Photograph by brewbooks Flikr
Distance: 17.0 miles (loop)
Walking time: day 1: 6 3/4 hours day 2: 6 hours
Elevations: 1,400 ft. gain/loss Elephant Hill Trailhead (start): 5,120 ft. Chesler Park: 5,600 ft. Druid Arch: 5,740 ft.
Trail: This is almost entirely a slickrock trail, with stone cairns marking the way. The terrain is very rugged and you will be continually climbing over and around obstacles; hence the trail seems longer than it really is.
Season: Spring, early summer, and fall. This is one hike you probably won’t want to do in July or August. There is very little water or shade, and daytime summer temperatures are nearly always over 100 oF. Winter hikes are possible, but the high desert is often cold at night. For current conditions call the Canyonlands National Park Headquarters in Moab at (801) 259-7164.
Vicinity:Canyonlands National Park, Needles District, near Moab
If you can stand the high desert temperatures, the Needles District of Canyonlands is a hiker's paradise. The needles themselves are the main attraction. Carved by the wind and the rain from the multicolored Cedar Mesa Sandstone, they present a startling array of spires and pinnacles that rise from the slickrock like a forest of sandstone trees. Some parts of the trail wind torturously through the stone towers and canyons, forcing hikers to negotiate one obstacle after another.
Deep inside the rugged needles country lies an unexpected refuge of gentle grassland. This is Chesler Park-a flat, circular-shaped meadow about a mile in diameter, almost completely surrounded by the sandstone needles. There are three designated camping areas on the perimeter of the meadow, and one could hardly ask for a more beautiful place to spend a night or two. There are also several other interesting things to see within an easy walk of Chesler Park, including an impressive natural arch and a small Anasazi Indian ruin. The one drawback that prevents Chesler from being a perfect hiking destination is the unavailability of water. The nearest reliable spring is two miles away in Elephant Canyon, so you will have to carry most of your water with you.
The route from Elephant Hill Trailhead to Chesler Park is only about 3.3 miles long, depending on which camp site you use. The trail is almost entirely across slickrock, marked by stone cairns. There is a great deal of up and down, and this makes the distance seem greater than it actually is. There are three junctions with intersecting trails along the way, but the route is clearly marked with signs at each junction so there shouldn’t be any confusion as to which way to turn. After 2.8 miles the trail emerges from behind a row of needles to give you your first view of the northern side of Chesler.
Once you reach Chesler Park you should decide where you are going to camp so you can shed your packs. The Park Service allows camping in three places along the eastern edge of the meadow, but, in my opinion, the southeastern camp sites have the most to offer. To reach this area continue south from the last trail junction, along the eastern side of the park, until you meet another trail coming in from Elephant Canyon. Turn right here, onto the Joint Trail, and soon you will pass by the southern side of a rocky island in the center of the park. The camping area (marked by signs) is along the southwestern side of the island. The western side of this rock island was also a popular camping area for cowboys who ran cattle in Chesler Park from the late 1800s until the early 1960s. You can still see the remains of their camp just north of the backpackers camping area.
After you have established a camp site, leave your backpacks behind and check out the Joint Trail. Continue walking west from the camping area along the main trail for about 0.8 mile, where you will find a long, narrow flight of stone stairs that lead down into a dark, slender crack in the sandstone. The trail continues through the bottom of the three-foot crack, called a “joint” by oldtimers, for some 300 yards before emerging once again at the top of the slickrock. The Chesler Park hike is full of surprises, but for many the joint is the most exciting part of the trip.
Soon after emerging from the joint you will cross the dry streambed of Chesler Canyon and meet a jeep trail coming down from Elephant Hill. You will have to walk north along the jeep trail for a short distance to reconnect with the Chesler Park Trail and complete the loop back to your camp site. The sides of Chesler Canyon, through which the sandy road winds, are lined with hundreds of stone needles. Like giant terrestrial pin cushions, even the hills surrounding the canyon are packed with clusters of needles. After 0.7 mile on the jeep road you will see another sign marking the departure of the trail to Chesler Park. Turn right here and then right again at the next trail junction. Finally, 1.9 mile from the road you will again arrive at the northeast corner of Chesler Park.
