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October 24, 2006

Southwest Odyssey: Day 4

Today is one of our less planned days on the trip: we knew for certain that we would spend our first day in the Moab area at Arches, but we had several options for the second day, and had decided not to choose until after our day at Arches. Southeastern Utah presents an almost overwhelming number of choices for places to see and outdoor activities to engage in. We could return to Arches, and do the longer hikes that we hadn't had time for yesterday, including the hike up to Delicate Arch and the longer, more primitive route beyond Landscape Arch. Or we could visit Dead Horse Point State Park, renowned for its jaw-dropping views from above the Colorado River. If we visited Dead Horse Point, we could also see the nearby "Island in the Sky" section of Canyonlands National Park, a large, high mesa with similarly astonishing views of the Colorado and Green Rivers. Or we could opt for a visit to the "Needles" district of Canyonlands, which was the biggest unknown quantity to us. Needles is a long drive from Moab, and it is little developed and not much visited: there are very few roads accessible without a high-clearance 4WD vehicle. To see the park, hiking is absolutely necessary, and multiday hikes and backpacking trips are a common way to see the sights.

We ended up going to the Needles, for a few reasons: first, we were curious to see this bit of National Park land that most visitors to Utah's parks simply didn't bother with. Second, we were deeply drawn to the solitude that a hike in the Needles supposedly offered. Finally, one of our guidebooks recommended Needles in the strongest terms possible, saying that if by some tragic combination of circumstances, one could visit only one of southern Utah's national parks, it should be the Needles district of Canyonlands. This description intrigued us; any place that could elicit such a strong reaction from a travel writer surely deserved a day of our precious time. So we bought ourselves another picnic lunch at the grocery store in Moab, and headed south on US 191, the major route through southeastern Utah.

The drive south from Moab along 191 is not known as a scenic drive, but it can only be considered "not scenic" in the context of other southern Utah drives. Anywhere else, this route would easily be labeled "scenic," with swaths of flat, high desert interspersed with redstone cliffs and snowy mountain peaks. But the truly scenic part of the drive to Needles begins when you turn west off the main road, onto state highway 211, which dead-ends in Needles. As we approach the park, ranchland to our south contrasts with majestic red buttes to the north. Much of this land is apparently BLM land with few use restrictions, and we see backpackers and climbers heading off into the wilderness at several points along the road.

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We see a few other cars as we enter the park, but we can tell the crowds are light here, since the booth at the park gate is unmanned and bears a sign instructing us to continue on to the visitor center to pay the entrance fee. We pull up to the visitor center, where ours is the only car in the lot. We buy our park pass from a friendly ranger, take a brief look at the exhibits in the visitor center, and get back on the road. Our goal is the Slickrock Trail hike, a 2.5 mile hike mostly along canyon rims that is supposed to offer amazing 360-degree views of the park.

We are not disappointed. This is a "primitive" trail, marked by cairns like the primitive trails in Arches. There are a handful of other hikers on the trail, but mostly we are blessedly alone. The day is beautiful, the desert full of vivid colors and deep silence. Canyonlands is both like Arches and unlike it: there's still plenty of red sandstone formations, but Canyonlands has a sheer variety of rock formations and colors that make it seem like a different world than Arches.

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Here is a distant view of the formations that give the Needles district its name:

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About halfway through the hike, we find a comfy spot on a rock near a canyon rim and settle down to eat our lunch. No one disturbs our peace while we eat; the handful of other hikers are nowhere to be seen. We press on when we finish eating. The Slickrock Trail has four viewpoints along the trail which are reached via short detours from the main trail. The first three are very short detours, and the viewpoints are suitably rewarding. But the fourth viewpoint requires a little more dedication to reach: it's quite far off the main trail and a little climbing and scrambling are necessary in order to reach it. When we get there, though, we find that it was well worth the extra hike:

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We return to the car regretting that we have to leave Canyonlands soon if we are to make it to Monument Valley before dusk -- important because we plan to camp there, and don't want to pitch our tent in the dark. We toy with the idea of camping here in Needles instead, and taking more time tomorrow to hike another of the vast network of trails here, but reluctantly we decide that we don't want to miss Monument Valley. We have to move on, but we both feel strongly that we will return to Canyonlands someday to spend time hiking and camping. There is true desert solitude here, much more so than in Arches, and the diversity of the landscape is endlessly fascinating. We are so glad that we decided to visit this park, feeling that we've discovered a hidden gem -- not that any national park is truly "hidden," but this one, as the least visited of southern Utah's five parks, certainly qualifies as "hidden" by the terms of the myriad attractions in this area.

Back on the main road, our minds are still full of our Canyonlands experience, but there is plenty to see as we continue south on US 191. We pass through several small towns, and then: the most famous view in the Southwest is before us as we approach Monument Valley from the north. The landscape as we approach our evening destination is almost pure reds in various shades. Again, we marvel at the sheer variety of the Colorado Plateau.

Our goal is Gouldings, a large complex/borderline-tourist-trap originally founded as a trading post in the 1920s. Today, it includes a lodge, campground, several stores, a restaurant, and the original trading post building, which now serves as a museum full of information about the early years of the trading post and memorabilia from the many films shot in the area. The place was started by Harry Goulding, who worked closely with the Navajo and was almost single-handedly responsible for bringing the film industry to Monument Valley. It's a pretty neat place, in a kitschy sort of way. We set up our campsite and get some dinner at the restaurant, which includes a large piece of delicious, decadent Navajo frybread. The clouds we've seen on the southwest horizon all day move through during the night, and periodic rain showers make our sleep less than ideal, but out tent keeps us dry, and we wake to clearing skies with a view of sunrise over the Valley from our campsite.

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1 Wonder of the World, coming right up: Day 5

Posted by at October 24, 2006 11:48 PM