A Desert Day Hike Fit for Dr. Seuss

Mj 618_348_the best desert day hike in america
Tim Tadder / Corbis

Southern Utah has hundreds of miles of trails through 800,000-plus acres of red-rock desert terrain in its five iconic national parks, but there’s one that stands above the rest. The Chesler Park Loop in Canyonlands National Park‘s Needles District is 11 easy miles (only 500 feet of elevation gain) through crypotobiotic soil, red-sand washes, and slickrock that leads into Chesler Park, a grassy high-desert meadow surrounded by “needles,” which are 100-foot-tall red-and-white-striped sandstone spires with pointed pinnacles. It all feels straight out of a Dr. Seuss book.

Grab a map at the Needles Visitor Center and start at the Elephant Hill Trailhead, walking across a slickrock ridge above Elephant Canyon, home to an assortment of sandstone formations that reach 10 stories high and wouldn’t look out of place on Mars. Fins, spires, and giant “golf balls” make up the spherical rock formations that are wider at the top than at their base. About three miles into the hike, the trail climbs up to the Chesler Overlook, a saddle that provides a viewpoint for the entire 500-football-field-sized park. The Chesler Loop ambles clockwise through the meadow on soft red sand to a section of the hike called the Joint Trail. This man-made stone staircase drops down into a sandstone fracture for a claustrophobic quarter-mile walk between sheer walls 20 to 40 feet high – as straight as a hallway and less than three feet wide in places.

More information: The Needles District is 75 miles southwest of Moab. It’s possible to backpack the loop, although you’ll have to pack in all your water. The best season is late September through mid-May – summer temps easily hit the 90s and 100s, and shade is scant on the trail.

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