After spending the summer “sitting and selling,” and knowing I will soon be spending some time with much more accomplished hikers, I decide to tackle one of the Canyonlands Needles District’s strenuous hikes to see what this flabby body can and cannot do. I hear the voice of my friend Suzanne in my head “you can hike just about anything if you do it slow enough!”
So, just after sunrise, even though it’s still rather chilly outside, I open all the windows and roof vents of the RV for Millie, fill up my new Camelbak water bladder, tuck it into my daypack with my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and away I go for the 10 minute drive over to the national park.
The Elephant Hill trailhead (where most of the hiking trails in the Needles start from), is not along the paved scenic road, but rather, down 3 miles of a 4-wheel drive road (fortunately, most cars can manage at least up to the parking lot—beyond that, though, the road becomes a hellishly difficult boulder-crawling Jeep road!).
I arrive to the trailhead parking lot just before 10:00am, and incredibly, find a spot right in front of the trailhead itself! I decide to do the Chesler Park hike, but not its full 11 miles—only the first 6 miles of it to the overlook and back. Still, that will include nearly all of the most-difficult parts of the hike, so it will still be a “strenuous” hike according to the park ranger.
The trail starts out with 500 foot climb up stairs and then up slickrock. Good to get that done with right away!
I soon get high enough to look over the white-capped rocks that tower over the trailhead parking lot.
And, start meeting new friends along the trail too. A group of 20-something, super-fit French hikers zoom past me up the trail. How do they climb these rocks so fast?!! But a half-hour later, I’m passing them again as they’ve stopped to take a rest. Our “tortoise and the hare” routine will continue a few more times throughout the day as I continue my slow and steady pace. Ah, kids!
Not much wildlife visible (during the day) on this trail except for some small lizards warming themselves on the rocks. The elevation here is above 5,000 feet, so these are some pretty hardy little reptiles!
After the initial climb, the trail levels out for about a mile as I begin to see the needles formation that this Canyonlands district is named for. Such interesting layers of white and orange sculpted into a variety of rounded pointy-topped shapes!
As I reach the intersection of various trails at the 1.5 mile marker, I begin to think somehow the rangers have gotten this trail all wrong—it’s not that difficult, why it’s a simple walk in the park!
Ah, ha ha! Those rangers must soon be laughing at this over-confident “noob” hiker with her sparking new daypack and hiking boots that have still yet to break a sweat. The next 1 1/2 miles are BRUTAL, starting out innocently enough down a dark, narrow, slot canyon between 40-foot walls of rock…
leading to a gorgeous, but difficult section of rock scrambling down and up a few canyons.
I reach another trail marker than says I only have 0.2 miles to go. “Hoo-ray! The worst is now over with!” I think. A ha ha ha, you silly grasshopper! After one more up and down climb, I reach a shady section at the end of the canyon up against one of the massive Needles pillars themselves, but still no sign of Chesler Park….until I see the rock cairns leading straight up a wall of large boulders and loose rock.
By this point, I’m very tired and welcoming the shade, but know if I stop now before making this final, most-difficult 200-foot climb, I will forever regret it. So, one final push, and I somehow get my flabby butt up to that perch, now way high above the white-capped rocks.
As I turn to look out the “window” into the opposite canyon, I now see Chesler Park in the distance below me.
As interesting as these new rocks look, it’s the middle of the day and just not prime for photo-taking. I decide that Chesler Park is best-photographed in the late-day and early-morning as part of an overnight hike to one of its back-country camping spots. I’ll save that for another trip!
I turn around and head back down the big rocks to the shady ledge of my familiar Needles overlook. I pull out my comfy little Helinox backpacking chair, and enjoy my PBJ lunch admiring the view just as my 20-something French hikers pass me by on their way to the overlook—“ha ha, the old flabby hare wins!” I exclaim silently
Although I could sit at this wonderful spot and admire the view all day, it is now 1:00 and I know Millie will be eager for me to get home. I strap the pack on my back again, and head back up and over the rock canyons, and back to the welcome sight of the slot canyon (to know that easier flat and downhill portions of the hike await me)!
Back across the slickrock flats, I see my lizard friends again still enjoying their sunbathing!
And enjoy interesting rock formations along the return trip…
As I get close to the end of the trail, I spot a Jeep which has climbed up one of the elephant rocks to pose for its money shot! Wow, what a 4WD road that must be!
Finally, with legs that now feel like aching, unresponsive stumps, the final stairway to the trailhead (and my welcome yellow chariot!) come into view. I’ve done it! A 6-mile strenuous hike…all by myself!!!
I return to the rig to find Millie a bit worried, but still not too uncomfortable with the rig temp now in the upper 70’s. Still, I’m glad the day was not any warmer, nor the hike any longer. This will be my limit for day hikes until the weather gets cooler.
We settle back to relax at our perfect BLM camp and admire the beauty of Indian Creek Canyon for another sunset happy hour. I then realize that I have just lived the very kind of day I have been dreaming about for all these many years--- “when I retire, I’ll camp in beautiful places, focus on improving my physical fitness, and immerse myself in an incredible natural world far from the rat race and rampant consumerism of mainstream American life.”
It feels good to achieve one’s goals…really, really good! Now it’s time to think up some new ones!