I understand the official route is likely the quickest way through the area and could probably be done fast enough to avoid camping within the park boundaries and thus skipping the difficult permit system for the uber-popular zone, BUT… I present three reasons to reconsider:
- The Heart of the Needles is an amazing place and you’d be so close that it would be a shame not to walk through it.
- The new permit/reservation system lets one print their own permit making it much easier for thru hikers to legally camp in the area
- The diversion into Elephant Canyon will likely yield water which is in short supply in this region.
All the above and it’s really not that much longer (though it is slower hiking and you will likely stop more to take in all the awesomeness!) It could even be a short-cut if you skirt Chesler Park, but… that’s kinda lame so don’t do that. There are many, many ways one could traverse through the Needles, but what follows is my choice. If you have extra time — spend it exploring the maze of trails in the area. It’s a popular area, but there’s a reason for that.
The approximate mileage comparison (Cyclone Cyn Junction to Butler Wash Crossing)::
- Official Route: 5.5 miles
- Heart of the Needles Alternate (skirt Chesler Park): 5.0 miles
- Heart of the Needles Alternate (full Chesler Park and Joint Trail): 8.7 miles
- Diversion to Elephant Canyon, water and Druid Arch: 6 miles additional roundtrip
For west-bound Hayduke Hikers fairly fresh into Section 3 and heading down Cyclone Canyon, the official route soon turns right and connects to Red Lake Canyon before once again heading south.
To take the alternate, instead turn left out of Cyclone Canyon and follow the connector route to Devil’s Lane Jeep road. One could take this road south for a quicker way to re-connect with the Hayduke, but there’s a better way for hikers (though there are some good pictographs along the Jeep road.)
Instead cross over Devil’s Lane following the route to Devil’s Kitchen. Here turn south passing the designated backcountry camp sites and follow the trail through Devils Pocket toward the spires and the heart of the Needles.
The route climbs up and through a small gap in the spires with excellent views in both directions. Then the route descends the south side and one enters a wonderland of standing rocks.
Once down the south side it’s possible to take the aforementioned short-cut continuing south which skirts the western side of Chesler Park and re-connects with the road from Devil’s Lane at Chesler Canyon. Instead follow the marked route east scrambling up/down across drainages making your way along the northern boundary of Chesler Park.
Note: all camping in this area is via designated sites and off-trail hiking is discouraged.
Soon you will pass a route entering from the left through another gap in the wall of spires. This is the route from mid-Elephant Canyon and could be used to connect from the the campground area. Stay right and continue on the route around the perimeter of Chesler Park passing few designated camp sites along the way.
Soon you will come to another junction. This is the connector for upper Elephant Canyon. This is a great spot to drop gear and make the 3-mile one-way digression to Druid Arch and fill up on water along the way. Read more about that option.
Continue on the route through Chesler Park and almost immediately the trail bends back to the west and cuts through the middle of the park toward a series of stone islands. Here you will find several designated campsites.
The route continues to the southern edge of the park where a short spur route climbs up to an overlook and rewards with a nice view into the heart of the Chesler Park and the Needles.
Continuing on, the route drops down in between the rocks along the Joint Trail. This slot-canyon-like route is really awesome and requires a bit of scrambling (see video below). It’s literally a cool walk between the dark narrow walls where in a few places there’s just enough room to squeeze through. Take a hard right at a somewhat-open junction and pass through the “cairn” chamber (knocking down a few stacks as you go if you wish!) Soon you will emerge back out into daylight and then it’s just a short distance to re-connect with the Jeep road where there is a TH parking area complete with a pit toilet.
Follow the road to the main road and turn left (right goes back to Devils Lane) and head toward Beef Basin. The road heads south and soon goes through some interesting pinnacles…
… before emerging near pullouts for two Jeep camping areas. The first, Bobby Jo Camp, is just off the road and has a pit toilet.
Continuing on down the road, in less than two miles you will be at Butler Wash . Here one is now reconnected with official Hayduke Route. Leave the road and go up Butler Wash, or consider the Bobby’s Hole and Ruin Park Alternate to possibly save a little time.
Playback begins at the Joint Trail portion of my 2018 Hike (headed north):