOW WITH A VIEW Jill peers through the slot happy she didn't have to jump this one.


TEXTURED Jill uses the textured rock to improve her traction as we hike out of Big Horn Canyon.


SHROOMIN' Jill uses a heel hook to get high on a mushroom boulder.

As the trail continues south the rock changes from smaller mushroom formations into large sandstone walls and spires.  The craggy spires resemble a row of needles which is probably how this area became known as the 'Needles District.'  Temperatures were perfect and skies were blue as we entered into the heart of sandstoneville.  Once in the midst of these larger rock formations the trail turned from slickrock to sandy drainage and views were confined to towering sandstone walls instead of the expansive Canyonlands valley floor.  Following the well-signed trail we continued south through Elephant Canyon towards the Druid Arch.

By this time the sun was beating down and I hoped that the four mile round trip to see this arch would be worth it.  The towering arch was interesting, and combined with spectacular views back towards the mouth of the canyon and our feeling of solitude we felt the extra hike was worthwhile.  We took the opportunity to enjoy a most WONDERFUL picnic.

DRUID ARCH We turned around at this spectacular double arch.


FAKE BACKGROUND Posing in front of Elephant Canyon under the Druid Arch just before engaging in picnic activities.

Hiking the two miles back out of Elephant Canyon was the only section of trail we re-traced all day.  The sun was now at our backs casting the canyon in a new light.  We didn't wear watches and our water/food supply was low, so we made the decision to forgo the Joint Trail and Chesler Park to follow Elephant Canyon back to the campground.

Once we had reached a nice hiking rhythm I interrupted one last time to take a few pictures of a dead snag.  Jill scolded me as I carelessly stepped on living dirt in my attempt to get the best angle on the dead tree.  I never realized that it was possible to kill dirt, but some desert soil (crypto) had actually been living for over 80 years.  After reversing 80 tenuous years of soil life with my size 12's we jumped back onto the trail.  By this time we realized that we had better step up our pace.  It didn't take a watch to tell us the sun was about to set.  With my blood sugar waning my desire to reach the Toyota before dark consumed me.  Unlike me, who showed signs of grumpy hunger, Jill didn't let her own hunger or bloody scabs disrupt the end to a good day.  Not only did I find her perma-smile encouraging, but I also found her to be quite entertaining.  Every rock, tree branch, or cloud formation reminded her of something.  Unless I knew better, I would have accused her of being on drugs.  I can honestly say Jill is the most substance-free stoner I know.

SNAG Dead tree on the walk back towards the campground.


SNAG Same dead tree, just a little closer.


BIG OR SMALL? The answer is small.  Tiny side-lit striations in the desert sandstone.


KEEP MUSHING Unless you're the lead dog, the scene never changes.  On this hike I was grateful.

Night fell upon arriving the Toyota where we pulled down the tailgate for some open-faced peanut butter and honey sandwiches.  Too tired to bother trying to find free camping in the dark I did something completely against my nature... we checked into a motel in Moab.  Guilt set in, but upon further review it was the correct decision: my poor girlfriend who had subsisted on canned beans and oatmeal for the last week, had hiked 17 miles through the desert sun with open wounds all over her body.  Before Jill flew out of Grand Junction the next morning for Seattle I had already begun to miss her.  If I had the ability to synthesize a new friend and hiking companion I couldn't have come up with something better than Jill.  What a golden birthday!

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