The Elephant Hill Trail

The Elephant Hill Trail -- Author: Todd Adams

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Todd’s Amigo on Wipeout Hill

When we first started to show up for the monthly Red Rock 4-Wheeler runs in Moab, there was a lot of skepticism on the part of the members as to how capable my Amigo was at handling the trails in the area. That did not last long, as the Amigo is a very capable vehicle in stock form. With a bit of a lift, 32" BFGoodrich Mud Terrain tires and an ARB in the rear differential, there are not many trails around Moab that can get the better of it. I must confess that it does take a bit of work to get it through trails like "The Golden Spike" and "Moab Rim", but getting it over obstacles such as "The Golden Crack", "The Golden Wall", "Tip Over Challenge" and "The Z Turn" unassisted, surprises most onlookers.

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Crossing the Golden Crack on Moab, Utah's Golden Spike Trail

Most Isuzu owners never realize the full potential of their vehicles. I know I am not in that category, having taken my Amigo places that even I had no business going. My Amigo wears a few "Trail Trophies", but that is expected by all of us who really ’wheel our rigs.

If body damage is not to your liking, there are plenty of not-so-hard-core trails that will challenge your Isuzu. One of those is the Elephant Hill Trail in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.

Elephant Hill has not changed much in the 20+ years I have been driving it except for the addition of cement and asphalt in critical areas. This trail is maintained by the National Park Service to be just passable with stock equipment, with the emphasis on just. The character of the trail remains the same as it was the first time I pointed my FJ55 Landcruiser up the hill and held on to the steering wheel with white knuckles and sweaty palms . This trail gave me my first taste of real four-wheeling.

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Coming down the East side of Elephant Hill

I know just about all the Red Rock 4-Wheeler trail leaders, and as far as I know, I am the only one to lead Easter Jeep Safari Trails in an Isuzu. I have had my Amigo since April of 1993, and in 1996 I was asked to lead the Elephant Hill Trail, the only Easter Jeep Safari Trail within Canyonlands National Park.

I love leading this trail during Easter Safari, and those that participate seem to have a good time as well, even though it is the farthest drive from Moab for a one-day trail. The groups are smaller than those of most Safari trails due to the parking restrictions the National Park Service places on us. We are only allowed to park a maximum of fifteen vehicles at each of the two trailheads where we stop and go on short hikes.

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Indian writings on the rock at Newspaper Rock State Park

Elephant Hill is located about 40 miles south of Moab, as the crow flies. We head south along highway 191 and turn west onto highway 211. Along highway 211 we pass Newspaper Rock, which is worth a stop on the way back to Moab later in the day. Fifteen miles or so past Newspaper Rock, we reach the Needles Entrance, where a $10.00 fee is charged for each vehicle. This fee allows you to explore both the Needles and the Island District for a week. There are three districts of Canyonlands National Park: the Needles and Island Districts, and the Maze, where no fees are charged yet. Keep in mind no pets are allowed in the back country of the Park.

Just past the fee shack, a stop at the visitors center is in order. This is the only place where there are flush toilets and running water in this section of the Park. We can’t stay long to view the exhibits or chat with the Park Rangers, as we are short on time to get on the trail.

I usually air down and lock the hubs at the visitors center as it is only a few miles of mostly dirt roads to the start of the trail. One look at the trail from the bottom up intimidates all but the seasoned four-wheeler. I have been here more than once when a driver has walked up the hill to check it out and decided to go somewhere else.

On the front or east side of the hill, you have to pull out onto a turnaround, because the first switchback is way too sharp for even a short wheelbase. This is known as the "Turn Table" and has what have been called "Chicken Rocks" placed so that even if you have trouble, they prevent you from going over the cliff edge.

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Here you can see some of the cement work that has been done to maintain this trail.

On top, there is a section of easy two-track for about 1/4 mile. Don’t let this fool you -- the fun is not over yet. The descent on the west side starts with a steep downhill walled in on both sides. Then there is another flat area to back up into and get positioned for an even steeper drop down to the "Back Up Switch Back". This obstacle has to be done in reverse going in both directions. Hanging in one of the Rangers Offices at the visitors center, there is a photo of a full-size Blazer down off of this cliff. You don’t want to make a mistake here and a spotter is a much better idea than looking in your rear view mirrors. A couple more switchbacks and you are at the bottom. Don’t worry -- you get to do it all over again later in the day.

