Last Updated on January 10, 2024 by foxintheforest
So I’ve been all over the American Southwest, but I can’t help coming back to the Needles in Canyonlands.
Maybe it’s the epic tower climbs. Or perhaps it’s the phenomenal hiking amongst sandstone giants.
Either way, the scenery in the Needles District of Canyonlands will simply blow. Your. Dang. Mind.
Photos don’t quite do the area justice. And seeing the sea of towering red rock hoodoos from afar beckons you for more.
I’ve visited the Needles in Canyonlands National Park countless times over the years. Each year I plan a different trip to the Needles in order to experience the utterly unique nature of this stunning landscape. It’s certainly one of the most beautiful national parks in the US.
As such, this place is like a second home to me. I can spot the landmarks from an airplane, my friends.
And if you’ve ever been able to pick out a desert tower from way high up in a plane, you know that means you absolutely know your stuff.
It’s my mission to bring you the best of the outdoors. I want you to feel empowered when you step outside for an adventure.
I’m all about giving you expert advice for your Needles District adventure so you can get outside like a pro, not a tourist.
About this Guide to the Needles in Canyonlands National Park
If you’re ready to dig deep and discover how to visit the Needles in Canyonlands like a pro, then you’ll want to keep reading. Here’s what to expect inside this post:
- Who will love the Needles in Canyonlands
- Where is the Needles District?
- The most amazing things to do in the Needles
- Quick tips for visiting Canyonlands National Park
- Additional Moab resources
Who Will Love It
The Needles District is THE place to go in Canyonlands if you’re up for some serious backpacking, remote hiking in the desert, unique tower climbs, and fun off-road adventures.
It’s a great alternative for Island in the Sky if you want to get more up-close and personal with the area, get to see sweeping vistas of unique spire-filled canyons, and explore its rugged landscape in a much more quiet atmosphere.
The scenery here is other-worldly weird. Giant sandstone pinnacles pierce the sky and create weird and wonky canyons.
Around every bend is a new view that simply captures your attention. It’s so vast and so…well…pointy, you can even see it from an airplane!
It’s one of those places where the photos don’t really do it justice and you just have to see to believe.
Is the Needles in Canyonlands National Park?
Yup, sure is! Canyonlands National Park is divided into three districts, the Island in the Sky (right outside of Moab), the Needles (about a 1.5-hour drive from Moab), and the Maze (accessible with a 4×4 vehicle and permit only, 2.5 hours from Moab).
This means the same regulations and rules apply for visiting Canyonlands National Park as the Needles. There is a separate entrance and you cannot drive from one district of the park to the other.
How Do I get to the Needles, Canyonlands?
The Needles District is one of three distinct sections in Canyonlands National Park. You’ll find the Needles District at the southern-most corner of the park.
Head south out of Moab for 1.5 hours (around 75 miles) until you reach the park entrance. Take Highway 191 south past Monticello. You’ll turn right on BLM road 211. Signs lead the way.
Wind your way through Indian Creek (don’t forget to stop at Newspaper Rock) until you reach the entrance to the park. It’s the only paved road in the area – so it’s virtually impossible to get lost.
Pro Tip: Be aware of cattle on the road!
You’ll pass by the Needles Outpost – a private establishment that offers the only services in the entire area. There is gas here – but it’s pricey. You can also access a small convenience store, campground, glamping, and shower facility.
You’ll find the paved entrance to the Needles, Canyonlands just beyond the Outpost. There are a few amazing 4WD roads nearby including the White Rim Trail.
Is the Needles District Worth the Drive?
Honestly, in my opinion, I think the Needles District is one of the best things to see in Moab. The landscape is absolutely mesmerizing and truly unique. Photos don’t really do the pointy canyon hoodoos justice. If you enjoy hiking and backpacking, you’ll love the Needles.
There are some 4×4 roads and overlapping experiences that are well worth the effort too. Having been all over the American Southwest countless times, I keep coming back to the Needles. It’s a beautiful spot and a bit off the beaten path, making it a welcomed break from the crowds of places like Arches National Park.
If you’re more interested in viewing attractions from the comfort of your car or you’re an avid mountain biker, the Needles probably aren’t for you.
It’s $30 to enter the Needles District per vehicle, per day. If you plan on visiting multiple national parks within a 12 month period or you want to spend several days in the park, then consider getting an America the Beautiful Annual Parks Pass to save a little money.
