The Needles in Canyonlands National Park – October 16th to 19th, 2020

Canyonlands National Park consists of three land districts, Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze. We visited the Island in the Sky district before, which is where most of the tourists go. This time we spent three nights and two full days in the remote area of The Needles.

Friday October 16th was a travel day. Knowing that our next campground had no water available, we filled not only both of our six gallon jerry cans (paid link), but also our spare five gallon collapsible container (paid link) at Navajo State Park before we left. We were just in time getting our water because a park ranger began winterizing the bathhouse and was shutting off the water for the season.

We camped the previous week with our friends Sandy and Dave. Sandy, Left Buddy (LB) and Right Buddy (RB) all knew the same former co-worker who lives in Durango. We arranged to meet her, Diane, in a park in Durango for an hour on our way through town. We had some great conversations before we all parted ways. We were heading for the Needles area of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. Dave and Sandy were heading to Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. 

On the way to the Needles, we stopped at Boyle Park in Mancos for a picnic lunch. The drive from US 191 along Utah Highway 211 to our campground, the Needles Outpost, was beautiful. The landscape had changed to the white and red sandstone rock formations that are found all over Utah. However, the first part of the drive was along a rock wall on one side, with lovely trees on the other side, all dressed in their fall colors. It is a 45 minute drive from US 191 to the Needles Outpost. For a restroom break, we stopped at Newspaper Rock State Historic Monument along the way, the only rest area we saw since leaving US 191. Newspaper Rock is a petroglyph panel with etchings from different peoples over about a 2000 year period. Definitely worth a stop even if you don’t need a bathroom break.

The Needles Outpost is a private campground just 1.5 miles from the Needles Visitor Center. The campsites are nestled along a rock outcropping, facing the setting sun. There is a camp store with food and gas; however, the gas is $6 per gallon. The bathhouse has flush toilets and token-operated showers. All the water is hauled in using a large water tank and is non-potable. So no fresh potable water is available for campers. Shower tokens can be purchased at the camp store for $3 for campers, $6 for non-campers. Each token provides five minutes of water. What was nice was that you can turn off the water which also stops the timer, then turn it back on again. We don’t know why more coin-operated showers don’t operate that way to conserve water.

After getting our van leveled, we walked back to the camp store for ice cream. RB had an ice cream bar and LB had an ice cream sandwich. We haven’t had ice cream since we left home a week ago so we were way over due! After eating our egg scramble dinner, we sat and watched the sun set.

The next day was spent driving around the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park. We stopped off at the Visitor Center and filled up our water bottles. There are not a lot of roads through this district of the park. We stopped at all the overlooks and went on all the short hikes.

First up was the Wooden Shoe Arch Overlook. In the distance was an arch that looked like a wooden shoe with the hole of the arch being where the arch of the shoe meets the heel.

From there we drove through the Canyonlands campground. It looked like a great campground with secluded sites, water and restrooms. The campground hosts in the one loop looked like they enjoyed their job. They had a dinosaur and human skeleton sitting next to the road holding an information sign. We don’t remember why we didn’t reserve a site there. It was either because at the time we were booking our trip the campground was not open yet due to COVID, or it was already booked full. However, Needles Outpost where we were staying was a great alternative.

Our plan was to hike a trail the following day starting from Elephant Hill Trailhead. The trailhead was three miles down a dirt road from the campground. Even though the ranger at the Visitor Center assured us that we should have no problem driving down the dirt road in our van, we decided to check it out ourselves. The road was in pretty good condition with hardly any washboarding. There were a few places where it crossed some dry washes that were a little rough. We only scraped our bike hitch on the first one. What made LB uncomfortable though was that the road was narrow, only one lane wide, with blind curves. He had to stay alert to notice when a car was coming the other direction and then negotiate who was going to back up to a pull out to let the other one go by. It was tricky enough when there were just two vehicles involved, but became trickier when there were several vehicles behind us on the way back out. If we pulled over to the side to let a vehicle by, we had to make sure that the vehicles behind us had a place to get out of the way as well.

