Massive sandstone pillars, narrow crevices and sweeping views across a unique desert grassland make Chesler Park one of the best hikes in Canyonlands. With a variety of route options, this is a great choice for a simple day hike or a more complex backpack trip. The route is generally easy to follow but does involve some steep, rugged terrain including some exposed ledges that may be uncomfortable for some. Most children will enjoy this hike but should be supervised closely.
Chesler Park is located in The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, approximately 90 minutes southwest of Moab. The hike begins at the Elephant Hill Trailhead (38.141809,-109.827227). The road is paved for all but the last 2.7 miles, but is passable to passenger cars in regular conditions. Beyond the Elephant Hill Trailhead, the road becomes an extremely difficult 4WD road. Check in at the Visitor Center when you enter the park for more information and current conditions.
To reach the trailhead from Moab, Utah:
- Drive south on US-191 for approximately 40 miles to the signed junction for Canyonlands National Park.
- Turn right onto UT-211 and continue for 34 miles before arriving at the entrance to Canyonlands.
- Drive 3 miles past the entrance station and turn left, following signs for Elephant Hill Trailhead.
- Drive 0.3 miles and turn right.
- Drive 0.2 miles and turn right again onto a graded dirt road.
- Continue on the dirt road for 2.7 miles to the Elephant Hill Trailhead.
While there are no fees to park at the Trailhead, there is a $15 fee to enter Canyonlands National Park. Vault toilets are available on site.
From Elephant Hill, the trail winds through sand and slickrock as it makes its way 2.8 miles to the north end of Chesler Park. The route can sometimes be tricky to follow, particularly as it crosses over sandstone and other small obstacles where the trail is marked by rock cairns.
Much of the terrain alongside the trail is covered by sensitive cryptobiotic soil. Be careful not to walk on or disturb this delicate desert life form, as it is crucial to preventing erosion and maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Stop by the Visitor Center for more information and to learn how to identify cryptobiotic soil.
About 1.5 miles into the hike, the trail begins to descend into Elephant Canyon which is the last great obstacle standing between you and Chesler Park. Luckily, it is a very scenic obstacle as the trail passes through slot canyon-like joints in the rock. In hot weather, these offer a nice break from the sun. Unlike a traditional slot canyon which is formed by a watercourse, these ‘joints’ are essentially just cracks between large sandstone blocks that have been widened by wind and water over time.
At the bottom of Elephant Canyon, keep an eye out for signage leading you out the other side of the wash and towards Chesler Park. The trail can be a little tough to follow here so pay careful attention.
After one last steep climb, the trail crests into the northeast corner of Chesler Park, approximately 2.8 miles from the trailhead. Those opting for a shorter hike can take in the views from here and return the way they came.
The walk to south end of Chesler Park is well worth the effort and adds about 3-4 miles to the round trip total. Continue south on the trail, passing by the junction on the right to Devils Kitchen. Soon the trail passes by CP1, the first backcountry campsite in Chesler Park. Just beyond CP1, the trail turns to the east and offers a fantastic overlook of Elephant Canyon.
The rest of the backcountry campsites are located near the south end of Chesler Park. To reach the other sites, continue south and follow a signed junction on the right that leads along the west side of the prominent rock formation in the middle of the park. There are remnants of an old cowboy camp near these sites for those interested in seeking it out.
Beyond the final campsites, the trail arrives at the end of Chesler Park where there is a short trail to an overlook and the beginning of an interesting feature called The Joint Trail. The Joint Trail is a three quarter mile long trail through a set of narrow rock joints. The route is so narrow that you can touch both walls for much of its length. If you have the time, it is well worth at least climbing down the stone steps at the top of The Joint Trail to take a look. If you follow the trail all the way through, it will eventually arrive at the 4WD trailhead for Chesler Park where a vault toilet is available.
It is possible to make a loop of Chesler Park and the Joint Trail by following the 4WD road north through Elephant Canyon and reconnecting to a trail that eventually returns to the junction on the north end of Chesler Park. This requires slightly more advanced navigation skills. Check with the visitor center for more information.
Total distance will vary depending on the route you choose. Round trip to the north end of Chesler Park and back to Elephant Hill is approximately 5.6 miles. Continuing to the south end and into the Joint Trail and back will add 3-4 miles.
Rules and Regulations
- There is a $15 entrance fee to enter Canyonlands National Park.
- Permits and backcountry campsite reservations are required for overnight use. These sites are often booked well in advance so plan accordingly. You can reach the Canyonlands permit office Mon-Fri from 8am-12:30pm MST at (435) 259-4351 or until 4pm when workload permits. Backpacking permits are $30 per group with a maximum group size of 7 people.
- Camping is only allowed in designated campsites.
- Hikers on overnight trips in Chesler Park or Elephant Canyon are required to pack out human waste in an approved bag or toilet system.
- No littering.
- Pack out all trash.
- No pets allowed.
This hike can be very hot during summer. Bring sufficient water for each member of your group.