The Needles District
Deserts may seem lifeless, but look closer. Pinyon and juniper trees thrive here. Grasses spring up between rocks. Coyotes howl, ravens soar, and lizards bask in the sun. Even the puddles teem with tiny life. How does it survive?
Take a Walk on the Wild (and Rocky!) Side
This short loop trail crosses sandstone dimpled with pockets called potholes. When wet or dry, potholes are tiny—and sensitive—ecosystems. Body oils, soaps, and sunscreens easily pollute the water. Protect these ecosystems by never putting anything (like fingers or feet) into potholes, and by walking around potholes, even when they are dry.
The bumpy soil along the trail is also alive. Biological soil crusts are living communities of cyanobacteria, mosses, algae, lichens, and fungi. Soil crust prevents erosion, stores moisture, and provides critical nutrients for plants. Protect this life by staying on trail.
- Avoid hiking in midday summer heat; start early in the morning.
- You may encounter sections of snow or ice on this trail. We recommend over-the-shoe traction devices when hiking in winter.
- Pothole Point Trail crosses uneven surfaces with frequent potholes on the rock surface. It is not accessible for wheelchairs.
- In winter, there may be snow or icy conditions; we recommend traction devices for hikers.
- Service animals are allowed in national parks. Pets are not allowed on this trail. What is a service animal?
How Do Potholes Form?
The sandstone along this trail has not eroded evenly. Weakly acidic rainwater collects in surface depressions and dissolves the rock’s cementing material, making shallow depressions deeper. Microbes produce a thin film that lines the rock surface, keeping water from soaking into the sandstone. As water sits, an ecosystem comes to life. Read more about potholes.
Escape, Tolerate, Resist
With rock temperatures up to 150°F (60°C) and only 7 to 9 inches (17-23 cm) of rain per year, which strategy would you use to survive?
When potholes dry out, life doesn’t end—it hides. Within the cracked mud, hundreds of microscopic eggs might just be waiting for the next rain.
What's for Dinner?
Largely confined to their puddle, pothole residents create a complex food web. Filter feeders eat algae and microscopic plants. Shrimp feast on bacteria, algae, and the remains of less successful life forms. The Great Basin spadefoot toad consumes up to half its body weight in insects and shrimp every night. Some pothole residents might become snacks for ravens or bats.
The desert may seem lifeless, but survival strategies evolved over time let organisms thrive in unlikely places. The climate here is rapidly getting hotter and drier. What might that mean for life in the potholes? Canyonlands National Park protects the tenacious creatures that call this desert home and provides opportunities for us to learn from their stories. How might you adapt your “survival strategies” after exploring the potholes of Canyonlands?
Last updated: January 27, 2021