Canyonlands National Park, Utah (and Deadhorse Point State Park)



Chesler Park Loop/Joint Trail, Needles District, Canyonlands NP, Utah

The Needles district of Canyonlands National Park holds my favorite hike of our trip, my favorite hike of all-time as it stands now. The hike starts off going up some steps, to a view of miles and miles of white-topped red mushroom rocks below. As we walked further, I noticed huge red and white rock structures to our right and ahead. Eventually, three huge structures of red and white rocks appeared before us. As I walked closer to Chesler Park, these structures started looking like castles. It became obvious how massive these rock structures really were, as we walked up to it. 

Chesler Park "Castle Rocks", Needles District, Canyonlands NP, UT

Chesler Park "Castle Rocks", Needles District, Canyonlands NP, Utah


We walked up between these “castle rocks” to the other side for an amazing panoramic view of mushroom rocks below and needles surrounding the entire valley of mushroom rocks. The trail also went through a straight-walled dark rock slot canyon, the first one with steps going into this slot.  We had lunch just behind the massive castle rock at the edge of Chesler Park. After lunch we continued on Joint trail, which allowed us to explore further the surrounding rock structures. I spotted one that had circular rocks on the top, which looked like the Kremlin. An arch, more giant needles, giant silo-shaped "mushroom" rocks, some with "windows" between them, some more slot canyons, more views of what looked like city skylines made out of rocks (including a balanced rock in the middle of the skyline), more scrambling, and we eventually made our way out of Joint trail. Words, even pictures, don't do justice to the amazing structures that surrounded us. This trail was the most unique and beautiful that I have hiked to date.

Needles in Chesler Park, Canyonlands NP, UT

Needles in Chesler Park, Needles District, Canyonlands, UT


Slot Canyon, Chesler Park, Canyonlands NP, UT

Slot Canyon, Chesler Park, Canyonlands NP, UT

Slot Canyon, Chesler Park, Canyonlands NP, UT


The Needles were formed by two different earth movements.  The Monument Uplift lifts the mesa sandstone upwards, causing a series of fractures from east to west.  The Paradox Formation is a thick layer of salt buried deep underneath the sandstone. This salt layer is slowly flowing towards the Colorado River. As the salt layer slides, it causes fractures to occur in the sandstone from north to south. These two movements cause a series of gridlike fractures which is later eroded to form spires which are called the Needles. 

Mushroom rocks below, Joint Trail, Canyonlands NP, UT

Mushroom rocks from above, Chesler Park, Canyonlands NP, UT

Approaching mushroom rocks, Joint Trail, Canyonlands NP, UT

Mushroom rocks along the Joint Trail, Canyonlands NP


UT-211, the 35-mile paved road that leads you into the Visitor Center is a very scenic drive.  Lined with massive rock formations resembling human-made buildings, it kept us distracted for most of the drive.  On our drive, we spotted rock structures resembling giant cathedrals, stadiums, pyramids, the Whitehouse and castles.


At about 11 miles roundtrip, 1600 ft elevation change from the highest point to the lowest point, this hike would probably be considered strenuous but doesn't require any technical climbing skills aside from the usual stamina and attention needed to complete a hike over rocky and mountainous terrain. The hike consists of going up and down the sides of these massive rock formations often, so the actual elevation change is a lot more than 1600 feet.  Most of the rock had texture for grip, or steps built into them. Though I have a fear of heights, this hike did not challenge my fears. For those who are familiar with Nevada Falls in Yosemite National Park, I would say this hike is similar in difficulty to the hike to the top of Nevada Falls via Mist Trail, then down by John Muir Trail. There are several “slot canyons” between the bases of the needles and mushroom rocks to get from one complex of rocks to another. These slot canyons had straight walls on both sides, narrow, most just sufficient in width for one-way, one-person traffic at a time.  If 11 miles seems daunting distance-wise, an almost 6-mile out-and-back hike to Chesler Park will give you a glimpse of these amazing rock formations. Be sure to check in with the Visitor Center for trail conditions and weather updates before going on the trail. There is NO water on the trail, so all needed water will need to be carried in. Our very modest usual hiking speed of 2 miles an hour was slowed down considerably; we completed this 11 mile hike in 8.5 hours (includes 30 minute lunch), owing partly to the terrain and partly to my continuous picture taking.  Sometimes, I wonder why I take so many pictures.  Pictures just don't do justice to the awe I felt walking amongst these gigantic structures. .