When we arrived at the trailhead around 10:30 am that morning, the parking lot was full. What would we do if the parking lot is full tomorrow? There was a ranger at the parking lot, so we asked him what time we would need to arrive the next day to get a spot. He said 8 am. Good to know!

After the dirt road ordeal, we headed further down the main road to Pothole Point. Pothole Point was a short loop trail to an overlook. Before Pothole Point we passed the only picnic area in the Needles district. It only had three picnic tables and no bathroom, so we continued on.

At the end of the main road is Big Spring Canyon Overlook and the trailhead for Slickrock Trail. After taking in the views from the overlook, we pulled out our camp chairs and ate our picnic lunch in the shade of our van along the side of the road where we had parked. Since the only restrooms in the whole Needles district are in the campground, at the Visitors Center, and at the Elephant Hill Trailhead, none which were very close to where we were, we pulled out our camping toilet (paid link) and used it inside the van.

Slickrock Trail is the only short hike of any significant length. It was a 2.4 mile hike with four fantastic overlooks along the way. Slickrock Trail was a fun trail. Negotiating the layers of slick rock and navigating the somewhat steep terrain kept the hike very interesting in addition to the gorgeous views. At one of the viewpoints, there was a series of flat boulders to climb out on to a point for a better view. We both managed to climb our way out to the second to last boulder when RB decided not to go any further. To get to the last boulder was either a leap across a large gap, or a steep descent down into the crack between the boulders and back up. RB felt that either way would be hard on her knee. LB climbed down and back up to make it to the last boulder. RB was satisfied with just getting his picture.

The trails were often on top of rock, so they were marked with rock cairns. You have to pay attention to the cairns or you will easily lose the trail. On Slickrock Trail, RB started following a small group of hikers who were ahead of us. LB stopped her as the group was not paying attention and was wandering away from the trail. When we returned to our van, we could see the group following along the edge of the rock face trying to find the trail. Since they could see the parking lot, we’re pretty sure they found their way back out.

The next hike, Cave Spring Trail, was on our way back out of the park. It was down a one mile dirt road from a side road. This dirt road was a much better experience than the one to Elephant Hill Trailhead. No significant bumps and no blind curves.

Cave Spring Trail started out under some rock overhangs. In one alcove was an old cowboy camp. In another alcove there was a spring with plants growing in the crack of the wall where water was seeping out. In the same alcove and the third alcove were pictographs. As the trail continues, it climbs up two ladders to the top of the slick rock, circling back around to the parking lot. 

We missed the pictographs the first time around, so we started the loop again to find them. A ranger was walking by us, so we asked him where they were. If he had not described where the pictographs were, we’re not sure we would have found them. 

The last short hike was Roadside Ruin. It is not far from the Visitor Center and is the shortest of the trails. The trail leads out to an ancient pueblo structure, a granary, tucked away in a small alcove. 

When we got back to Needles Outpost, we discovered that a large class A RV had taken our camp site. Our tablecloth with the note scribbled on it was still on the picnic table. We notified the office and Amber came over to help resolve the issue. She knocked on the door and window of the RV, but no one answered. We offered to move camp sites and Amber gathered up our table cloth for us. We actually liked the new site better. The way the campground operates is that campers drive around the campground and pick out an open site. The problem with camper vans is coming up with something to leave behind so the site looks occupied. We thought the tablecloth with the note on it would suffice, but apparently not. 

Since we had ice cream the evening before, we were looking forward to having it again when we got back to the campground. We were so disappointed when we discovered that the camp store was out of ice cream. Instead we cooked dinner early. It was bacon, hash browns and applesauce. After dinner, we climbed up on top of the rock outcropping behind our camp site and watched the sunset, sitting in our stadium seats (paid link), while LB drank his evening beer.

