Canyonlands National Park: Chesler Park to Salt Creek Canyon

Hit up the park's highlights—slickrock scrambles, mesa-top views, and hoodoo-dotted canyons—on this seven-day trek in Canyonlands National Park.
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Hit up the park's highlights—slickrock scrambles, mesa-top views, and hoodoo-dotted canyons—on this seven-day trek in Canyonlands National Park.

The Needles District in the park’s southeastern reaches is a slickrock playground of labyrinthine canyons, hoodoo gardens, giant arches, expansive meadows, and prehistoric ruins. See the best of it on a 49.3-mile point-to-point that roller coasters from canyon bottoms to butte tops with hundred-mile views.

From the Elephant Hill trailhead, hike south to the adjacent mesa top, climbing steadily past aromatic sagebrush and canyons with capped, mushroom-like spires. As you gain elevation, turn around for a pace-halting scene: The snowcapped La Sal Mountains rise to 12,000 feet behind distant mesas and gorges, while pink-and-white-striped rock towers line the foreground. At mile 1.3, bear right before passing through two less-than-10-foot-wide gaps in the slickrock and descending to Elephant Canyon.

Ditch your pack in the wash for a 3.6- mile side trip to Chesler Park, a sweeping meadow enclosed by spires. First, climb southwest up a side canyon and traverse a sandstone ledge above the canyon floor. Next, turn left at mile 2.4, and crest a pass bordered by toothy formations. Soon after, the route enters Chesler’s 960-acre expanse stippled with bunchgrass and rimmed by 800-foot-tall, multi-colored spires. On windy days, you can hear the breeze whistle as it whips around the formations. Return to Elephant Canyon, then head south .6 mile to your first camp at EC2, perched on a slickrock bench.

The next day, go south .2 mile to where the canyon forks. Leave your pack, grab dayhiking supplies, then bear right for a 4.5-mile round-trip to 85-foot-high Druid Arch, reminiscent of Stonehenge; backtrack to your pack.

Now head southeast up the east fork of Elephant Canyon, and climb a metal ladder into neighboring Squaw Canyon (mile 11.7). Traverse northeast along the exposed northern rim of the canyon for a mile, then turn left for a grin-inducing obstacle course: jump over a threefoot- wide gap, tightrope walk across logs lining the bottom of a five-foot-wide rock tunnel, then climb up a pourover to a redrock pass. Drop into Big Spring Canyon and follow it northeast 1.4 miles to your second camp at BS2 (mile 14.4).

Day three: Hike northeast less than two miles to Squaw Flat trailhead (take a half-mile detour to fill water in Campground B), then wind south into Squaw Canyon through a wide, hoodoo-rimmed meadow. At mile 18.4, veer left for a slickrock scramble to a 5,480-foot pass; carefully descend a steep pourover with loose rocks into Lost Canyon. Follow the snaking, cottonwoodlined wash northeast for 2.5 miles past pools with bullfrogs and salamanders, and turn right at the junction. Sleep at LC1 100 yards away.

On the fourth day, tackle a dizzying traverse that runs east on ledges roughly 200 feet above lower Lost and Squaw Canyons; downclimb a ladder through a claustrophobic, threefoot- wide slot; then descend stone steps into lower Salt Creek Canyon. In late summer, you may spot black bears snacking on the fruit of prickly pear cactus. Sleep at Angel Arch camp, shaded by two large cottonwoods.

Day five: Start this 9.1-mile day with a four-mile out-and-back to Angel Arch, named for the winged figure that seems to be leaning back on a 135-foottall arch. Next, hike south through grassy clearings with wild rose bushes to Upper Jump, a 15-foot waterfall pouring down tiered ledges. Overnight at SC3 where the canyon broadens (mile 39.9).

Slow your pace on the sixth day to savor a 5.3-mile stretch of relics left by ancestral Puebloans in 1200 A.D. You’ll pass a round stone-and-mortar granary, pictographs (one resembles four figures playing musical instruments), and cliff dwellings. Camp at SC1 (mile 45.2).

On the last day (4.1 miles), follow the overgrown creekbed south. The lush riparian scenery transitions back to parched desert as the trail gains 1,000 feet in two miles to the rim of Salt Creek Mesa and your shuttle car.

PERMIT $30; reservations recommended during peak season (spring and fall). Walk-in permits are issued one day before the trip’s start date.

WATER Carry in a gallon of water per person per day. Squaw Campground and Lower Salt Creek Canyon are the only reliable places to refill reserves.

CONTACT (435) 259-4351; nps.gov/cany

MAPS Order waterproof topos for all three featured routes—or a map of the entire park—at backpacker.com/promaps.

-Mapped by MacKenzie Ryan

TO TRAILHEAD: Shuttle car: From Moab, drive south on US 191 for 40 miles and turn right on UT 211 W. In roughly 20 miles, turn left onto Beef Basin Rd./CR 107. Continue 17.2 miles to parking at the Cathedral Butte/Upper Salt Creek trailhead.

