If you want to get an up-close look at the “Needles,” the sandstone spires that make the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park so uniquely beautiful, put Chesler Park on your list. It is possible to hike out and back to Chesler Park on a short day hike. But if you don’t mind going farther, hike the Chesler Park Loop with the Joint Trail for the best experience.
The Chesler Park Loop has a little bit of everything…easy rock scrambling, trails that criss-cross between the orange and red sandstone needles, and sweeping views out to the La Sal Mountains and the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park. Throw in a cave and a narrow slot canyon and you have a wonderful adventure in Canyonlands National Park.
This is our favorite hike in Canyonlands National Park. Here’s how to do it.
Distance: 10.7 miles
Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous
Total Ascent: 2,140 feet
Starting Elevation: 5,100 feet
Highest Elevation: 5,675 feet
Length of Time: 5 to 7 hours
When to Go: You can hike the Chesler Park Loop year round. The best time to do this hike is in the spring and fall, when temperatures are mild. During the summer months, temperatures can soar midday. In the winter, expect cold temperatures and snow is a possibility.
Chesler Park Loop elevation profile
Hiking the Chesler Park Loop
Getting to the Trailhead
The Chesler Park Loop starts at the Elephant Hill Trailhead in Soda Spring. From the Needles Visitor Center, take UT-211 into the park for 3 miles. Turn left onto Federal Route 2444 towards the Needles campground. Just beyond the campground, the road becomes a dirt road that is suitable for standard cars. Follow the signs for Elephant Hill. This road “ends” at the parking lot for Elephant Hill Trailhead. If you have a 4WD, you can drive up Elephant Hill from here, but it requires a day-use permit.
Hiking to Chesler Park
This trail starts off steep and strenuous, but fortunately, it doesn’t stay that way. You will climb up a staircase wedged between two massive boulders and then hike up a small ridge. Once at the top, the trail levels out. This part of the hike is very beautiful, as you are hiking between giant knobs of orange sandstone rock.
1.5 miles into the hike, you reach your first trail junction. Continue on the trail to Chesler Park.
Note: The entire trail is marked with rock cairns that are very easy to follow. At each trail intersection (there will be quite a few on this loop), there is sign with trail names, destinations, and distances.
For the next 1.4 miles, the trail gets to be a little more challenging, and a little more interesting. Along the way, you will have short climbs and descents, you will walk through a short, narrow slot canyon, and start to have better views of the needles.
To get to Chesler Park, it’s a short, steep climb up and over a rocky ridge. You will have to do some very easy rock scrambling here.
From the ridge (labeled “Chesler Park Viewpoint” on the elevation profile), you have spectacular panoramic views over the Needles. To the northeast, you look out over the trail you just hiked. Off in the distance are the La Sal Mountains. To the south is Chesler Park.
Looking north towards Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park.
You can turn around at this point, making the hike 6 miles out-and-back with a total ascent of 1,250 feet. But if you have the time and energy, it’s well worth it to keep going. The Joint Trail is tons of fun and the walk through Chesler Park is beautiful.
Chesler Park Loop
The next part of this hike is a loop. You can do it in either direction. We did it counter-clockwise and this is the way that I recommend. In this direction, you get the tougher parts of the loop over with early and end the loop on a flat, easy trail with spectacular close-up views of the needles.
As you drop down into Chesler Park, you will walk just a tenth of a mile until you reach another trail junction. Turn right to follow the loop counter-clockwise, towards the Joint Trail and Devil’s Kitchen Campground.
For the next 1.3 miles, you hike alongside a group of sandstone needles. There will be a few short climbs and descents, and the trail is constantly twisting and turning. Keep an eye on the rock cairns so you don’t lose your way.
You will come to another trail junction. At this point, follow the sign for the Jeep road. When the trail hits the Jeep road, turn left to continue on the loop. At the fork in the Jeep road, go left. In 0.5 miles, the Jeep road ends at the Joint trailhead.
On the Joint Trail
The Joint Trail is 1.5 miles long. Halfway down the trail, you will have a short but steep climb as you hike through a dense collection of the sandstone spires. This is where the hike really gets interesting.
After a short, steep, climb up an extremely narrow staircase, you enter a large cave.
The slot canyon, one of the best parts of this hike, comes next. This slot is long, skinny, with a few brief sections where you will rock scramble up and over obstacles.
