Canyonlands National Park preserves 337,598 acres of canyons, mesas, buttes, arches, and spires in SE Utah’s high desert. The Colorado and Green rivers divide the park into three unique districts that offer different opportunities for adventure:
- Island in the Sky: the most accessible district offers paved scenic drive, overlooks, hikes and the White Rim Road (a 4WD route).
- The Needles: offers phenomenal hiking and backpacking opportunities as well as challenging 4WD roads.
- The Maze: only those with a well equipped four-wheel drive vehicle and advanced backcountry skills should venture into the Maze. The Maze includes some of the most remote terrain in the lower 48.
While the districts appear close to one another on a map, traveling between them requires hours of time due to limited river crossings and rugged terrain. Because of the distance between the districts, each feels like its own park and I recommend treating them as such. For this reason, this post will only cover The Needles District.
Compared to the easily accessible Island in the Sky District near Moab, the Needles District is relatively remote and offers a more primitive adventure for those willing to hike or four-wheel drive into the backcountry. The heart of the park is dominated by colorful spires of Cedar Mesa Sandstone that tower above the trails. The scenery is some of the most awe-inspiring we’ve seen in the American West.
The Needles offers roughly 60 miles of interconnected hiking trails (click here for map). Most of the hikes are challenging, but the rewards are always great. For those not up for a big hike, I suggest driving through the park, stopping at the visitor center, and enjoying one of the easy/moderate rated hikes. Be sure to include a stop at Newspaper Rock on the drive to the park. The well-signed site along the highway leading into the park is an easy stop for the entire family. The rock contains an impressive number of petroglyphs, some estimated at 2,000 years old.
If I’m honest, I don’t know that the casual tourist will find The Needles worth the effort. It is fairly remote and you have to be able and/or willing to venture miles into the backcountry to see the best scenery. Most trails are rated as strenuous and are 7.5 miles or longer. Hikers must carry adequate water and be prepared for slickrock hiking and route finding as well as navigation along steep grades and up ladders. I would recommend extreme caution for those who do not have experience navigating trails across slickrock.
We have visited The Needles a handful of times and each visit has been nothing short of spectacular. The scenery and solitude on the trails can’t be beat. We enjoy spring and fall conditions, but the park is open year around.
In April 2011, during our first visit to the park, we enjoyed a couple of the short hikes and then hiked to the northern edge of Chesler Park and the heart of the multicolored sandstone formations that define The Needles. The scenery was unlike any other we had seen and we knew we’d need to return.
We returned a year later and completed an 11.0 mile roundtrip hike to Druid Arch, a massive 450′ tall free-standing arch that is arguably one of the most impressive and unique arches in the world. The formation is named because of its resemblance to Stonehenge in England, a place associated with Druids. Much of the hike was up Elephant Canyon with its deep sand and loose rock. There was also a ladder to negotiate near the end. Our efforts were well rewarded with incredible views throughout the entire hike.
Years later we returned to hike the 7.5 mile roundtrip loop through Squaw and Big Spring Canyons. The scenery on this route was every bit as stunning as other hikes. But without a big draw destination like an arch or rock art, few people hike this route providing for a peaceful experience.
Our fondest memories come from our May 2015 epic backpack along Salt Creek with our friend Lisa. Over the course of four days we covered roughly 35 miles and were treated to scenery beyond our imagination. Highlights included multiple arches (including massive Angel Arch), an old pioneer cabin, stunning scenery, and numerous ruins and rock art panels. Those interested in a more detailed account of the trip can read our blog post here.
The Needles District isn’t just a hiker’s paradise. For the experienced off-road enthusiast with a capable four wheel drive vehicle, over 50 miles of backcountry roads are available. Some of the roads require a permit and extreme caution should always be exercised. Towing expenses here typically exceed $1,000. I highly recommend further research here before you consider an off-road adventure in The Needles.
The Needles District is an approximately one hour drive from Monticello, Utah, the closest town with fuel, restaurants, and hotels. There are no restaurants or hotels in the park meaning visitors must be prepared for a 2 hour round-trip commute each day or be willing to camp in one of the area’s many campgrounds. Few services are available in the park and you should plan on bringing everything you will need for your adventure. While rare pockets of internet/cellular access can be found, do not count on reliable connectivity during your visit. This is a park to disconnect from the real world and lose yourself in your surroundings (but please don’t literally “lose” yourself!).
The park is generally open every day of the year. The visitor center is open daily from March 1 – November 30 and is closed December 1 – February 28. Be sure to check out their exhibits, movie, and bookstore as well as inquire about current conditions. Admission to the park is $30 per vehicle or $25 per motorcycle. For those adventuring to other National Parks, we recommend purchasing an America the Beautiful Annual Pass for $80.
Directions to the park: on US 191, drive 40 miles south of Moab or 14 miles north of Monticello, then take UT 211 roughly 35 miles west to the park. Do not rely on standard navigation systems when visiting The Needles. Go prepared with a detailed area map like the Utah Benchmark Map. And use extreme caution if you leave the paved road. Stay updated on weather conditions, know where you are going, and be sure you have the right vehicle for the road—if you are in doubt, you likely don’t!
- The Needles Campground within the park has 26 individual sites, plus 3 group sites. Nightly camping fee for an individual site is $20. Potable water is available in season, but no dump or electric. You can reserve some individual sites in spring and fall. Other times of the year, individual sites are first-come, first-served.
- The Needles Outpost is a private rustic campground just to the east of the park. Additional services include gasoline, propane, and general store.
- The Needles is bordered by a large area of BLM land to the east. Numerous dry camping opportunities are available just a short distance off the highway.
- Monticello is the closest town to the park (49 miles southeast). The small town has hotels, restaurants, and basic services.
- Moab is a little further away from the park (75 miles northeast), but offers a larger selection of hotels and restaurants.
Related Posts/Nearby Attractions
- Arches National Park, Moab, Utah
- Canyonlands National Park’s Squaw Canyon – Big Spring Canyon Loop
- Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, Island in the Sky District
- Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, Horseshoe Canyon
- Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, Salt Creek Backpack
- Utah’s Dead Horse Point State Park
- Utah’s Natural Bridges National Monument
The Adventure Continues
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