Beginner’s Trail Guide: Needles Area of Canyonlands National Park

canyonlands national park needles area moab utah itinerary trail guide

If you’re making a return to trip to Moab, I highly recommend blocking off a day to go to the Needles Area of Canyonlands National Park.

Needles is a totally different landscape than what you see at Islands in the Sky (the main section of Canyonlands) or at Arches National Park, two of the more popular destinations in the area. Since Needles also is much further from town, it’s way less busy.

Because of the longer drive, the trip is only worth it if you also want to hike for a few hours. I recommend hiking part of the trail to Druid Arch, but there are also options for combining a bunch of overlooks or loops less than a mile.

How do I get there?

Needles is an hour and a half drive south of the town of Moab. There’s one rest stop along the way, but otherwise it’s very remote with almost no services. Unsurprisingly, the scenery is stunning, so make sure to switch drivers on the way home so everyone can get the views.

There’s a general store right at the park boundary, but it was closed the day that we went (a Saturday during spring time). It wasn’t clear when it is actually open, so don’t plan on it!

The drive to all the overlooks is on paved roads, but if you want to hike part of the way to Druid Arch, you do have to drive on an unpaved, narrow, windy road. It’s not super rocky or anything that needs four-wheel drive. If you get carsick easily, you may feel a little nauseous.

Where do I go?

The hike to Druid Arch leaves from the Elephant Hill trailhead. But first, drive to the Big Spring Canyon Overlook (stop at the Wooden Shoe Overlook on the way).

wooden shoe overlook rock formation beginner hiking needles canyonlands
The Wooden Shoe! It’s discrete. But worth the two-second stopover.

The entire hike to Druid Arch is 11 miles round-trip, which I didn’t want to get into, so we just planned to hike the trail until we wanted to turn around. The trail has the “needle” rock formations that the area of the park is named for, plus a lot of other red rock formations that are really beautiful and interesting.

But, if you don’t want to drive on an unpaved road or drive as far as Elephant Hill (it’s three miles on a dirt, windy road so it does take a while) there are shorter options.

You can do the .6-mile loop at the Big Spring Canyon Overlook and/or the Cave Springs loop on your way back out of the park. That loop is also just over half a mile total. The park website says ladders are involved, but we didn’t make it that far down the trail so I’m not sure what that actually entails. You can also stop in at the visitors center to get some ranger recommendations!

If you only go to the Big Spring Canyon Overlook, you won’t be disappointed.

What is the trail like?

Assuming you start the hike to Druid Hill, it’s steep at first before becoming much more rolling. I was having an especially bad day of morning/all-day sickness thanks to being in my first trimester of pregnancy, so I was admittedly on the struggle bus for the first 15-20 minutes of the hike because of how steep it was. I was glad that I brought hiking poles and also glad that the trail evened out shortly after that!

The trail itself is a mix of dirt and slick rock, which is what the red rock is called. It’s not actually slick (assuming it’s not currently raining) but it does make it harder to tell where the trail goes. Since it’s not as obvious, you do have to pay close attention to where you’re going. Be on the lookout for little piles of rocks, called cairns.

druid arch elephant hill beginner trail guide hiking canyonlands needs alrea
Billy (dark blob at the top of the photo between the two shrubs) is ahead of me on the trail. The tiny pile of rocks in the middle of the photo is a cairn marking where to go. So yeah. Not super obvious.

Since we weren’t doing the entire trail, I was worried we wouldn’t get to see any of the good stuff. I was totally wrong. You go through a bunch of different landscapes – starting out, it feels kind of like you’re on Mars. Later on, you walk through some wide-open areas with cacti and views of the “needles” rock formations. There were also some rocky canyons to scramble through (nothing too difficult though, just a fun adventure!).

We turned around just after going through the smaller canyon pictured below. The trail got really difficult to figure out after that point, so it was a great time to turn around! Just get a photo op first.

Almost to the turnaround point. I’m fairly petite and could still reach my arms out a little bit when we walked through. It’s a very short little slot to get through, so you shouldn’t have to worry about getting claustrophobic.
druid arch elephant hill hike canyonlands national park beginner guide
We legitimately couldn’t figure out where to go beyond this point, so we just turned around instead. Obviously, there are enough people around that you can ask someone to take your picture (which I like).

What should I wear and bring?

LOTS of water. There’s a place to fill up your reservoir or water bottle at the Visitors Center. Even in the springtime (the best time to go), it’s very easy to get dehydrated.

Most of the trail is in the sun, so make sure to slather yourself in sunblock, wear sunglasses, and throw on a hat.

I also highly recommend layers in the springtime. The days are deceptively chilly, even when they’re sunny! I was in pants and long sleeves the whole time, but was happy to start out with a beanie and light jacket on top of that. For the record, Billy thought this much clothing was totally overkill.

I wore trail running sneakers and was totally fine, but saw a lot of hikers in boots, so it’s up to you! Just wear something supportive and grippy since there are a lot of uneven surfaces. Here’s my complete guide to what to wear hiking >>

Since you can’t depend on that general store being open, make sure to bring plenty of food with you. You’ll have three hours of just driving, plus however long you hike for. I was ready for lunch by the time we got back to the car, so I was very grateful that we overpacked when it came to food (and, let’s be real, everything else). Those PB+J supplies came in extremely handy!

Here’s my list of what to bring on any hike >>

Is it crowded?

Spring is one of the most popular times to go to the Moab area, so you won’t be by yourself, but Needles is certainly less crowded than Arches or the Islands in the Sky part of Canyonlands.

The trail to Druid Arch is one of the more popular options at Needles, so it was a little crowded at the beginning of the hike, but then everyone spread out and we only saw people every 20 minutes or so. For me, this was ideal. I like to see people every once in a while so that I know if I were to break my leg, someone would run across me fairly quickly. Plus, you can always find someone to take your picture!

The trailhead is also the starting point for an off-road route. When we first parked, we saw about 10 Jeeps headed up an adjacent trail which was noisy, but ultimately didn’t affect our hike.

Anything else I should know?

Go in spring or fall if you can. The summer is just insanely hot and not pleasant, plus you run a much higher risk of dehydration (and just having a bad time). We went the last weekend in March and the weather was perfect.

We didn’t see any wildlife, but I was surprised to learn that this part of Utah is still bear country. It’s highly unlikely you’ll see one, but the Canyonlands website has good information about what to do if you do.

Make sure you pull over at Newspaper Rock on your way back to Moab. It’s an amazing place to see carvings of petroglyphs, and it’s right off the road!

Needles is well worth the drive if you have, but if it’s your first time in Moab, save it for when you come back. Start at Islands in the Sky and go to Arches for your first trip, and do Dead Horse Point State Park and Needles for your second time out.

Published by Laura Cardon

Laura Cardon moved to Colorado as an adult and quickly realized how difficult it was to get started exploring the outdoors in a state full of experts. She founded Outdoor Beginner in 2014 to fill the gap in beginner-friendly content for camping, hiking, skiing, and other outdoor activities. In addition to Outdoor Beginner, she coaches beginner trail runners and works at Runners Roost in Golden, Colorado, where she lives with her spouse and toddler.

2 thoughts on “Beginner’s Trail Guide: Needles Area of Canyonlands National Park

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