One of the best hikes in Canyonlands National Park takes adventurers through gorgeous Elephant Canyon to Druid Arch. It is spectacular!
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Length: 10.5 miles round trip
Trailhead(s): Elephant Hill Trailhead
Elevation Gain: 1,340’
Trail Type: Out & Back
Dogs: Not Allowed
Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous
Permit Required? No
Considerations: $35 National Park Entry Fee; Sand, Heat
Season: Year Round
Hiking to Druid Arch in Canyonlands National Park is an adventure with a magnificent destination. Not only is Druid Arch an amazing sight, but the scenery on the way to and through Elephant Canyon is gorgeous as well. As such, it is not just Druid Arch, but the incredible beauty which surrounds it in the Needles District that attracts us to this journey.
Canyonlands National Park – The Needles District
The Needles District is stunningly beautiful. The cedar mesa sandstone formations here began forming over 200 million years ago and are still being transformed today. Click on this link for an interesting, but brief overview of the history of the cedar mesa sandstone in Canyonlands National Park from the National Park Servce.
Elephant Hill Trailhead
The Elephant Hill Trailhead is three miles down Elephant Hill Road. This road is un-paved and located near the Needles District Campground. Drive carefully. Because the two parking areas at this trailhead fill quickly an early arrival is advised. The Elephant Hill Trailhead serves those headed both to Chesler Park and Druid Arch, making it a busy trailhead.
Although the road continues past the second parking area, permits and 4 wheel drive high clearance vehicles are required because the road gets extremely rocky and rough. Restrooms are in the upper parking area, and the trailhead is accessed from here as well.
Chesler Park Trail to Elephant Canyon
The Chesler Park Trail is the path above the parking lot. It leads to amazing sights for those headed to Druid Arch. An initially steep climb includes a stairway cut into the rock, but then hikers are immediately rewarded with views of the far-off sandstone pinnacles and fins of the Needles District.
The Chesler Park Trail has only minor elevation changes while it traverses open areas and winds around interesting rock pinnacles on the way to Elephant Canyon. The last stretch before reaching Elephant Canyon runs through an unforgettable narrow alley of rock before quickly dropping down into the dry streambed. Although the Chesler Park Trail crosses Elephant Canyon, the way to Druid Arch is through Elephant Canyon. Take a left here to depart the Chesler Park Trail and start hiking up the canyon.
Elephant Canyon – A Slow Start
Initially, the walls of Elephant canyon are low and wide. The drainage is very sandy, with bushy vegetation and lots of rock. Walking through the sand is, well, like walking through sand. It’s not much fun.
Following the canyon is relatively straightforward. Just stay in the canyon! However, do watch for rock cairns throughout Elephant Canyon. These cairns mark not only the way through rocky areas, but also indicate sections of trail which run above the dry streambed. For example, there is a side trail which loops over to the EC2 camping area not too far up the canyon. One can choose to walk in sand here or walk the trail above the streambed. It drops back into the streambed, but gets hikers out of the sand for a bit.
Shortly after this camping area there is a clear fork in the canyon. Follow the canyon to the right towards camping area EC3. The canyon walls are much higher now, and the next junction comes quickly. Look for a sign on the left (east side of the canyon) marking the way to Druid Arch. The trail to the right (west) is steep and is another route to Chesler Park.
Elephant Canyon – An Impressive End
The final two miles of Elephant Canyon are exciting to hike. They are also incredibly scenic, so be careful to watch for cairns. Why? Because the path winds through rocky passages and narrow channels that take hikers both down into as well as above the drainage. The trail runs like this since Elephant Canyon is not always dry, and even when it is the drainage is not always navigable. As such, watch for the cairns and follow them where the trail runs above the streambed.
While navigating, enjoy the gorgeous scenery of this final stretch of Elephant Canyon. The cedar mesa sandstone in this area is striking.
The Final Climb to Druid Arch
Near the end of Elephant Canyon, a ladder and railing assists hikers in climbing up a short cliff. Although Druid Arch is visible, it is not necessarily recognizable. From this vantage point, the arch simply looks like an interesting rock formation rising 450 feet above the canyon floor. The arch sits in profile from this angle so it is viewed from the side as it juts out from an enormous ring of rock at the end of Elephant Canyon. The end is near, but the we are not done. The full glory of Druid Arch is only revealed after climbing up a steep slickrock gully and then a steep boulder field.
Wow! After 5.25 miles of hiking, the destination is reached. Standing on a lower bench that juts out in the middle of a horseshoe shaped ring of red and white rock which soars high overhead, we get the full-on in-your-face view of Druid Arch. It is massive, and it is beautiful.
Druid Arch is a popular hiking destination for a reason. This 150-foot-tall arch is distinctive. It looks like stacked gigantic stone with two giant keyholes which are 80 feet tall and 20 feet wide. From certain angles two smaller holes between the rocks wedged into the bottom of the big keyhole look like eyes.
As if this unique arch is not enough of a reward for the hike, Druid Arch is surrounded by stunning scenery. Whereas the arch is the reason we come here, the view looking back into the upper portion of Elephant Canyon is so extraordinary that it is impossible to not just stare at it for a very long time.
Plan on hanging out beside the arch for a while to take it all in. The enormity of the arch. The soaring rock all around. The sheer beauty of the down canyon view. Pull out lunch or a snack and take a seat to enjoy and appreciate being in this very special place. After all, it took some time to get here. When it is time to go, simply head back to the trailhead the way you came.
Scroll down to learn about the GEAR WE USE and OTHER OUTVENTURES in this area.
Additional Information (Click below to follow links.)
Druid Arch Slideshow
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Gear We Use for Day Hiking
To see descriptions of the gear Chris & Mac use for day hiking, as well as links to manufacturers and retailers offering the gear for sale, please CLICK HERE.
Articles About Other Regional Outventures
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