Canyonlands National Park: Needles

On our trip to Moab, we visited Canyonlands National Park north side, known as the Island in the Sky. We liked it so much, that we decided to try the southeast side, known as the Needles district while vacationing in Blanding. Canyonlands National Park Needles section is a smaller area, but has 5 great stops for families.


The first thing to note about Canyonlands National Park is that there are three separate sections: Island in the Sky, the Needles, and the Maze. None of them has access to the others due to the rough terrain. In fact, it’s almost 100 miles from the visitor’s center in Island in the Sky to the Needles visitor center. The Maze has no visitor’s center at all, just a ranger station for accessing trip permits.

This map is from the Canyonlands website. Click on the map to enlarge it and for more info.

Needles Section

These are the needles for which this section of the park is named.

The nice thing about the Needles section of the park is that it is very quiet. We went on an afternoon in June and saw fewer than fifty people. Meanwhile, Arches and Island in the Sky are usually bloated with visitors. This is for two reasons. First, Needles is way out by itself, far south of Moab, and at the end of a 35 mile road to nowhere. Second, because Needles is no Arches National Park.

Roadside Ruin

There are four accessible hikes for families in the Needles area. The first hike we tried is called the Roadside Ruin. This is a .3 mile RT loop that takes you to a small stone structure built by Native Americans. The structure was used as a granary, and it is pretty cool, but it’s very small. Especially if you’ve visited Mesa Verde or Hovenweep.

The trail is easy and flat to Roadside Ruin.
This is the granary at the end of the trail.

Cave Spring

The second hike we visited is called Cave Spring and it was the highlight of our trip. This hike is only .6 miles RT and is shaded for nearly half that distance. The trail is a loop, and as you look at the map in the parking lot, you may be tempted to just walk a hundred yards down the trail and check out the cowboy camp before piling back in the car. This would mean you’d miss the fun of this hike.

This is the cowboy camp, but don’t stop hiking here.

After the cowboy camp, which was used throughout the first three-quarters of the 20th century, the trail arrives at an overhanging shelf of rock. It was quite cool there, even though the outside temperature was over 90 degrees. We followed this overhang past the spring and under the rim of the canyon floor. We saw squirrels, birds, and dozens of lizards.

This overhang makes the first half of the hike cool and shady.
This is Cave Spring. It’s nice and cool.
There are a few petroglyphs inside Cave Spring.

About halfway around the loop, we came to a short ladder. This was the highlight for out 3 boys. Our five and eight year-olds scrambled right up, and Dad even managed with the baby in the backpack. There was a second ladder to climb, too. From there, the trail crosses the rock face (it’s hotter here) back to the car. If you venture to Needles make sure you do this hike above all else.

We loved climbing the ladders on this hike.
There are beautiful views up on the slick rock.

Pothole Point

The third hike we tried was called Pothole Point. Again, this hike is .6 miles, but there isn’t a whole lot to see. The sign describes hundreds of shining pothole puddles teeming with life. The reality is a bunch of dry potholes. There are a few nice views of the Needles from a distance, and the hike across the slickrock is flat and easy for kids, but you won’t see much more than a few lizards.

There were lots of potholes on this hike. When we visited, they were all dried up.
One of the million lizards we saw in Canyonlands.

Slickrock Trail

The fourth hike at Needles is the longest for families (there are some serious trails up to 25 milers) at 2.4 miles. This trail is called Slickrock Trail and it follows the rim of the canyon. It is an out-and-back trail. There are 4 viewpoints along the way, at which you can overlook several small canyons.

The brochure says bighorn sheep are “often” seen on this trail. We did not spot any, but if you do make sure to report them to a ranger. This hike is easy and flat, and the views are very nice. Be sure to pack plenty of water, as there is no shade and it is very hot.

This trail is named accurately because you hike on slickrock the entire way.
There are great views and this cute little arch.

Other Stops

Make sure to stop at the Wooden Shoe Arch, which is a drive-by stop. These are the 5 stops we made while visiting Canyonlands National Park Needles section as a family. It’s a nice way to spend half a day. We stopped at Newspaper Rock on the way in, and then we headed to out to Blanding to explore that area. If your kids didn’t do the Junior Ranger in Island in the Sky, make sure to stop at the Visitor Center and grab a booklet. Check out our post about all of the hikes in Canyonlands (both sections) that are great for kids and families.

Wooden Shoe Arch definitely lives up to its name.
The desert has lots of hidden beauty.

Leave a Reply

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Angee Draper

    Put Whale Rock on your agenda next time you’re in Island in the Sky. It’s a short hike with a fun climb on red rock.

    1. Natalie

      Thanks! We can’t wait to give this hike a try.