Once over Elephant Hill we get into the one-way loop section of the trail, and the unofficial "Bud Hill", which gives all the stock vehicles a true test and maybe even a strap. Then we come to the official "Coors Hill". Both "Bud" and "Coors" hills were named for the brand of beer that was being consumed while those that were consuming it were trying to get up the hills. All the empty containers were left behind and picked up by park personnel, giving both hills their names. We want to make sure that even if we have trouble, no trace of our passage will be left.

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A Hummer with the mirrors removed just barely fits through the Squeeze Play.

Depending on the year, "Coors Hill" is usually the toughest of the two. Just after "Coors Hill" is "Squeeze Play". Last year was the first time I had a Hummer on my trail. The driver was required to pull the mirrors off and still had less than 1/2" on both sides. "Squeeze Play" always causes a delay just before lunch because everyone wants to get a photo of their rig at the tightest spot.

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The view from the lunchbreak area in Devils Kitchen

We then make a turn off the one-way loop into Devils Kitchen Campground for lunch. A great view of the Needles is at hand for us to enjoy while we eat and relax. Here you can check out the way cool campsites for a future trip on your own. Last Labor Day we did just that -- what an amazing sight it was to wake up to the sun lighting up the tops of the Needles in the morning.

After lunch we continue on the one-way loop past a sink-hole that threatens to take out the road. Unless you know where this sink-hole is, you will never see it, even though it is only a few feet away.

At the Junction in Devils Lane, we split the group into two, one heading north to the Confluence Overlook of the Green and Colorado Rivers, and the other south to a short hike through Joint Trail into Chestler Park. It is hard to say which group is better off. The view of the Green and Colorado Rivers joining from almost 2000 feet up is, to say the least, breathtaking, while Chestler Park from inside gives the best view of the Needles, for which the district was named.

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One of the side cracks off of the Joint Trail that the author just barely fits in.

My personal favorite is Joint Trail. For about 1/4 mile you walk through the Joint or fracture in the sandstone, in some places barely a yard wide. The group that goes south also gets to drive "S.O.B. Hill". I found out on my first trip what inspired it’s name. On first inspection it looks as though a long wheelbase can go though the top narrow crack straight on.

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Todd’s FJ55 stuck on the S.O.B. Hill in 1979.

Once you make the turn down the hill, however, you can get hung on your front and rear bumpers. This is what happened to my FJ55 in 1979. It took about an hour for us to get unstuck, with my wife Linda laughing the whole time. The hill was improved a few years ago but has not had any maintenance since.

The group going north will drive the "Golden Stairs" first, where a grand view of the Maze area and the Doll House can be seen just across Cataract Canyon. This group gets back to Elephant Hill first as it is not as long a hike to the Confluence Overlook as it is to Chestler Park. Linda gets to lead this group over the hill then waits for me and my group to return.

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Confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers

If the light is right, and you use your imagination, you can see the three elephants on your right at the top of the hill before you start down the east side. Baby Elephant is holding Mom’s tail and Mom is holding Daddy’s tail. Daddy’s trunk almost reaches the road. The official end of the trail is at the east side of Elephant Hill. From there you are on your own back to Moab.

If you make this trip on your own, you will have time to visit both Joint Trail and the Confluence Overlook. A few days of camping at Squaw Flat or Devils Kitchen will give you the opportunity to travel the other trails within the Needles District, including Colorado Overlook Trail, Horse, Davis and Lavender Canyons.

Another great trip in the area is to start by going over Elephant Hill, then head south over S.O.B. Hill. Follow it through Bobby’s Hole, into Ruin Park and Beef Basin. There are many places to camp outside of the park in Ruin Park or Beef Basin. You can spend an entire day exploring the Anasazi Ruins in Ruin Park; some dwellings still stand almost three stories tall.

Contacts Related Links
  • Red Rock 4-Wheelers, Inc.
    Dept ORN
    P.O. Box 1471
    Moab, UT 84532-1471 U.S.A.
    Phone: (435) 259-ROCK

  • Canyonlands National Park Headquarters
    Dept ORN
    125 West 200 South
    Moab, UT 84532 U.S.A.
    Phone: (435) 259-7164