Exploring The Parks: Musings From The Needles District In Canyonlands National Park
It’s hot here. Welcome to the beginning of summer in the Southwest. Two days ago it was raining and near freezing and I was complaining about it at Mesa Verde and now it’s sweat time.
But those rains have turned the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park into a veritable flower garden. Everywhere I look there are blooms. Yellow bee plant. Crimson and yellow prickly pear. Yellow daisies and scarlet and purple penstemon. I’m curled up in afternoon shade beside my trailer in the Squaw Flat Campground. Delightful place, this campground. Sites are mostly far apart and semi-private in little alcoves amid sandstone bluffs. Whoever designed this camp had the right ideas.
There are only 28 campsites here, though. So if you plan to visit the Needles area, plan to arrive early. I got here about 9 a.m. and was lucky to find a vacancy. Canyonlands does not use the reservation system. (There is a small private campground at Needles Outpost just outside the park’s entrance if you need it. More about that later.)
It has been over 20 years since I was here last time. So long ago that I was able to drive my little Geo Tracker down the “road” in Salt Creek. I had been able to camp part way down to Angel Arch, but even at that time I could see the damage I and so many other motorized travelers were doing to the delicate riparian landscape. Many were the places where people had carved wider road sections to bypass a nasty mudhole. When I went down from my camp to soak in the creek, I came across an oil slick in a small eddy. Truthfully, I don’t know if the oil had come from a vehicle or another source – and honestly, as hot and sweaty as I had been that day, I probably caused a whole lot more pollution when I sank my body gratefully into the creek’s water.
Now the creek is closed to vehicles, but the State of Utah is suing the National Park Service, again, to open the “road” down Salt Creek. It’s probably not really an economic issue but one of political power games. Poll after poll have shown that the majority of Utah taxpayers oppose the state’s action and think it’s a waste of taxpayer money. But this is Utah. One drainage east of Salt Creek is Horse Canyon – and that road is open to vehicle travel with a permit. The difference? Horse Canyon does not have a beautiful little stream running through it. The route down Horse Canyon really is a road, and always has been. Judging by the number of vehicles parked at the trailhead, Salt Creek may actually be attracting more people on foot now than it did when it was a “road.” It’s probably one of the cooler and more pleasant backpacking trails in this dry park.
I spent last night at a small U.S. Forest Service campground on the Manti-La Sal National Forest a few miles east of Monticello, Utah, on a county road that doesn’t seem to have a number. (Some maps call it the Hart’s Draw Road. Head east on 200 South in Monticello.) I just had to stop at the campground named Dalton Springs. From there I continued on toward the county road’s junction with Utah Highway 211 near Newspaper Rock. It’s good paved road all the way and it contains some of the most spectacular views out across the entire expanse of Canyonlands to be found anywhere. It was simply breathtaking. I’d suggest that if you plan a trip to the Needles, you use that road to drive in and the main road to drive out. There are only two ways in and out of this part of the country, so if you enter on one and exit on the other, you’ll not be missing anything and will be gaining some views you won’t forget. Driving in on the county road will put the most spectacular scenery in your windshield and not your rear view mirror.
I was greeted at the entrance station by a volunteer instead of the usual fee collecting ranger. It seemed to make sense. Use a volunteer there to free up rangers for more important duties. But when I asked, she explained that she was filling in for a seasonal who had taken another job and a replacement ranger would be arriving soon. She also told me she was a geology professor in her other life.
A quick look at the park’s newspaper tells me that this is the 50th anniversary of Canyonlands. By coincidence, it’s also the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The newspaper tells us a little about the story of Canyonlands’ creation. It seems that back in 1961, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall was flying from Glen Canyon, where the big dam had just been completed, back to Denver with Floyd Dominy. Dominy was the infamous commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation who wanted to plunk dams into every river gorge in the nation. Dominy was showing Udall where he wanted the next dam to be built on the Colorado just below the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers. To quote the newspaper: “. . . but where Dominy saw a reservoir, Udall saw a national park. In Udall’s own words: ‘So we’re flying along at about 10,000 feet and he shows me the dam site. Here it is all spread out before me . . . the Canyonlands . . . I thought God Almighty, if that isn’t a national park then I’ve never seen one.’”
