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The Needles

One of my favorite national parks is Canyonlands National Park. The confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers is the center of the park, dividing it into three distinct and disconnected districts. To the north of the Colorado and east of the Green lies the most visited district of the park: Island in the Sky. To the west of the Green and the north of the Colorado lies The Maze, which is one of the most remote places in the lower 48 states. To the south and east of the Colorado river lies The Needles. It’s not as easy to access as Island in the Sky, with its paved roads and close proximity to Moab. It’s not nearly as remote as The Maze, which takes a full day of technical driving to reach.

The Needles is still full of challenges and is not a place for inexperienced drivers or vehicles without the right capabilities. It’s filled with steep grades, large obstacles, off-camber drops, and paint-scraping narrow sections. Elephant Hill (the way both in and out of The Needles) has a switchback so tight it can only be navigated in reverse. If you get stuck here, a tow truck will cost more than $2,000. Group sizes are strictly limited to keep noise and dust down, to minimize wildlife disruptions, and to let the sights and sounds of nature prevail.

There are some amazing campsites in The Needles and they all require a permit. Even single day-use requires a permit. The permits are highly sought after and become unavailable several months in advance. Some popular days and popular spots get reserved within minutes of being released.

Brett, Jess, and Mark each reserved a campsite in the Devil’s Kitchen campground in The Needles over Memorial Day weekend. There are only 4 total campsites in Devil’s Kitchen, so between the three of them they had reserved almost the entire campground. It’s a really special place with spectacular views. Each reservation allows for up to 10 people and 3 cars but the rangers reminded us of the group size limitations in the park. They don’t want to see multiple groups moving together as one larger group.

Big Groups Are Bad

I am not a fan of large groups when camping. Despite my love for Canyonlands, when I heard there would be as many as 30 people camping with us, I did my best to get out of it. I love Devil’s Kitchen and the hikes in The Needles, but I really don’t like activities with so many people. Especially when the logical divisions in the groups don’t align with the campsite restrictions. Charmaine had just been backpacking and camping through The Needles, but she really wanted to go back and show me some of the cool places she had just been. We had also invited my brother Joe to camp with us. I tried to persuade him to camp with us somewhere else this weekend, but he was pretty excited about The Needles. So once it was clear I wouldn’t be able to get out of it, I tried to make the most of it.

To enter The Needles, we drove south from Moab for about 40 miles on highway 191 and then west for another 35 miles on highway 211. We passed several nice looking campgrounds just off of highway 211. We stopped briefly at Newspaper Rock and then continued down towards The Needles. As we were just about to enter The Needles, there’s a small outpost where we stopped to top off our gas (at $10/gallon) and buy a few last-minute items before heading into the park. I didn’t use more than about 1/3 of my gas in the park, so I would like to avoid stopping at the outpost on future trips, but I doubt that will happen. We always seem to be part of a group where someone is concerned about gas, so I’m sure we’ll just keep paying the premium for a little peace of mind.

Elephant Hill and The Squeeze

Not long after entering the park it was time to air down and climb our first obstacle – Elephant Hill. For some reason I always expect it to be more difficult than it is. I pretty much just drove straight up and over it this time. Of course, I was following good lines selected by the experienced drivers in front of me, and I had plenty of volunteer spotters especially going down the steep side, but our 4Runner made quick work of the hill. We stopped at the top for some lunch before dropping down through The Squeeze and on to our campsites in Devil’s Kitchen.

The Squeeze is a narrow one-way section of road between Elephant Hill and Devil’s Kitchen. It’s the type of place where you have to pull in all your mirrors or you’ll scrape. It’s a place where you sometimes have to inch closer to the side you’re already close to in order to avoid tilting your vehicle into the wall when your tire goes up over a rock. You have to drive slow and you have to trust your spotter. I really enjoyed going through The Squeeze in years past, but it was Charmaine’s turn to drive this year. She drove through like a boss, never going too fast, doing all the things the spotter suggested, and making it look so easy. Joe and Carrie also made it through without incident.

Devil’s Kitchen Campground

The Devil’s Kitchen Campground is literally right around the corner from The Squeeze, so we pulled in and setup camp as soon as everyone was through. As I expected, there was some confusion about who was camping and parking in which spot. Joe got the short end of the stick and had to park his car in a different spot than where we were camping. That’s just the way it goes with these larger groups. But I think he managed to have a good time anyway. Everybody seemed to interact well and get along, which made it a good experience.

Devil’s Lane, SOB Hill, and The Joint

The next day we went down Devil’s Lane to the petroglyphs and then over SOB Hill and up to The Joint. Somewhere along the very tame road to The Joint I managed to slice through the sidewall of one of my tires. That made for an interesting experience trying to get my Hi-Lift Jack to work correctly. We never really did, but Brett eventually came back and manually manipulated the sliding parts and pieces enough that we could get the tire changed. My spare tire isn’t the same size or width as my regular tires, so that meant I was probably done doing the crazy stuff I sometimes find myself doing.

Hiking to Druid Arch

The Joint trail was great and from there we did the hike to Druid Arch and back. I wasn’t sure if it was just going to be us and Joe or if more people would join us. As it turned out, everyone came along. Well, everyone except Peter, Justin, and Walt.

The Confluence

The final day we went out to The Confluence, which turned out to be a much trickier trail than I remember. Since my car was sort of on the sidelines, Joe decided he would drive and we would ride with him. It was a fun time, but getting Joe’s mostly-stock 4Runner over some of the obstacles was a challenge that wouldn’t have succeeded if it were not for a team effort. Coming back was actually a bit worse and we were forced to winch him over a big obstacle where he had gotten high centered. Hopefully his rig survived the abuse.

The next day we went home. But that didn’t mean there wasn’t time for some shenanigans.

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