Date hiked: 06/01/16
Mileage: 17.4 mi; 7 hrs
Head Count (how many other hikers I saw): 3 groups.
Home to more than 300,000 acres of land, Canyonlands National Park is the largest of Utah’s nationally recognized parks. So large, in fact, that it’s been cleaved into four distinct, but interconnected districts, one of which are the rivers themselves.
In the southeastern most stretch of Canyonlands, The Needles district rests in its own lonesome corner of the park, separated from the Maze and Island in the Sky by the sheer cliffs gorged out by the Green and Colorado rivers. (For a look at the Island in the Sky district, check out my Syncline Loop and Alcove Spring posts).
The Needles provides some of the most unusual terrain, namely the spires of Cedar Mesa Sandstone which tower over the broad mesas like the twisted skyline of an ancient city. And with no motorized routes entering into the heart of Needles, hiking is the only option at exploration.
Seemingly out of place amongst the rust-red spires, the Chesler Park loop surrounds a grassy meadow, bordered on its southern end by the Joint Trail. There are a number of ways to reach the loop, but the most direct takes the trail south out of the Elephant Hill 2WD parking area.
From the start, the trail pulls you along a steep stair-stepping climb towards the orange and tan striped buttes and mushroom rocks lining the eastern flank of Elephant Canyon. As the summit draws closer, cairns along the exposed bedrock lead you into the first clear views of the esteemed Needles.
Within the first two miles, you pass through a few claustrophobic harbingers of travels to come, and ease into meadows engulfed by more mushroom knobs and spires. At the first intersection 1.5 miles in, bear right, as the left will take you over to Squaw Flat. Though each junction is well signed, a jumbled network of trails thread The Needles, so your best bet is to print out a map beforehand.
Exactly two miles in, the trail looses all that ground it gained when it drops into the sandy reaches of Elephant Canyon. From here, head across the wash (a trail forks off just before the wash towards the first campsite), then straight at the Druid Arch junction. Again, a map would come in handy here.
Almost immediately, the route finds a dry tributary of Elephant Canyon, pocked by well-laid cairns. One half mile after the wash, the trail levels out at a third junction with the Devil’s Kitchen Campground Loop. Continue straight, and another climb starts off towards a high notch in the pinnacles. Summiting just one-tenth of a mile further, you have successfully made it to Chesler Park.
Once inside Chelser Park, you have your pick at hiking the five mile loop clockwise or counterclockwise. With every intention to see Druid Arch by nightfall, I went counterclockwise and cut out the eastern leg of the loop, instead returning on the Elephant Canyon Trail.
Hiking downhill from the notch, turn right onto the second signed junction with the Devil’s Kitchen Campground loop, towards the needles at the northern edge of Chesler Park. The trail follows a wash, then passing through one narrow joint, slickrock awaits on the other side.
The first .6 miles of the Joint Trail crosses grassy flats held captive by the usual walls and knobs of weathered sandstone, leading up to the marveled “joint”, an eerily narrow fissure where the the mammoth rock cracked under eons of stress.
Muted sunlight stains the darkened walls with gold hues before a sudden exit brings you back out into Chesler Park. Winding through the southern half of the park, the views open up to the needles and the southern mesas of the Maze District. Sandwiched between Chesler Park and the raging Colorado, the ribbed horsts (the raised land between faults) of the Grabbens rise and fall across the horizon.
Just past the turnoff for the Chesler Park campsites, you’re given one of two choices: complete the loop, or head straight and join up with Elephant Canyon. While making for a long day (or two or more), Elephant Canyon offers up a whole new set of adventures: camping along the Squaw, Spring and Lost Canyons; petroglyph hunting; or in my case, Druid Arch.
Taking the right, we close in on another set of needles. A cairned route follows the exposed slickrock as it drops 300 feet towards Elephant Canyon. Then, following the canyon’s silhouette, the trail marches on another 1.6 miles until it dead-ends at the base of Druid Arch.
The quickest return trip along Elephant Canyon sees much of the same distance you’ve already covered, but a short stretch between the two Chesler Park cutoffs breaks new ground.
(From Moab): From Center Street, follow highway 191 south for 39.6 miles. Turn right onto UT-211. In 5.7 miles, pay at the fee station, then continue another 3.1 miles and turn left where 211 wraps north. Turn right towards Campground B and Elephant Hill after .3 miles, then take another right towards Elephant hill .2 miles beyond that. The parking lot is 2.9 miles further, just before the road becomes 4WD.
80.2 mi; 1 hr 45 min
Fees: $25/car to enter Canyonlands National Park