Hoodoos in a Desert Meadow: Chesler Park

Chesler Park

Chesler Park is one of my favorite places in Canyonlands National Park.  It’s so pretty and awe-inspiring with red and white sandstone towers and hoodoos rimming a desert meadow filled with desert grass and low scrub.  Chesler Park is the kind of place where you can sit on a rock and let the wind blow gently around you, and just soak in the beauty for a few hours.  The scenery is just phenomenal, especially when the flowers were in bloom in October.  From the Park, you can also hike down into the Joint Trail, fishers in the rock where our children had so much fun exploring places no overweight adult could get through.  It’s also not a place for claustrophobics, but it’s cool and a neat little place.  My biggest complaint is that if you don’t have a good high-clearance 4×4 vehicle, it’s a 6-11 mile round trip hike to the Park and the Joint Trail and back to the parking area.  (Note: I’ve made updated posts for this area with GPS coordinates, maps, and more: Elephant Canyon, Chesler Park, The Joints, Chesler Park Loop.)

In Elephant Canyon

Chesler Park is located in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.  To get to the trailhead, drive 40 miles south from Moab, Utah on US-191 South and turn right onto UT-211.  Or, from Monticello drive north on US-191 North for 14 miles and turn left onto UT-211.  Either way, a sign will direct you down the right road for the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.  From here, drive 34 miles to the visitor center in Canyonlands National Park (Needles District).  Then drive 9.5 miles to the Elephant Hill Trailhead.  The last 3 miles of the road are unpaved; however, at least when we traveled the road, a car could fairly easily have driven down to the trailhead.  Beyond Elephant Hill the road becomes passable only by 4×4 vehicles with experienced drivers: we watched one person try it, and the park ranger near us got very nervous over the driver’s lack of skill!

A view on the way to Chesler Park

The trail starts at the left side of the parking lot when you are facing the 4×4 road, and winds its way down Elephant Canyon and across washes, over rocks, and through awesome Utah scenery.  Even Elephant Canyon is a nice hike, although Chesler is by far better.  There are adequate signs and cairns along the way showing which way to turn, so it isn’t too easy to get lost.  After 3 miles or so, you will ascend a pass through a rock wall and get your first view of Chesler Park.  You don’t have to go any farther than this, making it a 6 mile round trip hike, but to get the best scenery, keep following the trail towards the Joints Trail.  The meadow will spread out before you, and you will soon be looking across it at the awe-inspiring red and white towers.  At the far side of the meadow, not long before the Joints Trail begins, there is a sign for an overlook.  My advice: stick to the trail—it has better views.

Looking back at Elephant Canyon from the entrance to Chesler Park

If you’re not interested in slot canyons, you can turn around at the Joint Trail juncture, retrace your steps, and call it an 8.5 mile round trip hike.  However, if you’re like us, and love those tight spaces and exploring them, continue down to the Joint Trail.  Just after you descend the trail you will enter the joints themselves.  These are cracks or fishers in rocks.  Some are several feet wide, while others are only a few inches in width.  We had a wonderful time exploring, and let the littlest ones out of their child-backpacks to tottle around.  They were definitely the best at getting into the smallest crevices—sometimes the rest of us would inch sideways down a thin fisher only to find that we couldn’t go any farther.  We could not turn around (we were already going sidewise), but we could not turn our heads around either.  We had to go out with our heads facing towards where we went in, so we’d have to back out without looking until it was wide enough to turn our heads so we could see where we were going.

One of the Joints

After you’ve enjoyed the joints for a while, continue down the Joint Trail.  You may have to walk sideways in a few places, or take off your pack and carry it, but eventually the canyon will widen out enough for you to put your pack back on and walk normally.  Suddenly, the canyon will turn, and you will find yourself in a wide open canyon, but the walls overhead come nearly together, so it’s almost like a cave.  People have made many rock cairns in here, and we added our share, including a rock arch, before moving on.

Fairly soon after this, and 1.5 miles after descending onto the Joint Trail, you will come to a 4×4 road.  Turn right on this and follow it for about a mile until you come to a place where you can take another trail back towards Elephant Hill Trailhead.  In this section, you may end up walking down a spur road for 0.5 miles at the end of the Joint Trail, and then turning right onto the main road for about another 0.5 miles to get to the trail back, which will be on your right.

Wildflowers Bloom in Chesler Park in October

From here, it’s just a matter of following the signs back to the Elephant Hill Trailhead.  You will walk down the trail that connects to the 4×4 road for 0.4 miles, and then another trail for 1.2 miles before you have made the loop around Chesler Park, and will be back on the trail you hiked earlier.  From here, retrace your steps to the Elephant Hill Trailhead and your vehicle.  This is an 11 mile hike.  I highly recommend picking up a trail map from the visitor center (free of charge).

So if you’re up to the hike, Chesler Park sure is a beautiful place…and the joints are a whole lot of fun!

The desert meadow in Chesler Park

Fees: $10 per vehicle, good 7 days.  Local passports and all federal lands passes are also accepted.

Trail ★★★☆☆

Road ★★★☆☆

Signs ★★★★☆

Scenery ★★★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★★☆

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