Canyonlands Chesler Park Loop
Overview: A popular, ultrascenic loop hike, requiring a four-wheel-drive vehicle to reach the trailhead.
Start: Chesler Park / Joint Trail trailhead
Distance: 5.4 miles; loop
Maps: USGS Druid Arch; Trails Illustrated Needles and
Finding the trailhead: You’ll need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to reach this trailhead. From the Needles entrance station, drive east out of the park on SR 211 for 13.7 miles and turn right (south) onto a gravel road marked Elk Mountain and Beef Basin. If you’re coming from the east, the turnoff is 20 miles from US 191. Follow this unpaved road, which gets gradually worse, for 43 miles until you see the park boundary. From here, drive 4.7 miles into the park until you see the junction with the road to Chesler Park Trailhead. Turn right here and go 0.5 mile until the road dead-ends at the trailhead. The trailhead has a vault toilet and picnic tables.
Trailhead GPS: 38.103571, -109.866631
If you like to save the best until last, take this trail clockwise. The road forks a half mile after leaving the trailhead, with the left fork going off to Beef Basin. Take a right and walk another 0.4 mile until you see a sign for the Devils Pocket. The sign for this trail is not right along the road, so watch for it a few feet up the trail.
The next section of trail involves a gradual climb up to a junction with the trail through the Pinnacle to Devils Kitchen Camp. You go right (east) at this junction and head for Chesler Park. You go through one rocky section with one short, steep pitch before coming out into gorgeous Chesler Park, a huge grassy flatland ringed by colorful sandstone spires. The trail goes along the north edge of the park for less than a half mile before hitting the next junction.
At this junction turn right (south) and toward the Joint Trail. Follow the east edge of Chesler Park on a nicely defined and packed dirt trail for 1.3 miles to the next junction. Just less than halfway through this section, you see Backcountry Campsite CP1 on your left. It’s back from the trail about 100 yards, out of sight among several large boulders. This is a great choice if you’re staying overnight. It’s shady and more private than the four campsites 0.7 mile down the trail.
When you reach the junction with the Elephant Canyon Cutoff Trail (which goes off to the east), go straight. You’ll see some backcountry campsites and also some signs of historic ranching operations, which operated in Chesler Park before the national park was created.
From the campsites the trail is flat and easy walking. Long ago parts of this trail were a primitive road. In 0.7 mile you reach the start of the Joint and the side trail going to the left to the Chesler Park Overlook. The viewpoint is only about a quarter mile off the main trail and well worth the little climb up to a slickrock platform where you get a better-than-postcard panoramic vista of Chesler Park and the sandstone formations surrounding it.
Back at the viewpoint sign, the trail dives into the Joint, a large crack between rock formations. As you climb down man-made rock stairs to get to its depths, you might think you’re not really on a trail, but you are. You stay in the Joint for another quarter mile. It’s a tight squeeze in spots, but you shouldn’t have any problems unless you’re built like an NFL offensive lineman. However, you might have to push and twist to get a big backpack through the Joint.
After you come out into sunlight again, it’s about a half mile on a fairly rocky trail down to the Chesler Park / Joint Trailhead, where you started the loop hike.