Before heading to bed, Monte (@Blackdawg) tried his best to prep us for what lay ahead. "It's a long hike." he said. "We can make it 10 miles or even 14, depending on the route we take. But don't worry, it's mostly flat."
Well, it wasn't mostly flat - except maybe on his computer screen. But of course, I'm getting ahead of myself.
Nestled in our little alcove on BLM land just west of Canyonlands National Park, it was obvious when we went to bed that there wasn't going to be any spectacular sunrise - the landscape just didn't lend itself to the morning sun. So we all slept in reasonably late - I was the first one up (barely) at 8:00am - the sun already high enough to light the far side of the valley.
In no huge rush, we spent the morning lounging in our chairs, chatting, and continuing our climbing adventures on the rocks around us - enjoying the sun as it warmed us and our camp after a chilly night. Breakfasts were made, and lunches were prepped for the hike ahead - we knew it would be long and we were told that the view at the end (Druid Arch) was worth it, but we really had no idea how long and none of us knew how cool the scenery along the way would be.
And so, it was nearly 10:30am when we finally pulled out of camp - headed east, back into the park and towards the Joint Trail trailhead.
I'd somehow ended up in the lead this time - something I generally try to avoid given my propensity for photos - but let me tell you, it was a nice change. Gone was the dust that I generally have to endure, and this section of trail happened to be one that was nearly perfect for my new suspension setup - wavy and whoops-y, but not too rocky - making for a fast, fun romp towards the needles.
There's a definite possibility that if I find myself in this situation too often, that I may feel the need for more speed. And in these situations, speed is generally the expensive option.
It wasn't long before we entered the edge of the needles - a section of road that would become very familiar over the few days that we'd be in the area. And it wasn't the last time that we'd stop for photos - each time, the light just a bit different; a rock here or there that we hadn't perfectly captured before - you know, all the standard excuses.
From there, the Joint Trail was only a short distance to our south - a half mile or so that we covered quickly before arriving at a small parking lot and restroom where we parked the trucks and got ourselves ready to go. Luckily, Devin (@MissBlackdawg) had brought sunscreen - the rest of us completely forgetting that critical bit of gear on this trip.
We set out up the Joint Trail around 11:30am, sure that it wouldn't be long until we reached the apex of our hike, where we'd break out our tasty sandwiches and enjoy the view.
Perhaps the most famous day hike in the Needles, the Joint Trail is one of the most difficult to access for most people. But once you're there, it's a relatively short mile-long trail with lots to see. There are views of The Needles of course, but there are also caves and caverns, long narrow passages between enormous granite blocks, and scrambles to viewpoints that nearly knocked our socks off. Oh, and for us it was also the first leg on our longer journey - meeting up with the Druid Arch trail at it's terminus.
The trail started predictably, with views of well-worn needles and the many canyons that wove their way around the bottoms of the pillars. If anything was clear, it was that we were going to be getting a lot of use out of our wide-angle lens' - the walls around us rising up beyond what we could capture in any other way.
And then - ahead of us - the trail seemed to disappear. As we approached, we were presented with the first of what would ultimately be several staircases between the rocks, leading us up towards the unknown. Exciting.
Being the last one up the stairs, it was fun to hear everyone else as they crested the top. Oooohs and aaaahhhs were plentiful, and added to the anticipation as I made my way up. At the top and through a tunnel, there was a large cavern - rocks surrounding us on all sides, light rays streaming in and giving everything a warm glow. Cairns, plentiful.
Everyone's excitement was still palpable as I entered the cavern - there was lots of action, everyone soaking in the views, and trying to figure out which way was "the way out."
Eventually, we found it. And without knowing it, we'd also found the namesake of the trail itself. A long - nearly quarter mile - fracture in the granite creates a "joint" in the trail, and as we made our way along it, we found ourselves wondering how it was formed. It turns out that unlike most of Utah's slot canyons that were carved by water and erosion, a joint like the one we were walking through occurs when the rock is stretched and stressed, causing it to fracture. It's like a really straight slot canyon. And in some spots, even narrower.
Enjoying ourselves and the cool breeze in the joint way too much, we found ourselves at another staircase - this one leading us out of the joint and to an overlook of Chesler Park. A sea of grass surrounded by needles of colorful sandstone, it's a sight to behold and really captures the soul of The Needles District.
We spent a good amount of time just soaking it in. We'd been on the trail now for an hour and a half - our stomachs all telling us that it was time for a break - yet only Brett (@BossFoss ...or I suppose it could have been Heather) was smart enough to have made two sandwiches for lunch, one of which he scarfed down as we enjoyed the view.
And with that, we set out across Chesler Park, through the grass and eventually through the needles themselves. Spectacular.
It turned out that this row of needles also formed one side of a wash that we'd follow the rest of the way to Druid Arch. Not that we were close - there were still 2-3 miles to go - but they definitely marked a change in scenery for us as we made our way past their base, a quick glimpse of the erosion underlying the towering sandstone as we then descended into the wash.
