Chesler Park Backpacking Guide [Canyonlands National Park]
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Chesler Park is one of my favorite places in Southern Utah! It’s located in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park and it’s a very unique place. As you can see in the photo above – it looks like another planet! I’ve gone backpacking in Chesler Park a couple of times, and in this backpacking guide, I’m going to share with you all the things you need to know when planning your trip.
In this guide to Chesler Park backpacking we’ll cover:
- the best time to backpack Chesler Park
- trailhead information
- when and how to get a permit
- water availability
- possible itinerary
- other important things to know
1) Best Time to Hike Chesler Park
I’ve been to Chesler Park in both the Spring and Fall.
The Spring and Fall are great times to go backpacking in the desert because the temperature is cooler and the rainy season is over. Below are the average temperatures for each month in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park:
As you can see in the chart above, this area experiences wide temperature fluctuations.
The Needles District of Canyonlands gets very hot in the Summer. In addition, water and shade are extremely limited in Chesler Park. Avoiding the hottest months of the year is recommended.
I think the best time to visit Chesler Park is:
- Spring (April through May)
- early Fall (mid-September through October)
Chesler Park is very busy during these times so you’ll need to plan ahead.
Needles District Visitors Center
The Needles Visitor Center is open from spring through fall.
The visitor center is closed in winter. In winter, you must self-register for backcountry permits outside the visitor center entrance.
Water is available year-round at the Needles Visitor Center.
2) Trailhead Information
The Needles District has over 60 miles of interconnecting trails.
It’s possible to get to Chesler Park via the Elephant Hill Trailhead and the Squaw Flat Trailhead. I’ve hiked them both and they’re both incredible.
Elephant Hill Trailhead
The Elephant Hill trailhead is the most direct starting point to get to Chesler Park.
From the trailhead to the Chesler Park Viewpoint is about 3 miles (5km) one-way.
To get to the Elephant Hill trailhead you’ll need to drive along an unpaved dirt road for about 3 miles. Parking at the trailhead can be busy because this is a very popular trailhead for day hikers too.
Once you get to the Chesler Park Viewpoint, you’ll have to continue hiking further along the trail to get to the campsites in Chesler Park. (More on the Chesler Park campsites below.)
This trail is gorgeous the entire time.
There’s no water at the Elephant Hill Trailhead, so make sure to fill up before.
Squaw Flat Trailhead
The Squaw Flat Trailhead is a less direct and therefore longer hike to get to Chesler Park.
From the trailhead to the Chesler Park Viewpoint is about 5 miles (8km) one-way. Keep in mind that you’ll have to continue hiking to get to the campsites in Chesler Park.
What I recommend
I recommend starting at the Elephant Hill Trailhead. It’s a shorter more direct hike, and it’s beautiful and unique the entire time.
3) Chesler Park permits
Chesler Park campsites:
Before we can talk about permits, we need to talk about the possible campsites in Chesler Park. There are only 5 campsites in Chesler Park, and on the park map, they’re labeled CP1, CP2, CP3, CP4, and CP5.
CP2-CP5 are all pretty close to each other smack in the middle of the “park”.
I love these campsites. They’re a little further from the main area where day hikers go, and they have incredible views. For reference, they’re about an additional 1.4 miles (one-way) from the Chesler Park Viewpoint.
While they look close together on the map, they do have some privacy from other campers.
When to get a permit:
Now that you know where you’d like to camp, it’s time to get the permit. You must have a permit to camp in Chesler Park and you must camp in the designated campsites.
Permits for camping in Chesler Park can be reserved up to 4 months in advance. In the Spring and Fall, these campsites are in high demand, so you’ll need to plan ahead.
If there are any campsites and permits not reserved in advance, they’re available as first-come, first-served permits at the visitor center. Don’t count on this – especially in the Spring and Fall.
How to get a permit:
You can apply for a backpacking permit through Canyonlands Permit Reservation System.
At first, I found this site homepage to be confusing, so I’ll walk you through the process below:
- Scroll down to the bottom of the page, ignoring where it says info about available dates.
- Under the “Select an Activity” tab – select “backpack”.
- Select the day you’d like to start. Hit next. Note: you can only reserve permits up to 4 months in advance.
- On the next page, under “Select a Destination”, select “Needles” and hit next.
