Backpack to Joint Trail in the Canyonlands Needles District

Squaw Flat Campground

Sleep under the stars and hike with bare feet in the sand as you follow the dry riverbeds of the Needles District to a series of iconic slot canyons on the edge of the wild desert.

A large part of the grandeur of Canyonlands National Park is the vast barren vista at Island in the Sky, but no visit to Canyonlands would be complete without the intimate and immersive desert experience that the Needles District offers. Drive two hours southwest of Moab away from cell phone reception and into ranch lands to the Needles District Visitor Centre to pick up your permit and human waste bags.

Leave your car at the parking lot at Squaw Flat Campground and head into the backcountry. As you can see on the NPS Canyonlands maps webpage there's a number of route options as various trails intersect between Salt Creek Canyon on the east side and The Grabens on the west. Squaw Canyon and Elephant Canyon are relatively narrow riverbed canyons. Big Spring is a wider expanse that grows narrower as it descends south. Chesler Park is a wide grassland almost entirely surrounded by towering needles of red sandstone. They're all beautiful in their own right and having experienced them all, I think my best advice is just choose a route that works for you.

The one destination that I do recommend is Joint Trail, a deep slot canyon on the southwest side of Chesler Park. It has a number of narrow fissures that you can explore and while I'm sure there are many slot canyons worth seeing in the Colorado Plateau, the only one I know of that is comparable is the jam-packed tourist extravaganza of Antelope Canyon. Antelope Canyon might be more aesthetic, but The Joint was deserted. Absolutely a highlight.

On your way, pay close attention to your surroundings. It can be easy to get lost in the canyons because there is little significant topography to judge location by. Stop at every trail sign you see and make sure you know where you are.

When I hiked in the Needles in September, the only source of potable water was right near backcountry site EC3. Check with the backcountry permit office in the visitor centre about water availability and pack in as much as you can. On a lighter note, sites CP3 to CP5 at Chesler Park were beside huge sandstone overhangs that made for awesome bouldering.

Lastly, keep in mind that human waste must be packed out to protect the fragile desert ecology. You can buy standard waste containment systems at the visitor centre for a few dollars.

Pack List

  • Hiking backpack 
  • Tent
  • Topographic map
  • Compass/GPS
  • First aid kit
  • Knife
  • Lighter
  • Animal-proof food container
  • Water purification
  • Water bottles
  • Stove/fuel
  • Dishes
  • Camera
  • Sleeping bag/pad
  • Trekking poles
  • Hiking boots
  • Headlamp
  • Sunscreen/sunglasses
  • Clothing
Show More
RT Distance 19.2 Miles
Elevation Gain 630 Feet
Activities Camping, Photography, Backpacking, Hiking, Rock Climbing
Skill Level Intermediate
Season Spring, Summer, Autumn
Trail Type Loop
Easy Parking


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Desert Travel

Spent five days hiking up and down the needles trail from Squaw hills down to angels arch. An amazing experience definitely suggested! We were really good on timing and we're able to get water running in the river that is only around this time of year.

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound Collective.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More

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