Skyline of rocks with balance rock in the middle, Joint Trail, Canyonlands NP, UT

Skyline of rocks with balance rock in the middle, Joint Trail, Canyonlands NP, UT


We hope to visit this part of the park again in the future, maybe camping overnight to enjoy sunsets and sunrises. It is the most unique and beautiful hike that I had ever done to date.  Campgrounds are available both close to the Visitor Center and inside Chesler Park (I assume walk-in). Spring and fall seem to be the best time to visit.  Summer's high temperatures (over 100F) and monsoon floods make it unsafe. Winter's cold temperature and possibility of snow/ice on trails/roads make it unsafe as well.  Inquire with Canyonlands website for more details.


Practical Information (as of April 2017):

Directions: about 1.5-2 hours south of Moab, starts at Elephant Hill trailhead of Needles District of Canyonlands NP, Drive south on US-191 40 miles from Moab.  Take UT-211 35 miles to Visitor Center, unpaved 2WD road leads to Elephant Hill trailhead

Features: Needles and mushroom rocks forming shapes of giant buildings and changing rock city skylines for miles and miles

Hike: Chesler Park-Joint Trail Loop: 11 miles roundtrip, up and down very rocky terrain, fairly difficult, Chesler Park: shorter almost 6-mile round-trip to experience the needles, out and back trail

Amenities: vault toilet, parking

Fees:  $25 for private non-commercial vehicle for 7 days (or free with Intra-agency Annual National Parks Pass)

Website: Canyonlands National Park

Other: When hiking in deserts and canyons, pay attention to the weather forecast, as rain in any surrounding area may cause dangerous flashfloods. Check with Rangers if in doubt.


Canyonlands Island-in-the-Sky Auto-Tour

There are a few stops we made in the Island-in-the-Sky district of Canyonlands. Mesa Arch was one. A very short (0.5 mile) walk to the arch perched at the edge of a canyon overlooking rock formations in the background made for a beautiful photo. We stopped at Upheaval Dome for a hike to the First and Second Overlook, a total of about 2 miles.  Upheaval Dome, a crater that is multi-colored, is mysterious in its origins.  There are two theories as to how it was formed.  One involves a meteor crater forming th upside-down dom; the other theory a very earthly movement over salt.  Either way it was a beautiful sight to see.  My husband tells me that Aztec Butte was a worthwhile climb.  I stopped about 3/4 way up the rock mountain, as I couldn't find my grip to get across the slick rock.  Hubby tells me there was a roofless rock house on the mesa top and nice views of the surrounding valley.  

Mesa Arch, Canyonlands NP, UT

Mesa Arch, Islands in the Sky District, Canyonlands NP, UT


DeadHorse Point State Park

Between Moab and Canyonlands, there is a turnoff for DeadHorse Point State Park.  We walked the almost 6 mile Rim Trail, starting at the Visitor Center.  The view at the point over the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers was pretty amazing.  It reminded me of pictures I had seen of Horseshoe Bend, near Page, Arizona; except that rock structures here prevent you from seeing the entire bend of the river.  We had a very Grand Canyon-type of view walking along the East Rim Trail from the Visitor Center.  Well worth the $15 entry fee.  The Visitor Center had bathrooms and refuge from the strong winds. Bring jackets.

Website:  Deadhorse Point State Park, Utah

DeadHorse Point State Park, Utah

DeadHorse Point State Park, Utah



Warning:  All listed adventures come with inherent risks. The information provided is based on personal experience which may or may not be typical. The safety of these adventures are dependent on a variety of factors including but not limited to: terrain, weather, wildlife, hiker skill level, human error, preparation and other foreseen and unforeseen circumstances. As such, we do not assume any liability for the accuracy and completeness of the information provided.  As such, we will not be held responsible for any harm, injury, and/or loss that may result. Your personal preparation and judgement on the safety of each adventure is required at all times. Please use your own discretion and always be safe.

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