Find solitude in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park | SteamboatToday.com

Find solitude in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park

If you go

±± Getting there: The entrance to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park is about 6.5 hours from Steamboat Springs via Colorado Highway 131, Interstate 70 to Grand Junction and beyond to Moab via U.S. Highway 191 and the final twisty 48 miles on San Juan County Road 211.

±± National park admission is $10 per car and good for seven days. Campground fees are $15 per night.

±± Sites at the Squaw Flat Campground are first-come, first-served. The Squaw Flat Campground has 26 sites with fire rings, picnic tables, bathrooms and running water. It will accommodate RVs up to 28 feet long with a few sites that will accommodate longer vehicles.

±± Squaw Flat is a long drive to make from the state highway to the park entrance, only to find that the campground is full. Alternatives include a small commercial campground just outside the park entrance at Needles Outpost. Advantages include the ability to purchase a hot shower. Facilities are clean. There is a modest store and lunch counter (they’ll cook you a hamburger on the propane grill out back).

Some Web reports indicate you can purchase fuel, including diesel, at Needles Outpost. Nevertheless, monitor fuel consumption closely. The nearest alternative services are 45 miles away (south on the state highway) in Monticello. There are a limited number of modern motel rooms in Monticello.

There is also free camping on BLM land in Lockhart Basin, off a dirt road about a 1/2 mile from San Juan County Road 211 (the road to Needles). There are no facilities whatsoever. However, large RVs and rock climbers in small tents often use the informal camping area.

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±± Reservations are available for all backcountry permits and for group campsites in the Needles District. Canyonlands visitor information: 435-719-2313.

±± The Needles District Visitor Center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with extended hours March through October.

±± Dogs are not allowed on hiking trails – even on a leash.

Moab is mobbed in April and May, and so is nearby Arches National Park. But canyon travelers who want to hike and explore in solitude and don’t care about brew pubs and T-shirt shops will find happiness 85 miles farther south in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.

“Remote camping” best describes the Needles District as a spring getaway from Steamboat. The weather cannot be guaranteed – it could range from daytime highs of 85 degrees to midday snow showers. Most often, it can be counted on to give snow refugees the break they hoped for.

Even if you were dreaming of a European vacation for spring break, Canyonlands will substitute in a surprising way. Most of your neighbors in the campgrounds will be young adults from all across Europe. They are taking advantage of favorable currency exchange rates to see the wide-open spaces of the American West.

Despite the unpredictable weather conditions, April is one of the prime months in which to visit the Needles District. The summer is just too hot for strenuous activity.

Melting snow from the Abajo Mountains to the south is still pouring down the remote side canyons in April. In the midst of vast bowls of slick rock and hot sand, these narrow canyons are thick with a mix of cottonwoods just leafing out and lush plants more typical of a marsh.

The Needles District is named after tall fingers of Cedar Mesa sandstone that have eroded into domes and pinnacles with bands of red to reddish-purple rock. The sandstone formation is 230 million years older than the snowcapped mountains in the hazy distance.

One could be amused during a long weekend taking quick hikes off the paved campground loop. There are marked hiking routes that take families on short loops entirely over rock. The trails are safe but aggressive enough that the National Park Service has fixed handrails of heavy chain link up some steep pitches.

There are small arches, twisted juniper trees, micro-ecosystems at Pothole Point and blooming claret cup cacti, all to be explored from the paved scenic drive near Squaw Flat Campground.

An outstanding example of family friendly features at the Needles District is the Cave Spring loop, just six-tenths of a mile long. Children will be impressed by the rustic remains of old-time cowboy camps, standing undisturbed under a huge rock overhang.

Ranch employees used this rustic camp beginning in the 1800s and continuing until 1975. There are handmade tables and chairs, cooking pots and a legless wood stove to admire.

Unlike many National Parks scattered around the Colorado Plateau, there are options for off-road vehicles in Needles comprising more than 50 miles of routes. The climb up Elephant Hill borders on terror for novice four-wheelers. Expect stair-step drops and tight turns that demand backing in precarious positions. Lavender Canyon spices things up with creek crossings, the potential for deep water and quicksand.

Moderate routes include the Colorado River Overlook (some will want to park the Jeep and hoof it for the last mile) and Horse Canyon. Mountain bikers are directed to Elephant Hill and Colorado Overlook.

The most dramatic scenery in the Needles District requires an ambitious hike, sometimes with a little rock scrambling and cliff exposure tossed in. Even in spring, take more water than you think you will need.

The ultimate destination is Druid Arch at the end of an 11-mile loop. A good, solid hill climb for skiers finding their hiking muscles is the Chesler Park Loop, with the best views of the needles in the midst of a grassy savannah.

For a safe adventure, tackle the 10-mile jaunt to the rock art panel at Peekaboo. It leaves from the campground and traverses two narrow canyons, requiring climbs up sweeping slickrock bowls. Be prepared to climb two steep ladders drilled into cliff faces along the route.

Canyonlands is less than seven hours from Steamboat, but the landscape is extra-planetary. As a budget spring break, that’s hard to surpass.

If you go

±± Getting there: The entrance to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park is about 6.5 hours from Steamboat Springs via Colorado Highway 131, Interstate 70 to Grand Junction and beyond to Moab via U.S. Highway 191 and the final twisty 48 miles on San Juan County Road 211.

±± National park admission is $10 per car and good for seven days. Campground fees are $15 per night.

±± Sites at the Squaw Flat Campground are first-come, first-served. The Squaw Flat Campground has 26 sites with fire rings, picnic tables, bathrooms and running water. It will accommodate RVs up to 28 feet long with a few sites that will accommodate longer vehicles.

±± Squaw Flat is a long drive to make from the state highway to the park entrance, only to find that the campground is full. Alternatives include a small commercial campground just outside the park entrance at Needles Outpost. Advantages include the ability to purchase a hot shower. Facilities are clean. There is a modest store and lunch counter (they’ll cook you a hamburger on the propane grill out back).

Some Web reports indicate you can purchase fuel, including diesel, at Needles Outpost. Nevertheless, monitor fuel consumption closely. The nearest alternative services are 45 miles away (south on the state highway) in Monticello. There are a limited number of modern motel rooms in Monticello.

There is also free camping on BLM land in Lockhart Basin, off a dirt road about a 1/2 mile from San Juan County Road 211 (the road to Needles). There are no facilities whatsoever. However, large RVs and rock climbers in small tents often use the informal camping area.

±± Reservations are available for all backcountry permits and for group campsites in the Needles District. Canyonlands visitor information: 435-719-2313.

±± The Needles District Visitor Center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with extended hours March through October.

±± Dogs are not allowed on hiking trails – even on a leash.

Tips

±± Overnight lows in April can dip into the 20s, and the camping spaces in Needles Outpost are shielded from the morning sun by a large butte. If you are tent camping, start the car, brew coffee and drive west to the visitor center, where the sun is up already. A brisk morning hike beats shivering in the tent.

±± Bring along your three-season sleeping bag and a big box of firewood from home.