walking through a dreamland
After hiking around the Devil’s Garden and watching the sunset at the Delicate Arch, we thought our day in Arches would be tough to top, but the very next day proved even better. We drove down to the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park and spent all day out on the trails in Canyonlands backcountry. Not only did our day in Needles prove to be the best of the hikes we did in two and a half weeks in the Southwest, but also it will easily go down as one of our most memorable hikes to date.
The Green and Colorado rivers that form Canyonlands National Park divide the terrain into three distinct districts. We spent a day each in Needles and the Island in the Sky sections of the park. The third district, called the Maze, is considered one of the least accessible park areas in all of the United States. We neither had the all-terrain vehicle necessary to reach it nor the time at our disposal needed to hike there. Unlike Needles and the Island in the Sky, which both offer lots of great day-hike options, it is practically impossible to go hiking in the Maze without spending at least one night there.
After the crowds we encountered in Arches, Needles proved wonderfully unfrequented. Whereas the Island in the Sky is easily accessible — a mere half-hour outside of Moab — it takes three times as long to reach Needles, which helps explain its relative seclusion. Because it receives so few tourists, the staff at the visitor center were extra helpful. Many of the park rangers we encountered throughout our visits to Utah’s five national parks were too overwhelmed with questions to show enthusiasm or do much more than give out maps and point would-be hikers to the list of trail options contained therein.
The ranger who spoke to us in Needles, on the other hand, not only described her favorite hikes at length but also helped us save a bunch of money. At $25-30 per national park, entrance fees can add up pretty quickly. We had devoted our pre-trip research to working out our route and did not price out our visits. Thanks to Amy, with whom we spoke at Needles, not only did we learn that we could obtain a year-long national park membership for only $80, which paid for itself by the time we were halfway through our trip, but also that we could get credit towards the membership price by presenting the receipts from the national parks we had already visited.
From D’s preliminary research, we had decided to hike in the Elephant Hill area of Needles, which offers a variety of trails through the distinct formations that give this part of Canyonlands its name. D had been leaning towards the 11-mile Druid Arch hike, but Amy strongly suggested we check out the Chesler Park/Joint Trail Loop, also 11 miles, which is the park’s most popular hike.
The great thing about the Elephant Hill trails is that they frequently connect and sometimes overlap, so it is possible to create one’s own route rather than hiking to a pre-established destination. And the surroundings are so overwhelmingly beautiful that it is pretty much impossible to pick a trail that won’t leave one speechless. We wound up fashioning a slightly longer hike out of the two aforementioned points of interest, which took in all of the grandeur of Chesler Park before forking away into a side canyon that led us to Elephant Canyon, and ultimately to the Druid Arch.
Looking back through our pictures, it is hard to fathom a more diverse and beautiful hike than the 12.6 miles we walked in the Needles. For the first two miles, the trail ascended towards these unique rock formations, which had been carved over the course of millennia by the sands of time. The photos only barely hint at their breathtaking beauty. We paused so frequently to take pictures that we managed to cover less than three miles in the two hours before we stopped for lunch.
The trail in the beginning was only moderately difficult, ascending at a slight angle across large expanses of slickrock before arriving at a lookout point with views of both the Needles and the Elephant Canyon beneath them. The trail headed down, across the canyon floor, and up the other side towards Chesler Park. On the way back, we would hike out the Elephant Canyon from Druid Arch.
After the initial mile and a half, the trail arrives at a major crossroads and from then on, the path becomes a lot more adventuresome. We spent most of the rest of the day alternating decently steep ascents and descents, scrambling up and down rocks, and walking up, down, and across giant slickrock surfaces. The overlook just before we entered Chesler Park offered sweeping views of the Needles, and we lingered there to take in the almost surreal views.
The scenery changed dramatically once we set foot in Chesler Park itself — a wide, flat meadow ringed by some of the needle structures that we had admired from afar. The canyon we entered when we left Chesler Park was as different from it as night is from day, but offered views that were no less dramatic. We scrambled through a small canyon that joined up with the Elephant Canyon we had crossed earlier.
The final two miles to Druid Arch took us an hour of relatively flat hiking along the sandy canyon floor until we reached the rock outcrop atop which the arch proudly rests. The last quarter-mile was a very steep ascent that included a fixed ladder and some serious rock scrambling.
In many respects, the Druid Arch was even more impressive than the Delicate Arch. We saved half of our sandwiches and had a second lunch at the lookout beneath the arch. The sun was beginning to set right behind it, so the arch was difficult to photograph, but our perch also offered unparalleled views of the stunning Elephant Canyon we had just navigated.
It was 4:20pm by the time we began our descent, which left us with only a couple of hours of daylight to return to the parking lot. Though D found it difficult to resist the temptation to take pictures, we put away our nice DSLR and hiked virtually without stopping. We covered the 5.5 miles back to the parking lot in a bit over two hours, arriving just after sunset, but well before the light faded completely from the sky.
The only downside to hiking in Needles was that we had pitched camp in Moab, which left us with a 90-minute drive back at the end of a very long day.