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.
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.
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.