This 10-mile popsicle loop traverses some of the most scenic backcountry in Canyonlands National Park with jaw-dropping vistas, amazing slot canyons, and unbelievable rock formations.
Day 1: Elephant Hill to Elephant Canyon
From the Elephant Hill parking lot, the trail climbs quickly for the first quarter mile, raising a few hundred vertical feet over a series of short switchbacks. At this point, it will become quite apparent to at least a few members of your party that you’re backpacking at elevation. Luckily, your kids will be completely entertained as they leap over shallow crevasses, step up staircases carved into sandstone, and move through tight slots tunneling into the hillside. From here, you’ll have an excellent view of Elephant Hill where you can watch Jeep owners try to negotiate one of the most challenging off-road section in the Park.
You’ll soon leave behind the sounds of engine noise as the trail levels out and traverses across sandstone and around picturesque cirques. The kids will enjoy the varied terrain over the next mile or so before dropping into Elephant Canyon; climbing over rocks, peering over ledges, and starring across steep bluffs.
We reached Elephant Canyon in the late afternoon and were fortunate to have the entire campsite to ourselves. The kids spent at least two hours playing in the giant sandbox along the canyon below camp. The rest of the evening they occupied the large rocks above camp playfully re-enacting the dessert scenes from Star Wars. This campsite, with the sand and plethora of hiding places, was a natural playground.
The campsite is slightly elevated and offers up excellent views in every direction. The kids brought their junior ranger booklets from the Visitors Center and spent time in the tent completing all the tasks and learning about the specific geology in Canyonlands.
Day 2: Elephant Canyon to Needles District
You are in for a treat on the beginning of day two with the climb out of Elephant Canyon. The trail rises roughly 500 vertical feet over a half-mile and delivers one of the most interesting sections of trail. The kids will have a phenomenal time spidering across sandstone and bouldering along rocky ledges. If you have little ones, there are a few places where you’ll want to hold their hand for safety or to help them overcome large obstacles in the trail. Watch for cairns that mark the way when the trail becomes indistinguishable.
The views continue to improve as you ascend culminating in a dramatic overlook into the Devils Kitchen. This is an excellent place for a quick break to admire the red-and-white banded rock pinnacles and mushroom stacks. It may be the best view in the Needles District. Yeah, it’s that good.
Continue following the trail around the basin and try not to strain your neck looking over your shoulder. The trail leads to the base of another short pass that delivers still more amazing views back into Devils Kitchen before landing you in beautiful Chesler Park.
The stroll through Chesler Park takes a circuitous route around the giant rock spires through an open grassy flat meadow. This section of trail is stupid scenic. Be aware there is very little shade along this section of trail, so plan accordingly. Later in the afternoon, especially closer to summer, the heat can be unbearable, so try to get to camp early and spend the rest of the day exploring or taking a nap.
I decided to apply for Chesler Park 2 because it was closest to the Joint Trail and seemed more isolated than 3, 4, and 5. After visiting all the campsites, it was definitely the nicest—large, shaded, and secluded. The campsite is tucked into a cluster of large rocks that will provide hours of entertainment for kids and adults. The views from atop these giants might be the best in Chesler Park.
In the late afternoon, we hiked the half-mile from camp to the beginning of spectacular Joint Trail. After dropping into the joint, we were instantly transported to a different world filled with tight slot canyons and shallow caves. The sunlight from above shined through small cracks in the rocks and beams of light illuminated the otherwise dark slot canyons. There are dozens of passages to explore so make sure to budget enough time. On a coolness factor, the Joint Trail is off the charts. It was definitely the highlight of the trip and shouldn’t be missed.
Day 3: Needles District to Elephant Hill
I woke up before dawn and scurried up the giant rocks surrounding our campsite to capture sunrise with my oldest son. Over the next hour, we witnessed an epic sunrise with purple and pink hues illuminating the sky and casting a beautiful light upon the landscape. These moments are why you travel into the wilderness. Unfortunately, too few people are willing to push themselves to experience it, but the feeling is powerful and it changes you.
We scampered down from the rocks and strolled back to camp with smiles on our faces like we’d just won the lottery, and in a way we had. The rest of the family was still tucked into their sleeping bags waiting for us to return. After a quick breakfast, we broke camp, strapped on our backpacks, and headed out for our longest mileage day.
I think the biggest surprise of this trip was the trail from Chesler Park to Elephant Hill. It was challenging, exciting, and totally spectacular. The trail descends rapidly through rock gardens, down steep ledges, around cliffs, and across shallow crevasses. To say this portion of the trail was fun is a total understatement.
The trail is faint in places as you traverse across sandstone ledges but cairns clearly mark the way. The views of towering rock formations and the basin surrounding Elephant Canyon are dramatic and rival anything in the Park for scenic beauty.
You intersect the trail in Elephant Canyon about two miles below Druid Arch and the landscape is very different from the other sections of trail. It is both more intimate and varied with sections where you walk across river rock and deep sand. My youngest started complaining a bit about the distance at this point so we went into full-on storytelling mode to pass the time until we reached the trail junction at our first nights camp.
A quick break for lunch and we continued to re-tell the entire Cars movie for an hour back to Elephant Hill. Back at the parking lot, we made the quick drive to the Visitors Center where the kids were deputized as the newest junior rangers.
You’ll need to pack water on this trip! Here are my top picks for water bags.
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