“This long day hike offers a truly amazing experience to see part of the earth’s long history up close and personal.
— Caroline Cordsen
Fall Colors · River/Creek · Spring · Views · Commonly Backpacked
Though possible as a day hike, this trail is often done instead as a two-day backpacking trip. For all overnight travel into Canyonlands National Park, a permit is required. And because no developed campsites exist along the route, you'll be camping on largely primitive sites.
A number of access points will get you to the Lower Red Lake Canyon Trail, but the quickest is by way of the Elephant Hill Road (4WD)
. By foot or wheel, follow this busy 3.7-mile road to where it ends at Devils Lane Road
Millions upon millions of years ago, as sea levels in the area dropped, a thick layer of sandstone covered the evaporated salt left behind. As red sand and silt were deposited by rain and snowmelt, white sand also blew in, forming dunes. These geologic processes are still on display today in the alternating bands of red and white rock throughout Canyonlands, and especially in the Needles.
During a period of tectonic unrest, these evaporated salt layers were pulled towards the Colorado River, causing valleys (known as grabens) to collapse. From the 4x4 road, the Lower Red Lake Canyon Trail leaves the Devil's Lane graben to transect a horst - a raised fault block thrown upwards between two grabens.
With a bit of easy scrambling, the trail reaches a high point on the horst. From here, views of the Devil's Lane graben widen below you. Turning west, the route drops down into a sunken wash and winds toward the western edge of the horst, where soon you'll be able to see the length of the Cyclone Canyon graben. Quickly loosing 250 feet, the trail meets with the Cyclone Canyon Trail
Entering one last horst, the trail funnels into Lower Red Lake Canyon. The name—Red Lake—could in part lend itself to the red sandstone, but it’s a misleading title as I saw no lake in sight whatsoever.
Scrambling onto the sidewall of the deep gorge first, a well-maintained trail threads the rugged terrain to bypass an impassable pour-off, then descends slowly into the sandy wash. The grade abates, and the trail marches steadily downhill toward the Colorado River. Dwarfed by the towering walls, the wide vistas of the Needles disappear, and the first glimpse at the water doesn’t come until the wash empties at the shoreline.
Across the river, you might notice a flat, sandy plain, seemingly out of place among the sheer cliffs surrounding much of the rest of Cataract Canyon. It's known as Spanish Bottom
, an ancient sinkhole of collapsed rock.
Flora & Fauna
Desert grasses, cacti, and shrubs thrive throughout the grabens, and tamarisk grows thick along the shoreline—you'll have to bushwhack your way through to the water.
As always, snakes and lizards call the Needles home, as well as Bighorn and rabbits. Though very rare, you may spot a mountain lion in the Needles; or in the fall near waterways, a black bear snacking on prickly pear cacti or hackberry trees.