Udall went to work immediately. With the help of the legendary Bates Wilson, who was superintendent of nearby Arches and intimately familiar with the lands covered by Canyonlands, Udall lobbied and fought for the new park. The newspaper tells us that it took “three long years of political tussling, not without controversy” to establish Canyonlands. Looking back from the present, we’ll probably think three years was a remarkably short time. Creation of Canyonlands would probably be impossible now. It’s still a bitter pill of contention among some in Utah. Yet so it was that on September 12, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill establishing Canyonlands National Park.
None of the park is officially wilderness. Most of it is open to motorized vehicle access – although that does not include ATVs. Some small portions, more delicate than others, are closed to all but foot travel. This year from September 11th through 13th Canyonlands will be hosting a special celebration of its establishment. There will be special programs, lots of visiting dignitaries, an employee reunion and more. That celebration will take place here in the Needles District. I’m sure that if you are interested in attending, more information will be available online at the park’s various web connections.
= = = =
Most of the vast park is open to travel by horseback or four-wheel drive vehicles. It’s tough and rugged and requires a good bit of previous experience for an adventurous driver to do it safely. Lack of dependable water makes it a special challenge for horse people. Not far from the Needles campground is infamous Elephant Hill. Access to the interior reaches of the Needles district requires climbing and crossing Elephant Hill. It’s said to be one of the most technically challenging 4WD routes in Utah. From experience, I can tell you it’s mighty interesting. But once over the top, an incredible adventure awaits – if your outfit is still driveable.
There’s a road from the visitor center to an overlook above the Colorado River. Four-wheel-drive only, so I gave it a try. Interesting with a few challenges, but somewhere short of the seven miles it’s supposed to be, I came to a spot that was too challenging. My truck may have four wheels, but it’s not as high as I sometimes wish it was. After scouting the terrain, I decided discretion was best. I walked on for a way and noticed there were no new tire tracks anywhere. Never did come to the river overlook. When I got back to the truck, I was happy to discover a place where others had given up and turned around. Their tracks told the story. I wasn’t the only one to wimp out. But, as some park literature tells us, a vehicle tow from the back country starts at about $1000.
= = = =
Back to camp. Hot. Time for supper but won’t be cooking inside the trailer. My trusty two-burner will do the job on the picnic table. Chicken, boiled potatoes, left-over Bush’s beans with the family secret. Whiptail lizards scurry around, busy conducting lizard business. I can barely hear the folks next door as they cook supper, too. Reading a book I found in the VC bookstore — a collection of Ed Abbey. Good stuff. But I’m surprised that a bookstore in Utah would sell a work by such a subversive writer. Maybe it’s true that those Park Service people really are . . uh, well . . really are liberals. Why else would they be selling trash like that? One more reason to take back all those lands the federal government stole from good Utah patriots before they corrupt our children. I remember a high school English teacher I know who got into big trouble because she included Abbey's Desert Solitaire on a list of suggested reading for her students. A hummingbird hums by my ear.
Water from the campground tap is delightfully cold with a strong flavor of rubber hose. I keep my personal swamp cooler close by and use a fine spray from the green one-dollar spray bottle liberally (oops, there’s that word again) on my face and arms and neck. It evaporates in seconds but takes most of the heat with it. Might look funny to the uninitiated, but in the past when I’ve told others about it, they soon were spraying, too. This is land where rain falling from clouds high above never reaches the ground. The clouds just suck it back up. Really. It’s called virga. You Easterners can look it up. I just hate it when I forget to take my glasses off before spraying.
There was an article recently in Traveler about millennials and the parks. I don’t recall all the details, but think it was telling us that younger people are not avoiding the parks, just using them in different ways than us older sextennials and septennials. Today, at a couple of trailheads, I saw a bunch of those millennials packing out after some time in Canyonlands’ backcountry. Others were slinging their packs up and heading out. Maybe there may not be so much of a difference after all. They sure looked a lot like what I think I looked like once upon a long time ago.
