The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park looks like a beautiful wasteland. Spires of Cedar Mesa Sandstone streaked with ribbons of every shade of orange climb from the earth. The Needles look like the abandoned factories of giants. Like wet globs of sand dropped from a hand into bulbous stacks. And this eerie landscape is made stranger still by high desert grassland that catches gusts of wind and waivers like an enormous sheet. Backpacking Canyonlands means following primitive trails and traversing slot canyons. It’s uncrowded solitude and spectacular beauty.
Looking for an adventure in one of the most rugged parks in Utah? Here’s everything you need to know for backpacking in Canyonlands’ Needles District like where to camp, how to get permits, and more.
AT A GLANCE
Nearest City: Moab, Utah, USA // Difficulty: Moderate // Duration: 3 days // Distance: ~24km
The Needles is a district in the Southeast corner of Canyonlands. It’s named for bizarre sandstone spires (that’s the “needles”), and offers up some of the best backpacking in Canyonlands.
The most popular backpacking loop is the Chesler Park Loop, though we decided to add on some trails to extend our trip. Our hike started and finished at Elephant Hill Trailhead via Chesler Park, Joint Trail, & Devils Pocket. You can do any of these sections in 1-2 days, but you can undertake most sections of the hike individually or combine them for a longer trip.
Entrance to Canyonlands National Park costs $30 per vehicle, $25 per motorcycle, and $15 per individual or bicycle. If you’re planning to visit 3+ National Parks, you should consider buying the America the Beautiful National Parks Pass ($79) which includes access to all US National Parks and Federal Lands.
Read more: Canyonlands guide coming soon!
CANYONLAND NATIONAL PARK MAPS
You can get a Canyonlands National Park Map at the Visitor Center or entrance gate, but you really need a topographical map when traveling in the backcountry. The best Canyonlands map you can get is probably the National Geographic map.
- Canyonlands National Park – The Needles District (National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map) ($14.95)
Need it now? The NPS produces this basic map of the Needles that you can use in trip planning. Click the preview of the 2019 map below to zoom in on the details.
Backcountry permits are required for all overnight trips as well as some day trips in Canyonlands. For backpacking in the Needles, a backcountry campsite reservation is the same thing as your backpacking permit. Permits are released online at midnight MST four months in advance.
As with most US National Parks, the reservation process for permits in the Needles is insanely competitive; most sites sell out within minutes of being released. I’ll go into which campsites to book below, but be sure to map out your route ahead of time so that you already know 1) which sites you’re going for and 2) where you’re starting and finishing your trek. It’s SO important to know exactly which sites you want rather than scrambling during the online process. Trust me on this. It’s also a good trick to make the reservation on a computer where your personal details are preloaded. Apply for your backpacking permits here.
Get a permit? Lucky you. Once you’ve secured your reservation online, you’ll get an email with payment instructions. You have to pay within 48 hours or you’ll lose your hold. Permits are issued by email and should be confirmed with the Wilderness Desk before you head out.
Didn’t get a permit? While most permits are sold online via the calendar system, some wilderness campsites may be available for walk-ups. Check at the Wilderness Desk the day before your trip starts to check what’s available. There’s also a Backcountry Reservation Office in Moab that issues permits Monday through Friday from 8am – 4pm.
Didn’t get the site you wanted? You can check in with the Wilderness Desk upon arrival at Canyonlands. They’ll sometimes have different walk-up permits or upgraded campsites available.
Backpacking permits for The Needles cost $30 per site with a maximum group size of 7.
CHOOSING YOUR CAMPSITES
There are 12 resource areas in the Needles District. Take a look at the Canyonlands Backcountry Map to plan your route. We stayed at Devil’s Pocket and Chesler Park, but below is a quick summary of six of the backcountry campsites in the Needles.
- Devil’s Pocket: A super-private single campground just a short hike from the Devil’s Kitchen 4WD sites. Accessible on an offshoot from the main trail, so you’ll get a mix of privacy and incredible scenery.
- Chesler Park: The five-site campground is the most popular area for camping in the Needles. You’ll be protected from the wind but you’ll get awesome views too! And since it’s a popular spot for day trips, you get to enjoy the quiet of the evening by staying overnight.
- Elephant Canyon: A three-site campground located in Elephant Canyon 3km from Druid Arch.
- Big Spring: A spread out two-site campground on the Big Spring Trail.
- Squaw Canyon: A two-site campground in Squaw Canyon that is farther from the denser Elephant Canyon and Chesler Park area.
- Lost Canyon: A three-site campground in Lost Canyon with more vegetation than the other resource areas. Accessible on the Lost Canyon Loop.
Elephant Hill Trailhead (via Chesler Park, Joint Trail, & Devils Pocket) Route
There are tons of hiking trails in the Needles so you can customize your route to be whatever you want it to be. Since water is scarce, you’ll want to plan a backpacking trip with shorter and fewer days than you might normally (or at least cache water). Below is a sample 3-day loop itinerary from Elephant Hill Trailhead.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Itinerary and suggested campsites are based on my own experience, but be sure to reference a park map before finalizing your bookings.
