I spent the day after Bears Ears driving north on US 191 towards Canyonlands. I stopped in Monticello to work at the library and resupply. As the afternoon got late I resumed the northward journey on US 191 until turning east onto UT 211 towards the Needles district of Canyonlands. About 30 miles later I was surrounded by nothing but rugged red cliffs and scrub-covered desert. Rather than enter the park right away I made an early camp on some BLM land (now technically part of Bears Ears) just past the Hamburger Rock campground. That night I made one of the best s’mores I’ve ever had.

A cairn aspires to greater things

The next morning I was at the visitor center right when they opened and was looking for some trail beta. The ranger suggested either the Chesler Park/Joint loop or the Druid Arch trail, and, as the former sounded more “Needly”, I soon found myself getting ready at the trailhead and setting off towards Chesler Park. The trail was almost entirely over the red rock of that forms Cedar Mesa but was well marked by perfectly placed (for now) cairns. Unlike most other trails I had hiked recently the Chesler Park trail was also nice and flat, apart from a small climb up to a gap in a wall of rock that leads to Chesler Park itself.

Hiking in the Needles

Chesler Park is a wide field of low creosote and scattered grasses surrounded by the tall rock formations that give the Needles its name (although really they’re more like spires, whatever). The “park” was quite green and the whole scene felt a bit like tumbling into some secret desert garden.

Chesler Park
Example of the rock spires that surround Chesler Park and make up the Needles geography

The trail wound its merry way along the edge of the park before finding another gap in the wall and joining a jeep trail for about 1/2 a mile or so. At the end of this, under the merciful shade of a welcoming pine I had lunch and set out for a return along the Joint Trail.

Another view of the land around Chesler Park

Almost immediately this trail was very different. I ducked and dived through a series of large, long caves, each with many side canyons that demanded further exploration and I spent a long time doing exactly that.

Caves in the Joint

In one of these side caves I had my first run-in with someone who would factor heavily in the narrative just a little while later. At the time he was little more than a shadow in a cave.

Foreshadowing! (get it???)

In a large cave covered in cairns the trail seemed to disappear into a jumble of rocks and while deciding what to do I met the shadowy figure from before. Ed is a transplant from Australia who now lives in San Francisco and together we decided to follow some narrow cracks down into the jumble of rocks where we were able to squeeze out into the bottom of a narrow canyon.

The Canyon of Lost Hikers

Soon the canyon opened out of the wall of rocks we had been traversing in the caves and we followed a very faint trail out into the plains beyond. About 10 minutes later (when we were lost and about to become Very Lost) Ed echoed my own thoughts when he suggested turning back. Even with our own boot-prints to guide the way this was slightly challenging and I shudder to think how long it would have taken to find our bones if we hadn’t turned around when we did; the rock wall with the caves effectively blocked access to the main part of the park so “going around” wasn’t really an option.

Soon, however, we had scrambled back up the jumble of rocks and found the cairn where it all went wrong. With so many cairns in the big cave it wasn’t immediately obvious which were for navigation and which had been erected by well meaning rock art enthusiasts.

The Cairn Where it All Went Wrong

Soon we had found the correct path and had exited the cave system through a narrow crack in the rock.

The path to freedom

Throughout the whole experience Ed had been a wonderful hiking companion and when we came to a fork in the trail I decided to stay with him on a hike to Druid Arch rather than hike back to Van Halen alone. He works in aerospace and has a brain that seems to vibrate on a similar frequency as yours truly. As we hiked up Elephant Canyon towards Druid Arch the miles fell away under the sound of our boots and our conversations.

Elephant Canyon

The trail here was very different than either Chesler Park or the Joint and as we hiked up the bottom of the canyon the walls continued to close in around us. Eventually we reached the end of the canyon and found Druid Arch, a truly imposing formation that rises 600 feet above the surrounding rock and cuts a uniquely angular form that is very reminiscent of Stonehenge.

Druid Arch

Perhaps even more breathtaking was the view back down Elephant Canyon. From up above, the actual canyon floor, with all of its trees and life, is completely hidden by a shelf of rock so that all you can see are the bizarre shapes of the needles that flank the canyon. As the sun got lower and the light got richer and took many, many pictures.

Above the rim of Elephant Canyon. You better click this pictures!
Below the rim of Elephant Canyon

The hike back to the trailhead was 5.5 miles that I had not planned for and by the end my legs were starting to feel the distance. Still, Ed provided ever-excellent distractions as we discussed everything from human capital to LSD. It was just past 6pm when we reached the cars and I had hiked over 15 of the finest miles one could hope to find anywhere. Ed generously invited me to hang out at his campsite for the night (in the park) and the couple next to us generously gave us a bottle of wine they didn’t want. The night was spent eating s’mores and relaxing after a long day of hiking.

In retrospect the day in the Needles was probably the climax of my entire trip. While the days that followed were still full of whimsy and wilderness, reality would begin to claw its way into my world almost as soon as I woke up the next morning (as, in fact, it was secretly doing that night). Since entering Utah I had been increasingly drawn into a rugged and surreal mindset that mirrored the land around me, and here in the Needles I had spent the day scrambling around some of the most wonderfully bizarre landscape I have ever seen with someone who understood why it was all so important. It was a very good day.


  • Ed has a website. Check it out

  • I don’t want to keep anyone guessing too long so I’ll just go ahead and say that the clawing reality mentioned above manifested itself as a coolant leak in Van Halen. Nothing too serious, but just important enough to bring me back down to Earth.


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