On Thursday, I met a bunch of high school boys from Denver. They had just returned from a three-day backpack trip and they looked it. One of them explained that their school runs adventure trips at the end of each year. Students may choose which one they want to try. These guys had packed out 12 miles this morning in some pretty ugly high temperatures. As I talked with them, it seemed hard for any of them to hold back a little look of pride at what they had just managed to do. This was the third group of high school students on similar trips I had met. One each in Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Mesa Verde National Park, and now here in Canyonlands. What a shame that so few schools seem courageous enough to do things like this.
Could it be that some of the concern about younger people abandoning our parks is just because they don’t hang out in campgrounds playing cribbage or watching satellite TV because they’re tromping around on trails the rest of us can’t manage any more? Maybe the ones we need to worry about are the millennials who are not tromping trails and are instead watching satellite TV inside their brontotrailerousari.
Another swig of campground water from my canteen. Lots better than bottled water. Bottled water is so darned bland. This stuff has character! (Later I discovered that if you drive to the visitor center for water, it tastes just like the stuff you can buy.) I tell a ranger. She says she’ll tell maintenance.
= = = =
A sign by the road near the amphitheater announces a program at eight. I think I’ll stop typing and go wash some stickiness off me. One nice thing about deserts, when the air is dry it doesn’t hold heat. Sunset brings cool. I might sleep outside tonight and enjoy the dark sky overhead. There was supposed to have been a meteor shower on the 24th, but it was raining. Maybe there will be a few left over for tonight.
The campfire program was remarkably good. Ranger William Leggett enthralled about 28 visitors with an account of the complex geology of the Needles area. He introduced himself by telling us that he’d earned a Master’s Degree in geology from the University of New Mexico. He promised not to swamp us with dates and geologic jargon. Then he went to work and wove a fascinating tale of our living earth. He quoted from Thoreau and even Edward Abbey as his quiet voice had everyone sitting up and listening. From the top of a small rise where the campfire was burning, he was able to point out for us the real things he was explaining. No slides with this program. The park was one big slide.
Perhaps the best measure of how good a ranger talk may be is how many people leave during it. Last night, no one left. In fact, even after he finished, no one got up to leave. “Ranger Will” spent quite a bit of time patiently answering questions. I’ve seen a lot of ranger programs and this one rated the full five stars.
= = = =
I set up my camp cot and tossed a sleeping bag onto it. Until well after midnight I lay on top of the sleeping bag until night became uncomfortably cool and I slid inside it. The dark sky filled with so many stars it made it difficult to recognize even old friends like the Big and Little Dippers.
Morning came very early.
= = = =
Sitting in the shade of a juniper in my camp, reading Abbey’s The Serpents of Paradise, I spot a whiptail lizard. Tail two-and-a-half times longer than the body. He skips from one spot of sand to another. Occasionally stops, cocks his head as though listening and then digs for a moment. Sometimes he comes up empty. Other times he finds some sort of dark, inch-long, moving thing – a little too far to see just what it is – chomps it down and moves on. He must be having breakfast.
= = = =
Just outside the Needles entrance is a side road leading to Needles Outpost. It’s a very small, privately owned operation where visitors may find some basic groceries, a small café, a campground in case all the sites inside the park are full, and emergency gasoline. With temperatures heading for a hundred, I had a great craving for a can of cold soda pop. Good chance to go check the place out.
Tracey and Gary Napoleon have owned the operation for 18 years and are still going, so it seems they must be making it. I meet Tracey. She’s a friendly lady who fills me in on all they have to offer. Later, I ask a ranger about the place and find she gives them high marks. One young lady, I think she was a Canyonlands Association employee, even told me that Tracey is known to take ice cream to parkies who are stuck in the entrance station on summer afternoons. Seems like the Outpost and NPS at Needles form a good symbiotic relationship.
