Chesler Park and Joint Loop Trail

Chesler Park and Joint Loop Trail

Canyonlands National Park

Type: Lollipop day hike
Distance: 10.2 miles (16.4 km)
Cumulative Elevation Gain/Loss: 2076 feet (634 m)
Date Visited: Friday, April 19, 2019
Chesler Park and Joint Loop Trail Map

Time flies when you’re having fun, and sadly it was the last day of our trip to Canyonlands National Park. We had completed a 4-day backpacking adventure in Salt Creek Canyon, followed by a much needed one-day break. On our last full day in Utah, we decided to check out Chesler Park, a dayhike in the Needles District.

We planned to hike the 10.2 mile lollipop loop called Chesler Park and Joint Loop Trail. It features spectacular views and a unique path through a deep and narrow fracture in the sandstone. Chesler Park is a large circular grassland surrounded by needles, a geological feature. Back in the 1960s, it was used for cattle grazing (which thankfully has since ended). While there are many ways to hike Chesler Park, we decided to take the route suggested by the park service.

A quick note about trail names in the Needles – you’ll notice that many are inconsistent if you look at multiple maps. Our map uses trail names based on public NPS GIS data. But the trail signs don’t specify the trail names, and instead have arrows with the destination and mileage (e.g. Elephant Hill in 1.5 mi or Druid Arch in 3.9 mi). For these reasons, we highly recommend carrying a map.

Elephant Hill Trailhead

We woke up tired and sore from our 28-mile backpacking trip, but we had high hopes for the day. The drive to Elephant Hill Trailhead was fairly easy, until we turned onto Elephant Hill Access Road shortly after the Needles Campground. After that, it’s a narrow dirt road with blind curves, so we took it slow. We got to the trailhead around 11 a.m. Chesler Park is a longer hike so I wished we had gotten there earlier, but this was the best we could do on that particular day. Thankfully there were still some parking spots at the main lot. There is also an overflow lot that we passed on the way.

Canyonlands: Elephant Hill Trailhead
Elephant Hill Trailhead

Initially the trail ascends slickrock, and there are some picturesque stone steps. Much of the hike continues along slickrock, and some sections cut through sand. Cryptobiotic soil is also present, so be sure to avoid stepping on it.

We followed cairns as the trail weaved its way south, above Elephant Canyon. Behind us to the north, we spotted the snow capped La Sal Mountains. In the distance we could see the spires and needles that give the area its name.

300 million years ago, ancient seas dried up, leaving behind a layer of salt – which still lies 1000 feet below the surface. As rock eroded, it covered the salt, and the pressure caused the salt to flow. The resulting movement fractured the sandstone on top, creating a grid-like pattern. Over time, further erosion carved the needles as they appear today.

It was sunny and in the 80s, so we ducked behind any rocks we could find. There was a significant temperature difference in the shade compared to the sun. As we hiked, we saw a few lizards scampering around, and wildflowers like Indian paintbrush. After 0.6 miles we continued right on Chesler Park Trail. At this point I was still exhausted from the backpacking trip, but it wore off quickly as I was really enjoying the hike.

Canyonlands: Stairs Near Elephant Hill Trailhead
Stone steps shortly after the trailhead
Canyonlands: Elephant Hill Trailhead From Above
Looking back at Elephant Hill Trailhead Parking
Canyonlands: Views From Elephant Hill
Sweeping views along the trail
Canyonlands: Following Cairns After Elephant Hill TH
Following cairns
Canyonlands: Indian Paintbrush in Needles
A variety of Indian Paintbrush right off the trail – probably one of the largest groupings we’ve seen!
Canyonlands: View of Needles
The namesake needles
Canyonlands: Side Blotched Lizard Near Elephant Hill
There are many lizards in Canyonlands. This one is a side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana).

The trail ascends slickrock, then cuts through portions of rock. It led us through a narrow crack between two fins. It was shady and cool through there, so we hung out for a bit. We continued straight at the next intersection. Left would have taken us to Druid Arch, and right leads to EC1, a backcountry site.