After breaking camp you should leave Chesler via the southeast exit to Elephant Canyon. About 0.2 mile before you arrive at Elephant Canyon you will have the opportunity to see an Anasazi Indian ruin. The ruin is a few hundred feet below the trail, in the bottom of a small canyon on the north side. You can’t see the ruin from the trail itself, but just above the site there is a place where previous hikers have left the main path to walk to a viewpoint only 15 feet away that looks directly down onto it.
There is another trail junction in the bottom of Elephant Canyon. The northern path leads back to Elephant Hill where your car is parked. But before going back you should take off your backpacks and make a side trip to Druid Arch, 1.8 miles south of the junction at the head of Elephant Canyon. You will probably see a few scattered water holes in the creek bed as you make your way up the canyon. This is one of the few places in the area where you can usually obtain water-a useful thing to know if you plan to spend more than one night in Chesler Park.
Druid Arch itself is extremely impressive. It stands high on the mesa top above Elephant Canyon, with nothing but blue sky behind it. The appearance of the huge arch reminds many people of Stonehenge in southern England, hence its name. (The Druids are the people who built Stonehenge.) In her book, Desert Quartet, Terry Tempest Williams shares with us her first impression of Druid Arch:
"Red Rock. Blue sky. This arch is structured metamorphosis. Once a finlike tower, it has been perforated by a massive cave-in, responsible now for the keyholes where wind enters and turns. What has been opened, removed, eroded away, is as compelling to me as what remains. Druid Arch-inorganic matter-rock rising from the desert floor as a creation of time, weathered, broken, and beautiful." (Desert Quartet, Pantheon Books, New York, 1995)
The best time to see Druid Arch is in the morning. The trail ends at a magnificent viewpoint high on the east side of Elephant Canyon where, on most days, the arch is bathed in the morning sunlight.
From the Chesler Park trail junction, where you left your backpacks, the trail back to Elephant Hill continues down the bottom of Elephant Canyon for another 1.4 miles before reaching the trail used on the first day to reach Chesler Park. From that junction it is another 1.9 miles back to the Elephant Hill Trailhead.
As the map suggests, there are many alternative routes for this hike. In my opinion it would be a shame to visit the area without (1) spending at least one night in Chesler Park, (2) experiencing the Joint Trail, and (3) seeing Druid Arch; and the route I have suggested will allow you to do those things with a minimum amount of walking. If you have the time, however, I suggest you begin your hike at the Squaw Flat Campground rather than Elephant Hill, and spend two nights in Chesler Park (see map on page 211). Doing so will add 2.1 miles to the outbound distance, and 2.7 miles (via Big Spring Canyon) to the return distance. The section of trail between Elephant Canyon and Big Spring Canyon is particularly interesting, with another cave-like crack to walk through and two strategically placed ladders to negotiate.
If you fancy yourself an explorer, I will leave you with a final thought. Chesler Park isn’t the only desert Shangrila in Canyonlands. Only a mile southeast of Chesler there lies another smaller, but equally beautiful grassy meadow: Virginia Park. Virginia Park is so well protected by a surrounding wall of sandstone that its isolation is nearly complete, and for that reason it is considered to be a very special place by the Park Service. It is one of the few places on the Colorado Plateau that was never grazed by cattle or sheep, and, consequently, its plant life is still in a nearly pristine state. For botanists and ecologists Virginia Park has great scientific value and the Park Service is striving to maintain it in its original state; hence it has been closed to hikers. There is no marked trail leading to it, but possible routes into the park exist from Elephant Canyon and Chesler Canyon. If you succeed in finding your way to Virginia Park, please do not defile it in any way. Be especially careful not to damage the cryptogamic plant life that exists in the park’s dry, undisturbed soil.
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