Canyonlands National Park: Chesler Park, the Joint Trail, and Druid Arch from Elephant Hill

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.

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Looking back towards the parking lot after the first climb (tucked behind the trees centered on the left side of this photo)

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With millions of years worth of erosion eating away at these rocks at uneven rates, these mushroom knobs are left bearing a loose resemblance to underwater reefs.

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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.

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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.

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Standing at the gateway into Chesler Park, looking back towards the Colorado River and the northern mesas holding the it captive.

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.

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Four campsites dot the west side of this pillared island centered in Chesler Park. Sites four and five are located near an old cowboy line camp, where remnants still remain. While there is no water available within Chesler Park, several springs and seasonal pools do exist along the canyon bottom.

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Leaving the grassy oasis of Chesler Park behind.

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Looking west, Mount Pennell in the Henry Mountains peers out from behind Gunsight Butte in the Maze district of Canyonlands. Mount Hillars rises to the left behind North Block Mesa.

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Looking south, the trail winds freely across the slickrock before dropping into that first triangle of grass, barely visible in this picture, and heading east (left) towards the Joint Trail.

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At this junction, head straight .4 miles to the jeep road. Turn left, and follow that .2 miles, where you’ll take another left at the three-way for the Joint Trail .5 miles down the road.  There are a picnic table and pit toilet at the trailhead.

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.

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The trail stumbles into an impressive canvas of cairn-laid artwork inside this dimly lit grotto before turning left at the sun-streaked boulder.

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The joint draws progressively tighter, barely more than shoulder-width at its deepest point stretching six stories high. Fallen boulders choke the narrow passage partway in, but the obstruction is easily surpassable by way of a doctored log.

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.

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The needles sit in the sun like melting clay. Elaterite Butte in The Maze District barely rises above the horizon.

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A profile glimpse at Druid Arch.

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A ladder assists with the climb up the final pitch.

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Druid Arch, named for its resemblance to Stonehenge.

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.

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Trail Map

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(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

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