One of the more unique National Parks due to being separated into four distinct “districts” separated by rivers, Canyonlands National Park – Needles District is the most southern of the four. The other three districts are Island in the Sky, The Maze, and the rivers themselves. Per the National Park website, “These areas share a primitive desert atmosphere, but each offers different opportunities for sightseeing and adventure”. An immense land of desert formations, The Needles earned its name by being home to the colorful spires of Cedar Mesa Sandstone, aka “the needles” (please see below). One of Utah’s “Big Five” National Parks, Canyonlands is routinely ranked as number three or four, with The Needles seeing far less activity than the most popular district, Island in the Sky.
Open year-round, 24 hours a day, the entrance of The Needles is 1.5 hours and 88 miles south of the main entrance near Moab (Island in the Sky). The closest town is Monticello, Utah (where we stayed – highly recommend our Airbnb! https://abnb.me/6LuKtwewIAb), which is approximately one hour and 50 miles southwest. The Needles entrance is rather remote, so it’s highly recommended that you start out with a full tank of gasoline. Some National Parks have gas stations located within, like Death Valley National Park🔥💀 or The Petrified Forest National Park and Painted Desert., but Canyonlands – Needles District is NOT one of them. The length of the road within the actual park isn’t long; however, the road to get there is.
As the smallest of the districts, there are limited things to do. The Needles offers more of a backpacking experience, so those coming for lookout points or scenic drives may drive away disappointed (…I did). To prove this point, under the “Things to Do at The Needles” section on the official NPS website, it says “There are no items that match this criteria” 🙃. Nonetheless, there are some things to do, but be warned, be ready to hoof it!
There are over 60 miles of interconnecting trails throughout the district, with some areas more challenging than others. The four easy-to-moderate trails are Roadside Ruin (0.3 miles/20 minutes), Pothole Point (0.6/40 minutes), Cave Spring (0.6 miles/45 minutes), and Slickrock (2.4 miles/2 hours). Some of the more difficult or strenuous trails are Chesler Park Viewpoint (5.8 miles/3-4 hours), Big Spring to Wooden Shoe Canyon (7.5 miles/4 hours), Confluence Overlook (11 miles/6 hours), Peekaboo (10.8 miles/6 hours), and Druid Arch (10.8 miles/5 to 7 hours). Due to the remoteness of the district, it’s highly recommended to attempt these trails only if experienced, with the proper necessities, and good weather. Be cautious if temps are over 100° and do NOT attempt if there’s even a threat of monsoon activity that day.
The Needles Visitor Center is open daily from 8am to 5pm; however, hours vary with the season, so best to check the NPS website before visiting. It offers information, exhibits, books, maps, souvenirs like stickers or postcards, backcountry permits, and a picnic area, with park rangers on duty for any questions or concerns. It’s open only between spring and fall, closing from mid-December to mid-February. However, restrooms and water remain available year-round.
Lastly, please be advised – you cannot reach any other district within Canyonlands National Park from inside The Needles District. There are zero roads within the park connecting them. In order to visit Island in the Sky or The Maze, you must exit The Needles, drive the 50 miles back to Highway US 191, then drive 1.5 hours north to Moab, where the other entrances are located. You may want to consider making Canyonlands a 2 to 3-day adventure.
Overall, Canyonlands National Park – Needles District is likely my least favorite National Park experience. However, to be fully honest, it did not get a fair shot. We decided to visit on a whim after visiting Newspaper Rock (Newspaper Rock: One of the First Community Message Boards.), coming from the north in colder weather, and therefore were not properly dressed to fully explore. It was significantly hotter than where we had come from, which is something we did not anticipate. We quickly found out this is a place that absolutely requires getting off the main road and going hiking to truly see what it has to offer. I offer this blog as a cautionary tale; do not make the same mistakes we did – get there early, dress the part, bring water, and be ready to hit some trails!