Canyonlands, Part 2: Arrival at Needles, the Best Campground in the World, and the Massive Chesler Park Loop/Joint Trail/Druid Arch Hike

This is going to be a long post because I need to tell you about both our campsite and the most amazing hike ever. We arrived at the second section of the park – Needles – just as the sun was setting and pulled into Needles Outpost, a campground literally just outside the park border. Though it was nearly 8pm and after operating hours, the owner Tracey came out to welcome us. She told us the best site (#4 – and she was completely on target) and gave us tokens for the shower – yes, a SHOWER – which is the best thing you can provide someone after hiking days in 100 degree temps. She was awesome. And hilarious. And (rightfully) really enthusiastic about the sunset.

Other than running water and seclusion of the site, which is nestled in a bend in the stone outcropping, the campground was perfect as we were pretty much the only people there. We almost instantly decided to stay another night rather than backcountry camp in the park the next night. If you are ever looking to camp in Needles I would recommend this place.

Campsite at Needles Outpost, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Campsite at Needles Outpost, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Now you will need to prepare yourself, because you are going to be getting a lot of pictures from the next day’s hike. Leaving from Elephant Hill Trailhead, we did the 11 mile Chesler Park Loop, which includes the Joint Trail, and added on the 4 mile (roundtrip) spur to Druid Arch. I’m going to have to ask you for a promise: if you hike and are ever in Needles, DO THE CHESLER PARK LOOP AND JOINT TRAIL.

The Needles section of the park is named for the hoodoos, or spires, which resemble needles. This trail leads directly into their midst, allowing you to climb over, around, and through them.

The drive to Elephant Trailhead showing the cluster hoodoos we were about to hike into, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

The drive to Elephant Trailhead showing the cluster hoodoos we were about to hike into, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

This hike was pretty close to magical and I’m not exaggerating. Just when you thought it couldn’t be more amazing you’d be proved wrong. Hopefully my pictures will explain my enthusiasm and liberal use of caps.

The hike first leads you across the mesa into the forest of hoodoos and rock fins, past a small canyon, through a joint in the rock, and into a plain encircled by these otherworldly formations. Then you get to start really climbing on the sandstone and slickrock for a while until you finally break into the open space of Chesler Park, which is framed by towering sandstone. After crossing the clearing you then descend into the rock joint – which is barely shoulder width – and which continues for more than HALF A MILE.

Hoodoos, Chesler Park Loop Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Hoodoos, Chesler Park Loop Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Closeup of hoodoos and rock formations, Chesler Park Loop Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Closeup of hoodoos and rock formations, Chesler Park Loop Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Small hoodoo balancing on larger hoodoo, Chesler Park Loop Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Small hoodoo balancing on larger hoodoo, Chesler Park Loop Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Rock fins on the mesa, Chesler Park Loop Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Rock fins on the mesa, Chesler Park Loop Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Fins with hoodoos in foreground, Chesler Park Loop Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Fins with hoodoos in foreground, Chesler Park Loop Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Climbing the sandstone, Chesler Park Loop Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Climbing the sandstone, Chesler Park Loop Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Sandstone formation, Chesler Park Loop Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Sandstone formation, Chesler Park Loop Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

View behind me after breaking out of the cluster of fins and hoodoos, Chesler Park Loop Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

View behind me after breaking out of the cluster of fins and hoodoos, Chesler Park Loop Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Another view behind me after climbing above hoodoos and past fins, Chesler Park Loop Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Another view behind me after climbing above hoodoos and past fins, Chesler Park Loop Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Chesler Park under rainy skies, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Chesler Park under rainy skies, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Joint Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Joint Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Rachel hiking ahead of me in Joint Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Rachel hiking ahead of me in Joint Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

A climb within the Joint Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

A climb within the Joint Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Emerging from the Joint Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Emerging from the Joint Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

After emerging from the narrow slot canyon, we returned to the slickrock and hoodoos, crossed a wash, and then came upon another trailhead accessible from a 4 wheel drive road. This is notable because our arrival coincided with a guided tour group with A LARGE CONTAINER OF ICE WATER that was ever so kindly offered to us. We’d been hiking for almost 4 hours by then and even though it was overcast it was pretty hot being the desert an all. I am going to have to recommend ice water appear midway for all desert hikes.

We returned through the Joint Trail and, after more hoodoos and rock formations, met up with the spur to Druid Arch. The spur follows the wash in Elephant Canyon and was, as a very nice ranger explained it, “a bit of a slog” through the sand. Slightly unfortunate was that this slog occurred just as the sun was making a very strong appearance. The temperatures quickly rose as we trudged on through the scenic but sandy wash that ended with a steep rock climb up to the arch. I overheated near the end of the spur and only recovered with a rest, water, and some food in the shade by the arch. Thankfully the return through the canyon was a bit more shaded and gave me more time to rehydrate since it was almost 5 miles to get back to the trailhead from the arch. Tracey said temperatures had reached 103 that day so I guess I’m not surprised. After the exit from the wash, the trail once again led through forests of hoodoos and returned to familiar terrain before joining the last mile and half with our original trail. It was an incredible day.

See that cairn?  Uh-huh, this was part of the trail across slickrock.  Chesler Park Loop Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

See that cairn? Uh-huh, this was part of the trail across slickrock. Chesler Park Loop Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Rachel modeling under the boulders, Chesler Park Loop Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Rachel modeling under the boulders, Chesler Park Loop Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Trail in the wash of Elephant Canyon, Druid Arch Spur Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Trail in the wash of Elephant Canyon, Druid Arch Spur Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Trail in the wash of Elephant Canyon, Druid Arch Spur Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Trail in the wash of Elephant Canyon, Druid Arch Spur Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Druid Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Druid Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

View of Elephant Canyon from near rim next to Druid Arch, Druid Arch Spur Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

View of Elephant Canyon from near rim next to Druid Arch, Druid Arch Spur Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

So, did I convince you to go?