Canyonlands National Park is in the southeastern corner of Utah, near Arches and Dead Horse Point. It is divided into four distinct districts: Island in the Sky, Needles, Maze, and Horseshoe Canyon. The Needles District forms the southeast corner of Canyonlands and was named for the colorful spires of Cedar Mesa Sandstone that dominate the area. The district’s extensive trail system provides many opportunities for long day hikes and overnight trips. Chesler Park is a scenic expanse of desert grasses and shrubs surrounded by colorful sandstone spires. The loop around Chesler is fairly level and winds through a series of deep, narrow fractures called the Joint Trail. This hike occurred on October 12, 2005 beginning at 8:00AM and ending about 5:00PM. Our plan was to be at the Elephant Hill trailhead just past dawn and climb Chesler Park Trail, then follow the ridge above Elephant Canyon to the northern edge of Chesler Park. There we would join the Chesler Park Loop Trail. After completing the loop, we would return to Elephant Hill.
Hike Length: 11 miles Hike Duration: 9 hours
Hike Rating: Easy, but long Blaze: None
Elevation Gain: 500 feet Hike Configuration: Lasso
Trail Condition: Excellent, well maintained Starting Point: Elephant Hill Picnic Area
Trail Traffic: We only encountered two other small groups of hikers.
How to Get There: Take Hwy. 211 to the Visitor Center in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, then simply follow the signs to the Elephant Hill trailhead.
View Chesler Park, Needles District, Canyonlands National Park in a larger map
The desert has extremes of temperature between early, early morning and mid-afternoon. I remember thinking as we started out, “Wow, it is cold!” I wondered if I was dressed appropriately for the 30-some degrees. After a steep couple hundred feet climb up the redrock at the start of the Chesler Park Trail, I didn’t have to worry about that anymore. My brother and I turned at the top to look behind us and saw the glorious dawn light on the LaSal Mountains to the north and Elephant Canyon below us. The next mile followed a ridge along the canyon and gave us an immediate taste of how glorious the Needles District of Canyonlands is.
Apparently it had rained in the days previous, as the indentations in the slickrock had pooled water that cast amazing reflections of the fins, pinnacles and spires that surrounded us. After a mile the trail intersected with another from Squaw Flats and we turned right. The trail began to climb down into Elephant Canyon, and the surrounding terrain got sandier. We began to see cryptobiotic soil, a biological soil crust composed of living cyanobacteria, green algae, brown algae, fungi, lichens, and mosses. Wikipedia says that soil crusts are important members of desert ecosystems and contribute to the well-being of other plants by stabilizing sand and dirt, and promoting moisture retention. It is also extremely fragile. A single footprint or tire track is sufficient to disrupt the soil crust and damage the organisms. The damage to these slow-growing species may require more than a century before the delicate soil returns to its former productivity. So when you are hiking in these areas, please stay on-trail.
When the trail reaches the bottom of Elephant Canyon it intersects with the Devil’s Kitchen Trail. We took a left turn to stay on the Chesler Park Trail. The next stretch was some of the most amazing western scenery I have ever seen. There are pink, red, and orange sandstone formations everywhere. They call the area The Pinnacle for good reason. They are rocket shaped, pod shaped, mushroom shaped. They surround you and engulf you. From the junction the trail climbs up through a narrow opening on the northeast side of The Pinnacle and presents a marvelous view of the LaSal Mountains to the northeast. Eventually, the trail reaches the northern edge of Chesler Park and joins the Loop Trail.
The scenery totally changed. While climbing in, around, and among the needles and spires of The Pinnacle I felt the thrust of the earth, pushing up and up. Suddenly now we entered grassland, sandy with bushes and shrubs, and desert grasses. In fact, up until the 1960s when Canyonlands joined the national park system, cattle used to graze here in Chesler Park. The park is oval shaped and the trail makes a big loop around and through. After a mile and a half on the western side of the loop we got to the Devil’s Pocket Trail where we turned left, staying on the Chesler Park Loop Trail. Not long after that the trail ended at the Chesler Canyon 4wd road.
We headed south on the 4wd road looking for a spur road to the Chesler Park Loop trailhead that is used by those in Jeeps and such who come in on the road. We climbed back up to the park level and entered what is known as the Joint Trail at the southern end of Chesler Park. This is an area of extremely rugged rock walls with cracks and fissures going every which way, known as “joints” back in the old days. The “joints” are incredibly beautiful and colorful, and even a little bit intimidating. If you are claustrophobic, beware, because there are some stretches where the trail is no more than two feet wide, with rock walls on each side for hundreds of yards. We reached the end of the Joint Trail when we climbed a very narrow rock stairway and again saw the expanse of Chesler Park before us, this time from the southern end. It is a stunning sight.
The eastern side of the Chesler Park Loop runs more or less through the center of the park. There is a very large sandstone formation right in the middle that has three separate campsites around it for those who wish to stay in the area for a couple days. Be sure to reserve ahead of time at the Needles Visitor Center. From what I understand, these are the same original campsites that were used by the cowboys who tended the cattle back before this area was part of Canyonlands National Park. The hiking itself is kind of slow going as the terrain is mostly very fine red sand, and it seemed to go on forever. In reality it’s only about a mile and a half back to the northern end of Chesler Park.
We went back out the same way we came in, the Chesler Park Trail through The Pinnacle, then back through and around Elephant Canyon. It looked different with the afternoon sunlight than it had in the morning. And remember how cold I was at dawn? Well, by now the temperature was well into the 80s. There are long views of the desert between Canyonlands and the LaSal Mountains. The slickrock is a beige mixed with the oranges and pinks of the sandstone, the blue sky and mountains, and the muted browns of the mesas and bluffs in between. Quite the astonishing scene.
Best HikeIt has been nearly six years since my brother and I took this grand hike in The Needles. Going through my photo library sequentially really helped reconstruct the hike for me, but studying the National Park Service web site for Canyonlands refreshed my memory with trail names and the like. This is a superb hike that isn’t especially difficult despite the length. Be sure to allocate a full day to be able to experience the wealth of sights and sounds found along the trails. I highly recommend the Chesler Park hike and rate it as one of the best hikes I have done out west. I know you will enjoy it too.
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