The Needles District forms the southeast corner of Canyonlands National Park and was named for the colorful spires of Cedar Mesa Sandstone that dominate the area. The district’s extensive trail system provides many opportunities for overnight trips or long day hikes including this one around, over and through Elephant Canyon. This 10-mile loop will take you up Elephant Hill, past the Grabens and into Devils Kitchen. From there you’ll cross a slickrock plateau with magnificent views of the Island in the Sky, the LaSal Mountains, and the chromatic Needles that surround the canyon. This is Utah hiking at its finest. My brother and I hiked Elephant Canyon on Sunday, October 19, 2014 beginning at 8:00AM and ending about 2:45PM. Our plan was to hike the Elephant Hill 4wd road to Devils Kitchen, then follow the trails around Elephant Canyon for a return to Elephant Hill.
Hike Length: 10 miles Hike Duration: 6.75 hours
Hike Configuration: Loop Blaze: Cairns on the slickrock.
Hike Rating: Moderate, for length rather than difficulty.
Elevation Change: 480 feet Elevation Start: 5,120 feet
Trail Condition: Good. Sandy, dirt road and slick rock trails.
Starting Point: Elephant Hill trailhead on Elephant Hill Road.
Trail Traffic: We encountered about three dozen other hikers. Most of them were on the eastern side of the loop as they were headed for Chesler Park. The rest of the hike we had mostly to ourselves.
How to Get There: From Monticello, UT take Hwy 191 north approximately 15 miles. Turn left on Hwy 211. Continue 35 miles through Indian Creek Recreation Area to the Visitor Center in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, then simply follow the signs to the Elephant Hill trailhead. The last 3 miles are dirt road.
Even the drive to the Needles District in Canyonlands National Park is quite scenic. BLM land that is part of what is known as Greater Canyonlands, the area includes Indian Creek Recreation Area, Newspaper Rock National Historic Site, and mile after mile of red rock mesas and buttes. Unfortunately it is also including more and more noisy gas well pads. My brother (the other Internet Brother) and I were excited to be heading back to the Needles.
Utah Highway 211 passes through Indian Creek Canyon, lined with cottonwood trees that were bright yellow on this Autumn October day. It goes by the pictograph site known as Newspaper Rock for the heavy concentration of ancient rock carvings. The small, but picturesque Dugout Reservoir is on the right and the Beef Basin valley fills the floor between the mesas. We happened to be passing through at sunrise, so the sandstone walls and buttes were illuminated nicely by the morning light.
After a short stop at the Needles Visitor Center and the 3-mile drive on the twisty Elephant Hill dirt road, we arrived at the trailhead just before 8:00. There are two sides of a loop here. The left (east) side is marked as Elephant Hill Trail. That’s the way to get to Chesler Park. This would be the return pathway for our hike. The right (northwest) trailhead is actually a continuation of Elephant Hill Road, a very challenging 4wd access to the depths of the Needles.
The first 3.5 miles of this particular loop hike around Elephant Canyon follow this 4wd road. It climbs steeply a couple hundred feet right at the beginning to the top of Elephant Hill, but that’s really most of the effort for the entire length. When you reach the top, be sure to turn around for your first view of the striking LaSal Mountains. In fact, keep in mind to look behind you throughout the day. Some of the best views are at your back.
The morning sun was painting the fins and spires of sandstone as we walked along the plateau. After awhile, the level of the road drops back down off Elephant Hill. You will proceed in a westerly direction, eventually pass another dirt road that goes to a backcountry campsite, then make a sweeping turn toward the south.
The 4wd road alternates between dirt, slickrock and hard to walk on heavy sand. It passes by a long wall of red sandstone on the west known as the Grabens. A graben is a collapsed or down-dropped block of rock that is bordered on its long sides by faults. There are backcountry roadways on each side of these graben walls, including the one you are on. There are odd pod shapes, almost like mushroom tops, included among the grabens. The first three miles certainly isn’t boring, but walking on the road can get a bit tedious, especially in the thick sand.
About a half mile before the end of the 4wd road you will get your first glimpse of the Cedar Mesa Sandstone spires that surround the area known as Devils Kitchen. There is a junction of various 4wd roads, and at the end, past a couple of backcountry campsites, a trail junction. While we were walking through the Devils Kitchen there was total silence, not even a wisp of breeze. Two ravens came flying by, a couple minutes apart, only 20 feet from us. We could hear every “whoosh” of sound made by their wings of flight, an incredibly awesome sensation.
