This post (and all photos) are courtesy of Ogden, Utah-based copywriter, outdoor enthusiast and all-around swell guy Rob Tidwell.
Canyonlands National Park is a desert wonderland, and one that should be on any hiking enthusiast’s bucket list. One of two national parks located near Moab, Utah (Arches NP being the other), Canyonlands is a perfect choice for endless backcountry adventures of the “holy-cow-what-planet-am-I-on?” variety.
The park has 3 different sections: Island in the Sky, Needles, and The Maze. Each is unique and beautiful in its own right, but it’s the Needles District that is our favorite…and the subject of today’s highlight.
This area gets it name from the sandstone rock formations that define the landscape; poking up from the earth and into the sky, these “multi-colored” needles feel otherworldly, and gives hikers the sense that they have wandered onto a whole other planet. That’s just one reason the Needles District is one of Utah’s most premiere backpacking areas.
Chesler Park Loop: Premiere Canyonlands Backpacking
First things first. If you want to camp in Chesler Park, you’re going to need a permit. There are only 5 backcountry campsites and the competition to land one is fierce. You can reserve backcountry permits 4 months out, so plan ahead to secure yours early .
Second, remember that this is a desert area with no reliable water source. You must carry in all your water. Make sure you bring enough for hydrating and cooking. Because of the heat and lack of good water, I don’t recommend doing this trip in the summer. Spring and Fall are best, as night can get brutally cold during the winter. It will often drop below freezing even in the shoulder seasons.
Day 1: Exploring
The hike described here isn’t the only route you have for exploring this part of Canyonlands, but we think it’s the best way to get the most out of the surreal surroundings.
Starting at the Elephant Hill trailhead, it’s only 3.5 to 4 miles to the campsite inside Chesler Park, depending on which one you reserved (Pro tip: we love #5). Drop your packs here, but don’t dally around and kick to kick up your boots: there’s still plenty of exploring to do!
Head towards the Joint Trail to wander through some tight spaces and towering walls sure to thrill even the most seasoned hiker.
About a mile from the campsite, you’ll find a staircase carved of stone that’ll lead you down into a small crack in the rock. The cracks in the sandstone were called a “joints” back in the day, and the name stuck. This is a “must see” and should be included on everyone’s itinerary.
Next, after you exit “The Joint,”you’ll continue down to a jeep trail for 0.7 miles before connecting back to the loop to Chelser Park. Then, hike 2 more miles and you’ll arrive back to the campsites.
Explore around camp a bit, and you’ll find the remains of old cowboy camps. These lucky souls used to run cattle through the area from the 1890s-1960s…I can only imagine how cool it must’ve been to cowboy in Chesler Park back then.
Make sure you’re back at camp in time for sunset! Watching the hues change on the majestic rock formations is one of the great joys of camping in southern Utah. It’s as if the Earth was a glowing red and orange chameleon – and is changing colors right in front of your eyes!
Watching nature’s magic doesn’t end with sunset If you’re a stargazer, this part of the country is your Utopia. You might want to consider booking your trip around a new moon; without any moonlight or manmade light to pollute the area, the Milky Way can be seen in all its natural splendor. . And we’ve never seen so many shooting stars in our lives.
Day 2: Sunrise In Utah
The only thing that might be better than the sunsets in desert country are the sunrises. Few things in life are more enjoyable than enjoying a cup of coffee in the backcountry as the desert landscape comes into stunning color.
After breaking camp, you’ll head into Elephant Canyon where you can see an Anasazi Indian ruin. Seeing these ancient ruins undisturbed in the backcountry is a real treat. Maybe even more satisfying than seeing the old cowboy camps.
At the bottom of Elephant Canyon you have a choice to make. You can drop your pack and make the 4 mile roundtrip to see Druid Arch. Or, you can head back to the trailhead where the cooler full of beer is waiting.
We’ll give you a hint: GO SEE DRUID ARCH!
Of all the arches we’ve seen over the years, this might be the most impressive one of all. It’s giant. It’s beautiful. And t reminds many people of Stonehenge, Which is why they call it Druid Arch. Enjoy it.
After you get back to your pack it’s roughly 3.5 miles back to the trailhead where those beers are waiting. Kick back and enjoy. This has been just a sampling of all Canyonlands has to offer.