Once you exit the slot canyon, you are back in Chesler Park. The next part of the walk is flat, fast, easy, with more views of the needles. This was one of my favorite parts of the hike. It’s a nice break from the ups and downs along the trail and the views are amazing.
Before getting back to the saddle, where the Chesler Park Loop ends, you will get to another viewpoint out over the Needles District with the La Sal Mountains off in the distance.
The Return Hike
The loop ends back at the saddle (Chesler Park Viewpoint) in the Needles. From this point, it is a 3-mile walk back to the Elephant Hill parking area and mostly downhill.
View on the return hike.
Summary of the Trail
Since there are so many trail junctions, here is a summary of the trail:
- Start at the Elephant Hill Trailhead and follow signs for Chesler Park.
- 1.5 miles from the trailhead, at the trail junction, continue to Chesler Park, which is 1.4 miles from this junction.
- 1.8 miles from the trailhead, cross the sandy wash to continue to Chesler Park.
- 2.7 miles from the trailhead, at the next junction, continue to Chesler Park, which is 0.2 miles from this junction.
- 2.8 miles from the trailhead you reach the saddle and the Chesler Park Viewpoint.
- 2.9 miles from the trailhead is where the Chesler Loop Trail begins. Turn right here to hike it counter-clockwise (follow the trail sign for Joint Trail TH 2.4 miles and Devil’s Kitchen CG 2.6 miles).
- 4.1 miles from the trailhead you reach a junction. Follow signs for Jeep Road, which is 0.4 miles from this junction.
- At the Jeep Road, turn left. In 0.2 miles, the road will fork. Turn left here, following the sign for Chesler Park Trailhead. In 0.5 miles you will reach the Joint Trail.
- The Joint Trail is 1.5 miles long. It ends in Chesler Park. Follow signs back to Elephant Hill to complete the hike.
To simply things, from the trailhead, follow signs for Chesler Park. Once you reach Chesler Park, follow signs for the the Joint Trail. After hiking the Joint Trail, follow signs for Elephant Hill to complete the hike.
Tips to Have the Best Experience
If you plan to visit the Needles from June through September, be aware that it can get brutally hot. Plan to start this hike first thing in the morning, when temperatures are at their coolest.
There is a toilet at the Elephant Hill parking lot.
The trail is well-marked with rock cairns and trail signs. We didn’t have any problems staying on the trail. But with all of the junctions and spur trails, I think it is beneficial to bring along a map. We carry a Garmin GPS and wear Garmin Fenix watches, which come loaded with trail maps. Another option is to purchase the National Geographic Needles District Map, especially if you plan to do more hikes in the Needles. At the very least, take a photo of trail map on the sign at the trailhead with your phone.
Do not expect your cell phone to work. For most of this hike we had zero cellular service. There were a few spots in clearings or at higher elevations where we got a few bars of LTE or 3G, barely enough to send a text message. But don’t depend on your phone to call for help, talk to friends, or send photos to friends and family.
Leave No Trace. When you are in the park, practice the seven principles of Leave No Trace. This includes packing out what you bring into the park, be considerate of other hikers, stay on the trail, and do not remove anything from the park.
What to Bring on the Hike
Hiking shoes. Don’t do this hike in anything other than hiking shoes or hiking boots.
Hiking poles. Hiking poles take the stress off of your legs and help to ease leg pain and fatigue.
Water and snacks. At least 4 liters of water in the summer.
Sunscreen, hat, and sunglasses. For most of this hike you will be exposed to the sun, with very little shade.
Camera. Even a smartphone will do.
If you are new to hiking or are curious about what you should bring on a hike, check out our Hiking Gear Guide. Find out what we carry in our day packs and what we wear on the trails.
If you have any questions about hiking the Chesler Park Loop, or if you want to share your experience, let us know in the comment section below.
More Information for Your Trip to Canyonlands:
- Best Things to Do in the Island in the Sky District
- One Perfect Day in Canyonlands National Park
- How to Hike the Syncline Loop
- How to Hike the Gooseberry Trail
- How to Drive the White Rim Road: Map, Photos & Driving Tips
- White Rim Road: Detailed Guide and Planning Checklist
If this is part of a bigger road trip through the USA, visit our United States Travel Guide for more inspiration and travel planning tips.
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