Natural History of the Needles, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14046A, Base Camp


  • Dayhike through landscapes of sandstone spires, arches, and ruins
  • Study the geologic wonders of Canyonlands with a professional naturalist
  • Search for constellations, planets, and galaxies during a new moon in one of the darkest night skies in the U.S.


  • Campsites in a developed campground throughout the trip
  • Delicious, fresh meals and group kitchen and camping gear
  • Professional naturalist throughout the trip


DatesMay 26–Jun 1, 2014
StaffMelinda Goodwater
Photo: NPS

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Trip Overview

The Trip

Before aerial photography and satellite images, southeastern Utah was a blank space on maps. The confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers plus the maze of canyons formed from their myriad tributaries left explorers dazed and confused.  We will become modern-day explorers as we hike, climb, scramble, and even take ladders to discover the wonders of the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.

Named for colorful spires of Cedar Mesa Sandstone that dominate the area, countless canyons, fantastically formed buttes, and majestic arches characterize the primitive desert wilderness. We’ll take on challenging hikes in and out of deep canyons, along slickrock benches, up and over passes and fins, and along mesa tops to get views that overlook intricately carved canyons, sheer cliff walls, ancient native people’s dwelling and granary ruins, and panels of their artwork. We return each afternoon to our comfortable campground, where a new moon in the middle of our trip invites us to identify constellations in one of the country’s darkest night skies.

Along with this immersion in nature, a professional naturalist accompanies us throughout the trip to explain how this bizarre scenery was formed and how this ecosystem supports the wide array of plants and wildlife found here. We'll discuss activities going on outside the park that impose on the national park's air quality as well as the difficulty of overcoming the local mindset when it comes to preserving southern Utah's riches of outstanding scenic landscapes.  So release the explorer in you and come out and play in this natural wonderland.


Day 1: After arriving in the morning, we'll have a trip orientation, eat lunch, and explore different aspects of the park on some short hikes. We'll possibly see desert bighorn sheep, prehistoric pictographs, and pothole communities, and climb two ladders! We'll set up camp at our campsite for the week.

Days 2-6: On these days, we'll take daily hikes of 8-11 miles, either from our campsite or after driving up to three miles to the trailhead. We'll hike the needles of Chesler Park and deep fractures of the Joint Trail; scramble up Elephant Canyon and climb a ladder to Druid Arch; explore the riparian vegetation, wildlife, and isolation of Big Spring, Squaw, and Lost canyons; and climb a series of sandstone rims and two ladders to rock art panels at Peekaboo.

Day 7: We'll pack up camp and drive six miles for our final 10-mile hike across open mesa to the top of a 1,000-foot cliff above the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers. After the hike, the trip ends and we say our goodbyes.



Getting There

We'll meet at our campground in Canyonlands National Park by 10:00 a.m. on day one. Canyonlands is not close to anywhere; the closest airports are Grand Junction, CO (200 miles and over a three-hour drive away) and Salt Lake City (320 miles and over a five-hour drive away). There is no public transportation to the park. You should plan to arrive at least a day early and stay in Moab for plenty of time to drive the remaining 75 miles to the Needles. You may also wish to see some of the other southern Utah scenic wonders.  Rental car sharing and carpooling are strongly recommended and a future departure bulletin will include detailed driving directions and a roster of participants for arranging transportation. Please make return flight reservations for June 2 or later.

Accommodations and Food

We will spend the week in a group site at a developed campground in Canyonlands National Park. We will set up for the week here to give ourselves more time for hiking and enjoying the place.  Amenities include piped water, tables, restrooms, tent pads, and fire rings. There are no showers. Our group campsite will give us privacy from the main campground.

All meals are included from lunch on day one through lunch on day seven. A high-energy, nutritious diet is planned with lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, with meat on the side to accommodate vegetarians. Please let the leaders know as far in advance of the trip as possible if you have any other food restrictions. Trip members will be divided into cook crews to prepare and clean up meals a couple times during the trip. All stoves, fuel, and other group commissary equipment will be provided.

Trip Difficulty

Although this is a base camp trip, the focus is on beautiful and challenging day hikes. You will only have to carry what you need for the day in a day pack that weighs up to 15 pounds. Hikes range from 8 to 11 miles and involve several hundred feet of elevation gain and descent. Trails traverse slickrock benches, sandy washes, steep, rocky passes, and may include climbing ladders. Water is unreliable, so you will need to carry up to four quarts or liters. Any hike is optional and there are short hikes within walking distance of our campground for anyone not desiring to do the longer daily hike.  A program of physical conditioning will assure you'll be able to do all the planned hikes -- recommendations for this will be detailed in a future bulletin. You should be comfortable with camping for a week in a tent.

Equipment and Clothing

A detailed equipment list will be sent to all approved participants, but basically you will need to provide your own personal camping gear. This includes a tent you'll be comfortable in for a week; sleeping bag (30-degree rating) and pad; good rain gear; hiking boots that are waterproofed, well broken in, and all leather (preferably); layers of clothing for a wide range of temperatures and changing conditions; and hiking poles for rough, steep trails. Group cooking and camping gear will be provided.



  • Needles District, Canyonlands National Park, UT – National Geographic/Trails Illustrated Maps


  • Schneider, Bill, Hiking Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.



Recognition of southern Utah's diverse landscapes -- from slot canyons to rolling red rock domes to sculptured rock formations and dense forests -- has been exemplified in the number of national parks spread across the area. President Clinton filled in more of the gaps with the creation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996, but more needs to be done. Nearly six million acres of wilderness-quality land is still not protected, but the historical and cultural values of many of Utah's residents make this an uphill battle. We will discuss why these moral values make wilderness conservation such a challenge. We'll also talk about coal and other polluting industries outside the parks that are threatening their integrity. Beyond Coal and Resilient Habitats are two of the Sierra Club's campaigns we'll look at in relation to Canyonlands and southern Utah. We will also lessen our impact on the land by learning and practicing Leave No Trace principles.

In 2014 America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club, various other organizations with a wilderness focus, and the four federal wilderness management agencies are vigorously planning this celebration. The goal of the effort is to assure that a broader public knows about the concept and benefits of wilderness. Sierra Club Outings is a vital part of the celebrations for wilderness.

While the Act was far in the future when our outings program started, we were already promoting the principle behind it: to forever set aside from human developments certain special places, by civic agreement. This is the basic principle on which the Sierra Club was founded. The wilderness anniversary gives us an opportunity to highlight our organization’s leading role—in publicizing this principle, in passing the 1964 Act, and in achieving more designated wilderness since then.

Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under a permit from Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.



Melinda Goodwater has been leading trips for Sierra Club Outings for over 20 years and has over 100 outings under her belt. She quit her full-time job when it got in the way of her trips and has been leading adventures ever since. She leads treks from Nepal to the Rockies and Sierra to the desert southwest. Melinda is a very amateur naturalist and particularly enjoys finding unique places off the beaten track. Along with years of experience leading remote and high-elevation outings, Melinda has training in CPR and is a wilderness first responder with 80 hours of first aid training. She welcomes you to join her and share her love of the wilderness.

Assistant Leader:

Suzanne Swedo is a botanist who has led wilderness seminars for the Yosemite Conservancy for more than 25 years and is the author of Hiking Yosemite National Park. She leads natural history-oriented outings around the world for other organizations as well as her own adventure travel company. She has led more than 60 Sierra Club National Outings, written a number of other trail guides for Falcon Publishing, and backpacked the mountains of every continent.

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