All hungry at this point, we continued up the wash - a few slickrock scrambles here and there as we wove in and out of the washes bottom, but nothing that caused us any real trouble. Quite the contrary actually - these little obstacles often afforded us dramatic views and a bit of excitement to keep our minds off of the lunch that we were now a couple hours late in eating.
And then, in the distance - and it's base up a good 600 feet - we caught our first glimpse. Oriented in such a way that we had to move to our side - out of the wash - in order to see the hollow part of Druid Arch, it loomed over the wash in front of us. The final part of the trail was a scramble, making the ascent in less than a quarter mile, the arch now behind us in all it's glory.
Even so, as we reached the viewing area, it was humorous to watch everyone's reactions (including my own). Two distinctly different desires were pulling at all of us - on the one hand, there were pictures to take; on the other - we were hungry. Personally - and I think for most of us - hunger won out. Never was I happier to sit and enjoy a turkey, salami, and cheese sandwich on sourdough as I looked down the wash. It really was a special place we'd found, even if it'd taken us a bit longer than we'd expected.
After catching our breaths and with our stomachs satisfied, it didn't take long for us to look for just the right place to try to capture Druid Arch. With the sun behind it, we weren't sure if we could even capture the grandeur, but we experimented with various exposures and settings and hoped for the best.
My guess is that when nature looks like this, it's hard to end up with something unusable.
We probably spent a good 45 minutes to an hour up at the arch - more time that we generally spend in one place, but not nearly a enough time in a place like this. We knew that any ideas we had of doing more than this hike today were out of the question - we'd all be ready to find camp and relax once we got back to the trucks.
And so we eventually started back down the way we'd come - the sights now mostly new - and just as cool - as we approached from the other direction.
We made good time on our way back - still a long trek at 6 miles or so - but done in about half the time it'd taken us to hike out to the arch, the difference twofold: our desire to relax, and our restraint in stopping for photos every few hundred feet. It was more like every few thousand on the way back, .
We also spotted this side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana) sunning itself along the trail. Interestingly, these lizards are notable for having a unique form of polymorphism wherein each of the three different male morphs utilizes a different strategy in acquiring mates. The three morphs compete against each other following a pattern of rock, paper, scissors, where each morph has an advantage over another but a disadvantage to the third.
And, not being a blue-belly lizard, the primary variety that I've caught my entire life - I was keen to snap it's photo.
It was 5:00pm or so when we all got back to the trucks - our legs happy for the seats, our skin glad to be out of the sun, and several of us thankful for the pit toilet, even if we had to supply our own toilet paper! We shucked our packs and grabbed a snack in the shade while everyone got ready to head back - our destination now the only in-park campsite we'd stay in for the duration of the trip: Bobby Joe #1.
And so it was that we headed back - west again along the same road, admiring the same sights that we'd see earlier that morning and the evening before - finally, with fewer stops.
As we pulled up to Bobby Jo, we weren't sure if we'd find another group camped in the second spot - we hoped not of course, it's always nice to have the place to yourself - and we were pleasantly surprised to find that we were alone. We got setup, and then I ventured out for a bit of light exploration of the immediate surrounding area, hoping that there'd be a great spot to capture sunset this evening and sunrise the following morning.
I wasn't disappointed - a couple of large stone hills just west of camp provided the perfect viewing platform of The Needles just beyond camp, and it wasn't long until most of us were sitting atop the rocks, soaking in the views.
With sunset still an hour or so away though, we eventually made our way down - dinner was going to be easier to make in the daylight, and we were all famished from our 12-mile trek - and back to camp where we gathered around Brent's (@PcBuilder14) propane fire ring to enjoy a smoke-free fire for the evening.
And so, with dinner done, we chatted for a while until the light started to change - first a golden glow through the clouds.
Then, more color - the sun lower on the horizon, illuminating the clouds from below, oranges and pinks mingling in the sky.
Finally, the sun well below the horizon, a color that really only seems - to me - to come out in it's full glory in the desert - purple.
It was a spectacular end to a great day. It was a day unlike any other that I'd experienced before, and one that I think we all really enjoyed. The change of pace - nearly no driving, the entire day spent hiking - was something different and refreshing. Something I think we all decided we'd like to do more of on future trips (trip permitting).
And then, as we relaxed around the fire - recounting the sights we'd seen and the thoughts we'd had - explosions! And shrapnel. Turns out that the lava rocks that covered the propane burner were blowing up as the water in them expanded.
We all looked at Brent. "What the hell man? Where'd you get this thing?" we all laughed as we scooted back from the ring and protected out faces. Wouldn't you know it - we try to be inclusive and let a 3rd gen Tacoma come on the trip, and sure enough, he tries to kill us all. Go figure.
Luckily, the explosions didn't last long - probably 5-10 total over a span of 15 minutes - and then we were back to relaxing. We all had one more thing in the back of our minds as well - we were tired, and ready for bed. And so it was that we called it quits early - just after 9:30pm - everyone happy for the extra couple hours of sleep that would afford us.
After all, we had only the slightest inkling - but starting the next day, the remainder of our trip was about to be in ruins.