Big Springs Loop

The trails of the Needles District in Canyonlands National Park can be combined in many ways to create loops.   We chose to follow these trails – Lost Canyon > Squaw Canyon > Big Springs Canyon.   To get into or out of any of the canyons, hikers have to climb up over slickrock routes, then descend down into the sandy wash.  Proceeding up a canyon is usually along the watercourse, which is usually dry and sandy, but two of the canyons had pools and riparian areas in the spring.   Cottonwoods filled the canyon bottoms where  (ongoing) springs were present.

Moab Two 031rWhile hiking down in the canyons, rock pinnacles, towers, fins, and cliffs line the trails.

Moab Two 036rTo traverse from one canyon to another, we climb over a series of slickrock ledges.

Moab Two 059r“Trails” are often just a series of cairns marking a route.   Some sections require scrambling.

Moab Two 058rHiking on the shoulders of the rocky hills provides the best views.

Moab Two 041rLong traverses along the rock are the most interesting parts of the hike.

Moab Two 016crAround each new corner of the 11 mile hike were new surprises, delightful views, and interesting “trails.”

Moab Two 063brThe backdrop to the Needles District on the east side are the La Sal Mountains, still snow-mantled in spring.

Moab Two 068brThe Needles District in Canyonlands has some of the finest hiking anywhere.

A Grasslands Loop

Lac du Bois Grasslands Protected Area has 15 712 hectares of grassland and forest.   The lower grasslands are more arid with an abundance of sagebrush, but the middle and upper grasslands have a greater proportion of natural grasses and open terrain.   Aspens are found in wet spots and open douglas fir forest covers the upper slopes.   There are no designated trails in the middle grasslands, but there are some sections of old tracks that can be combined for a scenic hike.

Grsslands loopFrom the parking area, we followed the trail past Parks kiosks into a central bowl of potholes, past Island Lake, frozen in by mid-November.

A Grasslands Loop 003blrContinuing north we ascended the Grasslands Esker, a sinuous ridge 1km long running down from the Lac du Bois Road to Long Lake.   We hiked on top of the ridge down to the lake.

A Grasslands Loop 008 lrFollowing the esker all the way down to Long Lake means climbing back up to the edge above the lake, an elevation gain of 100 m.   The views of the Long Lake trench improve all the way up.

A Grasslands Loop 014rLong Lake is the highlight of the Grasslands Loop.

A Grasslands Loop 021BlrWe usually stop for lunch at the top of a small knoll overlooking the lake.  In spring, the lake is full of ducks and geese.   On a cold November day, the surface is icy and still.

A Grasslands Loop 024r A Grasslands Loop 023r

We went over Raptor Ridge for the view and watched red-tailed hawks circling the hills.   The route then has to go over a series of north-south ridges, glacial deposits laid down as moraines, kames, and terraces, eroded by water over time.   This is an up-and-down route back to our vehicles.   There are few trees in this area except for small clusters of aspens and junipers.   Rock outcrops and erratics dot the hills.   The area was shaped by glaciers, which laid down infertile glacial till.   A few thousand years later, we continue to hike in this unique environment, the middle grasslands of Lac du Bois.

Chesler Park

Chesler Park is a 600 acre open area of grass and sand dunes inside the towers, fins, pinnacles, cliffs, and spires of the Needles District in Canyonlands National Park.   All hikes into or through Chesler Park are between 10 to 13 miles, depending on the route chosen.   Our trail started at Elephant Hill and looped through the southern end of Chesler Park, through the Joint Trail, and then back by the Chesler Loop, about 5 hours of hiking.

Moab Two 306rAlong this trail stand the towers (Needles) looking like an impassable wall, but the trail cleverly winds through gullies and over slickrock to the enclosed, nearly circular “park.”

Moab Two 285rAround every corner are new views: arches, windows, slot canyons, sandstone waves, mushroom-rocks, slickrock ramps, and alcoves.

Moab Two 219brAll of Needles is a giant maze of rock obstacles, but with many opportunities to explore too. Trails follow sandy washes and canyons, then traverse up and over ridges to the next canyon.  Although the trail junctions are signed and the rock traverses are marked by cairns, we can strike off the trails in any direction to find hidden gems.

To the north is the high mesa of Island in the Sky and to the west across the Colorado River is The Maze, both parts of Canyonlands.

Moab Two 300rThe 11 000+ foot La Sal Mountains flank the Needles on the eastern side.

Moab Two 301rAll of the trails in the Needles District are a wonder for any hiker.   A return trip to explore more trails is a constant call for us.

Half-Frozen Flora

On a cold fall day we hiked on the Mt. Hilliam Trails.   A skiff of snow covered the edge of the trail at higher altitudes and many of the summer flowering plants had been knocked down by a hard frost, but there was still much to see.      Rosehips bring color to the landscape.

M3rMeltwater collects in puddles and then freezes to form interesting shapes.

M1rSnowberries line the trails.

M4rLichens and liverworts peak through the early snow.

M6rThe bare trunks of aspen trees contrast with the fading colors.   Scratches from bears can sometimes be seen:

M5rSeedheads stop developing and are frozen into their winter shapes.

M8rIf we are lucky, hoar frost crystals can be spotted in the ryegrass.

M9r“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!” (Dr. Seuss)

Mt. Hilliam

The Mt. Hilliam trail system is a network of old backroads on the south-facing slopes overlooking Skimikin Lake.   The trailhead can be accessed by going through Turtle Valley from the west or from the Skimikin Road from the Trans Canada Highway.   Park at the campsite on the west end of Skimikin Lake and cross the road to pick up the trail.   These are horse-and-hiker trails and the trail signage uses a horseshoe image and a trail number so bring a map if you go (see below).

M 12rOn a cold and sunny fall day, we started up the trails using trail signs to create a “lollipop” route (trails 4 > 16 > 22 > 36 > 34 > 32 > 30 > 22 > then retraced our steps back down).   This was a 4+ hour hike starting at 558m elevation ( feet) and climbing 710m (2330 feet) to 1268m (4160 feet).

Hilliam TrailsA skiff of snow was on the trail’s edge in sheltered spots, but for the most part the forest was quiet and frozen.   We enjoyed the Douglas fir forest in the lower areas and aspen groves on the upper slopes.   Many open spots revealed views south to the Fly Hills and east to Bastion Mountain and Shuswap Lake with the Hunters Range snow-capped in the distance.

M. Hiilam 014rThese trails offer forested uphill hikes on good double tracks.   Some of the lesser-used tracks are a bit overgrown and not as well-marked.   We found the Trail 36 section hard to follow and rough.   They would also be fine for mountain biking and snowshoeing.

M5rMore information: