Julie United States 16 Comments

The Needles is an often overlooked section of Canyonlands National Park. But those who take the time to visit the Needles are rewarded with thrilling, unique hiking trails, low crowds, and jaw-dropping views of Canyonlands National Park. In this post, we cover the 12 best things to do in the Needles…12 great reasons why this part of Canyonlands National Park should be added to your Utah road trip.

 

Overview of The Needles

The Needles is one of four districts that make up Canyonlands National Park. The Island in the Sky district, which is the closest district to Moab, is by far the most visited section of the park.

To get to the Needles from Moab, it is a 75 mile drive that takes about an hour and a half. The distance and driving time discourage most people from making the trip down this way. I get it, we felt the same way on our visit here in 2018. But on our most recent visit to Utah we made it a point to get here, and wow! This place is incredible.

The Needles district looks dramatically different than Island in the Sky, or anywhere else in Utah, for that matter. Think Bryce Canyon meets Zion. Clusters of zebra-striped sandstone spires make up the heart of the Needles, somewhat resembling the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon. Hiking trails weave their way between the needles, making this the top destination in Canyonlands for hiking, in my opinion.

The Needles district is relatively small. The main road that runs through the park is less than 7 miles long and it only takes 10 minutes to drive through the park. However, there are dirt and gravel roads that lead off of this main, paved road. Some of these dirt roads are suitable for standard cars and several of them require a 4×4 and/or a permit.

Don’t think the Needles is worth the extra time? Think again. If you like hiking, unique desert landscapes, and leaving the crowds behind, you will love the Needles.

The Needles Travel Guide

View of the Needles from the Chesler Park Viewpoint

Where is The Needles District?

The Needles district is located south of Moab. It takes an hour and a half to drive to the Needles Visitor Center. Most of the drive is on Highway 191 and this part goes by fast. Once you turn onto Highway 211, the speed limits drop but the views get better. Now, you drive past massive mesas and a few notable spots that sit right outside of the park, such as Newspaper Rock State Historical Monument and rock climbing areas.

If you look at Canyonlands National Park on a map, The Needles and the Island in the Sky district sit right next to each other. However, there are no roads that connect these two districts. The only way to get to the Needles is on a very long drive from Moab, or visit the Needles while on a road trip through Utah.

The remoteness of the Needles helps keep crowds low, which makes this park a delight to visit.

How to get to The Needles Map

What Are the Needles?

This park gets its name from clusters of sandstone spires, also called Needles.

Hundreds of millions of years ago, this part of the world was an ocean. As the ocean dried up, salt covered what was once the ocean floor. Over time, sand dunes buried the layer of salt. The weight of the sand and rock began to crack the lowest layer of rock, and the salt seeped into these cracks, forming a grid. As the land was further eroded by wind, ice, and rain, the spires (aka Needles), buttes, and canyons formed into what we see today.

Things to do in the Needles CNP

Best Things to Do in The Needles

Roadside Ruin

This super short walk (just 0.3 miles long) takes you to an ancient Puebloan granary. It is located just past the visitor center as you drive through the park.

Wooden Shoe Arch Overlook

This is the first overlook you will come to as you drive through the park. From here you get a view of rock formation that looks like a wooden shoe.

Wooden Shoe Arch

It’s very far away and to get a good photo you need a zoom lens. I really don’t think that this viewpoint is all that spectacular, but it is quick and easy to visit, so why not make the quick stop, right? Don’t worry, it gets a whole lot better from here.

Cave Spring Trail

Distance: 0.6 miles | Difficulty: Easy | Time: 30 minutes

The Cave Spring Trail is a short, easy to walk trail that takes you past historical sites. You will see the remains of a cowboy camp, a year-round spring, and rock paintings that are hundreds of years old.

Cave Spring Trail

To get here, drive down Cave Spring Road to the end.

Pothole Point Trail

Distance: 0.6 miles | Difficulty: Easy | Length of Time: 30 minutes

This loop hike is named for depressions in the rocks called potholes. Rainwater collects in these depressions, forming the perfect habitat for snails, shrimp, and other animals to hatch.

From this trail, you will see hundreds of these depressions. Off in the distance you can spot the mesas of the Island in the Sky district and the needles in Chesler Park area of the park.

Pothole Point Trail

View of the depressions in  the rock. In the distance is the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park.

 

Pothole Point View the Needles

Pothole Point Rocks

Note: Please do not step in these depressions. This can harm the animals that live here as well as their habitat.

Slickrock Trail

Distance: 2.4 miles | Difficulty: Easy | Time: 1.5 to 2 hours

The Slickrock Trail is longer than the Pothole Point Trail but the views are a lot better. This trail forms a loop and along this loop are three very short detours to overlooks.

From these overlooks, you get to peer down into small canyons and get sweeping views of Island in the Sky and The Needles.

Slickrock Trail

The Needles Slickrock Trail

Slickrock Trail View

View of the Needles

View of the Needles

 

The Needles Rock Cairn

If you only have the time and energy for one hike in The Needles and want something quick and easy (under 5 miles), we recommend the Slickrock Trail.

Big Spring Canyon Overlook

The main road through the park dead-ends just past the Slickrock Trail at this viewpoint. From here you get a great view of Big Spring Canyon and several massive sandstone spires.

Big Spring Canyon Overlook

Hike to Chesler Park

Distance: 6 to 11 miles | Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous | Time: 3 to 7 hours

Chesler Park is the best spot in The Needles to see the sandstone spires that make this park so uniquely beautiful.

There are two hiking options: a short one and a long one.

The shorter version is 6 miles round-trip and moderately strenuous. You hike out to the Chesler Park Viewpoint, where you have panoramic views of The Needles district. From this viewpoint, you can see the La Sal Mountains to the north and Chesler Park to the south.

Chesler Park Trail

Things to do in Canyonlands NP

The Needles Canyonlands

View from the Chesler Park Viewpoint

If you continue beyond the Chesler Park Viewpoint, you enter Chesler Park. This part of the hike forms a loop and it is awesome!! Not only do you get close-up views of the Needles, but you also get to hike through a cave and a slot canyon (on the Joint Trail). This hike is almost 11 miles long and it takes between 5 to 7 hours, but if you like hiking, this is a great way to spend your time in The Needles district.

Best Hikes in the Needles

Hikes in Canyonlands

The Joint Trail

 

Chesler Park

Chesler Park

 

How to Visit the Needles

View on the return hike

LEARN MORE ABOUT BOTH HIKES: How to Hike the Chesler Park Loop

Hike to Druid Arch

Distance: 11 miles | Difficulty: Strenuous | Time: 5 to 7 hours

This is another long hike in The Needles and it looks spectacular. Unfortunately, we ran out of time so we never got to this one. That’s OK. We don’t mind another reason to come back. 😊

This hike starts at Elephant Hill, like the Chesler Park hike, but breaks off several miles into the hike. The final climb up to the viewpoint is steep and features a ladder and some rock scrambling.

Druid Arch

shutterstock.com/William Hager

Go Backpacking in the Backcountry

If you look at The Needles on a map, it looks more like they should have called this district “The Maze.” A network of hiking trails and 4WD roads lead to numerous campsites in the southern section of the park. You could spend days, trekking from campsite to campsite and exploring the quiet, remote corners of The Needles.

In order to camp in the backcountry, you must have a permit. The highest demand for permits is in the spring and fall, peaking in March during Spring Break. Get full details on the national park service website. 

Map of the Needles

Map of The Needles from npmaps.com. The hiking trails are green and the 4WD roads are the dotted lines.

Elephant Hill

Not only are The Needles laced with a network of hiking trails, this is also a great spot if you want to explore the park by 4WD vehicle.

Elephant Hill is one of the most technical 4×4 roads in The Needles. This road climbs up and over Elephant Hill. Along the way, you will encounter loose rock, steep grades, and hairpin turns.

Elephant Hill

To drive this road, you must have a permit, a high-clearance 4WD vehicle, and prior experience on 4WD roads. 

Note: Like Druid Arch, we have not driven Elephant Hill yet, but it is on our to-do list for our next visit to Utah. If you have driven Elephant Hill and want to share your experience, you can do so in the comment section at the end of this post. Thanks!

If you want to read more about Elephant Hill and watch a video that takes you through drive, scroll down to the Comment Section and read the comment left by Mark Doiron. He also leaves a link to a YouTube video from the drive. Thanks Mark! 

Drive the 4WD Road to the Colorado River Overlook

This 4WD road is less technical than Elephant Hill and does not require a permit. If you want to drive a 4WD in The Needles, this is the one that is recommended by the park rangers in the visitor center. This road is 7 miles long (one-way) and ends at an overlook of the Colorado River.

