Everyone has heard of Canyonlands, but not everyone backpacks it. Getting away from the crowded overlooks and shoulder to shoulder popular trails is priceless. If you’re willing to put your feet to good use, you can find solitude and breathtaking scenery nestled deep in the back country. This past weekend my wife and I backpacked the Red Lake-Grabens zone of Needles district. Needless to say, we were not disappointed! While Chesler Park and Elephant Canyon hold amazing views in their own right, there is one drawback; too many people. From day hikers to backpackers, especially from March-June, you will be lucky to find a lonely trail just itching to be stepped on.
However, in the zone we backpacked, the only people we ran into were two guys coming off an eight-day excursion between the Maze and Needles. Here was our itinerary:
1. We departed from Elephant Hill parking lot. It is well marked as you enter the district and will be easy to find. The road to parking lot is narrow, and dirt, but two-wheel drive cars are more than able to navigate. Just remember to share the road.
Elephant Hill Jeep Road
2. We decided to use the four-wheel drive road as long as we could. It shaves off a couple miles doing it that way, rather than the Devils Kitchen foot trail route. The trail is obvious, no need to worry about navigation until you reach Lower Red Lake Canyon.
Turn Off Towards Lower Red Lake Trail (Follow Devils Lane)
3. Upon arrival to Devils Lane, the foot trail branches off west and you head right into the bottom of a vertical cliff. THE TRAIL SIDE SLOPES THE CLIFF! Do not be discouraged, it is there, this is the time navigation becomes relevant. Look for the cairns! As always, GPS or a Topo Map is highly recommended.
4. From Devils Lane to Cyclone Canyon is two miles of canyon hiking. It gets steep in some areas, just be sure of your footing and take your time.
5. Cyclone Canyon was our stop for the night. It is a two-mile-long canyon with vertical walls hundreds of feet high on both sides. Spectacular scenery, but deceiving as objects seem closer than they really are. Just be forewarned.
6. At large, camping in the canyon is tough, as it is covered with huge boulders, sagebrush and other tall foliage. If comfortable enough, get up on top of a rock formation or cliff, establishing camp will be better that way.
7. The ever-popular Confluence Overlook is only another 1.75 miles away from the far North end of Cyclone Canyon, highly recommend the extra 3.5 miles (roundtrip) to go see the Green and Colorado rivers meet.
8. Exit the same way you came in and enjoy watching the jeeps on the trail. Enjoy passing them as well, they are way slower than hikers and you get to enjoy watching the passengers get tossed around. Did not look like a whole lot of fun to us.
Our original plan was to camp on the river (5 miles from Cyclone Canyon) but weather did not allow us to. Rangers had warned us earlier in the day of the weather and extreme spring run-off, so we made the logical decision to just keep it safe and stay in Cyclone Canyon. Total distance we hiked was right around 16-17 miles (14 miles out and back, with the additional 3.5 for the Confluence Overlook)
There is NO water in this part of the Needles, so plan accordingly. Backpacking meals are to be saved for the end of the day, as they usually take 16 oz of water. Pack salamis, cheeses, meal bars etc…
- Get rid of the hydration hose, you will consume too much water too quickly. Instead, plan water and shade breaks, your water will stretch a lot further that way. BUT hydration is the most important factor when backpacking in high-desert, so listen to your body.
- You need less than you think. I will add my gear list at the end of this, pack light and pack right!
- Constantly be on the lookout for cairns, the trail can easily get ‘lost’ if you don’t. If you run across a spot that you feel needs them, place them. Future hikers will thank you.
- Look behind you! Too often do hikers get so engrained on what is in front of them, that they forget to look behind them. Looking behind you will show all new viewpoints of the terrain. It is well worth the occasional turn around.
- Look for the awesome view of The Dollhouse in the Maze at about mile 5 in Lower Red Lake Canyon, it will not disappoint. It will only ensure that you make your Maze trip reservation sooner than expected.
Dropping down into Lower Red Lake Trail
- Pack-I use an Osprey Atmos 65L, solely because it fit me the best. Don’t fall into the brand marketing as much, go try on a bunch of different packs until you find the right fit.
- Platypus 3L bladder, 2×1.5L Nalgene bottles
- Worn: Comfortable pants, one of the shirts, hat, boots.
- 4 x Darn Tough socks (this trip total ended up being four nights, front and back of the trip were South of Moab at the Canyon Rim Recreation Site)
- 2 x Shirts
- 1 x lightweight shorts
- 1 x Merino Wool baselayer (SET)
- 1 x beanie
- 1 x Sherpa Primaloft jacket
- 1 x Repair Kit
- Katadyn Hiker Water Filter (I bring a water filter no matter what)
- Adventure Medical Kit 7
- Rainfly for pack
- MSR Mutha Hubba (highly recommended product)
- Marmot Hydrogen 30 degree bag
- Thermarest X-Lite
- MSR Pocket Rocket stove
- 1.1L boiler
- MSR Coffee filter
- Food-plan for snacks, a light lunch, and high caloric count dinner.
- (Total Weight: 34 lbs)-That is with tent divided up between my wife and I.
Tyler Jones is a staff member at Utah’s Recreation Outlet where he gets to talk and share his passion (the outdoors) all day! He is currently a student studying Anthropology and Geography and plans to teach High School for a few years upon completion of his degree. His love for backpacking came at an early age while growing up in the mountains and is always on the hunt for his next adventure.