What Are the Needles Anyway?
The Needles Canyonlands is named after a massive cluster of needle-like red rock pinnacles. From afar, this sea of spires looks absolutely impenetrable. However, you’ll be surprised to find that these Needle-like rocks are actually the tops of winding canyon systems that stretch through this section of the park.
One of the best parts about the Needles District is that it looks nothing like Island in the Sky. Also, there are several different things to do in the Needles District that you can’t find in the neighboring Island in the Sky District.
The Needles area is comparatively quite small – the road in is only 7 miles and takes just under 10 minutes to drive. However, what the Needles lacks in scenic paved drives it makes up for in 4WD adventures, backpacking opportunities, and world-class hiking.
Although the area is remote, a trip to the Needles is absolutely worth it to get a sense of just how vast and diverse the desert really is.
Pro Tip: Photos do not do this place justice. The spires are impossibly huge and you’ll feel tiny walking through an endless maze of rock hoodoos (spires).
Things To Do In The Needles District
Remote hiking is king here, and you could easily spend over a week exploring some of the best hikes in Moab without ever getting bored.
The Needles boasts over 60-miles of interconnected trails, and for me, the best itinerary to get started with is by spending a couple of days backpacking the Chesler Park, Elephant Canyon, and Druid Arch.
Other awesome things to do are going on a 4×4 adventure (note that these are only for experienced drivers), go mountain biking, or spend a night or two camping beneath the stars (The Needles is considered one of the best spots for stargazing in Utah).
Easy Hikes to Unique Views of the Needles
Although the Needles is well-known for its requisite hiking trails, there are a few short walks that deliver big on views. Here are a few things to do in the Needles if you’re not a big-time hiker
Uncover a piece of ancient history on this 0.3-mile loop walk. You’ll see a small granary tucked under a rock from the Ancestral Puebloan era. This ancient and complex culture thrived in the area from up to 925 CE until the 1200s when the mysteriously disappeared.
Wooden Shoe Arch Overlook
Arches are a fun and funky aspect of southern Utah’s red rock country. Wooden Shoe Arch looks exactly like a wooden shoe perched on top of a cliff. The overlook is right along the main road in the Needles and takes about 5 minutes to check out. It’s a quirky roadside stop that’s a worthy point of interest after a long hike in the Needles District.
Cave Spring Trail
This short 0.6-mile loop trail passes a few springs (duh), Native American rock art, and original artifacts from a 19th-century cowboy camp. The rock art comes from the Freemont people – pre-dating Ancestral Puebloan culture. While the old cowboy camp illustrates just how important these tiny seeping springs are to the American Southwest.
Pothole Point Trail
This mile-long short hike takes you up and over rocky terrain to witness just how delicate life is out here in the desert. Potholes, or slight to deep depressions in rocks, fill with water when it rains during the monsoon.
These potholes sustain life. Larger wildlife depends on them for water sources during the dry season. While microbial life and even small fish that only awaken when it’s wet (and bury themselves in mud when it dries) call these potholes home.
Pro Tip: It’s illegal to pull water from these potholes. You also cannot swim, dip, or put your hands in them, since the oil from your skin and sunscreen can kill the micro life. If they are dry, walk around them, as life is hibernating.
Often touted as the beginner hike into the region the slick rock trail is a 2.4-mile hike in the Needles, Canyonlands that takes around an hour to complete. You’ll find the trail at the end of Big Spring Canyon Overlook. There are no steep sections that make it easy to hike and you’ll get unique canyon views. However you’ll miss a lot of the viewpoints of the Needles, so be sure to check out the Elephant Canyon trail too.
Scenic Overlooks in the Needles, Cayonlands
Although Island in the Sky has more dramatic overlooks, the Needles still delivers a few notable pull-offs you’ll want to check out. One of the easiest things to do in the Needles is to git the road. However, keep in mind that oftentimes a lifted 4WD vehicle with a short wheelbase is strongly recommended.
The Needles Park Road Scenic Drive
if you’re headed to the Needles, Canyonlands, you’re already on this road. The road is paved as it makes its way from the visitors center to the Big Spring Canyon Overlook.
You’ll also be able to spot deep canyons and access all of the other things to do in the Needles Canyonlands on this road.
