Over the past year or so I’ve read five or six different blog posts about a seemingly magical hike through the Needles District of Canyonlands NP called the Chesler Park Loop. The first time I was intrigued, the second time I was inspired, and by the final post I knew this we had to tackle this trail. Chesler Park has it all — red rock hoodoos, enough uphill scrambling to make it good workout, a grand meadow filled with sage brush, and even a slot canyon-like section called “the joint”. Sign me up!
The hike clocks in at 11 miles long, and with a nearly two hour drive from our boondocking spot in Moab that meant we needed to get an early start. Which we did…kind of. Even with our best effort we still didn’t get on the trail until around 10:45. But with cool weather and long daylight hours that was more than enough time to complete the hike and drive home before dark.
The trail is arranged in a lollipop formation with a 3-mile stem and a 5-mile loop at the top of the stem. The stem portion starts off easy across a varied terrain of slickrock and sand through an area called Elephant Canyon.
While the weather forecast had not called for even a chance of rain, within the first few miles a dense layer of dark clouds gathered overhead. It made for some dramatic scenery, and for a few minutes we thought for sure we were going to get wet.
Thankfully, it never materialized into more than a few light sprinkles, and despite the fierce, fierce wind that persisted the entire hike, it was still warm enough to hike in shorts and a t-shirt for most of the way. Rain, clouds, wind…there was was no way I was giving up on this hike after dreaming about it for a year.
The trail went over a series of brief ups and downs, through a short crack in the rocks, across a wash, and then up and out of Elephant Canyon. Before we knew it we had scaled a low ridge between the sandstone needles, and just like that we were in Chesler Park.
The “park” is a wide, circular area covered with sage brush and surrounded by a ring of tall red rocks. It was absolutely breathtaking, and while I would have preferred a bit of sun, it’s hard to complain when you’re surrounded by scenery like this.
After a quick stop for lunch, and another stop at an overlook where we gazed down into Elephant Canyon, we set off to hike the 5 mile loop.
The hike across the flat sagebrush meadow should have been the easiest part of the trail, but the wind wasn’t having any of that. It had really picked up at this point and the loose sand that we were hiking across pelted us in the back of legs like a million tiny pinpricks, sandblasted our faces, got in our ears, our mouths, our noses, and coated my camelback hose mouthpiece with a thick layer of grit. We persisted though, and despite the wind I would still say this was my favorite section of the hike. I mean, just look at these views…
As we rounded the corner and prepared to meet up with The Joint trail, the sun came out!
Soon we were descending down into a narrow crack in the earth. It was a bit reminiscent of a slot canyons we hiked in Escalante, but instead of wavy walls sculpted by water, this was a straight sided, very deep crack with a narrow, sandy bottom.
There were a few obstacles to scale, a narrow section to squeeze through, a wider part full of hundreds of cairns, and then we were back out in the open ready to complete the second half of the loop.
We followed a 4×4 jeep road for a bit. I think those jagged rocks ahead make up the area called Hell’s Kitchen.
Soon we turned off the road and started climbing up and across the rocks. Notice how we went from dark clouds to blue sky? Too bad the wind didn’t leave with the clouds.
After a good amount of rock scrambling and one more small crack to squeeze through we made it back to open park-like setting, walked for another mile, and then reached the end of the loop.
Only three more miles to go. At this point our feet were starting to get tired, and the constant strong wind was wearing on us. But that view! That makes it all worth it. Here we are looking down into Elephant Canyon again.
I hardly took any photos on the way back down the stem section. It went by quickly as it was mostly downhill and soon were back at the trailhead.
So did this hike live up the hype of the six blog posts I read? Absolutely. Would we recommend it to others? Yes, yes, and yes! It was a long hike, there were some uphill sections, and some areas that required scrambling up and down slickrock, but in general I think most people of moderate fitness could tackle this trail. It was also absolutely breathtaking the whole way, with lots of terrain changes and wide open views. Totally worth a few sore leg muscles in my opinion.