Distance: 8.3 mile Loop | Time: 4.5 – 5.5 hours | Level: Moderate
The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park does not get enough credit. Somehow the Needles have remained untouched and unnoticed by visitors who are dead set on exploring the more popular Island in the Sky District.
We spent three weeks on an Arizona-Utah road trip, and still, our day spent hiking in the Needles was one of our favorite adventures. Hiking Elephant Hill, Chesler Park, and Druid Arch Trail gives hikers a little bit of everything: hoodoos, pinnacles, narrow canyons, slickrock, caves, and arches.
The best part? There’s nearly no one there.
With the route offering views and solitude, it’s easy to see why Elephant Hill, Chesler Park, and Druid Arch Trail are the best hike in the Needless District.
I would go as far as to say it’s the best hike in all of Canyonlands National Park. Period.
In this guide, I will cover why you should make the drive to the Needless District, the best hike in the Needles, what to expect, and everything you need to know before visiting.
Stick around to the end, as I also highlight other must-see areas near Canyonlands National Park that you won’t want to miss.
Table of Contents
Complete Guide to Hiking Elephant Hill, Chesler Park, and Druid Arch Trail: Best Hike in the Needles District
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Things to Know Before Visiting Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park is the largest park of the Utah Mighty 5. Preparing for your trip is crucial. Keep these things in mind while planning your trip to the Canyonlands.
Canyonlands National Park has Four Districts
Canyonlands National Park is one of the trickier parks to navigate because of its size. Canyonlands is split into four districts: Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze (requires 4×4 clearance), and the rivers themselves.
Island in the Sky is by far the most popular and most visited district in Canyonlands National Park. The district is a short 45-minute drive from Moab making it easy to access. This park also boasts several scenic viewpoints making it a favorite for tourists.
This district is heavily trafficked by visitors eager to see the famous Mesa Arch at sunrise and to witness the beauty and vastness of Grand Viewpoint.
The other three districts are more remote, require more days, take more planning, and cater to more experienced adventurers.
How far is the Needles District from Island in the Sky?
The remoteness of the Needles District is a huge part of its allure. While this district is harder to get to, it’s 100% worth the road trip.
The Needles District of Canyonlands is located about 1 hour and 45 minutes south of Moab. While on a map, the two districts look near one another, there is no connecting road between the two. The only way to get from Island in the Sky to the Needless District is by getting back on Highway 191.
Entry into Canyonlands National Park is $30 per vehicle and can be purchased online or upon arrival. This type of pass is good for 7 days and covers entry into all districts.
However, I recommend purchasing an America the Beautiful pass for $80 if you plan on visiting at least one other National Park during your trip to Utah. After all, Canyonlands National Park is located just 45 minutes away from the iconic Arches National Park, a must-see destination in Southern Utah.
No Cell Service
One of the most incredible things about the Needles District is its remoteness. With that in mind, you should prepare to have no cell service during your time in the Needles and limited, if any, service in the Island in the Sky District as well.
Is the Needles District Worth Visiting?
Again, the Needles District is a bit out of the way but it was hands down our favorite experience in Canyonlands National Park. The Needles are breathtaking, rivaling the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon, and remain relatively untouched by visitors when compared to other National Parks.
Our only regret for our visit to the Needles District was not spending more time there. The District is small but boasts several trails and camping options (more on this later).
You could easily spend a couple of days in the Needles without getting bored. In fact, I highly recommend it.
Which is Better: Island in the Sky or Needles District?
While we enjoyed our time on the Island in the Sky District, it did not compare to the adventurous nature of the Needless District of the Canyonlands. If we were to go back, we would give 100% of our time to exploring the Needles.
However, determining which district to visit highly depends on what you’re looking to do.
The Island in the Sky district is great for travelers looking for shorter hiking options and easy-to-access viewpoints. Visitors who only plan to spend one day in the Canyonlands most commonly opt to explore the Island in the Sky district for this very reason. With short and easy hikes and pull-off viewpoints around every corner, this district allows you to see more in less time.
With that being said if you’re looking for raw adventure and a break from the busy crowds, The Needles District is by far the superior district in the Canyonlands.
While the Needles District is small in size it is jam-packed with off-the-beaten-path adventures.
Anytime a place can give me endless hiking, camping options, epic views, and keep me away from crowds, I’m sold.
Needless to say, the Needles District of the Canyonlands won me over immediately.
What to Expect Hiking Elephant Hill, Chesler Park, and Druid Arch Trail: Best Hike in Needles District, Canyonlands
After spending just a couple of moments searching images of the Needles District I knew we had to hike there.
We decided on hiking Elephant Hill, Chesler Park, and Druid Arch Trail in hopes of exploring as much of the area on foot as possible in just one day.
After a beautiful 1 hour 45-minute drive from Moab, we arrived at the trailhead parking lot. The parking lot isn’t very large but there were plenty of spaces open. Vault toilet facilities are also available here.
When set out on our hike around 9:00 a.m. there was only one other couple in the parking lot. We knew it was going to be a good day.
