Squaw Flat/Elephant Hill Loop

Round Trip Distance: 8.4 miles
Difficulty: Very strenuous
Elevation: 5048 - 5370 feet
Cellphone: 0 bars
Time: 4 hrs. 30 mins.
Trailhead: Squaw Flat "B"
Fee: $30/vehicle
Attractions: Scenic desert landscape, views of the Needles, camping, backpacking

This hike is within the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. The hike combines 3 trails and a road to form an 8.4 mile loop that crosses several canyons and involves a good amount of slickrock scrambling. The level of technical skills needed are no more than being able to use your hands in a few places to help yourself along and lots of endurance for all of the up and down climbing. The Needles District is well off the beaten path. To get there you either drive south from Moab, Utah for 40 miles or north of Monticello, Utah for 14 miles and turn west on Highway 211 and drive for another 35 miles. Highway 211 ends in the Needles District so there is nowhere to go from there except back the way you came. With all that said, the Needles District is well worth the effort especially if you really like desert hiking.

This hike begins at the Squaw Flat Trailhead "B" which is not the best place to start but the trail leading from here to Big Spring Canyon is a great hike all by itself. Before you begin this hike or any others in the area around the Needles be sure to bring a map of the trails and if possible a GPS. A map can be printed from the Canyonlands website beforehand just in case the Visitor Center is closed when you arrive.
NOTE: The distances on the signs are all one-way unless it specifically says it is a loop trail. So for instance, to go to Druid Arch and back from this trailhead will require almost 15 miles of hiking round trip. Because hiking in this area of the Needles District can be more strenuous than most people are used to you might consider reserving one of the back country camping sites and splitting the longer hikes up over 2 days.

The hike starts out like a walk in the park before the climbing begins. The trail leads into a small canyon area that you ascend out the back of.

Once you get up onto the slickrock you continue up to the red rock where you find a path leading down a narrow gap to a bowl area. There is a trail junction in the bowl area where a short connector trail leads over to Squaw Flat Trailhead "A".

The trail climbs out of the bowl area with the aid of some steps carved into the sandstone and a cable banister to pull yourself up with. From there the trail continues along the sandstone ridge before beginning its descent into Big Spring Canyon. There are a few minor scrambles but nothing worse than what has occurred up to this point.

There is another connector trail to Squaw Flat Trailhead "A" that is a half mile from that trailhead. In other words, if you would have begun at trailhead "A" you would have hiked about half as far and it would have been much easier. A very nice short loop of about 2 miles would be to take the trail on the left to the "A" trailhead and then follow the short connector from there back to the "B" trailhead.

After hiking about 1.2 miles from where we began at the "B" trailhead we come to a major, and very important trail junction, in Big Spring Canyon. If you bare left at this junction you would be heading toward Squaw Canyon, Lost Canyon and Druid Arch. The trail to the right which this post follows leads over to Elephant Canyon and Chesler Park. Remember that all of the distances on the sign here are for one-way. The Squaw Flat that the sign refers to is the Squaw Flat Trailhead "A" so that is how far it is to take that route from here to that trailhead.

The next section of the trail that leads up Big Spring Canyon is a good stretch of easy hiking to rest up on as you go.

Eventually you reach the upper area of the canyon where you have to begin climbing back up onto the slickrock. None of the scrambling is anything too difficult through this next stretch. It's necessary to use your hands in a few places but no real mountaineering skills are needed. Mostly just minor scrambles up short ledges.

The next stretch of slickrock probably goes on for over a half a mile. The trail of cairns leads you along a nice bench. At the end the trail scrambles up the slickrock to the Elephant Canyon side of the ridge. There are some more steps carved into the rock to make the transition a lot easier. This ridge is the highest point of elevation on the hike.

After crossing the ridge the views of the Needles are much closer. The view is your reward for having ventured this far.

Now there is another canyon to cross so the trail works its way down the slickrock to the wash below. This section of trail down the slickrock really absorbs the energy from the sun. On a 100F degree day it can be like walking through a house on fire. Fortunately it is short, albeit pretty steep, and it is much cooler at the bottom.

More easy canyon bottom hiking.

That canyon was fun. Let's climb out of it so we can try another. Compared to the furnace like hike into the canyon the shady climb out is like a change of seasons.

The next stretch of slickrock is much shorter.

A nice little window on the world for the hikers added enjoyment. Another pleasant scene to recompense your weary legs. That is kind of what it is like hiking the Needles. You work, work, work but it is one ooh-aah moment after another.

After rounding the point at the little window it is an easy trek to the next major trail junction where a right turn takes you toward Elephant Hill. Continuing straight would have led over to Chesler Park.

From here to the road at the Elephant Hill trailhead the hiking is a breeze compared to what it took to get to this point. No more climbing in and out of canyons or scrambling over slickrock ridges other than a couple of minor spots.

There are some more very nice views from the top of the hill looking back at the Needles.

The area around Elephant Hill is like a big playground with spectacular sandstone structures all around you.

The Elephant Hill trailhead is a good place to have left a bike or a second vehicle. It is 3 miles of road from here back to the Squaw Flat trailhead where the hike began. Walking along the road is much easier than hiking back the 5 plus miles that it took to get this far. Also, you never know whether some nice couple from Florida in a rented SUV might not give you a lift part of the way.

This hike isn't the ideal route but it works pretty well if you want to take the trail between Big Spring Canyon and Elephant Canyon and keep it under 10 miles. The campgrounds here have some absolutely beautiful spots to camp nestled in the trees around the sandstone cliffs. All in all it is an adventurous place to visit. Be sure and come prepared with the right clothing and supplies so you can thoroughly enjoy it. If you would like to see it for yourself then all you have to do is 'Take a hike'.