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Hike of the Week: Canyonlands - Needles District

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This is a weekly series that highlights an outstanding day hike or backpacking trip. The goal is to inspire you to want to get out and see these places for yourself. I know for us, just seeing amazing photos and reading about a great hike is enough to get us motivated.

This week's hike is the Needles District in Utah's Canyonlands National Park.

Why this hike?

Canyonlands National Park is one of those places that holds something for every kind of hiker. From sightseeing along the trail to magnificent destinations, this park has it all. The hikes are a lot shorter than what a typical backpacking expedition usually entails, so this trip is equally leisurely as it is adventurous.

  • You’ll cover about 32 miles total over the course of three days
  • Not a straight hike with intermediate stops, more like a "go at your own pace"
  • Lots of extra time to hike around and explore
  • Many camping options
  • Year-round season!
  • Beautiful, diverse destinations
  • Simple logistics, trail starts and ends at the same spot

However, keep the following in mind:

  • Maze-like paths could lead to confusion, bring a good map!
  • Peak season is late in the year
  • Canyon hiking requires plenty of water
  • Camping is limited to designated areas, reservations are recommended
  • You might hike the same trails several times
  • Some areas of The Canyonlands are considered black bear country!

How do I get there?

The Canyonlands are technically in the Moab region of Utah, which means that they are kind of in the middle of nowhere. The most convenient option to get there is to fly into Grand Junction, Colorado. This airport is only 110 miles, about a 90 minute drive, away from the park. From here, most people rent cars to get themselves and their gear to the campsite.

There are also various shuttle buses that travel to and from Grand Junction that can get you to Moab, but each company specifies their own individual pricing and destinations based on popularity. Some shuttle companies include Road Runner Shuttle and American Spirit Shuttle. Call these beforehand in order to get a schedule and price quotes, as they change year-round.

Map

Canyonlands Needles District Map

Another great map resource can be found on the Canyonlands National Park website.

Squaw Flat campground makes a perfect base camp since it has all the amenities that you could need (drinking water, parking). You can also stay at one of the smaller campsites in the canyons, such as EC1 or EC2. If you pick one of these camping areas, be sure you bring sufficient water since there are no water sources in the canyons.

If you stay at Squaw Flat, you can hike out into the canyons for a different trail every day. We recommend the following itinerary:

  • Day 1 - Hike to Devils Kitchen (14.1 miles total)
  • Day 2 - Hike around the canyon loop (11 miles total)
  • Day 2 - Quick side adventure to Druid Arch! (2 miles there, 2 miles back)
  • Day 3 - Hike of the Lost Canyon Loop (14.1 miles total)

Trail Description

As a full-fledged desert adventure, this trip could be treated as a backpacking trip or a day trip vacation, depending on your preference. The winding paths ignore geometrical theory that the quickest way from Point A to Point B is a straight line. Along the walk you will see billowing pillars of red stone, serving as walls to the maze trails. Devils Kitchen is a destination surrounded by massive orange, layered cones. The walks are scattered with pale green shrubbery and you can count on getting your toes dusty.

The destination for the second day is a glorious freestanding double arch monument. The tall Druid Arch is definitely worth the 2 mile hike out into the wilderness. After weaving through the red and rocky mounds, the arch is a unique sight!

The Lost Canyon loop offers a great taste of the canyon systems within Canyonlands. The orange walls rise up around you as you wander further into the desert outback. If you’re lucky, your eye may catch a snake squirming away or a small scorpion slipping behind the rock.

This red rock haven is a must-see destination if you admire rock formations and love the adventure of canyon exploration.

What will I need?

Some of the eastern areas of the Needles District are considered bear country, so bear canisters are recommended if you camp in that area. If you plan to stay at Squaw Flats, the trails are short and sweet and you'll likely need a lot less gear. The park is open all year long, so this requires different supplies for different times of the year.

In the summer, plenty of water is essential to stay hydrated while roaming the desert. Be prepared to drink at least a gallon of water per day to stay on the top of your game. Also come with ample bug spray; gnats and mosquitoes are prevalent during this season.

In the winter, having extra layers of clothes and appropriate sleeping gear for freezing temperatures is necessary. Call a week before your trip to find out what weather conditions have been like recently.

If you choose to plant a home base at the Squaw Flat campsite, then having car-camping gear and a day pack would be sufficient. If you plan to camp within the canyon, a full set of backpacking gear is necessary. To prepare for overnights in the backcountry, check out our Ultimate Backpacker’s Packing List which is full of recommendations and comes with an easy, printable checklist.

Do I need a permit?

Permits are not required to day hike in the Canyonlands. However, if you plan on camping then a permit is required. You can pick them up at the start of your trip at The Needles Visitor Center. During peak season, a reservation is highly recommended. You can make a reservations in advance on the Canyonlands National Park website. If you plan to take on any of the rivers in the Moab region, a permit is required for that, too.

Resources

Road Runner Shuttle
American Spirit Shuttle
Canyonlands National Park Backcountry Permits

Have you hiked in The Canyonlands and have any interesting nooks and crannies that you've found and want to share? Do you have other outstanding hikes that you'd like us to write about? Please share your feedback in the comments.

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