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. There are several options for overlooks or short (less than a mile) loops, you can hike part of the trail to Druid Arch, or do all of the above (depending on your appetite).
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 another 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. I recommend first driving to the Big Spring Canyon Overlook (stop at the Wooden Shoe Overlook on the way) before going to Elephant Hill.
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) 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. The park website says ladders are involved, but unfortunately we didn’t make it that far down the trail so I’m not sure what that actually entails.
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 glad that I brought hiking poles and also glad that the trail evened out after the first 10-15 minutes.
The trail 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 does mean you have to pay attention to where the trail goes since it’s not as obvious.
At first, the scenery kind of feels like you’re on Mars, but you also walk through some wide-open areas with cacti and other cool deserty plant life. We turned around just going through this smaller canyon, which required a little bit of scrambling over rocks but nothing crazy. Just a fun adventure! The trail was also really difficult to figure out where it went after that point, so it was a great time to decide to turnaround.
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 gets pretty warm pretty quickly and 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 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. 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 food with you. You’ll have three hours alone of driving. I was ready for lunch by the time we got back to the car after hiking, and we had an hour and a half back to Moab, so I was grateful that we brought PB+J supplies and some snacks.
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. The trailhead is also the starting point for an off-road route, so when we first parked we saw about 10 Jeeps headed up an adajacent trail which was a little bit noisy.
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. The mornings are cool, so bring layers!
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.