- It will then bring you to a page with the backpacking designated sites & zones in the Needles District where you can select the days you’d like to reserve in the Chesler Park 1-5 rows. (See image below.)
If the dates you originally wanted are already booked, you can use the “next” and “previous” buttons on the top of the chart to move forward or backward on the calendar by day or week to find a time with available permits.
Permits in Winter:
As I mentioned above, the Needles Visitor Center is closed in winter. You can’t reserve a permit online during the winter months from December 1st through February 10th.
In winter, you must self-register for backcountry permits outside the visitor center entrance.
4) Water availability in Chesler Park
Water availability in Chesler Park is extremely limited, and most of the time there’s none at all. Maybe you’ll get some puddles after a rainstorm – that’s it!
Be prepared to pack in all the water you’re going to need for your trip. Yes, I know that really sucks.
I recommend stopping in the visitors center before your hike to ask if there are any known water sources in the area. This changes season to season, year to year, so it’s a good idea to get the most current information before your trip.
You can fill up all your water bladders at the visitors center before you head out to the trailhead.
Both times that I went backpacking in Chesler Park, there was no water there. However, I did hike up to Druid Arch (more on this below), where I found large puddles and a tiny stream to filter water from, in the Spring and Fall.
Usually, there’s water in Elephant Canyon. Check at the visitors center before your trip. If so, you can plan your trip to include a hike up Elephant Canyon to get some water. See the sample trip itinerary below.
Water Filtration Gear
Always bring a way to purify or filter water, and make sure you have a reliable way to carry enough water. A 2L water reservoir isn’t going to be enough for this hike.
- I love the Sawyer Squeeze water filter. It’s small and reliable. I carry it on all my backpacking trips.
- A water bladder/reservoir. This is something you should already have and use on backpacking trips. But it’s not enough.
- I also recommend having lightweight packable bottles (like these Ever New bottles) to carry additional water. They’re really lightweight, durable, and packable when not in use. Not only will you be able to carry extra water into the backcountry, but you’ll also be able to filter and carry more water back to camp once you find a water source.
5) Possible Chesler Park Itinerary
Start at the Elephant Hill Trailhead in the morning and hike in to your Chesler Park campsite. Set up camp, explore your surroundings, and relax for the evening. Make sure you pack in enough water for this entire day, night, and following morning!
In the morning, day hike to Druid Arch and fill up water. Like I mentioned above, Elephant Canyon usually has water. Please check with the visitors center before you count on this.
Druid Arch is so incredible, and the hike up to it is beautiful and gives you some stunning views of The Needles.
From Chesler Park Campsite 2, it’s about 3 miles (one-way) to get to Druid Arch. The last 0.25 miles is a steep scramble with 1 ladder to climb.
This makes a great day hike and hopefully you can fill up all your water reservoirs and have enough water for the rest of your trip. If you carry a few of the Evernew water bladders mentioned above, you should be able to filter and carry a lot of water back to camp.
If you’re feeling up for it, get back to camp in the afternoon, have some lunch, and then hike part of the Joint Trail.
About 1 mile from the Chesler Park 2 campsite, you enter the Joint Trail – a narrow maze-like slot canyon. It’s a very unique slot canyon that makes you feel like you’re on some other planet.
Explore the slot canyon for a little bit, then turnaround and hike back to camp the way you came.
Wake up, enjoy the morning at camp, and then start the hike out.
If you don’t have time on Day 2 to do the Joint Trail, you can definitely do it in the morning on Day 3 as a mini day hike. You need to be out of your campsite by 11am, so just make sure you’re back in time to pack up camp.
6) Other Things to Know
- There are a lot of critters around the campsites just waiting for you to leave your food out unattended for 2 seconds. To keep small rodents out, always store and hang your food when you’re not around it.
- Campfires are not allowed in Chesler Park.
- You must carry and use human waste disposal bags in Chesler Park.
- Make sure you have enough water – have I said that enough in this post? 😉
While on my last Chesler Park backpacking trip, I made a video for my YouTube channel! Watch it below to get a sneak peak into the trip, and some of the things we talked about in this post:
If you have any questions as you’re planning your trip, ask me in the comments below!
Other Backpacking Trips in Utah:
- Kolob Canyon Backpacking Guide (Zion National Park)
- Coyote Gulch Backpacking Guide (Grand Staircase-Escalante)
- Red Castle Backpacking Guide (Uintas Wilderness)