The Early Bird Gets the Utah Campsite
This day started out with an early morning for us. Having stayed a couple of nights at our favorite BLM site yet in the Valley of the Gods, we woke up at 4am to get to Canyonlands National Park’s Needles District as early as possible. There were a measly twelve first-come, first-served sites at Squaw Flat campground, which had reportedly been filling at 9:30am every day, and we were hoping to get one. I, not being a natural early riser, made sure we had everything we needed for the morning laid out and the camper as prepped for travel as possible the night before (when the slide is in the night before, you know we mean business). This seemed to work as we hitched up in the dark shadows of this amazing place and were on the road within 25 minutes.
We stopped for gas in Monticello, the seemingly nearest source of gas to the Needles District coming from the south (Moab being the closest from the north, both options being an hour and a half away, so fill up before you get here!). En route, we were able to get a little phone reception/4G and checked the location of Hamburger Rock, the BLM campground a ranger on the phone had recommended as an alternative that could accommodate RVs. After realizing it was really not far from the park at all, we decided to call it a day and go here instead despite our efforts to get an early start.
We had seen online that Hamburger Rock was an actual BLM campground (not just free makeshift sites off of an access road) that charged a nominal fee, but we couldn’t find any signs regarding payment information, nor any pay drop boxes, when we got there. We even asked around and no one seemed to have any information on payment, but we certainly weren’t complaining! Especially after driving around Squaw Flat later that morning, we realized that we had made the right choice, regardless of whether we would have been able to get a site at Squaw – Hamburger Rock was only marginally farther from the park attractions, had much larger sites, better views, similar facilities (being none, save for a central water fill at Squaw and maybe flush toilets vs. pit), and it saved us $20/night! Nothing against Squaw Flat, but Hamburger Rock rocks.
Out on the trail
After a quick set up and some hearty tomato-avocado sandwiches (a staple for us), we set out to do our hike for the day: the popular Chesler Park/Joint Trail Loop. To get to the trailhead, we drove the well-maintained three-mile dirt road to the Elephant Hill trailhead parking area. The trailhead starts out one way before branching off into different options. This made it easy to follow save for us initially climbing another steep, 4WD road instead of the trail. It didn’t take us long to question why we were seeing tire tracks but we still wonder whether the girl who passed us confidently going up the road meant to go that way or whether we led her down a significantly different path…
The terrain of this eleven-mile loop was interesting from the start. Lots of ups and downs over slickrock terrain and rock stairs that total around 1600 feet in elevation; there are few areas of just flat walking. The Parks Service marked the trails mostly with cairns (small rock piles), that were pretty easy to follow, otherwise it probably would have been a little confusing crossing the wide slickrock. We took the 2.9 miles to the start of the Chesler Park/Joint Trail Loop out and followed it clockwise, but either direction seemed like it would have been good.
It didn’t take long for the scenery to get impressive on this trail, either. We quickly came upon views of the needles, “hamburger” like spires and large boulders and we were soon walking among these towering structures. Snow-capped mountains in the distance were just the icing on the cake of already impressive sights. A man passing us joked as I stopped to take pictures early on that he couldn’t believe there were “good views already!”
The fantastic views continued as we climbed nearer to the structures and were surrounded by scenery like something out of a science fiction movie – not unlike places like Valley of Fire State Park, but much larger and more diverse. I wish the pictures even slightly did it justice.
The scenery changed once we reached an open and grassier part of the trail – the so named Chesler Park – that wound through more needles structures.
Part of the trail follows a 4WD road – so watch for cars as you really don’t want to step on the vegetation and it wouldn’t have been an easy climb on the foot-high soft earth to get out of the way anyway. It was along here that we finally got to see a cactus flowering, which I’d been hoping to see since spring began! A beautiful ruby red claret cup cactus was blooming just yards away from the road, and luckily there was a little worn path to get to it.
A real highlight of the trail was a several hundred feet long fracture in the rock that resembled a slot canyon and included an interesting tree trunk ladder that was obviously built for people with longer legs than mine, but I still somehow sidestepped down it without pulling a groin muscle.
The views just kept on coming as we continued the trail. At one point, the needles were so densely populated in the distance, they looked like an aerial view of a big city to me.
Camelbaks not enough for the desert?
We felt considerably energetic throughout this trail despite our early wake up call, as taking in the amazing and varied scenery and watching our footing kept it interesting the whole way. Our only hurdle came with three miles to go when we realized we had both pretty much gone through our 2-liter hydration packs, even though we didn’t feel like we had been drinking a lot. Not fun even with temperatures only in the seventies; I couldn’t imagine if it had been the middle of summer. We planned to carry some extra bottles or water bladders from there on out for anything over 8 miles since we seem to be drinking more than we used to using these packs.
Overall, our first day in Canyonlands’ Needles District was a full one and gave us a great first impression!