Thursday, December 11, 2014

Druid Arch: Needles District of Canyonlands National Park

Essence: A whimsical trail through a magical landscape. Forceful and mighty, Druid Arch exerts its penetrating influence on all who approach. Two sky slits in the sandstone monolith have a shocking effect, multiplying the arch's potency. On the way, journey through multiple passageways: narrow fractures, two stone halfpipes, spires, and Elephant Canyon. An option to finish at the Squaw Flat Campground.

Druid Arch presides over its sandstone world. (THW, photo)

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 abundant cows and deer to encroach on the road. Newspaper Rock petroglyph site is at 26.1 miles. The topography opens and you drive through a Western movie. North and South Six-Shooter Peaks are surrounded by cayenne-colored columnar walls that go on forever. Enter the park at 45.3 miles. The Visitor Center is at 48 miles. The road to Squaw Flat Campground A goes left at 51.2 miles. Stay on the main road, following signs for the Elephant Hill Trailhead. The road turns to dirt at 51.5 miles. It is narrow with tight bends; 2WD vehicles should be able to reach the trailhead at 54.0 miles. There is an outhouse but no water. Allow a solid three hours from Durango.
Fee Information. The Visitor Center is closed December through February. Restrooms are open 24/7, year-round. Fees are self-pay in winter.
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: 11 miles out-and-back from Elephant Hill TH; 13 miles to return to Squaw Flat Campground A; add 0.5 mile to see the back of the arch; 2,235 feet of elevation gain for the 13.5 mile option
Time: 5:00 to 7:30
Difficulty: Trail and cairn'd route; navigation is moderate, must be able to follow cairns and read the map; no exposure; Class 2+ scrambling; carry all the water you will need
Map: Trails Illustrated, Needles District: Canyonlands National Park No. 313
Latest Date Hiked: December 11, 2014
Quote: The Druid calls to us like a living being. Somehow, I believe it walked across the sea from the Salisbury Plain in search of its own kind. Thomas Holt Ward

Route: Druid Arch is due south from the Elephant Hill TH 5,120'. Passage is well marked but careful attention is necessary to stay on course. Add significant delight by returning to the Squaw Flat Campground, shown on the map below.

 The trail makes a brief and efficient climb on bedrock and up a staircase set into a natural joint.

Emerge on a white sandstone bench. The walking platform, and the red and white banded pillars which rise hundreds of feet above the floor, are Cedar Mesa Sandstone.  Two hundred million years ago this region was a dune field on the eastern edge of a shallow sea. Deposit was predominately from wind-blown sand. The red layer is from periodic floods which carried iron-rich sediments from the Uncompahgre Mountains. The rock sheet was fractured into joints which were eroded into the pinnacles we see on this hike. Geological Information.

The sweeping panorama includes Cathedral Butte, the Six-Shooters, and the La Sal Mountains. The immediate landscape is chaotic. Squat towers are capped with white lintels. The track goes between these smooth rounded forms, traversing around the head of small canyons. We are dependent on the trail to lead us through the mazeway. Walking is easy on bedrock with a sandy coat. Lining the path is fragile cryptobiotic soil.

A view of the Needles opens. The path soon wends amongst them.

At 1.5 miles, the trail from Squaw Flat Campground joins on left. Stay right. Take note of this location for it is the favored option at the end of the hike.

Squeezing between the next joint is like going through a gate. On the other side is a grassland plain ringed with spires. Walking is friendly across the sage/blackbrush flat. Typical plants include yucca, euphedra, prickly pears, pi├▒on/juniper, four-wing saltbush, and Indian rice grass. At 1.7 miles, descend juniper log steps into a long, deep fissure, one of the finest features of the hike. The rift widens into a most beautiful and protected space.

Drop steeply to the floor of Elephant Canyon at 2.1 miles. Here the trail to Chesler Park veers off to the right. Go left up Elephant Canyon. The route follows the drainageway to the arch. Frequently, the track climbs to parallel the wash. Stay in the channel if you wish; there is only one necessary, well-marked bypass. 

