Druid Arch

Rating: 
Round Trip Distance: 11.4 miles
Difficulty: Strenuous
Elevation: 5143 - 5798 feet
Cellphone: 0 bars
Time: 5-7 hrs. (9 hrs. this post)
Trailhead: Elephant Hill
Fee: $25/vehicle
Attractions: Needles geology, arch



The Druid Arch trail is located in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park between Moab and Monticello, Utah. The Needles District is in a remote section of Canyonlands south of the Colorado River. To get there from the Moab area you travel south on Highway 191 for about 40 miles to the turnoff and then follow Utah Highway 211 for another 35 miles to the park. From the Monticello direction head north on Highway 191 for about 15 miles to the turnoff and follow UT-211 from there. The milder temperatures in spring and fall make them the most popular times to hike the backcountry trails and the campground, which is first come first served, can fill up quickly during those periods. The campgrounds are very nice with flush toilets and water available. Overflow camping can be found just outside of the park where for $5 more you can usually at least have a place to camp.



The last couple of miles to the Elephant Hill trailhead are along a gravel road that the Park Service usually keeps in very good shape making it passable by passenger vehicles. There is a vault toilet and several picnic tables near the trailhead. If you plan on using one of the backcountry campsites you will need to obtain a permit at the Visitors Center.


The hike gets fun right from the start even if it does require a small amount of uphill hiking. The designers of the trail did a nice job of routing the path through several tight spots along the way. This spot, right above the trailhead, even has a staircase masterfully inlaid between the rocks. The steps probably do as much to alleviate erosion as they do in aiding hikers climb through the gap.


After the initial climb from the trailhead things level off a bit as the trail winds through and around boulders and over a mix of slickrock and red dirt.


Slightly over 1 mile from the start the trail crosses over Elephant Hill where the first unobstructed views of the colorfully banded cedar mesa sandstone needles are laid out before you.


A park ranger is putting up a new sign at the first trail junction. Following the trail to the right leads toward Druid Arch, Chesler Park and the Joint trail with other connecting trails along the way.


Another fun slot to hike through comes up after a little more hiking. The passage looks narrow in this picture but it is wide enough to accommodate even a large male with broad shoulders without ever turning sideways.


After a little more hiking and easy scrambling the trail descends into the wash that it will follow for the next 3.7 miles to the arch. At this point the trail crosses the wash and follows the opposite bank upstream. Continuing straight ahead after crossing the wash leads to Chesler Park. The first Elephant Canyon primitive campsite, EC1, is on a short spur trail to the right.


Much of the time the wash is dry enough that you can hike up it without worrying about getting wet. The night before this picture was taken it had rained much of the night so the wash had more water than usual running through it. The water had already soaked through the sandy trail and helped to pack the loose soil somewhat making it easier than normal to hike through.


This is the heart of Elephant Canyon. Much of the trail at this point is primitive and takes longer to hike than a more well established trail does. For this outing the extra water in the stream added quite a bit of difficulty to the task while we picked our way around the rocks and boulders.


As you can see from the picture we were enjoying a beautiful day of hiking. The further up the canyon we progressed the less water we encountered.


About a half mile from the arch the trail leaves the wash to get around a large spillover. At this point a little minor rock climbing is required. It is only about a 20 foot scramble and hand and footholds were not a problem either in climbing up or coming back down.


From this point the nice blue skies gave way to the first of several thunderstorms. We had to hold up under a juniper tree while the water rose about 2 feet. After about 30 minutes the rain stopped and the water had gone down enough that we could continue once again.


We came to call this slickrock bowl the waterslide. It was a little hard to get up skirting around the wet spots. When it came to coming back down the bowl there was a torrent of water that made it particularly treacherous. During dry weather a person wouldn't give this area a second thought but my how things can quickly change when a storm hits.


There is a ladder to climb just below the arch that has an awkward transition at the top that is partially aided by a pipe that is anchored to the rock.


The arch is edge on with the trail so you can't see the openings without climbing up the loose ground to the left of the trail and getting high enough to peer over a rock fin between there and the arch. After coming this far that last little bit of effort is pretty much a requirement to advert an anticlimactic ending. It would be nice to see the trail expanded slightly so that it ends at a good observation point.



This short video shows the water after the first little rain when we were held up under a juniper tree. Then it switches to a much bigger storm that we waited out under the overhang next to the ladder where you can see the water pouring over the rock. The ladder is up out of the canyon bottom above the stream and it was still like being in a flood. The last portion of the video was shot while we were further down the canyon hiking out and had to seek shelter beneath another overhang where you can see water running over the cliffs everywhere you look.


We waited until the rain had mostly stopped and made a couple of walking sticks from some of the debri. At this point we decided to wade the last 3 miles out of the canyon just so we could get out before dark. We came across other hikers on the way out that decided to follow our lead and resort to wading. Depending on the width of the channel the water varied from 6 inches to a couple of feet. During the worst of the flooding it had risen between 2-4 feet.


By the time we reached the trailhead the sun was peaking through the clouds once again. We discovered that the access road leading to the trailhead had been closed and passenger cars were waiting for the ranger to let them through after he felt the water had dropped enough. Highway 191 was closed just south of the turnoff to the Needles District due to a new lake that was covering the road. Despite all of that the hike was enjoyable. We had our rain gear and plenty of provisions if we would have had to spend the night trapped in the canyon. It just goes to show how quickly the conditions can change in canyon country. If we would have started right at daylight we would have been done before the storm had hit. The Needles District is still a beautiful place to hike even in the rain. If you would like to see it for yourself then all you have to do is 'Take a hike'.