Sunday, November 29, 2020

Slickrock Foot Trail

La Sal Mountains rise above the Colorado River Canyonlands
2.5 miles loop, 150 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Canyonlands National Park entrance fee required

Slickrock Foot Trail is a short but enjoyable hike with views of Island in the Sky in the Needles District of Utah's Canyonlands National Park. The Needles District of Canyonlands sees far fewer visitors than the visitor areas closer to Moab but has plenty of gorgeous Canyonlands scenery. Although in the Needles District Slickrock Foot Trail does not approach the eponymous rock formations but offers views of the spires from a distance; instead, the hike delivers views over Big and Little Spring Canyons and of the high canyon walls that surrounds this area on many sides. It's a relatively easy hike, although most of the trail is across slickrock and there are occasional spots where there are relatively tall rock steps or uneven rock surfaces.

I hiked the Slickrock Foot Trail with my mom during a November road trip through the Utah canyonlands. We stayed in Monticello the night before and reached the trailhead from there, although it is far more likely that you'll be visiting from Moab. From Moab, take US 191 south for 40 miles to the turnoff for Route 211 to the Needles District. Here, turn right and follow Route 211, passing the incredibly preserved petroglyphs at the excellent Newspaper Rock State Historical Monument on the way into Canyonlands National Park's Needles District. Upon entering the park, we followed the road to its end at Big Spring Canyon Overlook. The trailhead is 200 yards back along the road from the Big Spring Canyon Overlook but the parking areas between the overlook and the trailhead effectively overlap.

View from Big Spring Canyon Overlook
The trail leaves from the northeast side of the road and, true to its name, almost immediately hits the slickrock. There was some initial gentle elevation gain as the trail climbed up onto a plateau between Big and Little Spring Canyons. Here, excellent views opened up in most directions: the Needles were visible to the south, an unruly skyline of red and white sandstone towers over 400 feet tall.

The Needles
The trail soon stuck closer to the east side of the plateau, delivering nice views across the sandstone benches below us to the canyon walls that define this section of the Canyonlands. The two Six Shooter Peaks rose in the distance, the eroded remants of Wingate Sandstone towers. These two peaks, which lie outside Canyonlands National Park in Bears Ears National Monument, have been mistakenly captioned as the Bears Ears Buttes in multiple prominent national publications; the actual Bears Ears Buttes are much farther to the south, rising above the Cedar Mesa area.

Sixshooter Peak rises above the Canyonlands
A half mile into the hike, we came to a junction with the Slickrock Foot Trail loop. We chose to hike the loop counterclockwise, taking the right fork at this junction. This right fork kept us on the east side of the plateau. The trail continued making its way across slickrock, the route forward marked by cairns. At two points, there were spur trails that broke off to the right, leading out to overlooks over Little Spring Canyon. The views of the great Wingate Formation cliffs that rose behind the canyon and the lofty La Sal Mountains beyond that were quite impressive.

La Sal Mountains and Wingate formation cliffs
We continued to follow the slickrock plateau as it narrowed; at a third overlook, we gazed north to the confluence of Little and Big Spring Canyons. After the canyons joined, they cut progressively deeper into the sedimentary layers of the Colorado Plateau as they approached the Colorado River itself. Looking farther to the north, we could see Island in the Sky and Junction Butte rising across the Colorado River. We could make out a layer of burgundy cliffs beneath the Wingate Sandstone: this was the Organ Rock formation, which was topped with a thin layer of the White Rim Formation. These burgundy cliffs and towers across the river made up Monument Basin, one of the most scenic areas of the Canyonlands when viewed from Grand View Point from the Island in the Sky.

Just as the Big and Little Spring Canyons joined here, we were only miles from the point where the Colorado River meets its greatest tributary, the Green River. The confluence of these rivers marks the geographical and spiritual heart of the Canyonlands: the joining of two of the most incredible canyon-carving rivers of the North American continent, which combine after having separately carved the Flaming Gorge of Wyoming, the Gates of Lodore in Dinosaur National Monument, Utah's Desolation Canyon, and Colorado's Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Downstream from here, the combined waters of the mighty Colorado carve Cataract Canyon, Glen Canyon, and then the greatest of all the canyonlands- the Grand Canyon. The Colorado River upstream of the confluence was initially known as the Grand River; the Grand and the Green are of similar size at the confluence, although the Green is longer (having originated in the Wind River Range of Wyoming), while the Grand- the modern Colorado- has a slightly higher flow rate.

Junction Butte and Island in the Sky rises over Big Spring Canyon
After leaving the third overlook, the trail rounds the northern end of the plateau, descending to a slightly lower rock layer as it began to head south again along Big Spring Canyon. From this stretch of trail, there were some excellent views directly down into Big Spring Canyon itself as well as out to the Needles to the south and the buttes and cliffs rising to the west across the Colorado River in the Maze District. The Wingate Formation mesas that make up Island in the Sky and the Needles Overlook also bound the Canyonlands to the west.

The Needles rising above Big Spring Canyon
Leaving the rim of Big Spring Canyon, the trail ascended slightly to regain the top of the slickrock plateau. Cairns marked the route across the plateau, which had constant views of the Needles rising ahead. We made our way over the rolling slickrock terrain for a half mile from the overlooks over Big Spring Canyon to close the loop and then followed the last half mile of trail back to the trailhead.

View of the Needles from atop the slickrock
While not the most spectacular hike in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, the scenery along the Slickrock Foot Trail is enjoyable and the trail as a whole is fairly easy to hike despite some minor terrain difficulties. Visitors to the Needles District looking for some varied scenery but uninterested in embarking on the longer hike to Chesler Park will find this to be a satisfying hike.

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