America’s Best Desert Dayhikes: Chesler Park Loop, Canyonlands National Park

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Canyonlands National Park is split by rivers into four districts, separated by hours of driving: Islands in the Sky, Horseshoe Canyon, the Maze, and arguably the best district for day hiking, the Needles District, home to its namesake 100-plus-foot-tall red-and-white-striped sandstone needles.

The best way to see the actual needles is by hiking the Chesler Park Loop, a climb through Dr. Seussical sandstone fins and mushrooms to Chesler Park, a high desert meadow ringed by the needles.

Chesler Park Loop

Leaving the Elephant Hill trailhead, the trail winds in and out of canyons on sand and slickrock, past acres of living cryptobiotic soil, and climbs up to and through a gap in the wall of needles. The short climb ends at the Needles Overlook, from which you’ll see the expansive grassy meadow to the south, and, through the other side of the gap, the distant 10,000-foot-tall La Sal Mountains towering over the red desert.

From the overlook, it’s a downhill walk on soft red sand to a spot where the trail looks like it completely disappears. But a stairwell drops into a gap between boulders, and at the bottom the route reveals a parallel-sided rock “hallway” only three feet wide in spots and up to 40 feet tall. This is the famous “Joint Trail,” which goes on for a quarter-mile in a surreal slot between huge rocks, truly a one-of-a-kind experience. While you’ll feel like you’re in one of the Southwest’s famous slot canyons, technically you aren’t, making this an even more curious place.

Chesler Park Loop

The trail continues through slots, up and down sandstone ledges, and loops back around to the Needles Overlook to rejoin the trail back to the trailhead. The 11-mile loop feels mostly flat, but packs in 1,200 feet of rolling ups and downs throughout the day.

Those used to crowded national park roads and trails will find the Needles District surprisingly quiet—the district itself is a 90-minute drive from the nearest town, and it’s not an area that delivers much to those who don’t want to get out of (or venture far from) their cars. The good stuff is a few miles from the trailhead, and some of the best of that good stuff is on the Chesler Park Loop.

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