THE CANYONLANDS

The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park is a maze of eroded sandstone extending south from the main arm of the park, east of Cataract Canyon and the rushing Colorado River. Red spires tipped in white rise from the desert landscape, deep canyons cut a tightly winding labyrinth of trails and dry arroyos, their sandy bottoms swallowing up any bits of moisture that fall here.

We arrived from the south, driving in a long and curving arc towards the distant mesas, burnt a rusty red by the late afternoon sun. The road follows thick groves of cottonwood trees growing along the banks of Indian Creek, bright green leaves topping the thick and shaggy bark through cattle ranches and crumbling hills. We arrived at Squaw Flat campground with the sun low on the sky, and despite our lack of reservations, we managed to snag one of the last available sites in the park. Backed up against a giant rock balanced on a pedestal of sandstone, we tucked our tent into the shade and went out in search of the setting sun.

The Potholes Trail is one of the only quick hikes off the main thoroughfare, an easy lope about the top of smooth slickrock past sculptural sandstone spires rising in twisting white against the sky. Like a playground for kids of all ages, the Canyonlands beg exploration, and we happily obliged, running across the smooth tops of boulders and climbing into wind blown caves.

We left the car at the end of the road and walked out beyond the Big Spring Canyon Overlook, up between the columns of red and white, perching atop giant mushroom shaped rocks to watch the sun set in a wash of brilliant gold. The walls of rock rising across the dry canyon bottom blazed red as the sun began to dip below the horizon. The shadows, growing long in the fading light, crept in blue fingers up the burnished faces of rock turning red to blue to violet.

A wizened old crow, coal black feathers ruffled by the cutting wind that whistled through the canyon, unimpeded by trees or shrubs, landed on a knuckle of sandstone beside us. His blue black eyes watched us from their corners, intelligent and observant, and he did not flinch as I moved closer to sit beside him. We three unlikely companions watched the orange sun melt into the horizon, thoughtful and silent, and as the distant mountains faded to blue and grey, the crow took wing. A blackened silhouette against the violet sky, he left us to savor the final moments of the day.