Location: Canyonlands National Park Needles, UT
Distance: 10.4 mi
Elevation Gain: 1390 ft
Dogs Allowed: No
Season: April, May, Sept, Oct

Backpacking Lost Canyons

The Lost Canyon / Squaw Canyon Loop is a popular route in the Canyonlands National Park Needles District with a competitive permit process. If all the designated campsites are taken, you might not be completely out of luck, however. In addition to the designated campsites, Canyonlands Needles offers several "zones" where at-large camping is permitted. Only for the skilled and respectful off-trail backpacker, the route shared here takes advantage of the almost always available Butler / West Side Canyons Zone taking you up on the slickrock and into an extremely remote and scenic canyon with a ton of potential for further exploration.

The Butler / West Side Canyons Zone is a great place to camp if you're okay with going off-trail. Adapted from NPS Needles Park Map.
The Butler / West Side Canyons Zone is a great place to camp if you're okay with going off-trail. Adapted from NPS Needles Park Map.

UPDATE: I have heard several complaints from people regarding a photo that I initially published on this guide which showed my tent on a dry slickrock pothole (picture below). Because the tent was not touching any vegetation and was not disrupting cryptobiotic soil, I believed that this placement was okay and within the rules set out by the NPS. After doing further research on this matter, I realized after the fact that this was, in fact, a mistake. The NPS is clear in this article that, in addition to not collecting water from a full pothole, you should not even walk through a dry pothole (much less camp in one) due to the organisms that may still inhabit the area. I messed up, have learned from that mistake, and want to spread that information so you don't make the same mistake. If you follow this guide and want to camp in the Butler / West Side Canyons Zone, your best bet is to camp on the slickrock. Stay out of the potholes.

Don't make the mistake I did. Potholes are NOT okay to camp in.
Don't make the mistake I did. Potholes are NOT okay to camp in.

The Trailhead

With only one paved road leading to the park, finding the time to get to the Needles District is always half the battle. The park is over 5 hours away from Salt Lake City because the route leading to it is windy and inefficient. Take Highway 191 40 miles south of Moab and then turn right onto Highway 211. After 35 miles, this road will take you right into the park. Stop at the Visitor Center on your right to pick up your permit and then continue to Squaw Flat Campground Loop A where the trailhead is located.

Tip: Getting to the park late at night and need a place to sleep? 14.3 miles before reaching the visitor center will be Beef Basin Road. Turn left onto this road for miles of free BLM camping.

Beef Basin Road contains some excellent and free pull in campsites close to the park
Beef Basin Road contains some excellent and free pull in campsites close to the park
Squaw Flat Loop A Trailhead
Squaw Flat Loop A Trailhead

Squaw Valley

The first mile of the route takes you over a couple small slickrock passes on the way through beautiful squaw valley. You will eventually come upon the intersecting squaw canyon trail, but continue southeast toward Peekaboo. 1.8 miles into the trail you will cross another slickrock ledge, but this one is noticeably different from the rest. In addition to having a ladder you must downclimb, it features very profound and expansive views of the park. Once you get down from the ledge, walk .75 miles further to the intersection of the Lost Canyon Trail. Your route will vary here depending on if you want to camp (or explore) the Butler / West Side Canyons Zone.

Passing over slickrock
Passing over slickrock
Approaching the towering walls
Approaching the towering walls
Crossing a slickrock pass
Crossing a slickrock pass
The only way down is by ladder
The only way down is by ladder
On the way to Peekaboo
On the way to Peekaboo

The Approach via Peekaboo

If you're up for venturing into the Butler / West Side Canyons Zone, continue on the Peekaboo Trail. It won't be long before the trail starts its gradual ascent to the spectacular slickrock bench that the Peekaboo Trail is known for.

The Peekaboo Trail leads you up this slickrock bench
The Peekaboo Trail leads you up this slickrock bench

Cairns will lead you into an amphitheatre of rock, but you want to actually head over to the neighboring amphitheatre to get to the zone. To do that, get off the trail near the start of the long arm of slickrock making up the amphitheatre and head southwest.

Route to enter Butler / West Side Canyons Zone
Route to enter Butler / West Side Canyons Zone

You will arrive at the base of the entrance with a view of the saddle that marks the passageway into the zone. Find the safest and most gradual ascent up this saddle being confident that you will be able to climb down anything that you climb up. When I climbed up to the entrance, I found it pretty easy. However, during my exit, I had to do some searching for an easy way down as I had forgotten the exact route I had taken on the way up. This led to several failed attempts of downclimbing due to picking routes that were too steep.

You must climb up this saddle to enter into the Butler / West Side Canyons Zone
You must climb up this saddle to enter into the Butler / West Side Canyons Zone
View from the top of the saddle
View from the top of the saddle

The Zone

You are at the edge of the Butler / West Side Canyons Zone when you reach the zone. There is at-large camping anywhere within this canyon and plenty of good spots to choose from. I ventured southwest across the slickrock (with a decent amount of exposure!) to another saddle where I camped for the night. There are incredible views of several arches and towering walls from this viewpoint. However, if the wind is strong, seek shelter lower in the canyon (there are plenty of good spots to choose from). The wind was so powerful the night that I camped here that it snapped my tent's poles. Don't let that happen to you!

There looked to be some pretty cool stuff within the zone including a slot canyon. In addition, it seemed like it was feasible (albeit with some exposure) to connect to several other canyons. One day, I'd really like to explore more of this serene area.