We were getting closer to the needles, which meant better views. At the next intersection, we turned left to stay on Chesler Park Trail. This portion of the trail only goes for 0.6 miles, and features a moderately strenuous uphill climb with about 400 feet of elevation gain. Looking behind us, we had a view into Elephant Canyon, where we had just hiked, with the La Sals in the distance. A sign marked a “viewpoint.” The trail climbs, peaks, and then descends a sandy trail into Chesler Park itself. To our left, a small unnamed arch peeked out above the fins.

Canyonlands: Narrow Crack in Sandstone in Chesler Park
The trail travels through a narrow crack in the sandstone
Canyonlands: Chesler Park Trail Shaded
Exploring a shaded area along Chesler Park Trail
Canyonlands: Climbing Up on Chesler Park Trail
Some minor scrambling along the route
Canyonlands: View of Needles
Needles! Beyond them is the area known as Chesler Park.
Canyonlands: Before Entering Chesler Park
Looking back before entering Chesler Park
Canyonlands: Unnamed Arch in Chesler Park
Small unnamed arch on our left as we entered Chesler Park

Chesler Park Loop

The slickrock gave way to a grass-covered meadow. This was Chesler Park. Though it seemed a bit out of place, it was beautiful. In the book Canyonlands National Park: Favorite Jeep Roads & Hiking Trails, author David Day theorizes that Chesler Park was formed by an ancient sinkhole that was filled with sand. When the salt movement below the surface created the needles, it also created the wide open Chesler Park.

While you can go either way at the intersection to form a 4.9 mile loop around Chesler Park, we chose to turn left and go counterclockwise. A network of trails, including Chesler Park Trail, Joint Trail, Devils Lane Road, and Devils Kitchen Trail, forms the circuit. Our first section, Chesler Park Trail, is narrow, sandy, and surrounded by vegetation and cryptobiotic soil. A few larger trees and bushes are scattered around. Shade is hard to come by, but we found a small tree where we enjoyed a quick lunch break.

Back on the trail, there are several viewpoints out over the needles. We passed two consecutive intersections, the first of which leads to Druid Arch. The next is a spur trail which follows some fins and needles into the heart of Chesler Park. Along this spur are four backcountry campsites: CP2, CP3, CP4, and CP5. (We had passed CP1 earlier, along the loop.)

Canyonlands: Entering Chesler Park
Entering Chesler Park
Canyonlands: Hiking Through Chesler Park
Trail weaving through Chesler Park
Canyonlands: View of Chesler Park
View of Chesler Park
Canyonlands: Chesler Park Intersection
U-shaped trail intersection with Chesler Park Trail and Joint Trail
Canyonlands: Passing Spur to Chesler Park Campsites
Passing the spur to campsites CP2 through CP5
Canyonlands: Chesler Park Fin Campsite
Backcountry campsites with a backdrop of needles

Joint Trail

Next, Chesler Park Loop Trail transitions to the Joint Trail. Along the way, we noticed another spur trail that leads to a south viewpoint (but decided to skip it due to time constraints). As the trail continued, we arrived in a slickrock section with a sign pointing down a set of stairs, through a crack between fins, geologically known as a joint. While this looks like a slot canyon, it’s technically not (a slot canyon is typically formed through erosion via water). Hence, the Joint Trail.

This section of the hike is what we had most been looking forward to. As we followed the sandy trail, beams of light shone in, illuminating some portions. We scrambled down in a couple of areas, and shuffled through narrower sections. And the joint provided some much-needed respite from the heat. Eventually, the trail opened up to a wider and brighter area. We ran into another couple here, and briefly chatted with them about our travels.

Canyonlands: Descending into the Joint
Descending into the joint
Canyonlands: Walking Through Joint
Exploring a narrower section of the joint
Canyonlands: Rock Obstacle Along Joint Trail
Fun obstacles to climb over
Canyonlands: Exploring Joint
Nearing the end of the joint, which is about 2 feet wide at its narrowest

We went a bit further through the joint, and spotted numerous cairns built by hikers. My understanding is that every so often, park rangers will take them down, since they can be misleading. Shortly after, we emerged into the bright sunlight. The joint was a fun experience, and the most memorable part of this hike.

We were back out in the open for the remainder of the hike. For the next 15 minutes, we hiked over sand and slickrock until the Joint Trail merges with a sandy 4WD road, called Joint Trail Road. There’s a picnic table and a latrine at this intersection.

