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.
For the most complete description of the Chesler Park Loop with a detailed map and milage markers check out this post from Live and Let Hike.com.
Beautiful photos through your lens, but that wind must have done a number on your nerves back across the flats. It would have mine! We had “unseasonable heat” to deal with instead, but agree, it was still worth it! If you make it back, do the equally beautiful Druid Arch trail. I am undecided as to which one I loved best.
Yeah, the wind was driving us crazy, but after dreaming about it for a year and the long drive, we had to persist! I read up on the Druid Arch and would love to tackle that trail next time.
Now that’s a hike – you guys are tough! I’m so glad it lived up to your long-awaited expectations. I’ll take rain, heat, sun – even some snow – any day. But strong winds – combined with sand – no way… I think I was actually feeling your pin pricks as I was reading this.
The sand really sucked, but when I think back on it now all I remember is the gorgeous scenery :)
More beautiful vistas! Really impressive. Since I am not a hiker anymore, I think I might be going part way and turning around. I would like to experience some of the hiking there and especially a slot canyon. I may miss out on some of the better views from up higher, but I want to try some of the easier hikes. Do you have an easy access slot canyon you would recommend? Thanks for sharing.
Pamelab in Houston
A lot of people only do the first few miles of the hike and then turn around at the first “view point”. That doesn’t even come close to getting you to the slot canyon though. So far we have not come across a slot canyon with easy access, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist!
I am so glad that you were able to do this awesome hike. We really enjoyed it when we did it last fall under perfect conditions.
We hope to come back in the fall some year. Seems like a great time of year for southern Utah.
This fabulous hike made me want to return to Canyonlands some day! Such a wonderful hike, it’s too bad you had the wind, but so good you pushed through it anyway.
As soon as we finished the hike we started talking about when we could come back for more!
One of our favorite places in Canyonlands. Actually, one of our favorite places anywhere! You captured it beautifully — I’m sure it wasn’t fun hiking with the wind and threat of rain, but the changing skies made for some cool photos.
It was kind of cool to watch the clouds move around so rapidly. I could have done without the wind, but we still had a blast.
I sincerely hope you are not giving all your experiences away. Your blog beats anything I have ever seen. If so, and you start selling your experiences, then I think I am entitled to a free years subscription! Carry on
Thanks Bill. I’ll put you down for one free subscription :)
I’m a fellow Airstreamer enjoying your blog. Love your pictures! I keep making notes that “I want to go there, too” everytime you post. It gives me inspiration for when I leave this corporate job thing..next Spring. I do have a question – with your hiking you must have a great recommendation for hiking boots/shoes. Any brands that work or that you love? Space being a premium and all, can’t pack the entire closet. I look forward to seeing where you’re headed next.
Next spring is not far away! So happy we can provide some inspiration. For hiking boots/shoes I really like the Keen brand. I have a slightly wide foot and find them very comfortable. They also have great support and traction. Tim has a narrow foot and prefers the Vasque brand hiking boot. If you’re looking for a new pair, I would highly recommend purchasing them from REI because their lenient return policy allows you to try them for awhile and exchange if they don’t work for you.