To trailhead: Backtrack to UT 211 and turn left. In 17 miles, turn left on the unnamed road. In .3 mile, turn right at the Elephant Hill sign. Go 3 miles to parking.

Commercial shuttle: Coyote Shuttle ($225/ two people; coyoteshuttle.com)

Trail Facts

  • Distance: 79.3

Waypoints

NEE001

Location: 38.14181, -109.827187

From the Elephant Hill trailhead, hike south to the adjacent mesa top, climbing steadily past aromatic sagebrush and canyons with capped, mushroom-like spires. As you gain elevation, turn around for a pace-halting scene: The snowcapped La Sal Mountains rise to 12,000 feet behind distant mesas and gorges, while pink-and-white-striped rock towers line the foreground.

NEE002

Location: 38.125848, -109.832473

Bear right, following sign to Chesler Park and Druid Arch. Pass through a less-than-10-foot-wide gap in the slickrock, then enter a sage field surrounded by a semi-circular sandstone cliff.

NEE003

Location: 38.125293, -109.837365

Walk through another slickrock gap and descend into Elephant Canyon.

NEE004

Location: 38.123552, -109.839982

Cross sandy wash. Ditch your pack in the wash for a 3.6-mile side trip to Chesler Park.

NEE005

Location: 38.121276, -109.846841

Trail goes left along mouth of a canyon rimmed with hoodoos.

NEE006

Location: 38.120863, -109.847874

Go left at the Y-junction. Climb a sandy, rocky path to a pass bordered by toothy formations and with views of canyons, spires, and the La Sals.

NEE007

Location: 38.118106, -109.849845

Bear left and hike south into Chesler Park.

NEE008

Location: 38.106468, -109.849514

Stop and take in this 960-acre expanse stippled with bunchgrass and rimmed by 800-foot-tall, multi-colored spires. On windy days, you can hear the breeze whistle as it whips around the formations. Return to Elephant Canyon and your pack.

NEE009

Location: 38.1235, -109.840189

Pick up your pack and turn right (south) into Elephant Canyon. Go .6 mile to your first camp at EC2, perched on a slickrock
bench.

NEE010

Location: 38.116404, -109.838065

Spend the first night at EC2, on the right. The next day, go south .2 mile to where the canyon forks.

NEE011

Location: 38.114689, -109.835925

Leave your pack, grab dayhiking supplies, then bear right for
a 4.5-mile round-trip to 85-foot-high Druid Arch.

NEE012

Location: 38.111955, -109.837406

Potential campsite: EC3

NEE013

Location: 38.108388, -109.838523

Follow the rocky wash south. Ahead: You'll encounter dryfalls and scrambles up slickrock benches. The payoff: Monstrous views north of the Needles and complete solitude. Only the wind and occasional birdsong echoes through the canyon.

NEE014

Location: 38.089029, -109.831155

Stop at the foot of 85-foot-high Druid Arch, which is reminiscent of Stonehenge. Backtrack to your pack.

NEE015

Location: 38.114633, -109.835789

Pick up your pack and head southeast up the east fork of Elephant Canyon.

NEE016

Location: 38.104947, -109.826331

Climb a metal ladder into neighboring Squaw Canyon and traverse northeast along the exposed northern rim of the canyon for a mile.

NEE017

Location: 38.109464, -109.816332

Follow cairns as they wind along the canyon rim. turn left for a grin-inducing obstacle course: jump over a three-foot-wide gap, tightrope walk across logs lining the bottom of a five-foot-wide rock tunnel, then climb up a pourover to a redrock pass.

NEE018

Location: 38.109317, -109.817817

Top of the pass. Next, drop into Big Spring Canyon and follow it northeast 1.4 miles to your second camp at BS2.

NEE019

Location: 38.126546, -109.812246

Camp at BS2. Day three: Hike northeast less than two miles to Squaw Flat trailhead.

NEE020

Location: 38.136483, -109.811012

Continue straight.

NEE021

Location: 38.140366, -109.808176

Bear right at the Y-junction.

NEE022

Location: 38.142998, -109.803763

Squaw Flat trailhead: Take a half-mile detour to fill water in Campground B, then wind south into Squaw Canyon through a wide, hoodoo-rimmed meadow.

NEE023

Location: 38.132714, -109.794905

Go left at Y-junction. Follow the sandy trail south into Squaw Canyon through a wide, hoodoo-rimmed meadow.

NEE024

Location: 38.114405, -109.804959

Veer left for a slickrock scramble to a 5,480-foot pass.

NEE025

Location: 38.107193, -109.802944

Carefully descend a steep pourover with loose rocks into Lost Canyon.

NEE026

Location: 38.107824, -109.801246

Follow the snaking, cottonwood-lined wash northeast for 2.5 miles past pools with bullfrogs and salamanders.

NEE027

Location: 38.109178, -109.794437

LC3

NEE028

Location: 38.114947, -109.783094

LC2

NEE029

Location: 38.121759, -109.777768

Turn left toward Peekabo Spring.