From there, we hiked along Joint Trail Road for 0.5 miles, then turned right onto Devils Road. After another 0.2 miles, we came to a trail on the right that heads back toward Chesler Park. One car drove by while we were hiking, so keep an eye out. While the “trail” in this section is uninteresting, the views from the road are nice.

Canyonlands: Joint Exit
Final section of the joint, with stacked cairns
Canyonlands: Outside of the Joint Trail's "Slot"
After we emerged from the joint (though still on the Joint Trail)
We were in search of shade, but this tree lizard (Urosaurus ornatus) was looking for a sunny spot
Canyonlands: Joint Trail End
Intersection of Joint Trail and Joint Trail Road
Canyonlands: Joint Trail Road
Walking along Joint Trail Road
Canyonlands: Intersection of Joint Trail Road and Devils Lane
Intersection of Joint Trail Road and Devils Lane
Canyonlands: Onto Devils Kitchen Trail from Devils Lane
Turning onto Devils Kitchen Trail

Back to Chesler Park Trail

Now we were back to hiking across slickrock and among rocky formations. After 25 minutes, we turned right to head east. The trail had more of the same – some light scrambling, cracks through fins, and views of the needles. Eventually, we finished the loop and headed back north to the trailhead. At this point, we were pretty tired, and just wanted to be done.

At around 6 p.m., we made it back to Elephant Hill Trailhead. We were wiped out. And hungry. We drove back to Moab for dinner and some much-needed rest. I wished we were staying closer to the Needles, but I also greatly appreciated the amenities Moab has to offer.

Chesler Park is a popular hike, and now I know why. It gets you up close to the needles and other rock formations, and the joint is particularly unique. The terrain and views are also varied, which creates interest. And there’s a surprising amount of solitude given its popularity.

Canyonlands: Across Slickrock Devils Kitchen Trail
Following cairns across slickrock on Devils Kitchen Trail
Canyonlands: Scrambling Up Devils Kitchen Trail
Scrambling up rocks along the trail
Canyonlands: View From Devils Kitchen Trail
View from Devils Kitchen Trail
Canyonlands: Descending Out of Chesler Park
Descending out of Chesler Park and back toward Elephant Hill

Chesler Park and Joint Loop Trail

Date: Friday, April 19, 2019
Lollipop loop day hike
Total Distance:
10.2 miles (16.4 km)
Cumulative Elevation Gain/Loss:
2076 feet (634 m)
Time: 7 hours
Trail Markings: Wayfinding cairns and intersection signs
Difficulty: Moderate
Crowds: Low-moderate
Water: None
Highlights: Geological features including joints, views
Directions to Trailhead: Elephant Hill Trailhead
Notes: It can get hot, so bring plenty of water, hat, sunscreen, etc.

Trail Directions

  • 0.0 mi – Head south from Elephant Hill Trailhead.
  • 1.3 mi – Turn right at the intersection.
  • 1.8 mi – Continue straight, passing the EC1 backcountry campsite on your right. You’ll gain 400 feet of elevation in this section.
  • 2.4 mi – Continue straight, passing Devils Kitchen Trail on your right.
  • 2.6 mi – Arrive at Chesler Park, where the loop begins. Turn left to hike the loop clockwise.
  • 3.7 mi – Continue straight, passing a turn-off on the left that heads toward Druid Arch.
  • 3.8 mi – Continue straight, passing a turn-off on the right toward backcountry campsites along needles and fins in Chesler Park. Joint Trail begins here (though you won’t enter the actual joint yet).
  • 4.5 mi – Enter the joint in the sandstone.
  • 5.3 mi – Continue straight onto Joint Trail Road and continue (there’s a port-a-potty here).
  • 5.8 mi – Turn right onto Devils Lane Road.
  • 6.0 mi – Turn right onto Devils Kitchen Trail.
  • 6.5 mi – Turn right at the intersection.
  • 7.6 mi – You’ve completed the loop! Turn left to head back toward the trailhead.
  • 7.8 mi – Continue straight, passing Devils Kitchen Trail on your left.
  • 8.4 mi – Continue straight, passing the EC1 backcountry campsite on your left.
  • 8.9 mi – Turn left at the intersection, toward Elephant Hill
  • 10.2 mi – Arrive back at the trailhead.



Elevation Graph

Interactive Map

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