One of the questions we get asked the most about our April 2021 road trip to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks is “Was the Needles District worth it?”
It’s off the beaten path. It’s different from the northern and more popular areas of the park.
Staring down the map during travel planning, we know how hard it can be to decide what makes the cut into a final travel itinerary.
So here’s our best answer to help you decide:
About Canyonlands and the Needles District
Canyonlands National Park is a large, remote national park near Moab, Utah. Before you travel to the park, here are some things to know:
- Where is it? The park is located near the gateway town of Moab, Utah.
- What does it protect? Canyonlands famously protects the area of land where the Colorado River and Green Rivers meet.
- How big is it? At around 337,000 acres, it’s 23rd on the list for largest national parks and about 4 times the size of nearby Arches National Park.
- What’s the park popular for? There are three main areas of the park. The Island in the Sky area is the most popular part to visit via car or RV and is full of scenic overlooks. The Needles District is in the southern part of the park and most popular for hiking and backpacking. In between, the White Rim Road travels over 100 miles along the length of the desert mesa and is popular for mountain biking and off-road vehicles
During our April 2021 visit, we spent a day in the Island in the Sky area (along with a stop at nearby Dead Horse State Park) and a second day hiking in the Needles District.
5 Things to Know About the Needles District in Canyonlands National Park
1. “Needles” describes the rock formations here.
The Needles District gets its name from the Cedar Mesa Sandstone formations that tower over the trails here. The geological history of this part of the park goes back more than 200 million years.
Unlike the Island in the Sky area of the park which sits at the top of the mesa and looks down into the ancient riverbed, the Needles District takes you to the bottom of the formations, staring up into millennia of geologic history.
We like to equate the difference between the Island in The Sky and the Needles District of Canyonlands, to the difference between checking out Grand Canyon National Park from the Rim and from Phantom Ranch. One way, you get the top-down look. On the other, you’ll get the bottom-up view. Same rocks and neither is “better” per se, but when combined together, they’re the best way to see the park.
2. The Needles District is a decent drive from Moab.
The entrance station for the Needles District is about 75 miles from downtown Moab, Utah. From the Island in the Sky Visitor’s Center to the Needles District Visitor’s Center, adds another 25 miles and 40 minutes of driving. That’s one way.
For us, by the time we’d arrived in Moab, we’d already driven over 1,500 miles from our base came in St. Paul, Minnesota. Frankly, another 100 miles doesn’t really matter at that point.
But if you’re watching mileage on an RV rental or running short on time in your itinerary, plan accordingly. It will take you at least 2 hours to get to the Needles District, and you’ll want at least 4-6 hours minimum to spend there.
3. It’s where you’ll find the best hiking in the park.
Ask anyone who spends serious time on the trails in Canyonlands National Park, and they’ll tell you the best hiking departs from the trailheads in the Needles District. It’s some of the most remote hiking in the entire National Park Service and definitely ranks as some of the best in Utah.
We spent several hours on the trails here and didn’t come close to seeing the full scope of the park. While we were out, we met hikers and backpackers from all over the United States who traveled to Canyonlands just to spend time on the trails here.
We’ve shared some of our favorite hiking options in Canyonlands already, with more to come. But bottom line: If you’re craving trail time in Canyonlands, this is where you want to be.
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4. There are WAY fewer crowds.
It’s no secret that the parks in Utah are facing some of the worst overcrowding in all of the National Park Service. Reservation systems in parks like Arches and Zion have meant an increasing spillover into parks like Canyonlands, which traditionally has been quieter and more remote.
In the past few years, the overlooks and trails in the Island in the Sky area of Canyonlands have become just as crowded as Arches in the peak travel days of the year.
So far, that doesn’t seem to be the case with the Needles District.
The long drive from Moab and the more remote, challenging trails likely help keep this part of the park quieter and more pristine. If you’ve come to Canyonlands for some time alone in nature, this is your spot.
5. If you have a second day in Canyonlands, the Needles District is DEFINITELY worth your time.
For our final word on the Needles District, if you only have one day in Canyonlands, chances are, you’ll be sticking to the main scenic drive in the northern part of the park.
But if you have multiple days to explore the park, or have the chance to do some multi-day backpacking in Utah, we HIGHLY recommend the Needles District.
The hiking is outstanding. The views are the perfect parallel to the top of the mesa. And you’ll snag some quieter time in the park.
Indigenous Roots near the Needles District
As part of our commitment to a more Diverse NPS, Park Chasers acknowledges that the lands we now enjoy as part of the national parks were once the home of many different indigenous communities.
According to the National Park Service (nps.gov):
“Canyonlands has been home to people for over 10,000 years. Traditions and ways of life developed and changed as cultures interacted with each other and the landscape. People moved and migrated. They communicated stories and passed on knowledge. Canyonlands is a living, dynamic cultural landscape that many still call home today.”
The lands near the Needles District and throughout Canyonlands National Park once belonged to members of the:
Kaibab Band of Paiute Indians
Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah
Pueblo of Acoma
Pueblo of Isleta
Pueblo of Jemez
Pueblo of Laguna
Pueblo of Nambé
Pueblo of Picuris
Pueblo of Pojoaque
Pueblo of San Felipe
Pueblo of Sandia
Pueblo of Santa Ana
Pueblo of Santa Clara
Pueblo of Taos
Pueblo of Tesuque
Pueblo of Zia
Pueblo of Zuni
San Juan Southern Paiute
Southern Ute Indian Tribe
Ute Indian Tribe of Uintah and Ouray Reservation
Ute Mountain Ute Tribe
Other Things to See In Canyonlands
Building out a full itinerary for Canyonlands National Park? Check out these other recommendations and posts for hiking, camping, and things to do in the park: