Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Slickrock Trail crosses land's very bones

La Sal Mountains from Canyonlands National
Park's Slickrock Trail.

Loop offers
variety of classic
desert vistas


Clambering over boulders and ambling across strangely angled slickrock awaits hikers of the Canyonlands National Park's Slickrock Trail in southeastern Utah.

Above and below: Maps showing trail's location
(courtesy Canyonlands NPS).
Wind constantly sweeps over Canyonland's Needles District flat and high landscape. The result is very little topsoil and a lot of white rim slickrock, a sandstone bedrock that is the land's very bones. As Western traveler and writer David Lavender penned in 1943:

Slick rock is a Utah staple.
The eternal wind whisks the dirt
off whole hills and vales,
leaving nothing but the framework …

To avoid summer's heat and winter's chill, visit during May or September. Dusk makes for a great hike if your children are old enough, as the red in the Cedar Mesa sandstone lights up as if on fire, and the receding long shadows unveil otherwise washed out patterns in the slickrock.

Enter the Needles District by traveling on U.S. Hwy. 191 then taking the Hwy 211 west. You'll have about a 36-mile trip from the turnoff. At the Needles Visitor Center, drive 6.2 miles west on the main park road, past Squaw Flat Road, to the Slickrock Trailhead. You can park along the roadside; a shoulder is paved for vehicles to park.

Mesa rim
The 2.9-mile loop trail is easy to moderate, gaining about 100 feet in elevation. Cairn markers appear every 10-30 feet. It generally follows the mesa rim.

From the trailhead, go northeast for about 0.3 miles to the first viewpoint, a panoramic view of the La Sal Mountains. Though the range is 40 miles away, the mountains appear much closer thanks to the clear, dry desert air. They are the second highest range in Utah, and during early summer will sport snow. Other visible landmarks include Cathedral, Ekker and Elaterite buttes, the Needles, and Six-shooter Peak.

The trail then curves north for about 0.2 miles, where a primitive sign marks the loop's beginning. Head right to a vista overlooking Little Spring Canyon. These are the canyon's upper reaches. The La Sal Mountains loom in the distance.

Continuing onward, the trail veers west, offering fantastic views of the Needles, the park district's namesake. The Needles began to form 300 million years when this area was a basin with access to the sea. Sometimes the salty sea flooded it. When the water evaporated, layers of salt remained. As heavier sands and rocks were deposited in the basin, the salt flowed upward. The overlying rock cracked while sliding over the salt, allowing for rain, snow and eventually wind to chisel away at it, leaving an amazing patterns of spires and fins.

Water pools
Along the way, you also may spot water pools. Wind carved these depressions out of the slickrock. A lucky few hikers also may see bighorn sheep near the trail.

The trail gradually turns south as you circle the mesa rim. A last viewpoint overlooks Big Spring Canyon. Deep and rugged, during spring you'll be able to spot a flowing stream in the canyon.

On the remaining mile walk back to the trailhead, needles fill the horizon. The largest concentration of the rock formations is south of the trail. At sunset, the needles glow crimson.

Regardless of the season, you'll definitely need sunscreen, probably a brim hat, and certainly water for the hike. There is no shade, and the climate is arid.

Learn about other great national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.