Confluence Overlook

From the Confluence Overlook, you can look out over the spot where the Green River and the Colorado River meet. To get here, you can either hike from the Big Spring Canyon Overlook (10 miles, strenuous) or drive the 4×4 roads to this overlook.

Utah Travel Guide

Things to do in The Needles: On a Map

How to Use This Map: Click the icons on the map to get more information about each point of interest. Click the star next to the title of the map to add this map to your Google Maps account. To view it on your phone or computer, open Google Maps, click the menu button, go to “Your Places,” click Maps, and you will see this map on your list.

Things to Know Before You Go

Entrance Fees: It costs $30 per vehicle to enter the park and this is good for seven days. This entrance fee includes all four districts of Canyonlands National Park. For $55 you can purchase a Southeast Utah parks pass, which also gets you into Arches National Park. You can also purchase an annual National Parks pass (called the America the Beautiful Pass) for $80. With this pass you can visit over 2,000 federal recreation sites. This is worth it if you also plan to visit more of Utah’s Mighty 5, including Arches, Capitol Reef, Zion, Bryce Canyon, or any other US National Park within the year.

When you get to The Needles, the first thing you will come to is the Visitor Center. If you plan to do any hiking or drive the 4×4 roads, get updates on trail conditions and road conditions from one of the park rangers on duty. You can also get updated conditions on the National Park Service website.

Best Time to Visit The Needles: The spring and fall months are the best times to visit. Weather conditions are pleasant and you can avoid the big crowds that flood the park in the summer. During the summer months, expect soaring temperatures and larger crowds. During the winter months, it is much less crowded, but temperatures get below freezing and snow is likely.

There are no restaurants in the park. If you plan to stay all day you will need to pack a picnic lunch. 

Cellular service is spotty/non-existant. We didn’t have great cellular service until we got back onto Highway 191.

Please practice the seven principles of Leave No Trace: plan ahead, stay on the trail, pack out what you bring to the hiking trail, properly dispose of waste, leave areas as you found them, minimize campfire impacts, be considerate of other hikers, and do not approach or feed wildlife.


If you have any questions about the best things to do in The Needles district of Canyonlands National Park, let us know in the comment section below.

More Information about Utah

ISLAND IN THE SKY, CANYONLANDS: The Island in the Sky district is the most popular area of Canyonlands to visit. Learn how to spend one perfect day at Island in the Sky and how to hike the Syncline Loop and Gooseberry Trail.

WHITE RIM ROAD: The White Rim Road is a 100 mile road that loops around the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park. It is one of the best national park experiences. Learn how to plan your trip in our Guide to the White Rim Road and how to spend one day on the White Rim Road.

ARCHES NATIONAL PARK: Take a look at our Arches National Park Travel Guide for important travel planning tips, sample itineraries, advice on when to go, where to stay, and more.

UTAH ITINERARY: If you need ideas on how to plan your road trip through Utah, check out our 7 to 10 day Mighty 5 Itinerary, our Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef Road Trip, and our 14-day American Southwest Itinerary.

SCENIC DRIVES IN CAPITOL REEF: Driving through Cathedral Valley is a an amazing one day road trip through the northern section of the national park. Lesser known but no less spectacular is the a drive where you Loop the Fold and visit slot canyons and remote corners of the park.

NATIONAL PARKS: In our Guide to the US National Parks, get the full list of national parks with important travel planning information, such as things to do in the parks and sample itineraries.

 

We have TONS more information about things to do and where to go in Utah in our Utah Travel Guide and in our United States Travel Guide.

 

 

Canyonlands National Park The Needles

 

 

All rights reserved © Earth Trekkers. Republishing this article and/or any of its contents (text, photography, etc.), in whole or in part, is strictly prohibited.

 

Comments 16

  1. Avatar for Philip Gold
    1. Avatar for Julie Post
      Author
      Julie

      2WD is fine. You will start this hike at the same trailhead as the Chesler Park Loop (the Elephant Hill trailhead), which is accessed on a dirt road that is suitable for standard cars. Cheers, Julie

  2. Avatar for April
    April

    If you had to choose between Chesler Park and Druid Arch, which would you choose? We’re also doing the Big 5, so it wouldn’t be the only arch we see.