DAY 1: ELEPHANT HILL TRAILHEAD TO DEVIL’S POCKET // HIKING DISTANCE: ~9.6KM
Drive out to the parking lot at Elephant Hill Trailhead. It’s a short climb up towards the Chesler Park Trail where things open up and you’ll start to see some of the incredible rock formations and the first of the Needles that this section of Canyonlands is known for.
The trails are narrow and lined with fragile biocrust. Be sure to stay on the path (don’t bust the crust!). This part of the hike is mostly flat. Stay right until you hit the junction for Elephant Canyon.
At the junction, the trail curves, but stay straight. After 1km, you’ll come to another junction where you can bear left to Chesler Park or right to Devil’s Kitchen/Devil’s Pocket.
Devil’s Kitchen is a campsite accessible to 4×4 vehicles, but it’s just a short walk along the dirt path towards the lone Devil’s Pocket site. The campsite is located in a meadow, and you’ll wade through knee-deep grass towards a cluster of spires to get there. It’s an awesome campsite hidden beside some huge boulders, and the only site available in this area. Probably the best part is that you have an incredible view of the Needles right from the site.
DAY 2: DEVIL’S POCKET TO CHESLER PARK // HIKING DISTANCE: ~7KM
Wake up and have a leisurely morning at camp. It’s a short day of hiking so you don’t need to rush (though it is good to get started before it gets hot). Leave camp to get back on the trail, and continue through the meadow. As the trail veers left, you’ll climb a pass through some sandstone spires and descend about as quickly.
Hit the junction with Chesler Park Loop Trail. If you want to add in the Joint Trail like we did, the quickest way is to stay straight and hike about 1.5km along the 4×4 road. When you come to a sign that says “Beef Basin”, stay left and head towards the Joint Trail.
Hike the Joint Trail climbing rock fractures until you come to a shady slot canyon. This part of the trail is very narrow at points, so if you’re traveling with wide bag, you might have to rearrange. You’ll climb out of the slot canyon on a big rock with a very confusing sign to your right. Rather than following the sign to a viewpoint, follow the rock cairns to the West side of the rock.
It’s about 2.5 km more to Chesler Park, an incredible grassy landscape with Needles on all sides. The campsites are nestled next to the massive rock faces which offer some protection from the wind. Most of the sites are located along an offshoot trail that looks out on a meadow and massive rock formations.
DAY 3: CHESLER PARK TO ELEPHANT HILL TRAILHEAD // HIKING DISTANCE: ~7KM
From your campsite, get back on the Chesler Park Trail. At the first junction, you’ll keep right and continue 1km until the trail joins with Elephant Canyon. Keep straight until the trail splits again. Here, you’ll cut left towards Elephant Hill trailhead and hike back to the parking lot.
HOW TO GET TO CANYONLANDS & THE TRAILHEAD
GETTING TO CANYONLANDS
The closest major airports are Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC) or Denver International Airport (DIA), though both are still a 5-7 hours drive away. It’s also possible to fly into Canyonlands Fields Airport (CNY) in Moab or Grand Junction Airport (GJT) but flights will be significantly more expensive.
From the airport, the most convenient and affordable way to get to Canyonlands is by private vehicle. If for some reason, you can’t rent or bring a vehicle, there are a couple of shuttle services like Coyote Shuttle and Moab Taxi Cab that offer [quite expensive] transport to Canyonlands.
GETTING TO THE TRAILHEADS
There are a couple of trailheads in the Needles District, but our Loop started from the Elephant Hill Trailhead. It’s about a 9km drive from the Visitor Center. You can park in the lot, and since it’s a loop, your car will be waiting for you when you finish up your hike. The shuttle operators listed above can also offer hiker shuttles to trailheads.
GOOD TO KNOW FOR BACKPACKING CANYONLANDS
Backpacking in the desert is no easy task, but backpacking Canyonlands is well worth the effort. Here are a few other things you might want to know before heading out on your trip:
- There aren’t many reliable water sources in Canyonlands. You should plan to pack in ALL the water you’ll need for your backpacking trip or be prepared to cache some in advance. For our three day trip, we carried 16L which was shy of what we really should have brought
- Water weighs a TON! Our 16L weighed a whopping 16 kilos (35 lbs). Keep this in mind as you make space in your bag and pack for the trip. Opt for recipes that don’t use much water and bring a vessel like a dromedary that will shrink in size as you use it.
- The best time of year for backpacking the Needles is April, May, September, and October. Avoid summer if possible as temperatures can exceed 37 °C
- Always check with the Visitor Center or Wilderness Desk before starting your trek! They can tell you about Canyonlands trail closures, weather concerns, etc.
- While there’s no concern about predators, there are mice and other critters. Bring a rope and a sealable bag so you can store your food in a tree.