Friday, December 12, 2014

Big Spring Canyon, Lost Canyon Loop: Needles District of Canyonlands National Park

Essence: Three enrapturing stone passes on the circuit. Miles of sandstone expanse and bench walking, smooth-walled amphitheaters and vistas of pinnacle multitudes. Three riparian biozones. This hike compliments the Druid Arch venture which features passageways. Together, they assemble the primary landscape elements in Needles.

Walk on one big rock for most of the day.

Travel: Coming from Durango, zero-out your trip meter in Monticello, UT. Travel north on US 191 toward Moab. At Church Rock, 14 miles, turn left/west on Utah State Route 211 (40 miles south of Moab). Expect cows and deer to encroach on the road. Newspaper Rock petroglyph site is at 26.1 miles. Enter the park at 45.3 miles. The Visitor Center is at 48 miles. At 51.2 miles, turn left at the sign for Squaw Flat Campground A. The Squaw Flat Trailhead is near the end of the road. There are bathrooms and potable water. Allow a solid three hours from Durango.
Fee Information. The Visitor Center is closed December through February. Fees are self-pay in winter. Restrooms are open 24/7, year-round.
Squaw Flat Campground: There are 26 spacious and spectacular sites available on a first-come, first-served basis. With climbing features at every site, this is paradise for children. Bathrooms, fire grates, picnic tables, tent pads and water are available year-round. Sites are limited to 10 people and 2 vehicles. Squaw Flat fills nearly every day March-June, and September-October. Campground information.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 10.2 miles; 1,340 feet of elevation gain
Time: 4:30 to 6:15
Difficulty: Trail and cairned route; navigation is moderate, must be able to follow cairns and read the map; mild exposure, avoid when rock is wet, sticky soles are helpful; Class 2+ scrambling
Map: Trails Illustrated, Needles District: Canyonlands National Park No. 313
Latest Date Hiked: December 12, 2014
Quote: One further freedom, turn me please to stone. José Knighton
(From: Craig Childs, Soul of Nowhere)
Route: The loop may be hiked in either direction. I have an esthetic preference for going counterclockwise. Referring to the passes as 1, 2, and 3 makes the telling easier.

The Squaw Flat Trailhead, 5,100 feet, is well-marked with ample parking. Study the sign and carry a map. There are 60 miles of interconnecting trails in the Needles District and opportunities exist to shorten this hike if you must. The track gets right down to business and climbs onto a white sandstone bench. All the rock, both the white and pink layers, is Cedar Mesa Sandstone. See Druid Arch for a note on geology. Walk through a fracture with a tunnel-like feel.
(THW, photo)

At 0.4 mile, the trail from Campground B enters on the right. Go left. Take note that the distances given on trail signs are from Campground B which is 0.8 mile from this intersection. I have adjusted the mileages to reflect our start at Campground A. Walking is fast and easy on a smooth, packed earth treadway with good views of the pinnacle lineup.

At 0.8 mile, reach well-signed Big Spring Canyon. My favorite route to Druid Arch branches to the right. Save that for another day and turn left upcanyon. The footpath is crowded with rabbitbrush, prickly pear, oak, euphedra, yucca, piñon/juniper, and Indian rice grass. At 1.7 miles, reach a riparian zone with a diverse mix of tall grasses and willow. The trail follows the canyon, either on the stone floor or just above. It is gorgeous and exciting.

At 2.4 miles, Pass 1 comes into view and at 2.8 miles, enter the sweeping amphitheater. The enchanting walk to the crest is one of my all-time favorites. Cairns lead where the friction pitch is most shallow. While it is never terribly steep, sticky shoes are helpful. In the center of this image, my hiking partner is already closing in on the pass. It is over too quickly.

Scale this small, water-sculpted swale.

Reach Pass 1 at 3.2 miles, 5,555 feet. It is on the divide between Big Spring Canyon and Squaw Canyon. For fun, be sure to climb "The Lump" on the east side of the pass, shown. Behind the photographer is a massive, untroubled, red-walled amphitheater.

This is a wondrous place to explore...provided you don't get lost! Usually there are cairns leading off the pass; in December, 2014, there were none. For the official route, study the image below. It shows the southeast side of the pass with Squaw Canyon in the depression. Drop southeast and then east/left on a contour that feels comfortable to you. This descent is not as protected as the ascent. The colors and textures are wild. Look.

This course will lead you to another friction pitch down a swath of pink slickrock.

Walk down the funnel in the white sandstone, reaching this distinctive trail sign at 3.4 miles. Turn left, toward Squaw Canyon. This image looks up at the descent route from the all-important junction.

The standard route just described has its delights. However, if you want to explore this area more thoroughly, descend south from Pass 1 and intersect the trail going to Elephant Canyon. Go left on that trail until you reach the junction above and then follow the sign to Squaw Canyon. Along the way, carefully leap over this crack and check out the cave-like space.

The Squaw Canyon Trail traipses east along a sandstone bench before making a steep cairned descent into the canyon. The junction with the Lost Canyon Trail is at 4.3 miles. Go right, following the sign to Peekaboo Springs. Note: If one pass was enough, you can bailout here and be back at the trailhead in just 2.8 miles.

Cross the Squaw Canyon wash and clamber up the steep bank. In another 0.2 mile you will come to one of the best features of this hike, a long ascent up a ramp of bedding planes in a narrow, stone halfpipe. This captivating passage emerges onto a slickrock expanse.

The route to Pass 2 is marked with cairns. There are superb views west to Pass 1. Crest the pass at 5.0 miles, 5,477 feet. This divide separates Squaw Canyon and Lost Canyon. (THW, photo)

In this image, the author is on Pass 2. Descend southeast and then east on the white platform. Look into an immense crack at the head of a Lost Canyon tributary. Plunge into the drainageway on descending boulders that were once cap rocks. Watch your step. The exposed pitch is somewhat mitigated by steps cleaved into bedrock in key places. Use them.

The next 2.5 miles wend through alluring Lost Canyon. Walk down the waterway in a narrow gorge with 100 foot walls. The wash widens to make room for a cottonwood grove and diverse array of grasses and horsetail reeds. The coral-colored, sandy path passes by intermittent surface flow, pools and a stone blade.

Intersect the Peekaboo Trail at 7.6 miles. Go left/west. At 8.1 miles, leave the drainage and climb to a broad bench. It narrows substantially just before arriving at a well-secured, vertical ladder. Crest Pass 3 at 8.6 miles, 5,300 feet.

Peekaboo Trail Pass is on the divide between the Lost Canyon and Squaw Canyon drainages. A veritable city of spires is off in the west. The friction descent to a mature piñon/juniper flat is mild.

The treadway is fringed with cryptobiotic soil and Indian rice grass. This image looks back at Pass 3. Turn right/north on the Squaw Canyon Trail at 9.1 miles. There is a final, gentle climb up a stone ridge covered in water pockets. Finish where you started, 10.2 glorious miles later.

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