    1. Avatar for Julie Post
      Author
      Julie

      We did not hike to Druid Arch yet (we only had time for one big hike in the Needles). We wondered the same thing so we spoke the one of the Needles park rangers and he recommended Chesler Park over Druid Arch because at Chesler Park you get to see lots of the needles and hike the slot canyon. I don’t feel like I missed out on anything, by choosing Chesler Park, because you do get to hike through a landscape that is a lot different than what you will see in the other Utah parks. Cheers, Julie

  3. Avatar for Lou Inzinna
  4. Avatar for Mark Doiron
    Mark Doiron

    Elephant Hill Trail is an iconic, technical off-road adventure. To travel it requires a properly equipped off-road vehicle (no ATV/UTV types allowed): 4X4, high clearance, AT or MT tires, two-speed transfer case. Some folks find lockers useful. but I’ve never used mine on it. If any of that is Greek yo you. please stay off this trail. You will have a good idea at the very beginning if you’ve jumped in over your head. The road up from the parking lot for hikers is steep, slippery and requires some backing. You will do more backing, cross shelves, likely scrape your rig’s belly, pass through narrow passages that can rip off extended mirrors, and test the limits of your backing skills where a mistake could lead to a vehicle rollover. Along the way, you have options for hiking the Joint Trail and the Confluence Overlook Trail. There are vehicle accessible campsites, if reserved in advance. Limited permits are available online starting at 8 a.m. the day prior through recreation.gov. On the day of, permits may be obtained at the visitor center.

    It is a challenging trail, renown within the off-road community. I have driven it twice, once the entire loop with the hikes I mentioned, and just a few weeks ago, exiting the park through the very remote south entrance, the very steep and rocky Bobby’s Hole, Ruin Park, Beef Basin and the Abajo Mountains. If you’re interested, check out this video for Elephant Hill and part 2 for that Bobby’s Hole exit …

    https://youtu.be/u9CxexT9E04

    1. Avatar for Julie Post
      Author
  5. Avatar for rita feals
    rita feals

    love the info you give! my husband passed away so i am alone now , and can only go when my son has time from work , and not on his own backcpacking trips! i recently tried a group called wildland trekking, but it was aweful, only good for beginning hikers who like 3 miles a day! thought it would be good cause there was a guide but NO! and SUPER SUPER EXPENSIVE!
    how can i get your info, you have here / just print it out i guess? so we can plan! THANKS for all the great advice! rita feals

    1. Avatar for Julie Post
      Author
      Julie

      Hello Rita. Yes, you can print this post from your web browser (currently we don’t have a pdf version of this post available).
       
      Press CTRL+P to open the printer dialog box (Command +P on a Mac). Select Print from your web browser’s menu (the web browser menu typically looks like 3 dots in either the horizontal or vertical position).
       
      Also please note that our articles are not optimized for printing so check the page count before sending everything to the printer. You might need to pick the pages you want to print.
       
      Have fun hiking the Needles! Cheers, Julie

    2. Avatar for Karen Briley-Balkan
      Karen Briley-Balkan

      There are other groups that hike: Sierra Club, Gutsy Women, and Great Old Broads of the Wilderness. I hope you find one that you like!

  6. Avatar for Tom
    1. Avatar for Julie Post
      Author
  7. Avatar for Kylie Thompson
    Kylie Thompson

    Your blog has been incredibly helpful as we embark on a 5 week trip next month. Its pretty jam packed as we are moving back to Australia and I really want to go to the needles district but I’m not sure we have a 6-7 hr hike in us. If that’s the case would you recommend we don’t drive out there or is it still worthwhile?

    1. Avatar for Julie Post
      Author
      Julie

      It would be worthwhile if you hiked to the Chesler Park viewpoint. This hike is 6 miles round trip and would take about 3 hours. But if you just did the shorter hikes (Slickrock Trail and Pothole Point) then it may not be worth it. Cheers, Julie

  8. Avatar for Bill Kline
    Bill Kline

    Thank you! Sharing your trips, photos ,maps and insights are and have been a great help in planning trips to the general area and a wonderful inspiration to return.
    Our recent trip, this March, although greatly affected by the shut down of the Navajo nation
    Due to COVID 19, was terrific. We were able to shift our itineraries and enjoy many of the less traveled locations we might never have seen otherwise.

    1. Avatar for Julie Post
      Author

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