When you're done exploring the zone, go back the way you came to the Peekaboo Trail and head northwest on the trail to the intersection with the Lost Canyon Trail which you passed by earlier.

Shadowed by the towering walls
Shadowed by the towering walls
Canyon view
Canyon view
The rocks look their best during the golden hour
The rocks look their best during the golden hour
Dawn has come and it's time to leave the zone
Dawn has come and it's time to leave the zone

Lost Canyon

Lost Canyon, although brushy and sandy in sections, is one of the prettier canyon hikes I've hiked. There is an unusual amount of lushness throughout for a southern Utah canyon. The beginning of the trail is the most sandy so have patience; it will get better. Follow the cairns approximately 2.5 miles to the end of the canyon where you will see cairns and rock steps marking the beginning of the 100 ft climb out of the canyon.

The start of Lost Canyon
The start of Lost Canyon
Lost Canyon is surprisingly green
Lost Canyon is surprisingly green
The trail is well cairned
The trail is well cairned
Approaching the end of Lost Canyon
Approaching the end of Lost Canyon

When you get to the top of the canyon, you are treated to an excellent view of the Needles. Continue on the slickrock where you will eventually descend to the intersecting Squaw Canyon Trail.

View from top of Lost Canyon
View from top of Lost Canyon

Squaw Canyon and the Return

The 1.7 mile Squaw Canyon Trail is a very mellow trail. Not as lush, brushy, or sandy as the Lost Canyon Trail, the route is flat and pleasant to walk on. At the end of it you will reach its intersection with the Peekaboo Trail. Retrace your steps for 1.1 miles back to your car parked at Squaw Flat.

Pleasant hiking in Squaw Canyon
Pleasant hiking in Squaw Canyon
Reaching the end of the Squaw Canyon Trail
Reaching the end of the Squaw Canyon Trail

Conclusion

If equipped with the necessary skills, this route is a great option for someone wanting to spice up the regular Lost Canyon / Squaw Canyon Loop. The remote Butler / West Side Canyons Zone is a launchpad for adventure and, thankfully, is not nearly as popular as the designated campsites in the Needles District which can be difficult to obtain. Lost Canyon and Squaw Canyons are nice hikes in their own right, but the hike to the zone is the highlight of this trip.

Conservation:

  • The off-trail route I've shown here stays entirely on slickrock and is permitted by the rules and regulations of the NPS. Remember, when traveling off-trail in Canyonlands, you should limit your footsteps to slickrock and washes in order to minimize your impact on the desert.
  • Do NOT touch cryptobiotic soil. This soil, identified by its black, crusty appearance and extremely prevalent throughout Canyonlands, has multiple roles including being critical to the survival of desert plants. In addition, once damaged, it can take 50 years or longer for it to recover. Sometimes full recovery is not even possible. Watch where you step, and don't be that guy who steps on this essential desert soil.
  • Camping is at-large in the Butler/West Side Canyons Zone. That means that there are no designated sites and you are free to choose a campsite of your own given that it meets the rules set out by the NPS. A ranger should go over with you a list of these when you pick up your permit, but perhaps the most important rule is that campsites should be "on rock surfaces, previously disturbed areas, or surfaces without cryptobiotic soils or vegetation." Generally, you should seek to camp on slickrock or on a wash to minimize the footprint you leave on the desert.
  • Potholes, regardless if they are filled with water or completely dry, should not be walked on or camped on due to the small ecosystems that live there. These remarkable organisms depend on these potholes for survival. I was ignorant and mistakenly setup my tent in a pothole when I was in the Butler / West Side Canyons Zone not knowing the damaging effects I may have been causing to the habitat beneath me. I later learned this info. Please don't make the same mistake I made.
  • Follow applicable Leave No Trace Principles. Let's preserve this beautiful area.

Permit:

All overnight trips in Canyonlands require a permit. If you have the necessary skills, you should have no problem securing a Butler / West Side Canyon Zone permit. If not, stick to finding an opening for a designated backcountry camp on the proper Lost Canyon / Squaw Canyon Loop. Reserve permits online at the Canyonlands Backcountry Reservation Page.

Logistics:

Be sure to bring:

  • Water. Although you can sometimes find stagnant pools of water in Lost Canyon, this route has no reliable water sources so it's a good idea to pack in all of your water.
  • Bug spray. Lost Canyon contains more water than most of the other canyons and, therefore, attracts a lot of mosquitoes.

Hazards Include:

  • Exposure. To get into the Butler / West Side Canyons, you must be okay with a decent amount of exposure. Make sure that anything you climb up you are comfortable climbing down. The first is almost always easier than the latter!

  • Getting lost. This route goes off-trail where solid navigation skills are essential to your safety. Canyonlands contains a maze of canyons that can look very similar to each other. Make sure you are prepared!

Season:

For the most comfortable temperatures, shoot for April, May, mid-September, and October. Temperatures can sore into the triple digits from July through August.

Current Conditions:

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Hi, I'm Nick - a backpacker living in Salt Lake City, UT who happily spends way too much time scouring Google Maps in search of the best backpacking adventures. I share my experiences of these trips with you via guides and trip reports that are filled with information I wish I'd known ahead of time. If you would like to see these continue, you can help support the site by sharing this page through the social links below. It makes a big difference, and I really appreciate it.