Occupying the southeastern part of Canyonlands National Park is the Needles District, a region dominated by rising sandstone spires that characterise this unique landscape.
Words by Shane Williams, Hema Explorer
Many US national parks offer unpaved and 4WD-only roads to explore, and the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park is one of the best in a state that’s rich in off-road trails and excellent scenery.
"The Needles" is the southeast corner of Canyonlands and was named for the colorful spires of Cedar Mesa Sandstone that dominate the many vistas.
In addition to this iconic landscape, there’s around 50 miles of challenging backcountry roads and hiking trails, which offer opportunities for long day hikes and overnight trips. Hiking trails and four-wheel-drive roads can take you to park highlights such as Tower Ruin, Confluence Overlook, Elephant Hill, the Joint Trail and Chesler Park.
Image credit: Jeff Hollett
What to expect
All backcountry roads require high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicles, a moderate amount of experience, and a few other key tidbits of information:
- All vehicles and bikes must remain on designated roads (of course)
- ATVs, UTVs, and OHVs are not permitted. Motorbikes must be equipped and licensed for interstate travel.
- Pets are not permitted, even in vehicles.
Poor driving conditions and flooding may make roads impassible. Read more about Road Condtions on the Canyonlands Road Page. You can also use the Needles District Map, provided by the National Park Service (PDF).
Image: Driving up Elephant Hill in the Needles District (image credit Neal Herbert)
Permits are required on some routes:
- You must have a day-use permit on Elephant Hill, Horse Canyon/Peekaboo, and Lavender Canyon roads.
- You must have a permit for all overnight trips in the backcountry.
- In spring and fall, demand for permits frequently exceeds the number available.
Backcountry Vehicle Campsites
Each campsite will accommodate up to 10 people and 3 vehicles. Vault toilets are provided, except at New Bates Wilson and Peekaboo where groups must provide their own.
You must have a permits for day and overnight use. One of the most technical four-wheel-drive roads in Utah, Elephant Hill presents drivers and mountain bikers with steep grades, loose rock, stair-step drops, tight turns, and tricky backing. Once over the hill, equally challenging roads lead to various features as well as BLM lands south of the park. There is no water at any of the campsites, but there are primitive toilets at all camping areas except New Bates Wilson.
Colorado River Overlook
You can avoid the large rocks and stair-step drops in the last 1.5 miles by parking on the road and walking to the overlook. (Be sure to leave room for other vehicles to pass.) There are outstanding views of the Colorado River canyon. This is an unprotected overlook; use caution.
Image: Moon rise over Canyonlands National Park
Horse Canyon / Peekaboo
You must have a permit for day and overnight use. This road is often impassible due to deep sand, deep water, and quicksand. The road is too sandy for mountain bikes. There are vehicle campsites at Peekaboo with prehistoric rock art nearby. Vehicles may not drive upstream of Peekaboo in Salt Creek Canyon. Horse Canyon road leads to several arches and Tower Ruin.
The Confluence Overlook is a short side-trip off of Elelphant Hill that brings you to where the Colorado and Green Rivers converge.