Trails I've Hiked: Canyonlands National Park's Elephant Hill Trail
Is there a better time to hike in Utah's canyon country than spring? In Canyonlands National Park on the Elephant Hill Trail, mid-May blends on one palette the reds, yellows, golds, and whites of wildflowers against redrock spires and cliffs daubed with cream and buff stripes.
While narrow-leaf yucca were concentrating on sprouting their flower stalks and hadn't yet thought of blooms, and the Mormon tea wasn't quite fully in bloom, claret-cup cactus, Desert Indian paintbrush, orange globemallows, and western peppergrass were in full bloom. And those were just the easy ones to name.
Hike the Elephant Hill Trail, which leads from a backcountry parking area in Canyonlands' Needles District and your eyes jump from the flowers rimming the trail and running across the ground to the surrounding minarets, boulders, and cliffs that define this section of the park.
Just getting to the trailhead can be an adventure. The Needles District lies about 75 miles southwest of Moab, Utah (40 miles south on U.S. 191 and then 35 miles west on Utah 211). Once in the district, head towards the Squaw Flat Campground and then turn left on a road that almost immediately turns to dirt as it bounces and bobs through the landscape to two dirt parking areas that combined hold about 67 sites. I say "about" because how many rigs can be parked there depends on how drivers park their rigs. Those who don't show some consideration for others can make a mess of the parking.
This also is the spot where four-wheel-drive aficionados test their driving skills by taking what is called a road into the backcountry. More than a few neophytes to four-wheeling in Canyonlands have ruined their rigs on this nerve-rattling and tooth-cracking drive. Beyond the cost of repairs, just getting towed back to civilization can cost you $1,000.
From the upper lot, the Elephant Hill Trail immediately climbs up and towards Chesler Park. While that might be the most well-known moniker in this part of Canyonlands, many folks who set off along the trail are heading beyond Chesler Park to either the Joint Trail roughly 5 miles from the trailhead or to Druid Arch, which is nearly 5.5 miles away.
Whether you're a long-distance trekker or just looking for a half-day dash of redrock, this trailhead can address your needs. While there are sections that might appear better suited to nimble mountain goats, most of the route meanders gently above, along, and even through the landscape. There are sandstone flats cupped with potholes that, when filled by rain showers, offer nice reflections of the surrounding redrock rims, sections that thread through cliffs that, when the temperature rises above the 70s, almost feel like you're walking into an air-conditioner thanks to the cold held in the rock, and high points that give sweeping views of the Needles District.
Also adding dimension to the landscape are the Utah junipers and pinyon pines, which toss dashes of green and some pungent piney scent into your hike, as well as skeletons of dead trees that both stand starkly in place and lie in recline on the cryptobiotic crust that spreads out from the trails. Areas where springs seep out of the rock sprout single-leaf ash and even some Fremont cottonwoods.
The most difficult aspect of exploring this network of trails just might be avoiding to stop every five minutes for photographs.
Somewhat surprisingly, in light of the location of the trailhead, in spring and fall this hike might not offer a lot of solitude. We passed roughly 50 other hikers during a morning's hike, and others were circling the parking lot waiting for a space to open when we returned to our rig.
If you do go, be sure to carry plenty of water. You won't find any at the trailhead, though you can top off your water bottles or hydration packs at taps located in the Squaw Flat Campground.
An added benefit of deciding to make the excursion to this corner of Canyonlands National Park is that your ride west on Utah 211 takes you right past Newspaper Rock, which is well-worth a quick stop.
Trail: Elephant Hill Trail
Trailhead: Needles District, near Squaw Flat Campground
Length:: Varies, but Druid Arch is 5.4 miles from trailhead; Joint Trail is 4.9 miles, and; Chesler Park is 2.9 miles.
Difficulty: Easy to moderate, though lack of water can quickly turn this into a strenuous hike.
Payoff: In springtime, colorful bursts of wildflowers to go with the colorful redrock; other times of year, colorful redrock.