A freakin’ awful slog of a hike. Shoot me! 20.2 km. 7¼ hours. Elephantine fingers (for both of us.) K rated it a 2.5, me a 3.5, let’s say a generous 3. We’re exhausted.
So reads my diary after hiking The Needles, Chesler Park, The Joint in Canyonlands National Park in Utah.
We tend to agree with Jane Austen, “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.” But to hell with that, this is one miserable hike—don’t do it!
Our first clue should have come from the WOW guidebook to hiking in Utah. Rather than having its own entry, this hike gets lumped in with three others. The scenery is described as having “incomprehensible complexity.” Ditto we’d say for the convoluted route, poor signage, exhausting terrain, serious up/down elevation and weird people we encountered. It’s one of the few times this guidebook has let us down, rating the hike “easy to moderate” while most others label it “strenuous.” Go figure—no, don’t!
At least don’t go in mid-May as we did.
The lasso-shaped trail with frayed ends begins in mile-high country, starting at 5,200 feet (1585 metres) at the head of Elephant Canyon. It’s described as a “maze” of towering pinnacles, winding canyons, mushroom rocks, slickrock expanses, tight passages and beautiful views of The Needles.
“It’s a busy place. A 4WD road departs here, and—despite all the hiking options—there’s initially just one trail,” our guidebook reads. And they hiked it with snow on the slickrock. “The remoteness is partly dashed by the flurry of hikers and backpackers who flock to the district in spring and summer,” writes another reviewer. Here’s more from my diary:
Hordes of people on the trail, unlike yesterday when we saw so few. A guy with knee patches. Recent surgery? A Dutch couple who didn’t go in the slot canyon. Young women on their own, backpacking. Couples backpacking, 50ish. A young couple going into LCI. And a woman we called “Tina” and her gang of seven.
Like “Tina”, Magellan didn’t get his nickname by accident. Even with his skills, Garmin and GPS, plus our guidebook and assistance from the well-informed and friendly people at the RS, it was all we could do to figure out the route.
Others had the same problem. From my diary:
Confusing signs. A couple we nicknamed Doofus and Esther were lost. So was another pair we called Mykonos and Stripes—and they didn’t know it. They thanked Magellan when he said, “We’ve seen you before, are you lost?” and helped them figure out the trail.
Then there was The Joint.
“It’s a fissure: deep, narrow, long, shady, cool. The trial inside is sandy and brush-free. Slipping through this rock-walled slot is fun for all but claustrophobes,” said our guidebook. “A cobble staircase ascends a narrow crevice barely two feet wide, providing access to a spooky chamber that nearly forms a fully enclosed tunnel (light shines through a thin slit in the top),” reads another review.
This is where we encountered Tina and seven others in the narrow, claustrophobic passage reminiscent of a slot canyon—it continues for 0.8 miles (1.3 kilometers). How were we going to get by them all when they were so spread out? We decided to be patient and walk behind them at a snail’s pace. From my diary:
Tina in the Joint said to us, “There are seven of us and places to pass you know.” Instead of saying, “Sorry, there are seven of us and we’re spaced out and taking pictures and please, there are places to pass, go ahead.” Language, kindness.
In case you think I’m being too judgemental of our American neighbours, here’s another entry from my diary about their behaviour when suddenly they reappeared near the end of the hike:
They rushed from behind us to finish 30 seconds before we did. WTF?
The Needles, the two canyons, the slot, Chesler Park and the Joint. Grand eh? According to my diary, we didn’t think so. “
The rocks are muscular and monumental, but the place hasn’t grabbed our hearts.
If we go back to our four-boot ranking system (Alexander Murray Trail) here’s how The Needles, Chesler Park, The Joint adds up:
Moving water : Bootless
Summit payoff: Bootless
Wildlife : for the flowers
Surprise/unexpected delight: Bootless
That’s seven boots out of a possible twenty-eight. A hike rating 25%. “It was a long hike in the desert heat and we had to carry a lot of water, about four litres each. From Elephant Head to the Chesler Park loop was a long, boring walk—which had to be repeated going out,” is Magellan’s overview.
What did it take to get over the day at our camp spot at Indian Post? From my diary:
Got back and showered and made spaghetti and a salad and drank Lange Twins Sangiovese Rosé and made a bloggable dessert: crushed graham crackers, roasted marshmallows, a melted chocolate bar and Häagen-Dazs coffee ice cream.
Copeland, Kathy & Craig. Hiking from here to WOW: Utah Canyon Country. Alabama: Wilderness Press, 2015.
An excellent review of this hike can be found here: Live and Let Hike review of Chesler Park Loop Trail Canyonlands National Park Utah
So not overly optimistic about this tour.
What kind of temps did you experience in May ?
Nice scenery except the trench areas although the rocks must have been of some interest, although not for everyone.
Always has to one or two hikes that make us question what we are doing, in my mind.
No indication in my diary of the temperature but I do recall that seldom did we feel too hot while hiking on that 79-day trip.
What we bring to an experience influences our feelings about it. Maybe it was just us…
really enjoyed the pictures
Makes it look like a stunning hike doesn’t it?
Incredible and awesome when viewed from the comfort of my sofa. Thanks for the wonderful pictures.
Our sofa is the only place we’ll ever witness this trail again!
What a tough journey. It seemed quite like being in caves. It seemed like quite the experience for you. It would prepare you for cave exploration.
The rocks and their structures are amazing.
Did you feel claustrophobic?
Surprisingly we didn’t feel as claustrophobic as in small small canyons, I think because there were slants of sunlight enrolee.
The photos are amazing. i love the resilience of the wee flowers struggling to survive in that terrain. Obviously a very strenuous trek!
Makes me tired thinking of it, especially now that we both have COVID or Omicron or some other variant and can barely walk up the stairs never mind contemplate a 20.2 km hike.