The Devils Kitchen is a popular area with campers as there are a number of day-hike trails that wind in, among and through the sandstone needles. At the dead end of the 4wd road there is a junction of trails. Straight ahead is a connection to the Joint Trail, and on the left (east) is the Elephant Canyon Trail. It starts in a wash, then walks among juniper and desert scrub to the right of the wash, eventually climbing back up to plateau level for a fantastic view behind you of Devils Kitchen.
Not far past the junction, we encountered a very cool model-sized ruins city constructed no doubt by some of the campers. It included various pueblos and kivas constructed with sticks and stones. Amazing some of the things we can do with time, and wilderness.
We paused here for our first snack break and to study the cryptobiotic soil that has been growing here for centuries. Found in many areas of Utah desert, this organic crust is a living groundcover that forms the foundation of high desert plant life in Canyonlands and the surrounding area. This knobby, black crust is dominated by cyanobacteria, but also includes lichens, mosses, green algae, microfungi and bacteria. Please stay off the cryptobiotic soil as it takes a hundred years or more to recover.
We passed through a small slot between two sandstone spires and came out on the Elephant Canyon side of the plateau. The scenery is simply breathtaking. To the northwest is the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands, including Grand View and Murphy Points, the imposing Candlestick Tower, and the huge canyons created by the Green and Colorado Rivers.
To the northeast are the sensational LaSal Mountains, making their own weather on this day as usual. Surrounding the canyon bowl are the striped Cedar Mesa Sandstone spires of the Needles. You wind along this bowl beneath the needles for several miles with ample opportunity for photos and contemplation. There were ravens overhead, darting between the needles and floating on the updraft from the canyon.
You will pass through another couple slots as you make your way around the Elephant Canyon rim. There are beautiful desert yucca and centuries old juniper scattered throughout. Keep your eye peeled for the occasional trail junction signs as they are found every mile or so around the canyon. You want to stay on the EC1 trail. We passed many folks heading for Chesler Park.
Eventually you will get closer to the canyon and begin a descent to pass through. Elephant Canyon was formed during the Permian Age at the base of the Cutler Group geologic formation. It is a conglomerate of limestone, sandstone, siltstone and shale that takes on a grey hue similar to the skin of an elephant. If you spend your day studying all the rock formations looking for an elephant shape, you will be disappointed. The canyon gets its name from the Halgaito shale coloring.
The canyon itself isn’t particularly large. You will be down into it, then back up the other side within 20 minutes. It had warmed considerably since we started hours before, so the shade within the canyon was a welcome relief. We took the opportunity for another snack, and to rest for the climb back up. It wasn’t long, though, before we were back out on the exposed plateau.
The trail traffic was quite heavy now. Most likely short hikers coming from the nearby Squaw Flat Campground, there were close to three dozen total. This last mile back to Elephant Hill has expansive views off to the east, including the mesas and buttes far away that we had seen at sunrise on our way through Greater Canyonlands. The last couple hundred yards of the loop is that final descent on the Elephant Hill footpath to the trailhead.
On our way back we stopped to enjoy Wooden Shoe Arch as the afternoon sun was casting shadows. We paused at the Visitor Center again and talked with the ranger geology expert who explained not only what we had seen in Elephant Canyon, but also the many other layers and rock sequences that we had encountered during our week touring Southern Utah. You should make it a point to talk with the rangers at our national parks. They are a wealth of knowledge and information, and always very, very friendly.
In summary, you can’t go wrong in the Needles District of Canyonlands. All of the trails I have been on have been extremely interesting, totally entertaining, with some of the most picturesque scenery in all of the Desert Southwest. The loop around Elephant Canyon is a relatively easy day hike that will keep you occupied for anywhere from six to eight hours depending on how much time you dawdle around the unusual features.
As with any hike in the desert, be sure to take plenty of water and sunscreen, wear a hat, and watch for sudden changes in the weather. Needles is probably best done in Spring or Fall for the cooler temperatures, and less likelihood of summer thunderstorms. Snow in the desert in Winter can be quite lovely, but be prepared for extreme cold, and watch carefully for ice on the slickrock.