Ranger Kathryn's Arches

January 20, 2012

Druid Arch

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 3:09 pm
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Druid Arch, one of Canyonlands' largest. Its main opening measures 85' x 20'.

Something is amiss. All the leafless plants tell me it’s winter; the sunlight is pale and wan, telling me it’s winter; I’m on the calendar’s first page, which tells me it’s winter. But — hiking in shorts? 55 degrees? Maybe we’ll call this “the winter that wasn’t.”

Only one set of new prints disturbs the sandy wash; I’m almost alone on this 10.8-mile backcountry trail in the Needles District of Canyonlands NP. Just the way I like it. Heading south from the Elephant Hill trailhead, lots of coyote scat, two dark-eyed juncos, one spider, two ravens and nine mule deer complement six hours of silent refreshment. The prize: my first-ever look at a massive eroded fin of Cedar Mesa sandstone that guards the head of Elephant Canyon.

I have no words for Druid Arch; it’s a good thing a Utah author does. In her book, Desert Quartet, Terry Tempest Williams describes her initial impression of it:

Red Rock. Blue sky. This arch is structured metamorphosis. Once a finlike tower, it has been perforated by a massive cave-in, responsible now for the keyholes where wind enters and turns. What has been opened, removed, eroded away, is as compelling to me as what remains. Druid Arch — inorganic matter — rock rising from the desert floor as a creation of time, weathered, broken, and beautiful.

Having gone as far as I could up-canyon, I lounge only somewhat uncomfortably on cold rock to eat an energy bar and chug a half liter of water. Above me the towering arch is chiseled, alluring, indomitable.

Some call this formation “Utah’s Stonehenge,” but we all know which one existed first.

Which is why it is called the "Needles District." One hikes past these spires to reach Druid.

May 15, 2010

Chesler Park & the Joint Trail

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 12:06 am
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Mushrooms in The Needles -- click to enlarge

For nearly a year I have been wanting to hike The Needles’ most popular trail. Until now, its distance from me (100 minutes) and its length (11.5 mi) deterred me. My brothers’ arrival, however, put it squarely on the Must-Do itinerary. The Needles was our final destination, and we would work our way up to this longest trek that is on many people’s Top Ten Hikes list.

The geologic forces that shaped and sculpted The Needles seem to have reached their pinnacle here at Chesler Park. Multi-hued sandstone spires, mushrooms and fins are striped red and cream, contrasting with the intense blue skies. The sheer number of formations overwhelms. Surrounded by crazy rock on all sides, one can hardly resist standing in one place and rotating 360 degrees to try in vain to absorb it. Chesler Park is jaw-droppingly gorgeous.

Water, 3 liters each? Check. Layers? Check. Hiking poles? Check. Trail snacks? Check. Map? Check. Favorite ball cap? Check. Sunscreen? Oops.

A few of the scores of tall cairns built in The Joint

Around each turn appear new vistas, visual drama that only gets better and better. Words like “surreal” and “other-worldly” hardly begin to describe the feeling. At the farthest end of the loop, the giant rock parts; a deep fissure opens into a long narrow grotto-like room. The Joint is populated by years’ worth of stacked cairns demonstrating unusual artistry and sensitivity. A man plays a Native American flute in some distant alcove, and its minor key wafts through the rocky openings to surround the mysterious cairns with aural beauty.

We’re halfway through the arduous hike when the temperature begins to drop noticeably. From our open vista we can see that clouds are building in the west, ominous heavy ones with streaks of rain trailing from their undersides. I pull out my long sleeved shirt and zip the legs back onto my pants. It gets chillier and chillier, quite abruptly. I pull out my final layer, a fleece vest, and will my legs to move faster across the open level parkland ringed by improbable banded stacks of massive Cedar Mesa sandstone.

Rain and sun in The Needles

It’s a race against the clock. We all get our second wind and make our way hastily to the far side of the 900+ acre grassland, watching warily over our left shoulder(s) as the sheets of precipitation approach. No lightning, thankfully. John rebuffs my suggestion to hole up under an overhang; everything to him is “just a passing shower” and not worthy of avoiding. We walk in the rain for maybe a mile and, as predicted, it lets up; this seems to add a character-building element to the already-impressive hike.

By this point, our hiking poles have become our best friends. Uphills and downhills are so much easier with upper-body assistance, and our knees are grateful for the help. The signs saying 6.9 or 5.1 miles to the car now read 3.5 miles, and we know we can do it. Hiking becomes a mindless slog after a long while, putting one foot obediently in front of the other and rejoicing when the car comes into view. The vault toilet is a welcome sight.

Six-Shooter Peak swathed in clouds

John puts water on to heat when we’re back at camp, and makes Ric a hot soapy footsoak in our dishwashing bin. It’s then passed to me as a pretty-warm soak bucket, and then to Mike as a warm soak. John gets a boost of new hot water and we all bask in the accomplishment.

Unanimously, we concur that Chesler Park is a one-of-a-kind hike in the entire world and should be undertaken by any serious hiker undaunted by the challenge.

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