Is this the best desert dayhike in America? Canyonlands’ Chesler Park Loop

 

I think the first time I heard anything about Chesler Park, I was being a non-productive REI employee and flipping through a copy of Peter Potterfield’s Classic Hikes of the World at the Paradise Valley store in Phoenix. A couple months later, I would move from Phoenix to Denver, on the way stopping at 4 of Utah’s 5 national parks, and hike through this incredible area for the first time. I’ve been back four times, and it’s a good seven-hour drive from my house in Denver. Still at seven hours from Denver, Edward Abbey’s beloved Canyon Country desert is as much in our backyard as anyone else’s — the only city really closer to Canyonlands is Salt Lake, which is 5 1/2 hours from the Needles District.

Canyonlands is not one of those parks with a a bustling little town right outside it, or hordes of people driving around the road system, hopping out of their car for a quick photo at each viewpoint, then getting back in their car and driving to the visitor center — especially the Needles District, which is a solid hour-and-a-half from the nearest town, Moab. This area is still popular, but definitely a far cry from a summer weekend at Yellowstone or in the Yosemite Valley.

Entering Chesler Park.

The Chesler Park Loop is 11 miles, and around 500 feet of elevation gain for the entire thing. You’ll walk past cryptobiotic soil, across slickrock, through a couple washes, and into Chesler Park, a flat meadow surrounded by “needles,” the red-and-white striped pinnacles up to about 100 feet tall. You’ll also get to experience the Joint Trail, a short section that’s just like a slot canyon — sheer vertical walls 20- to 40-feet high, as straight as a hallway, pinching down to less than 3 feet wide in some spots. You’re not in an actual slot canyon, just the space between giant boulders that somehow lay parallel to each other for about a 1/4-mile. And you may have a hard time resisting the urge to chimney your way up between the walls.

The Joint Trail.

For my money, and for the unique scenery per mile of walking, this is one of the best places in the American desert. I have spent almost a collective month in the Needles District over a few years, and keep taking new people back here. If you know a little bit about desert navigation (watching for cairns, not mistaking a wash for the trail), you’ll have an easy time here — the trail is well-marked (it’s a national park, after all), and well-signed. There are plenty of backcountry campsites in Chesler Park, but you’ll almost always have to pack in all your water. High season in the Needles is spring (March/April), followed by fall (October). I have spent the majority of my time there in November, during the Thanksgiving holiday, when there’s almost no one in the park. Temps at that time can get as low as 20 at night, but warm to the high 50s and 60s during the day, which makes for great hiking weather.

For more information, visit the NPS page for the Needles District.

-Brendan

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9 comments

  1. Next time you are out in Las Vegas, go to the Valley of Fire, and see how that compares. It’s got a lot of slot canyons, scramble-able walls, bright crimson sandstone, and last I was there (1994) was still pretty remote and tourist-free. Having not been to this particular hike, I couldn’t say which is better, but I think you will find Valley of Fire quite compelling as well.

  2. I made a trip out to Canyonlands earlier this year and it was my first experience with the high desert. We planned on spending 5 days backpacking through the park but ended up only doing 4 due to water constraints. I fell in love with this place. Chesler Park was an amazing area, we spent our night there at CP1 site (I highly recommend this site) which gave amazing views of the “park” and offered vistas of elephant canyon via side trails and small washes. We found the park very challenging to get through, although the canyons are not that deep you are required to go up and over the canyon walls and down into another canyon time after time on certain trails. The canyons are full of slick rock, requiring a hiker to often do some scrambling and even at times climb installed ladders up to 12 ft. The subtle beauty of this place was phenomenal. While traveling through big springs canyon we climbed the canyon walls and discovered that on top of the rock formations were small gardens created by the crypto-soil. Each garden held a different set of plants and succulents and made for interesting contrast on the white slick rock.

    Canyonlands was a great experience due to its isolation, variable ecosystems and size. The whole park is huge and many weeks could be spent there, deep in the canyons where there is ground water the foliage and plant growth is so thick you may fool yourself to be in the deep south with all the grasses, trees, flowers, birds, and insects. It’s size though is dangerous. I work at a gear shop and we had a German girl come in shortly before my trip, she had a horror story about canyonlands and how she had become lost for five days in the park and feared for her survival. It is a large place and the cairns can be hard to spot at times. If you go there be safe, bring a good map, plenty of water and a good camera.

  3. Ummmm Valley of Fire is good for what it is but in no way approaches the Needles in terms of breadth and depth of terrain, Both beautiful in their own way and enjoy both.

  4. Blasting through Iowa on my way back West. Stopping to check out Moab since it’s on my “I’d live there” list and was hoping for a good Canyonlands hike recommendation… Thanks for the recommendation dude!

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  6. I did the hike from Elephant Hill, through Chesler Park and the Joint Trail. Truly a great hike. I would also highly recommend the hike to Druid Arch. It is a great hike into a wash and to a very unique and stunning arch with a bit of scrambling at the end. From there you can also connect to the Joint Trail. In recently returned from a 2 week trip to all the Utah National Parks and the Needles section of Canyonlands was some of my favorite hiking/camping. Solitude. Beauty. Fresh Air. Cant ask for anything more in my opinion.

  7. Agreed. One of the best day hikes I’ve ever taken. I had hiked around Chesler Park last year (2014). but I did not have time to do the joint trail. This time I started early enough and spent plenty of time, on my own, inside the “Joint” and along the trails up and down the shoulders and canyons of the Needles. Truly a powerful and haunting experience.

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Article by: brendan