Hiking and Camping in Canyonlands National Park’s Needles District
A typical visit to Canyonlands National Park is like a typical visit to the Grand Canyon: drive up, get out of car, stand on rim, look in, get in car, drive away. Nothing wrong with that, but I wanted to get into the land of the canyons and walk around a little. So we headed to the Needles District of the park, located about 60 miles south of the more-often-visited Island in the Sky District, and home to lots of trails.
Canyonlands is a wonderful place because it’s still relatively undeveloped. You can’t even get into huge sections of the park, like The Maze, with a regular passenger car. Most of the trails are really long, though they have few technically difficult sections, so they’re doable as dayhikes. There’s tons of backcountry camping — the only issue is packing in enough water for a longer stay. Most people drive in to the backcountry campgrounds and use their car as home base for longer hikes.
So I said I wanted to do a little hiking in the Needles — we ended up hiking almost 30 miles in three days. It was wonderful.
Big Spring Canyon
This trail cuts through two incredibly lush canyons — something you’re not expecting to find in this desert. We saw just two other groups on this hike (one was a geology field camp). We also managed to get lost for a bit. Slickrock + cairns for wayfinding + stiff breeze = trail confusion.
The only known fact about the Confluence Overlook trail is that it’s either 9 miles, 10 miles, or 11 miles long. I’m going with 11 miles, as that was quoted on the sign at the trailhead and by a ranger later on and because it felt that long. This hike was tough. For some reason we thought it was supposed to be a “nice ramble through a meadow,” but that meadow had lots of obstacles: ridges that needed to be scrambled up and over and a steep canyon that needed to be crossed. We almost made it through this entire hike without seeing another person — we even thought we might be the only two people on the trail that day, but then we came across two other hikers starting out as we neared the trailhead. Finishing this trail made me feel like a total badass.
Chesler Park/Elephant Canyon
Up to this point we’d just been skirting around the Needles — I wanted to get into them for real. I had planned another 11 mile hike on our last day in Canyonlands, but we revised that down to this 9-ish mile loop through Chesler Park and Elephant Canyon. The skies were stormy, but we were only hit with a few drops of rain. I wanted to get soaked. You don’t get soaked in the desert, at least not with rain.
We saw the most people on this trail — maybe 30 or 40 total. The majority seemed totally unprepared for a hike in the desert — there was a family with about ten kids and no water, a few older couples who weren’t steady on their feet and who liked to argue, and a couple who didn’t seem to understand how to follow a trail (we tried to point them in the right direction). Then again, it was a Saturday, so that might have had something to do with it.
The Needles Campground
The Needles Campground is a great home base for hiking in the Needles when you’re driving a regular old car that you don’t want to end up abandoning in the desert. Private sites are scattered among rock outcroppings so that you’re unlikely to see another site from yours. It’s a quiet, beautiful place and you won’t mind if you or your significant other starts to get a bit stinky, but if the stench becomes overwhelming, showers are available at nearby Needles Outpost. It’s more economical to stay at the outpost for the night ($20 camping + $6 for two showers) than to buy the non-camper showers ($15 camping + $14 for two showers), so if you need to bathe, plan to stay at the outpost on your final night in the Needles.
One night, we attended a campfire program on John Wesley Powell‘s first voyage down the Green and Colorado Rivers, back when the map was empty. I learned one very valuable lesson: never, under any circumstances, put all your barometers in one boat. That alone was worth the trip.