ilanarama: profile of me backpacking.  Woo. (hiking)
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Chesler Park camp area

As you may remember, in mid-March I ran the Canyonlands Half Marathon in Moab, Utah, and Britt came out as well and ran the associated 5-miler. We'd arranged to keep our hotel room for the night after the race, and on Sunday we headed home by way of the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, along with my online friend Mike from Reno, who'd also run, and his wife Dorothy. Britt was the only of us who'd been to this part of Canyonlands before, and that a long time ago; after a too-short hike into the Chesler Park area, we all agreed that it was worth a much longer visit.

So as soon as I got home, I got online and applied for a backpacking permit. Pretty much all spring dates were full up, but I snagged the only consecutive days at one of the Chesler Park campsites (backcountry camping is by permit only at assigned sites), Sunday and Monday April 6th and 7th. Our plan was to head out at midday Saturday in our Sportsmobile, camp on public land nearby, then hike in on Sunday morning. Our assigned campsite would be only a bit more than four miles in, so we would have time for a dayhike that afternoon and a longer one on Monday before hiking out on Tuesday morning. To our delight, our friend (and frequent backpacking companion, most recently on last summer's Weminuche Wilderness trip) Shan would come with us, though alas his wife, also a fun person to have along on a hike, was out of town.

Saturday afternoon's destination was the Canyon Rims Recreation Area, a BLM-administered area just east of the national park. There are two major overlooks (and several minor ones, and one Minor one - named for BLM Recreation Planner Dave Minor, according to a plaque on the rock nearby!), the Needles Overlook and the Anticline Overlook, and we spent time at both before pulling the van onto a small cleared side area for the night.

Needles Overlook Anticline Overlook

Campsite at sunrise

In the morning we enjoyed the dramatic lighting on the needles while we ate a leisurely breakfast. Then we packed up and headed out to the main highway again, south a few miles, and in on the long access road to the Needles district. We parked at the Elephant Hill trailhead and shouldered our packs, which were heavier than usual as Chesler Park has no water; though we planned to get water in Druid Canyon the next day, we'd need to carry enough to see us through until then. My pack was particularly heavy because as we had pulled our things out of the van to assemble our gear, Britt had found a cloth bag full of cans of beer, left over from one of our trips last summer, and I decided a few cans of beer would perfectly fill the empty spots in my pack.

The hike in to Chesler Park is quite nice, with dramatic rock formations (including one set that look uncannily like a row of hamburgers), colorful canyons, and impressive views. The trail winds up and down sandstone benches, through slots, across slickrock, and finally up a rise and through a small pass, then down to what was clearly once cattle-grazing land but is now mostly returned to desert grasses and shrubs.

Hamburgers canyon exit

View back from Chesler Park Viewpoint Chesler Park Viewpoint

Chesler Park campsites 2-5 are all arrayed along the west side of a sandstone wall composed of pillars and slabs (the top photo in this post). CP#2 is probably the nicest, as it sits on the opposite side of the trail from the others and is therefore more private, but CP#4, where we set up camp, is the second best, I think; it's right in front of a slot through the wall, so in the morning we could go through to the east side for breakfast in the sunshine, and a small cave in the wall made a perfect icebox for the beers I had brought. (Which I shared with Britt and Shan, because I'm a nice person.)

Campsite view Mmm beer

The campsites are only a little more than 4 miles in from the trailhead, so after unloading our packs and taking a break, we still had a good chunk of the afternoon to fill with exploration. We headed west for the famous Joint Trail, which deserves every bit of its fame - it's amazing!

Imagine one of those old ice-cube trays, the kind that has a double row of cubes separated by narrow ribs on either side of a slightly larger central rib. Fill the tray with water, let freeze, and then turn it upside down onto a surface and pull away the tray so the cubes remain in place with the gaps between them. Now imagine that the cubes are made of rock, and not inches but instead a hundred feet in each dimension. A stone staircase leads down to the central aisle between the blocks; that's the Joint Trail, wide enough to walk through. Every so often there's a gap to each side, sometimes passable, sometimes not. Occasionally a rock jumble blocks the way, and you must scramble down or through. At the far end, on the west side, a passage leads out through what's almost a cave, except for the thin sliver of light far above. And then - you're out in the sunlight, on an ordinary trail, back in the real world again.

Joint trail stairway down the ladder

Joint Trail Squeezed selfie

The next morning we loaded our empty water bottles into our packs and headed out of camp toward the spur trail that linked Chesler Park with Druid Canyon, and the trail to Druid Arch. It turned out that "trail" was a bit of an exaggeration; it is a cairned route across slickrock that clings precariously to the edges in places, with big steps up and down and the occasional large drop-off, and I was happy our packs were relatively light.

Slickrock and needles across the slickrock

We had a snack at the junction with the Druid Canyon trail, which was more of an actual trail. There were great views of the pinnacles, including one we named 'Whisk Broom Spire' for its dramatic shape, and then we went around a corner and found a great big rock with not one but three holes in it! Okay, we had to climb up and over and around, including up a Park Service ladder, and on the final climb we were clinging to the slickrock like lizards, but eventually we made it, and had our lunch looking out at the impressive bulk of Druid Arch.

"Whisk Broom Spire" Druid Arch

On the way back we diverted to climb down to the bottom of the canyon so we could get water from one of the large pools that had collected there, then retraced our steps back to camp. A couple we'd talked to at the spring would be camping that night next door to us at CP#5, but they had their backpacks and were much slower and heavier. We also saw a man with a girl and a boy, perhaps 8 and 10 years old, who had backpacked in from the trailhead and would be camping on the other side of us at CP#3 - good for them! In camp we drank our last beer and then explored the cave behind our camp, as well as along the small trail our campsites were on; an old cowboy camp sits between CP#4 and CP#5, with potsherds, a metal stove, barbed wire along the edge and some inscriptions on the wall.

In the morning we packed up and headed out on the trail - which meant heading in on the trail, as we had decided we had enough time to make the big loop back through the Joint and north on the other side, then heading back east along the north end of Chesler Park to rejoin the trail we'd taken on our way in, for a total of 7 miles. (You can see the park map here.) Our packs barely fit through the Joint, but we made it! Then it was a new trail for us, a small section of which was actually along a 4WD road - though we didn't see any vehicles, hooray.

Beyond the Joint more needles

needles and slickrock You call this a trail?

One section of trail seemed to lead directly to a dead-end at a red sandstone wall. It wasn't until we were nearly there that we saw the small gap - a lot like the gap in the wall that had been behind our campsite - that the trail passed through. Beyond it we could see the wall at the pass where we had entered Chesler Park, where we would complete our loop and head back to the trailhead.

Through the gap IMG_20140408_130619

Back at our van we loaded up and began the drive back home. But we made one more stop, at Newspaper Rock along the access road to the Needles district. This rock is covered with petroglyphs, some dating back to the pre-Puebloans, some more modern.

Newspaper Rock Newspaper Rock detail

From there it was only a bit more than two hours back to Durango, and home. It's great to have discovered such an amazing place so (relatively) close to home, and we've only seen a small portion of it so far; you can bet we'll be back!

These and more photos (57 pictures plus a video which...sometimes works?) at Flickr
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ilanarama: me, The Other Half, Moab UT 2009 (Default)
Ilana

August 2017

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My running PRs:

5K: 21:03 (downhill) 21:43 (loop)
10K: 43:06 (downhill)
10M: 1:12:59
13.1M: 1:35:55
26.2M: 3:23:31

You can reach me by email at heyheyilana @ gmail.com

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