It terminates at the Elephant Hill Trailhead. you can continue onward along the Elephant Hill Road – but you’ll need an advanced permit and a 4WD vehicle with clearance to navigate this section of road.
The accessible part is 7 miles long.
Big Spring Canyon Overlook
The Big Spring overlook is at the end of Needles Park Road. This signed pullout features views of unique rock spires and colorful sandstone benches. There is a strenuous hike from here (Big Spring to Elephant Hill Loop) that’s 10.8 miles and features two ladders.
See where the mighty Colorado River meets the aptly named Green River. However, in order to reach this vantage point, you’ll need to walk 10.4 miles out and back over rocky terrain. The trail undulates up and over a few canyons., with a couple of difficult points at the beginning.
Start at the Big Spring Canyon Overlook and take the trail towards the Confluence Overlook.
Colorado River Overlook
This OHV trail requires a 4WD with high clearance and some guts to complete. It’s a step up from easier 4×4 roads, but it isn’t as tough as some of the big-named routes in Moab. The deep sand will keep you on your toes.
But for stunning views of the Colorado River – the same river that created the Grand Canyon, the journey is worth it. The total distance is 14.1 miles
Unmissable Hikes in The Needles
The Needles district offers some of the best hikes in Canyonlands National Park, and this is your go-to place if you’re up for longer, more challenging trails in the park.
Pro Tip: The Elephant Hill Trailhead has ample parking, but it’s pretty normal for the lot to fill by 8 am – even during the week – during the spring through fall. Arrive early to snag a spot!
The district offers over 60 miles of interconnected trails and while many different itineraries are possible, these are the best to get started with:
Starting at Elephant Hill, Chesler Park is a 10.4-mile loop that takes you deep into Canyonlands. If you want a shorter version of this hike – then you’ve got options.
I would consider this one of the most rewarding hikes in Canyonlands. As you weave your way through the trail, you’ll squeeze through canyons, walk past pinnacles, and marvel at the beautiful views that will greet you every step of the way.
This hike is technically doable in a day if you start really early, but for a more pleasant experience, I recommend splitting it up into two days and camping within the park (more on that below).
For a shorter variation, you can hike to the Chesler Park Overlook (along the trail). It’s a 5.4-mile out-and-back to the overlook and is rated easy to moderate.
Mileage: 11.6 miles round-trip
Elevation Gain: 1,935 feet
Estimated Time: 6 hours including time to stop and admire the landscape
Red Tape: No dogs, permits are required for overnight use.
Elephant Canyon hiking trail:
This trail follows Chesler Park down to Elephant Canyon and offers a truly special view of Druid Arch and The Needles District.
Note that the final quarter-mile involves a steep climb and some super-mellow scrambling, but once you’re past that, the views are so worth the effort!
Pro Tip: If you want a mellow overnight backpacking trip, try to snag the uber-scenic Elephant Canyon 2 (EC2) site.
Mileage: 5 miles
Elevation Gain: 800 feet
Estimated Time: 3.5 hours
Red Tape: No dogs are allowed in Canyonlands National Park
Druid Arch is probably the most monumental landmark of the Needles District. Seriously, a visit to Canyonlands is not really complete without seeing it with your own eyes.
The arch is nestled deep within the Canyonlands, and it takes a semi-challenging hike through Elephant Canyon to reach it. It’s an absolutely lovely trail that can take up to 5.5 hours (11 miles) to complete.
The hike will take you through a variety of terrain including deep sand, slick rock, pinnacles, narrow channels, and grassland.
Be ready to use your hands and be cozy with a little exposure towards the end.
Mileage: 10.4 miles round-trip
Elevation Gain: 1,614 feet
Difficulty: Moderate to difficult
Estimated Time: 5 hours
Red Tape: No dogs are allowed in Canyonlands National Park
The Joint Trail
The Joint Trail in the Needles is a 4-mile out-and-back trail that features a long, narrow passageway through two rocks. It feels like you’re walking to another dimension. This shoulder-width, narrow passage squeezes between two rocks that get to be almost 100 feet high in spots.
Many avid hikers opt to hike the entire thing from the Elephant Hill Trailhead in a day, while 4×4 enthusiasts make the trek down to the official Joint Trailhead. The ladder is the simpler route, but you need a permit to drive the road.
