The loop around Elephant Canyon and Squaw Canyon offers soaring canyon walls, banded needle formations, nearby access to Druid Arch, and great campsites. It’s hard to beat the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park for desert backpacking. This trail could be hiked as a day hike, but the side trips to Chesler Park and Druid Arch make it more than worth backpacking this loop.
The trailhead for the Elephant Canyon and Squaw Canyon loop begins at the Squaw Flat Trailhead. To reach the trailhead, take highway 191 south from Moab. About 40 miles from Moab, turn right (west) on highway 211. Then just follow 211 for about 33 miles to the Canyonlands entrance. After paying the entrance fee and obtaining a backcountry permit at the visitor’s center if you plan to camp, continue along 211. After about 2.5 miles from the visitor’s center, turn left, following the signs to Squaw Flat Campground. Follow the signs to Loop A of the campground, and then park at the trailhead towards the back of the campground. The trailhead is located at 38.14360,-109.80371.
There is a $10 fee to enter the park, or you can purchase the $80 America the Beautiful annual pass that will give you access to all national parks and other federal lands that charge an entry/parking fee (including Mirror Lake Highway).
The first intersection is about 20 yards from the trailhead. If you’re hiking the loop, you can go either way, but I would recommend taking the right-hand fork towards Big Springs Canyon. By going towards Big Springs first you get to start the hike with more views and slickrock; by going towards Squaw Canyon first, you start the hike across flat desert and riparian canyon that’s not as pretty.
So, assuming you take the right fork to Big Springs, after about a quarter mile, the trail climbs up on slickrock and then descends back down to the desert, where you encounter another trail coming from the right. This trail simply comes from Loop B of the campground, so continue to the left. After less than a mile from the trailhead, you’ll come to another intersection. The trail to the left goes up Big Springs Canyon. You can hike this trail and do a shorter, day hike loop including Squaw Canyon, but you would miss the best parts of Squaw, and the pretty Elephant Canyon. The upper end of Big Springs is pretty, but it’s just not as pretty as Elephant and the upper end of Squaw. So, for this loop description, we’ll turn right here, following the signs for Chesler Park and Druid Arch.
Continue another two and half miles on a trail that has lots of nice slickrock hiking with nice views over the Needles and back towards the La Sal Mountains. About 3.5 miles from the trailhead, the Chesler Park Trail comes in from the right. Continue to the left, and in a little over half a mile, you’ll come to another intersection. The trail to the right goes to Chesler Park, so continue to the left into Elephant Canyon.
The next mile through Elephant Canyon is really pretty, with nice, banded needles towering at the top of the canyon walls. There are two campsites around 4.9 miles from the trailhead. We stayed at EC2 and really liked it. We found water in a pool just up the Druid Arch Trail, right in front of EC3.
We took two great day hikes from the campsite: one to Chesler Park via the Druid Arch Trail and one to Druid Arch. Both hikes were great. There was a really nice slickrock basin on the way to Chesler Park, as well as lots of running water, and the views from Chesler Park out towards The Maze were really nice. It was about 3.4 miles roundtrip to Chesler Park from EC2. And Druid Arch was amazing. You have to climb up some steep slickrock pour offs, and climb up a short ladder, but the arch is just huge. The arch is also in a very remote canyon, surrounded by lots of slickrock. It’s 5 miles roundtrip to Druid Arch from EC2. We hiked to Chesler on day one after we arrived at camp, and we hiked to Druid on day two before hiking out.
From the intersection of Elephant Canyon and Druid Arch Trails at EC2, 4.9 miles from the trailhead, continue to the left towards Squaw Canyon. About a mile or so from the intersection, the trail starts climbing out of the canyon. The climb involves a ladder to get out of the canyon. The ladders are fun, but they’re also exposed, of course, so just be aware of that. There is nice slickrock hiking between the canyons, and then another ladder to climb down into Squaw. The upper end of Squaw is absolutely beautiful. I really liked the cathedral-type slickrock at the head of Squaw Canyon. A little less than a mile or so from the last ladder, and 7 miles from the trailhead, you’ll reach the Big Springs Canyon trail intersection on the left. This is where you would come out if you were doing the shorter Big Springs loop.
Continuing right along the slickrock, soon the trail drops down into the canyon bottom and into a riparian environment. The Lost Canyon Trail intersection is reached a little less than a mile from the last intersection. Continue to the left on the Squaw Canyon Trail for another 1.7 miles to the next intersection on the right. Turn left, now hiking mostly across the desert, for another 1.1 miles back to the trailhead, for a total loop distance of 10.7 miles, not including the great side trips.
Permits & Regulations
As previously mentioned, you need to pay $10 to enter the park if you do not have an annual pass. Additionally, you need to reserve a specific campsite if you plan to camp. As is the case in many national parks, this can be an adventure in itself. The first thing you will need to do is familiarize yourself with all of the backcountry rules. Next, you will need to pick a campsite. Next, you will need to decide if you want to reserve your campsite or take your chances as a walk-in. When we hiked this loop we made a reservation, so I’m not sure how easy it is to get a permit as a walk-in. Considering the low number of backcountry sites, though, I would expect it to be very competitive during the peak seasons of spring and fall.
My big pet peeve about Canyonlands is how much they are now charging for backpacking permits: $30. While this is the price for the permit and not for the number of nights, I still think it’s exorbitant. So, at $30 per permit, it’s in your best interest to stay out as many nights as possible, because you pay the same for one night as you do for 14 nights.
This is the desert, so it can be really hot in the summer and really cold in the winter.
Relevant Books & Maps
Trails Illustrated Map – Needles District