The route is more natural the remainder of the way. At 2.9 miles, turn right at a signed junction. Note for long-distance aficionados: From the campground, take the Big Spring Canyon Trail and join our Druid Arch route here. This stem and loop is 15.8 miles, encompassing the finest landscape elements in Needles.

Elephant Canyon just keeps getting better as you go; walk on a sandstone plane.

At 3.4 miles, the Joint Trail to Chesler Park goes right. Stay left in Elephant Canyon. At 3.5 miles, the canyon splits; go left. Cairns point every which way--just stay in the boulder-crowded wash, easily dodging the obstacles.

Deeply incised linear fractures characterize the floor.

Shortly after this landmark come to the one bypass, upcanyon-left, that must be taken to avoid a pouroff and pool. Do a fun, 15 foot scramble. The canyon constricts and rises to meet the bypass trail.

The next segment is so fun it will make you giddy. Scale the stone halfpipe. This friction pitch has been worn slick and smooth by boot and water. This image was taken from the top. (THW, photo)

At 5.0 miles, the north side of the arch's fin finally comes into view, image right. The route leads into the amphitheater to its left.

Climb a talus debris field. A ladder near bottom of the scramble assists.

Reach the Druid Arch platform at 5.4 miles. The sky doors reside in a Cedar Mesa Sandstone fin. Its enormous post and lintel structure is reminiscent of Stonehenge. The arch is doubtlessly named for the Druids to whom Stonehenge is popularly attributed even though its construction predates them by centuries. Regardless, all who visit will viscerally feel the compelling power of this fierce presence. The Druid is shocking in a way that the same obelisk without perforation is not. What makes it stupefying are the slits of sky.

Exploring is limited. I have made more than one unsuccessful attempt to stand inside the arch. Looking at the image below, there is a social trail that wanders to the left. From there, the daring can get on a ledge and gaze straight up the stone. 

The Druid's space is most unusual. Its amphitheater is graced with alcoves and pouroff cascades. Walls are eroding into pinnacles. Spires have soft, rounded crowns. The canyon is tiered with multiple layers of benches. Pigments are soft desert hues, except for the arch which is saturated with iron core and stained with black varnish.

It is possible to view the back of The Druid with a little rummaging around. Descend the talus slope. Just past the ladder, at 5.7 miles, go left on a social trail that swings around to the west. Please stay on trail or rock. It is somewhat difficult to move through this area laced with obstacles. Some tempting routes are quite exposed and should be avoided. Heave up a five foot, overhung pouroff for this shot of the more feminine and sunlit side of the arch.
(THW, photo)

Retrace your steps downcanyon. Climb out of Elephant Canyon. Upon emerging from the lengthy crack, walk a few paces to the left/west for a superior view of Needles.

At 10.0 miles (9.5 if you did not explore the back of the arch), reach the junction with the trail to Squaw Flat Campground. This intersection is 1.5 miles from the Elephant Hill TH and 3.5 miles from the campground. Obviously, this option presents a logistical problem unless you shuttled a vehicle in the morning but I highly recommend this trail. If you must exit at Elephant Hill, at least do a 0.2 mile out-and-back on the Squaw Flat Trail to an enchanting oval arch. Slither through the diminutive window. Snowcapped La Sals are in the distance.

Descend a friction pitch and enter a canyon labyrinth. While climbs in and out of washes are rather steep, overall, walking is fast. Ascend a pink sandstone ridge. Feel the euphoria and freedom that comes from walking on one big swath of slickrock for a mile. Explore, but have a keen awareness of cairns and follow them faithfully. Views are unrestricted. Turn left at Big Spring Canyon. At 13 miles, the trail splits again. Go right toward Campground A.

This hike compliments the Big Spring Canyon and Lost Canyon Loop which features vast sandstone expanses. Together, they assemble the primary landscape elements in Needles.

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