As we’re all at home social distancing and trying to help flatten the curve and slow the spread of COVID-19, I felt like this would be a good time to reflect back on one of my favorite trips in the past year, and also provide some inspiration to others who are at home, to use this time to research and plan your Utah trips and adventures once everything is back open and it’s deemed safe for us to get back out there!
Every spring (about this time of year) my husband and I start planning our adventures for the year. Last year we had an ambitious list, and we knew we’d have to hit it hard and plan things out well (including making advance reservations for permits- something I tend to shy away from because I don’t like to feel ‘locked-in’ to things.) if we wanted to make it through our list.
Our list included nearby things like our annual weekend camping trip in the Abajos with friends and an overnight river trip on the San Juan River, to things around the state like a long weekend camping trip along the Burr Trail/Capitol Reef/Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and a weekend in Kanab, to much more distant places like Buffalo, NY for my husband’s family reunion.
I think we made a pretty good dent in our list, and we loved every place we visited in different ways and for different reasons, but our favorite trip of the year was in our own ‘backyard’, just an hour from Monticello in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.
If you’re a hiker or backpacker and haven’t visited the Needles District, you’re missing out! The Island in the Sky District, closer to Moab, gets much more visitation, but it has nothing on the Needles District as far as hiking and backpacking go! When we first moved to Monticello, my husband and I were down in the Needles about once/month and we hiked almost every trail down there. The only hikes we haven’t done are Devil’s Kitchen, Cyclone Canyon, Lower Red Lake, and Salt Creek. We actually had a permit for Salt Creek, the summer my son was due, but as the date of our permit approached, I realized that I was in no condition to be hiking 20+ miles with a heavy pack, so unfortunately we had to let our permit go. But as much as we hiked down in Needles, we never backpacked. (Salt Creek would have been our first overnight trip.)
Last year, after lots of hiking with our son in the spring, we felt like he was finally ready for a backpacking trip, so I bit the bullet and put in for a backcountry camping permit, and we got the dates we wanted- mid-September, my favorite time of year in the desert!
The permit process for Overnight Backcountry Permits is pretty simple, but it does require some planning to get the dates you want. Permits are now run through recreation.gov and there are 4 release dates throughout the year. Here’s the calendar with backcountry permit release dates:
- Spring permits (March 10 – June 9) open November 10.
- Summer permits (June 10 – September 9) open February 10.
- Fall permits (September 10 – December 9) open May 10.
- Winter permits (December 10 – March 9) open August 10.
Some sites are more popular than others and are more competitive Chesler Park is one of my favorite places in the whole world, so we knew we wanted to take our son there for his first backpacking experience. I put in for Chesler Park #1 and got the date I wanted on my first try. Off to a good start!
The reason I chose Chesler Park #1 is because it’s the first backcountry site you come to once you’ve made it to Chesler Park, and it’s almost exactly a 3 mile hike from the Elephant Hill trailhead, and 3 miles was just about the max length our son could/would (happily) hike.
The hike to Chelser Park has always been my favorite mid-length hike in Canyonlands because of the diversity of the trail. You have some stairs, some scrambling on steep uphills & downhills, some open slickrock with views, some sandy sections, and some cool narrow sections before finally reaching the open, grassy expanse of Chelser Park. My son especially liked the narrow sections, and found the possibility of my husband and I getting stuck (we had wider items such as the tent and my backpacking cot strapped to our packs) nothing short of hysterical! (Hey, if we have to be the butt of the joke to keep spirits up on a hike, we’ll take it! Happy kid = happy parents!)
Spirits were still high when we reached Elephant Canyon, just over 2/3 of the way to Chesler Park. There’s actually is a backcountry campsite (EC#1) just off the main trail in Elephant Canyon, so we could have camped there and made it a little shorter of a hike, but I’ve always wanted to see sunset and sunrise in Chesler Park, so if we were coming this far, of course we had to make it all the way!
The final stretch into Chesler Park is my favorite part of the trail. While you’ve been able to see the Needles rock formations throughout most of the hike, approaching the spires and fins surrounding Chesler Park is pretty spectacular! As you reach the top of your last climb, pass through the rocks that line the periphery, and get your first look at Chesler Park… I promise you, it’s something you’ll never forget!
By the time we reached Chesler Park, my son was at the, ‘Are we almost there?’ and ‘How much farther?’ point in the hike. (Not my favorite part!) And unfortunately, since I’d never camped there, I really didn’t know how much farther it would be, but I can’t imagine it was more than .2 miles from where you reach Chesler Park. But with a kid asking, ‘How much longer?’ every couple minutes, this felt like THE LONGEST part of the hike! (At least the views were amazing though, right?)
I was so happy when we reached our campsite. It was immaculately clean (In fact, the whole trail was!) and had I not known, I never would have guessed that the site was used pretty much every night. Kudos to the campers, rangers, and volunteers who are keeping the backcountry clean!
We set up our tent and rested for a little while, then left our campsite to explore a little further into Chesler Park. We started hiking in around noon, and while we saw quite a few people hiking out, we didn’t encounter anyone else after we arrived at Chesler Park that afternoon, and in fact, we didn’t see anyone else until campers at the other Chesler Park sites started hiking out in the morning. It really felt like we had the place to our selves.
After exploring a little, my son was DONE, so we headed back to camp to make dinner and just hang out. It’s so funny to me how at home my son is always saying he’s bored even though he has tons of toys, games, books, a big backyard, etc. But when we take him somewhere outdoors, he is so good at keeping himself entertained. Give him a couple rocks and sticks (or even better, some sand or water!) and he’s good to go! When we got back to our camp, my son climbed up on a big rock and kept himself busy making ‘landslides’ with sand through a crack for pretty much the rest of the evening until it got dark. He was enjoying himself so much, he wouldn’t even come down for dinner, he just ate on top of the rock so he could keep playing.
We watched the sunset which was even more amazing than I’d imagined it would be, and then we got in our tent and played cards for a while waiting for it to get darker so we could check out the stars before we went to bed. While I had been most excited about seeing sunset and sunrise in Chesler Park, the view of the night sky ended up being my favorite part of camping out there. We live in a rural area where we can see the Milky Way from our backyards on pretty much any clear night, but I’ve never seen the Milky Way as bright as it was from Chesler Park. It completely blew my mind… I’ll never forget it. It was so, so beautiful!
I can’t remember if I set my alarm to make sure we woke up to get to see the sunrise, but likely I just knew that our 7 year old would wake us up as he does every other morning! Either way, we were awake with plenty of time to boil water so I could sit and drink my tea while watching the sunlight slowly creep down the rock formations and across the desert floor… it was nothing short of spectacular!
Finally! Over 10 years since our first visit, our Chesler Park experience was complete! Gorgeous sunset- check. AMAZING night sky- check. Peaceful, relaxing sunrise- check. Now for the hike back to the car!
My son was a trooper throughout the whole trip, and we were really impressed with how well he did, and I think Chesler Park was the perfect introduction to backpacking. My husband and I came away from the experience excited that our son had enjoyed it so much and looking forward to more backcountry experiences with him in the future!
For more information or to request travel brochures, please call Utah’s Canyon Country at: 800-574-4386
Or e-mail us at: email@example.com