Mileage: 4 miles round-trip or 12.3 miles from the Elephant Hill Trailhead
Elevation Gain: 567 feet, longer loop unknown.
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Estimated Time: 2 hours from the Joint Trailhead, 6.5 hours from Elephant Hill.
Red Tape: You’ll either need to hike 12.2 miles (preferably backpack unless you’re prepared for lots of sand walking and carrying extra water) to get here, or you’ll need a 4WD vehicle to get to the shorter trailhead. No dogs are allowed in Canyonlands National Park
Devil’s Pocket Loop
Yet another classic route from the Elephant Hill Trailhead, this hiking loop takes you through parts of Elephant Canyon and then over to Chesler Park and around to Devil’s Pocket. Despite the mileage, it’s a moderate hike that lets you dive into the Needles, Canyonlands without the need for an overnight permit.
Keep in mind there are a few steep climbs and very limited shade along the route.
Mileage: 10.1 miles round-trip
Elevation Gain: 1,679 feet
Estimated Time: 5 hours
Red Tape: No dogs are allowed in Canyonlands National Park
Go on an Overlanding or 4WD Adventure
If you’re into burly Jeep trails, then – surprisingly – the Needles District has a few notable routes you’ll want to check out. Most national parks don’t allow for Jeep Trails, but Canyonlands is an exception.
Even day use for these trails requires a permit – even for day use. Definitely snag your permit in advance – especially if you’re traveling from spring through fall.
Elephant Hill Trail
It’s easy to confuse this OHV trail with Elephant Canyon (different) or the Elephant Hill Trailhead (where this jeep trail begins), but those are two different things. As one of the best things to do in the Needles Canyonlands, many people jockey for permits to drive this famous road.
One of the signature obstacles is a tight squeeze between two large rocks, often leaving paint from your car on the sides of the rock. Think thin!
Take the Elephant Hill Trail to the Devil’s Kitchen Campground. Sleep in the heart of the Needles and watch as the shadows dance around the red-rock spires.
Pro Tip: The end of the Elephant Hill Trail has quite a big squeeze, wide trucks may struggle here and have a few scratches as a souvenir.
Devil’s Lane and Joint Trailhead
Or, continue onwards along the Devil’s Lane Road to reach the famous Joint Trailhead. You can opt to hike from here and enjoy lesser-trafficked hiking trails in the Needles District.
Pro Tip: There are two Joint Trails and Two Elephant Hills. One is a 4×4 road, and the other is a hiking trail. The 4×4 trails require you to use a 4WD vehicle – preferably narrower and with a short wheel base to avoid scuffing up your car on a few narrow squeezes.
How Long is the Hike to the Needles in Canyonlands?
Camping in the District
Canyonlands National Park is one of the best settings to experience what camping in the desert is like, and The Needles is an awesome setting for it if you’re keen to linger a while longer.
The Needles Campground is made up of twenty-six different sites with views of the rocky spires.
During the spring and fall, it’s possible to make reservations ahead, but any other time of the year, it works on a first-come, first-served basis.
Note that sites tend to get booked up quickly during the spring and fall, so reserve as far out in advance as you can to ensure a spot.
Moreover, they offer three group sites which you can reserve ahead between mid-March and mid-November.
Backpack Across Canyonlands
So day hiking is entirely possible, but if you really want to experience the magic of the Needles in Canyonlands, you’ll want to backpack.
The sunsets and dark skies are absolutely stunning here and it’s well worth the effort to head out on a backpacking adventure.
There are countless backpacking routes in the Needles. First, snag a Nat Geo map of Canyonlands, so you can plan your route.
Snag your permits and prepare for your trip. Permits typically open up 6 months in advance and will fill up immediately for Spring and Fall trips. Permits cost $30 and can accommodate groups up to 8 people.
Keep in mind, there is no water anywhere in the Needles – which means you’ll be carrying your water with you. So although the hiking may not be too tedious along most of the trails, you’ll be hauling water, sometimes over deep sand (yuck) so plan accordingly. You are also required to pack out all of your human waste in specials bags.
It’s a small price to pay for some of the most incredible desert backpacking in the American Southwest.
Local Tip: Elephant Canyon 2 is one of the prettiest backcountry campsites in the Needles, Canyonlands.