In order to arrive at the Elephant Hill Trailhead before 8 am, we set our alarm for 6:15 am. After LB made a cup of coffee, we left our camp site by 7:15 am and were at the trailhead by 7:45 am. There were not many cars in the parking lot when we arrived. A park ranger pulled in after us and talked with us to make sure we had not been there overnight. After a leisurely breakfast in the van, we hit the trail at 9 am. By that time, the parking lot was only half full. 

The trail started out steep to get over the first ridge. The trail was rough. Steep step ups and step downs. Shoes gripping the angled slick rock. It was giving RB’s knee a work out with pressure and twisting from all angles. What made up for the tough terrain were the stunning views every direction you looked. There were a couple of spots where we were walking through a narrow crack in the rocks. For one of them, RB had to turn sideways to get through, pulling her backpack up over the lower wall to fit. The trail twists and turns, going up and down among the rock formations. When we reached one rock cairn, we looked for the next one so we wouldn’t lose the trail. We’re not sure we could have found our way back out if we lost the trail. 

We passed quite a few backpackers coming the other way. Spending a night out in the Needles would be a great experience and give you time to explore more of the trails. However, there are no water sources in the Needles, so you have to haul in all of your water. It was barely into the 70’s during our hike, which was a pleasant temperature, but in the summer this place is brutally hot. Carrying enough water for two days would be heavy and difficult. On our way back out, we passed two ladies heading out. They were loaded with large backpacks. In addition to their large backpacks, they were each hugging a small dayback that looked heavy. We asked if the daybacks were filled with water. Yup. They looked like they were struggling a little under all of the weight, but they had smiles on their faces. They seemed to know what they were getting into as they said they had just come from the Island in the Sky area where they had backpacked as well.

After about three miles into the hike, we came to our destination, the Chesler Park Viewpoint. The viewpoint was up in a saddle between two spires, with gorgeous views in both directions. The spires or needles had alternating layers of red and white sandstone. We could imagine the hoodoos with white tops that resemble mushrooms were once like their pointy neighbors, but had eroded down to the white layer over time. We sat eating our granola bars and apples while enjoying the view. Then we headed back towards the trailhead to finish our workout through the rocks.

Even though our hike was only six miles long with an elevation gain around 1200 feet, the rough trail made it feel longer. We completed hike #13 of our 52 Hike Challenge National Park Series in four hours and forty minutes. Our legs were feeling it by the time we made it back to the parking lot. Grabbing some food out of our van, we sat down on a picnic table at the parking lot for a cold Coke and snack before driving back out the dirt road. LB was trying to stall for time, hoping the number of vehicles coming towards him on the dirt road would be less later in the day. We drove out at about 2:30 pm and only had to pass by four vehicles coming the opposite direction.

Back at the Needles Outpost, no one had stolen our camp site this time, but in addition to leaving our table cloth, we had also left our bikes chained to the picnic table. While we were gone, the camp store had resupplied their ice cream. Yay! The cold treat tasted so good after burning all those calories on our hike. LB made dinner while RB worked on her laptop. It was a simple dinner, brats on marbled rye bread with sauerkraut along with applesauce and cinnamon. After dinner we felt revived enough to climb up on the rock outcropping to watch the sunset again. RB’s knee was feeling pretty good until on the way back down, walking on a steep sideways rock slope, the sharp pain in her knee reminded her that she is not a young chicken anymore. Dang! That will probably set back the healing process about a week.

The Needles is much more remote than the Island in the Sky district, but it’s definitely worth the effort to get there. In order to have more time in The Needles, we recommend camping either in Squaw Flat campground inside the park or the Needles Outpost where we camped. There are also a few BLM dispersed camping sites along the road (Utah 211) leading to the Needles park entrance. Keep in mind that the closest town, Monticello, is an hour’s drive from the Needles Visitor Center and Moab is an hour and a half. There are no hotels close to the Needles, or any other services of any kind. Everything has its pros and cons. The reward for staying in this remote area is enjoying the gorgeous scenery without the crowds of people.

Check out our related video: The Needles in Canyonlands National Park