NEE030

Location: 38.121019, -109.77689

Sleep at LC1. On the fourth day, you'll tackle a dizzying traverse that runs east on ledges roughly 200 feet above lower Lost and Squaw Canyons; downclimb a ladder through a claustrophobic, three-foot-wide slot; then descend stone steps into lower Salt Creek Canyon.

NEE031

Location: 38.120366, -109.776479

Top of boulder climb

NEE032

Location: 38.117283, -109.770302

Views north of Wooden Shoe Arch

NEE033

Location: 38.116743, -109.762703

Crawl through a rock window.

NEE034

Location: 38.114534, -109.754949

Walk through a roughly 15-foot gap, located next to some rock art. In late summer, you may spot black bears snacking on the fruit of prickly pear cactus.

NEE035

Location: 38.075315, -109.765407

Look over your left shoulder to see a crescent arch.

NEE036

Location: 38.06977, -109.767712

Sleep at Angel Arch camp, shaded by two large cottonwoods. Day five: Start this 9.1-mile day with a four-mile out-and-back to Angel Arch. Continue south to the junction.

NEE037

Location: 38.06829, -109.768341

Turn left for the side trip to Angel Arch.

NEE038

Location: 38.051799, -109.756514

Angel Arch: Stare up at this striking arch named for the winged figure that seems to be leaning back on a 135-foot-tall arch. Backtrack to NEE037 and turn left; hike south through grassy clearings with wild rose bushes.

NEE039

Location: 38.056632, -109.769574

Pass through a clearing with breathtaking views of spires.

NEE040

Location: 38.055652, -109.769818

Pass a campsite that's marked, but not named.

NEE041

Location: 38.052253, -109.773146

Wild roses flank the trail here.

NEE042

Location: 38.043543, -109.770146

Old farm area

NEE043

Location: 38.042129, -109.771116

Trail runs through a wash.

NEE044

Location: 38.043179, -109.764705

Turn left to see the Upper Jump, a 15-foot waterfall pouring down tiered ledges.

NEE045

Location: 38.041984, -109.765067

Look up and right to see rock art.

NEE046

Location: 38.039709, -109.763806

Overnight at SC3 where the canyon broadens (mile 39.9). On the sixth day, slow your pace to savor a 5.3-mile stretch of relics left by ancestral Puebloans in 1200 A.D. You’ll pass a round stone-and-mortar granary, pictographs (one resembles four figures playing musical instruments), and cliff dwellings.

NEE047

Location: 38.039305, -109.761431

The route runs past a small waterfall that pours into a lagoon-like pool surrounded by tall grasses.

NEE048

Location: 38.039676, -109.760707

Ruins

NEE049

Location: 38.034861, -109.751901

Downclimb through narrows.

NEE050

Location: 38.035457, -109.749452

Cliff dwelling

NEE051

Location: 38.034483, -109.749412

Look left to see another dwelling. Pass the All American Man pictograph.

NEE052

Location: 38.024793, -109.750135

Walk past an area full of cactus.

NEE053

Location: 38.019522, -109.749347

Ruins

NEE054

Location: 38.015948, -109.744657

Arch

NEE055

Location: 38.014123, -109.74429

After the stream crossing, look left across the meadow for views of a dwelling.

NEE056

Location: 38.010573, -109.742642

Skinny arch

NEE057

Location: 38.009632, -109.741496

More ruins

NEE058

Location: 38.006998, -109.741256

Look far right for views of an arch.

NEE059

Location: 37.992411, -109.739911

Ruins

NEE060

Location: 37.99183, -109.739534

Giant dwellings

NEE061

Location: 37.987793, -109.742131

Gate

NEE062

Location: 37.986173, -109.743161

Turn left to camp at SC1 or SC2. On the last day (4.1 miles), follow the overgrown creekbed south.

NEE063

Location: 37.985808, -109.743554

Kirks Cabin

NEE064

Location: 37.983266, -109.745237

Waterfall with pool

NEE065

Location: 37.981428, -109.743606

More rock art

NEE066

Location: 37.961208, -109.729688

Bear left on Salt Creek Trail. Ahead: The lush riparian scenery transitions back to parched desert as the trail gains 1,000 feet in two miles to the rim of Salt Creek Mesa and your shuttle car.

NEE067

Location: 37.949307, -109.706083

Pick up your shuttle car and return to NEE001.

View from Druid Arch

Location: 38.08904, -109.830709

Southeast view from the head of Big Spring Canyon

Location: 38.109339, -109.817361

Peekabo Spring Trail

Location: 38.114571, -109.754491

Angel Arch

Location: 38.051166, -109.75625

View from beneath Angel Arch

Location: 38.051808, -109.756122

Pictographs

Location: 38.039739, -109.763247

All American Man

Location: 38.034506, -109.749035

Upper Salt Creek Canyon

Location: 37.951169, -109.708529