Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Chesler Park

The Needles from the pass above Chesler Park
6 miles round trip, 1100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Gravel road to trailhead, Canyonlands National Park entrance fee required

The hike to Chesler Park visits the heart of the Needles District in Utah's Canyonlands National Park, a maze of red rock spires and sinewy canyons. This is an excellent hike with great views that grants access into the depths of this red rock wonderland; besides the hike to Horseshoe Canyon, this is perhaps the best day hike in Canyonlands National Park. The hike passes many sandstone spires and leads to Chesler Park, a wide and scenic grassland encircled by the Needles. The Needles District of Canyonlands is accessible by a paved but long drive from Moab and sees far fewer visitors than Island in the Sky or Arches, though many of the visitors who make it out here will choose to hike to Chesler Park. While I'm just describing a round trip hike to Chesler Park in this post, many hikers continue onward to make a loop near the grassland by hiking through the narrow canyon known as the Joint.

I hiked to Chesler Park with my mom during a November road trip through the Utah canyonlands. We stayed in Monticello the night before and reached the trailhead from there, although it is far more likely that you'll be visiting from Moab. From Moab, take US 191 south for 40 miles to the turnoff for Route 211 to the Needles District. Here, turn right and follow Route 211 for 37 miles, passing the incredibly preserved petroglyphs at the excellent Newspaper Rock State Historical Monument on the way into Canyonlands National Park's Needles District. After passing the visitor center and then the Wooden Shoe Overlook, we turned left onto the Elephant Hill Road, turning right at the next two junctions after that to get onto the gravel road that led us to the Elephant Hill Trailhead at the bottom of a canyon. The Elephant Hill Road is open to passenger cars up to the trailhead but is for 4WD vehicles by permit only beyond that point.

The parking area was nearly full during our visit on a November weekend, as this is perhaps the most popular hike in the Needles District. From the trailhead, the trail immediately began a steep ascent up dirt and slickrock as it ascended out of a canyon and onto a shelf above. Once the trail reached the top of the shelf, we found great views of the surrounding Canyonlands country. The La Sal Mountains rose to the west- one of the tallest mountain ranges within the Colorado Plateau. The Abajo Mountains lay to the south, a lower range near Monticello. The many of the layers of the Colorado Plateau formed the dramatic canyons around us: in the needles, lighter layers of caprock topped columns and canyon walls of red sandstone. In the distance rose the mighty canyon walls of the Wingate Formation, which forms the high mesas of Island in the Sky and Junction Butte. One of the more notable eroded remnants of the Wingate cliffs was Six Shooter Peak, one of two buttes near the Needles District just outside the park in Bears Ears National Monument, which have been mistakenly identified as the Bears Ears Buttes themselves by multiple publications. 

La Sal Mountains and the Canyonlands
Junction Butte and Island in the Sky
Six Shooter Peak
Abajo Mountains
Two-thirds of a mile of hiking brought us through a narrow gap in the sandstone on Elephant Hill. Emerging on the other side, we had better views of Elephant Hill, a cluster of spires of Cedar Mesa Sandstone near the trail. The trail stayed fairly flat as it continued traversing the bench, with occasional sections that required scrambling up or down rock steps or angled slickrock. As we hiked through this section, my mom pointed out that a few of the rounded, stout outcrops of Cedar Mesa Sandstone looked like hamburgers, which I was couldn't unsee after she pointed it out.

Elephant Hill
Hamburger rocks
At just over a mile into the hike, we crossed a pass through Elephant Hill and came to a stunning view of the Needles spread out ahead of us. From this viewpoint, a city skyline of sandstone rose before us, the spires sporting the bands of red and white rock that is the signature of the Needles. Hikers looking for a short hike might turn back here but the best still lay ahead.

The Needles
Leaving the pass, the trail descended just slightly and then crossed through a grassy plain dotted with junipers. At the end of the plain, the Elephant Hill trail intersected with a trail coming from the Squaw Flat Campground, 1.4 miles from the trailhead; here, we took the right fork to continue onward towards Chesler Park. After passing the junction, the trail immediately passed through a narrow cut in a sandstone fin and entered a valley sandwiched between ridges of Needles. The trail descended just slightly as it circled around the next set of rock spires.

The Needles
Rounding a corner, the trail suddenly dropped into a narrow and very straight joint of fractured Cedar Mesa sandstone. This joint- like the better known stretch known as the Joint beyond Chesler Park- is formed by the very same fracturing that resulted into the individual spires of sandstone in the Needles. As in nearby Arches National Park, the sandstone layers here are underlaid by the Paradox Formation, a body of salt lying beneath the many sedimentary layers that form the Canyonlands. Deformation of this salt layer contributes to fracturing of the surface sandstone layers above, which have cracked into a grid-like layout that erodes into the pinnacle shapes and rock joints that we see today.

Trail passing through narrow rock joint
Continuing down the rock joint, it opened up into a small canyon with trees. Here, the trail began to descend more as it hugged the sides of the canyon. Soon, the small side canyon opened up into the larger Elephant Canyon and the trail descended steeply down to the wash at the bottom of Elephant Canyon. At the bottom of the wash, I came to a trail junction at 2 miles from the trailhead: the trail heading to the left up the wash led towards Druid Arch, so I crossed the wash and continued following the trail ahead towards Chesler Park.

Descending into a wash
The stretch of trail climbing out of Elephant Canyon was one of the most difficult of the hike, packing in over 200 feet of elevation gain after 2 miles of generally level hiking. The slickrock terrain here made the elevation gain much harder. As I climbed out of the canyon, I enjoyed the views of a colorful ridge of the Needles on the other side of Elephant Canyon.

The Needles
After the trail climbed out of Elephant Canyon and back onto a grassy plain on the shelf layer, I found views of some of the most impressive spires of the Canyonlands. Massive rock pinnacles rose ahead of me, marking the eastern wall of the ring of pointed rocks bordering Chesler Park.

Approaching the Chesler Park pass
As I continued the gentle uphill along the trail, great views opened to the northwest of the dense field of rock spires known as the Devil's Kitchen. This was one of my favorite parts of the hike; many of the Needles soared over 400 feet tall, making this scene truly seem like a city of stone.

The Needles
At 2.7 miles, the Chesler Park Trail split from the Devils Kitchen Trail. Here, I took the left fork, following the Chesler Park Trail as it began a short ascent, climbing a hundred feet up to a pass in a wall of the Needles. Crossing the pass, I found a wide grassland laid out before me, bound on all sides by red and white sandstone spires. I had arrived in Chesler Park.

Chesler Park
Descending slightly from the pass, I arrived at a junction at 2.9 miles: here, the trail split apart for the Chesler Park Loop. I took the left fork and wandered a bit farther down the trail to a nice high point with views across the grassland itself as well as back towards the pass that marked the entrance into Chesler Park. While many hikers chose to complete the loop- which adds about another 5 miles of hiking- I ended my hike here, soaking in the views of red rock spires all around me.

Chesler Park
Chesler Park

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