Map of the Things to Do in the Needles Canyonlands
Check out the interactive map and get a lay of the land with the top things to see in the Needles, Canyonlands.
Tips for Visiting The Needles
Cellphone and GPS signals are rare to find in the Needles, so make sure to bring a physical map. Download your GPS files in advance, including Google Maps so you don’t get lost.
Bring lots of water. Rivers and creeks are scarce in the area, so bring enough water for your stay (at least one gallon per person, per day).
The Needles visitor center is open every day from spring through fall, but it closes from early December through February.
There are no services offered inside The Needles, but you can stock up on groceries and fuel at the Needles Outpost on S.R. 211. Prices are steep, but the staff is friendly and it works well in a pinch.
When is the Best Time to Visit?
Canyonlands is one of the best national parks to visit in the fall for pleasant weather and beautiful hiking opportunities. Spring is another great option (but avoid spring break at all costs).
Winters in Canyonlands Nation Park can get cold and reach freezing temperatures at night, but it’s worth considering a visit if you want to have the entire place practically all to yourself.
Costs & Permits
Entrance fees are good for seven days and are as follows:
- Per person (no car): $15 for walk-ups
- Per vehicle and its occupants: $30
- Per motorcycle and its riders: $25
Note that your ticket also includes entrance to the other sections in Canyonlands National Park.
Permits are required for overnight trips. You can reserve them up to six months in advance.
I recommend doing it as early as possible if you’re planning to visit during the spring or fall. Permits fill up quickly so plan accordingly!
Do You Need Reservations for Canyonlands?
No. Not at the current moment. you can visit any district in Canyonlands National Park without a reservation. The busiest times for the park tend to be 8 am through 4 pm at the Island in the Sky and Needles Districts. Early arrival means more solitude.
Winter tends to be the least crowded month, but temperatures can be well below freezing and the wind is quite chilly.
What Part of Canyonlands is Best?
Honestly, the answer depends on what you are into. If you’re an avid hiker and backpacker the Needles, Canyonlands is a playground. For those that want extreme solitude, don’t mind backcountry travel, and have a lifted 4×4 vehicle, the Maze is an excellent choice. If you want to soak in bird’s eye canyon views or go out on a classic beginner 4×4 adventure, then Island in the Sky is the place to be.
Which Canoylands Area is Closest to Moab?
Island in the Sky is about 20 minutes from Moab – making it the closest part of Canyonlands. However, it’s substantially more crowded than both the Needles and the Maze
Amazing Nearby Attractions to See Next
Ready for more amazing adventures in the Needles, Canyonlands? Check out these other nearby attractions.
South and North Six Shooter Peaks:
The Six-Shooter Peaks are two striking desert towers located just east of The Needles District and the Indian Creek crack climbing area.
Both towers offer some of the best climbing in Moab, so it’s an excellent place for beginner mountaineers to test their skills.
Both South and North Six-Shooter Peaks tower over the Bridger Jack Mesa area, a region rich in ancient history with dwellings and petroglyphs covering every major rock.
South Six-Shooter is considered one of the easiest towers to climb in the area, and North Six Shooter provides some thrilling crack climbs like Lightning Bolt Crack.
If you want to get your history buff on, a great place to hit up next is Newspaper Rock State Historic Monument, which sits a thirty-minute drive from the Needles visitor center.
This attraction is home to one of the oldest petroglyph record collections and while exploring, you’ll get to see engravings that detail the story of the Native Americans that lived here over 2,000 years ago.
Island in the Sky:
Keep in mind that although Island in the Sky is technically the neighbor of the Needles, it takes two hours to drive between them.
Arches National Park:
Arches National Park is yet another of the can’t miss things to do in Moab and is a great spot to add to your itinerary.
It’s located around an hour and a half drive away from the Needles and boasts thousands of striking arches (ahem – Delicate Arch – ahem), giant mesas, red sandstone rocks, and incredible hiking ops.
When it comes to Arches vs Canyonlands, don’t fret, you can easily visit both parks in the same day!
Additional Expert Travel Resources for the Moab Area
Planning a trip to Moab? I’ve got you covered with a wide variety of amazing resources so you can travel like a pro, not a tourist.
- Scenic Drives in Moab to Go Ga Ga for
- The Only 1-Day Arches National Park Itinerary You’ll Ever Need
- Your Guide to Camping in Moab