The trail begins with a series of stair steps. A couple of moments into the trail we passed another group of hikers making their way out. Those handful of people were the only people we saw during our entire time on the trail.
Just moments into the trail we were already enamored by the beauty and colors of the surroundings. The contrast of the flat trail next to the giant rock formations felt bizarre in the best way.
Following this flat section, the trail winds hikers down through a narrow canyon. This section requires some rock scrambling. Once you shimmy down the rocks, the views of the canyon valley are beautiful.
If you can believe it, the views only get better from here.
What makes hiking Elephant Hill, Chesler Park, and Druid Arch Trail so incredible is that the landscape is always changing. Hikers pass sections of boulders, down narrow canyons, along rims, across grassy fields, between pinnacles, up slickrock, and over sweeping lookouts.
After hikers scramble back up the trail for a bit, they are rewarded with the most incredible view of the Needles. From this lookout, the forest of sandstone spires seems endless.
It’s evident how the district got its name.
We spent way more time here soaking in the view than planned. We just couldn’t get ourselves to leave. In all our years of hiking, we had never seen anything quite like it.
Following this stunning view, the trail takes hikers up a steep pile of boulders. This portion of the trail is fun and requires you to use your hands to pull yourself up and over some rocks.
Once you scurry over these rocks, the landscape changes again. You’ll know you’ve transitioned into Chelser Park the moment you lay eyes on the vast, grassy field.
Here, the terrain completely opens up and gives hikers the rushing sensation that they are completely alone in the valley. The towering rocks and boulders are now off in the distance.
More than once while hiking through Chesler Park that giddy sensation of, “Where are we?!” came over the both of us.
After we rounded the loop and found ourselves among looming spires of sandstone once again we took a break and had some lunch. It was a beautiful place to stop and take in the unique and ever-changing scenery.
After lunch, we continued on our way and quickly found ourselves descending into a dried-up river bed. We spent the remainder of the hike navigating via rock cairns, trudging through sand, and scrambling over loose gravel.
This stretch of the trail is more technical and requires more focus. Keep your eyes peeled during this section of the hike. There’s a cool cave-like slot canyon here you don’t want to miss.
I want to note that the Elephant Hill, Chesler Park, and Druid Arch Trail do not actually take hikers past Druid Arch. We were not aware of this until we came across the sign showing the trail continuing on to Druid Arch going one way, and our trail map showing us needing to go another.
Adding the connector trail to Druid Arch adds another 4 miles total to the hiking distance.
Had we known this prior to starting our hike, we would have packed more water and more snacks and definitely added on the miles.
Unfortunately, we were not prepared and had to skip Druid Arch.
With that being said, Druid Arch is incredibly unique and worth visiting if you have the time and stamina.
Backpacking in the Needless District
Another thing we were unaware of before we set out to hike Elephant Hill, Chesler Park, and Druid Arch Trail was the backpacking options.
We would have loved to sleep overnight in the Needles, secluded beneath the stars. I was distraught when I realized we missed our opportunity.
With a permit, you can backpack the Needles. We passed several camping areas during our hike. Permits for the backcountry are very competitive and can book out up to four months in advance.
Keep in mind what time of year you are visiting if you’re wanting to camp in the backcountry. Most of the Needles District is very exposed to the sun and temperatures in the summer months can get extremely high.
As always, pack and plan accordingly.
Must-See Areas Near the Canyonlands
Let me just start with, Moab is the most rad little adventure town. The town serves as a launch point for Arches National Park, Canyonlands, and Dead Horse State Park.
I recommend making Moab your home base while you spend a couple of days exploring the nearby parks. However, keep in mind that Moab has some great adventures of its own.
Dead Horse State Park
Much like the Needles District, Dead Horse State Park also does not get the hype it deserves. One of my absolute favorite moments spent during our three-week Arizona-Utah road trip was watching the sunset in Dead Horse.
The Dead Horse Rim Loop Trail is a must-do for sunset. The park was quiet and there wasn’t a soul on the trail. We didn’t even do the entire loop. Instead, we found a perfect spot along the rim overlooking the canyon, took a seat, and watched the sunlight everything in its path red.
I still have chills.
Arches National Park
On the flip side, Arches National Park is one of the places fully deserving of the hype it’s received. You’ll want to spend a couple of days exploring Arches soaking up its popular hikes, as well as its more hidden gems.
Natural Bridges National Monument
Lastly, if you want to escape the crowds while exploring some incredible natural landscapes, head south to Natural Bridges National Monument.
We spent the day exploring the area and only encountered a handful of other people. Here you can see three natural bridges: Sipapu Bridge, Kachina Bridge, and Owachomo Bridge. You can also see ancient granaries still intact on the walls of the canyon.
You can explore the area via trail or stop at the viewpoints along Bridge View Drive.
Other Activities if you Plan to Stay in Moab
Are you planning a Utah Mighty 5 road trip? Have you been to Canyonlands National Park? If you have any questions about exploring the Needles District or planning the perfect Canyonlands itinerary, drop me a message in the comment section below!
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