Canyonlands is like three parks in one. There are three distinct districts of the park, and it’s not possible to travel between them from inside the park. Going to a different district requires hours of driving. Thus, most people only make it to the Island in the Sky and maybe Needles. Very few people visit the remote Maze.
I had a backcountry permit for the Needles District, so I would be starting there. Getting there requires a long drive through Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, so it feels pretty remote. There weren’t that many people there during my visit. In my book those are good things.
More good things about Canyonlands is that it’s a relatively new park. It was founded after the huge building boom in our older national parks, so Canyonlands is lacking in strip malls, gas stations, restaurants, hotels, and campgrounds. Unlike our other parks, it’s a great place to go to get away from civilization. The upshot is that it is a bit difficult to find a site in the small campground. That’s where that BLM land comes in handy. Those with 4WD vehicles can open a gate on a side road and drive until they find a place to camp for free. For those of us in Toyota Camrys, there are a number of developed, yet rustic campgrounds. They are popular, so I got to one early and waited to secure a site.
A Walk In The Park
My big activity here was an overnight backpacking expedition in Chesler Park. This would be my final overnight trek of this trip, and the Needles would be a great finally. The district is named after the many needle-like rock pinnacles everywhere. Just getting started on the trail was a little tricky. The sandy trail through the wall of needles at the start was full of footprints, which I dutifully followed. Unfortunately, the cheaters of the prints were lost too, because they didn’t lead anywhere. It took some careful retracing of my path, and consultation of the topo map app on my phone to get on the trail.
Once on the trail, I followed the cairns. The hike went by many groups of needles. There was a rugged climb through a canyon. At the top were some obnoxious people shouting into the silence, so I didn’t stick around to enjoy the view. After descending I ended up in a grassy area surrounded by needles: Chesler Park. I got to my designated site pretty early and set up camp. It really is remote.
With a lightened load I set out on a hike to Druid Arch deep in the backcountry. This turned out to be a very strenuous hike through rugged terrain. First the trail went over slickrock, so I had to be careful to follow the cairns. Every time I missed one I would have to backtrack to the last one and look for the next one. Then it went through some crevices where it wasn’t clear where the trail was. Several times I followed a crevices to the end with no sign of the trail, so I had to backtrack. My iPhone app with a topo map preloaded was invaluable here.
The trail eventually descended from the canyon walls to a dry wash, which it followed for a long time. I got worried as the trail petered out and I had to bushwhack through some thick vegetation. The faint trail ended up on the edge of a deep pool, with no way across. Was I supposed to swim? I looked up the canyon walls, and there was a guy high above me! I asked how he got up there, and he showed me where I missed the turnoff.
The Scramble To The Arch
Once back on the real trail, it was pretty strenuous, with lots of climmbing and scrambling. The final scramble was pretty intense, up some rubble, ending up high on the canyon walls. There were a couple ladders to scale, then Druid Arch loomed into view. It was an impressive arch, with a shape that invokes images of Druids performing mysterious ceremonies. The light was bad, with the bright sun right behind the arch. But I didn’t have time to linger. I was a little worried about getting back to camp before sunset.
I encountered a lost group on my way back, and I helped them find the trail. They were planning on going all the way back to the parking lot, so I told them they had better hurry. I was only going a few miles back to my campsite, but it was slow going through the rugged terrain.
I made it back before sunset, and had time to do some photography in the nice light. As the sun set my neighbors, a family, arrived at the site next door. The sites are very close to each other, and I could hear them talking loudly late into the night, spoiling the backcountry experience. I didn’t think I would have to wear my earplugs out here.
Through The Joint
The next day, rather than retracing my steps, I hiked out via the Joint Trail, which goes through a narrow joint between the rocks. In some places it got so narrow I had to remove my pack and camera holster. This trail eventually joined the Elephant Hill 4WD road, which I hiked out on, yielding to 4WD’s. The road was just a trail over the slickrock, and watching the jeeps slowly navigating it was impressive. The final stretch was truly daunting. The trail was so steep and rocky it’s not enough just to have a Jeep, you have to be experienced in driving on trails like this. A fun way to experience Canyonlands would be in a Jeep expedition, but they are expensive.
Chesler Park is a challenging but rewarding hike, that can be made more challenging by exending it to the impressive Druid Arch. It can be done in a day, but it’s always nice to spend the night in a special place like this. Due to the closeness of the campsites, be sure to look at a map and apply for one of the more remote ones early.