Camp at the Outpost for $20 a night with no hookups. That’s because there are no hookups. Showers are an extra $7 – water must be trucked in. If you’ve just finished a hot hike or been dwelling in a tent in the desert for awhile, that $7 might seem like a bargain. I didn’t price all the groceries, but a list of frozen meats available had prices much more reasonable than the Aramark burger meat at Mesa Verde. In any event, given the remoteness of this place, transportation costs need to be factored in. A couple of very old yellow gas pumps sit outside. One has a note on it that says, “Gas $6.50 per gallon. Pump gas and tell us how many gallons.” Firewood is $6 and the honor system is used if it’s after hours.
Tracey invites me to come try breakfast tomorrow morning. No pancakes, just filling omelets and sausage and bacon and eggs and lots of hashbrowns. I might do that. Other times of day, all sorts of meals are offered and there’s always a pot of fresh home made chili. Last time I was here an airstrip beside the Outpost was used occasionally for scenic flights and other operations. But a flash flood washed out a large section of runway.
While I was visiting with Tracey, a young woman came in to report that her fiancé, who had failed to come home from a hike yesterday, had been found safe and sound. Seems he took a wrong turn, walked some distance in the wrong direction and came across a bunch of Forest Service people camped out there somewhere along Horse Canyon Road. In the meantime, the young lady had sought help from Tracey who reported him missing to park rangers and a search was beginning. The Forest Service crew had a satellite phone and was able to let the park know their missing hiker was safe. A little dehydrated, but in otherwise good shape. They’d kept him overnight and were transporting him to the park this morning. The young lady was thanking Tracey for helping her last night and was heading for the visitor center in hopes her lost guy would soon be returned.
By the way, the can of cold pop was just one dollar.
= = = =
In camp. Temperature heading for near a hundred. The personal swamp cooler is getting a workout. A tiny wren flits through the pinyon that is shading me. Big yellow blossoms on a prickly pear are opening to receive today’s sun. They closed up tight around sunset last night. It’s very quiet. A few hummingbirds roar past and a bit of breeze tickles the trees. Five miles overhead an airliner pulls a contrail across the sky. Its engines are surprisingly noisy down here. A raven squawks off to my right.
I decide to go back to the Outpost for supper. Everything on the menu is the same price – $9.95. Hamburger; chicken; fajitas; breakfast – $9.95. Very simple. Also very good. Gary cooks my half-pound hamburger on a grill outside. It’s all I can do to wrap myself around it. Delicious.
The best part of the meal is talking with Gary and Tracey and a bearded guy who is just finishing a stint as a volunteer in the Needles. The place is as neat and clean as it can be. While I’m eating and talking, Gary is swabbing down an already clean stove that sits beside two old propane refrigerators. The Napoleons do it all themselves. Just the two of them. From the first of March to the first of December. No employees. No help. Seven days a week. Just them. It hits me that these are the kind of people who really make America great. Willing to work hard. Take a risk. Succeed and be happy in what you are doing. No CEO being paid millions. No government subsidies or bailouts. No powerful stockholders sucking up the profits. Probably not very many profits, anyway.
So why is it then that they face some serious threats because their operation is leased on a section of the State of Utah’s school trust lands? I learn from some people in the park that Tracey and Gary may be on thin ice. Powerful and wealthy people smell money. Powerful people want to revoke the lease. Powerful people have visions. Visions of buying the land. A few million dollars in the state’s coffers. Visions of condos. Of mega-mansion vacation “cabins” for those who are the really successful among us. Of huge profits in the pockets of a few powerful land developers.
Why does this news make me want to barf?
= = = =
Wednesday night’s campfire and Ranger Cindy Donaldson tells a small group about the 50th anniversaries of the Wilderness Act and Canyonlands. She tells us, too, that it was Bates Wilson who laid out this campground. That explains a lot. As Will Leggett told us last night, this is a place where time only seems to stand still because our time in it is so short. But it’s a land where changes are constant, dynamic, never ending. We may end, but this land will not.
Thank goodness for people like Stu Udall and Bates Wilson. And the Napoleons, too.