This is Part 2 on unreal winter dayhikes on Moab. To see Part 1 on hiking to a 17-foot long snake pictograph, click here.
I’m ashamed to say I’ve been to Moab more than a few times, but until this January, never made it out to the epically-sized Canyonlands National Park. This time around, I learned there is a reason: although it is the largest national park in Utah, Canyonlands is the least visited. The park in the winter, I discovered, is a time of extreme seclusion. After miles of seeing no cars, a group of unfazed hikers and I reached the unguarded entrance gate to the park and popped by the closed visitor center (luckily the bathrooms were unlocked!). Lawton ‘Disco’ Grinter, Barefoot Jake, Will Rietveld, Grant Sible, Trinity Ludwig and her friend Erin and I were about to enter 337,598 acres of desert slickrock and have it all to ourselves.
Even if I were just a car tourist, the Needles District of Canyonlands is stunning. Multi-colored towers of Cedar Mesa sandstone loom over the roadways. The Needles District has over 60 miles of primitive trails on icy slickrock—but even these were an improvement on our cross country scrambling route in Behind the Rock Wilderness Study Area the previous day. We were stoked to walk on maintained trail for a bit complete with stone stairs and cairns.
Our trail took us into open pinyon flats surrounded by turrets of red, brown, and white. After a lunch break at a sunny campsite, we wandered into slickrock ravines and skirted the edge of massive formations of multi-layered sandstone. Often, we would hug overhanging cliffs, posing a challenge to our taller group members.
Our route passed hidden slot-canyon caves and sometimes required a full body chimney through rock tunnels.
We left one valley into another over a pass only accessible by ladder. Soon, the snow-peaked La Salle mountains painted our horizon.
The sketchiest part of the hike, by far, was sneaking up icy slick rock pour offs. We would gingerly creep up steep slabby sandstone, following the path of frozen-over baby waterfalls. Then would come the mini-roof where we needed to commit our body and our feet to a ledge that we couldn’t see. Last year, a woman died slumping up onto this icy shelf where she slipped and toppled down a hundred feet of slab rock.
We ventured over a few more icy slick rock passes. Don’t slip, don’t slip, don’t slip, I told myself. As I carefully heel-toed my way across one of these, my chapstick fell from my pocket, tumbling to the ledge below. I wasn’t about to leave a manmade object in the wilderness, but really would be bummed with myself if I died trying to get some lip balm. I downclimbed an even icier section of steep slab, raising questions from my companions. “I dropped something!” I called out as I gratefully captured my lost treasure, and continued on the slick rock trail.
The last part of our trip took us to a wide, sandy wash. During some parts of the year, this gulch must fill with water—in fact, part of our trip along it had us walking on a skating rink of thin ice. Here, we were able to bust out good speed on solid, well marked trail all the way to the Campground parking lot.
What struck me the most about the Needles is that so many mindblowing formations could be found in one system of trails. For a relatively well-marked national park path way, I felt technically challenged, scenically gifted, and highly rewarded. I can’t wait to return to this section of the Canyonlands again, hopefully to do a bit of backpacking and exploring more of the amazing features that are out there.