The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park provides some of the best day hiking (and camping) locations in the world. Deep in southeastern Utah, the trails are plentiful, uncrowded, and full of epic 360 degree views. The most unique place, a series of slot canyons called 'the joint', hides at the far corner of the park's trails - about 11 miles round trip. It is worth every step.
Finding the Trailhead
The Needles District is a completely different park entrance from the more popular 'Island in the Sky' found north of Moab. To find it, drive south along Hwy 191, turning west before Monticello. Park entrance fee is $30 but is open 24 hours. The visitor center opens at 8am. Follow signs back onto a one lane dirt road to the Elephant Hill trail head. Those with serious off-roading capabilities can navigate a dirt road which branches off to the west of the trails, ending near the Joint. Do the full hike. It is so worth it.
What to Carry
In the high desert of Utah, it is recommend to take 1 gallon of water per person for the day. We freeze some of our bottles the night before, so we can have a refreshingly cool drinks all day. Snack and sun protection are a must, regardless of the time of year. Do note that temperatures can be very cold in this region during the winter months so layers are encouraged. Hiking boots are also strongly recommended.
The best time to leave is at day break as it can get especially hot in the summer months. Unfortunately, it takes quite a while to reach the trailhead for those not camping nearby. From the parking lot, begin up the marked path following signs for Chesler's Loop. With a variety of trails to choose, you'll encounter many signs along the way. Hiking along, around, and over the amazing land formations, you'll be struck by how different the rocks will look with different lighting upon your return. At the final sign for Chesler's Loop, you can choose which way to take the loop. We recommend going clockwise to best experience 'the joint'.
After reaching Chesler's Lookout, the path descends into a small opening in the massive rocks. Continue down as stone walls surround you with only a small opening dozens of feet above to provide light. Having descended a few tricky ledges, you'll reach the Worship Room with stacks of celebratory cairns left by those who've made the trek before you. Those arriving midday will be treated to direct shafts of light creating a wonderful glow in the cavern.
While returning on Elephant Hill trail is a repeat, the sun changes the color of the Needles. Be sure to hike with someone and let someone know where you will be and when you will complete the trail. This is an 11 mile trail and it is projected to take 5-7 hours. We took our time out there and it took us more like 9 hours. While there are few peaks, there is significant elevation change as you move up and down the rocks.