Fall Canyonlands Adventure - Needles and Elephant Hill

After our last off-roading adventure Hammerheadfistpunch and I began discussing our next trip that would include the wives rather than just the kids. We set our sights on the endless wonder and awe that is Southern Utah around the end of October. Unfortunately my wife came down with a bad case of mono and not knowing how well she would recover we kinda put the trip on the backburner. Turns out my wife had contracted mono earlier than we thought and therefore recovered sooner. Since we postponed the trip, my wife, who is a photographer, decided to schedule some photo-shoots for the Saturday we had planned to go. Even though I gave her the go ahead to schedule her photo-shoot, I was a little bit upset that we had abandoned all hope on the trip.

About a week before we left my wife could tell I was upset about bailing. She offered to cancel her photoshoots and I didn't want her to do that and piss off her clients. So she said, "Why don't you just take off work." It was my normal friday off so I would only have to take off Thursday if we left Wednesday. Essentially the same amount of time we were planning to be gone before. I just started my new job a couple months ago so I completely forgot I had some vacation built up. Boo yeah!


Now I was getting excited but where to go? I called Hammerheadfistpunch to see if he could take some time off work to join me and help me decide but seemed like it was going to be tough for him on short notice. I asked my wife what she would like to see. She didn't care so it looked like it was solely up to me. There was San Rafael Swell, Capitol Reef, Escalante, Goblin Valley….the possibilities seemed endless which is tough when you are trying to make a decision.

I really enjoyed my mountain bike trip at the White Rim in Canyonlands and I really wanted to go back there. So I set my sights there. I really wanted to explore the Maze but it's a friggn' maze and far away from anything so I am not going in there as a solo vehicle. Then there is the Needles District. I had talked to an adventurous coworker and she said the Needles was her favorite in Canyonlands so I decided that's where we would go. So I called the Canyonlands Ranger Station to reserve a campsite and asked which one was the best. They suggested Devils Kitchen #4 so I reserved it right then. So there, 5 days before departure backcountry permits and campsite secured.To prep I watched a bunch of videos about Elephant Hill to see if it was something I could really do in my stock Off Road Tacoma. Looked pretty doable so I was all in.

Okay enough of explained the back-story (like anyone on here really cares right?) lets get to the actual trip. So we left Wednesday afternoon and decided to free camp in Lockhart basin that night which is just east of the park entrance. After stopping to get some groceries, gas, dinner and playing at McDonald's play place and then change my boys pants after he pissed himself, we got to our campiste an hour and a half later than I expected. I forget things usually take a lot longer with kids in tow.


We found a camping site just a half mile from the main road into the Needles visitor center. Keep in mind I have never been in this area before so when we got there at night I didn't know what I was going to be waking up to.

One of my favorite things is to get to Southern Utah after dark and wake up to something like this. While we got breakfast ready my boy had to let my boy go play around for a bit because I knew it would be while before we got past Elephant Hill.

When I went to go check in at the Needles Visitor center the park Rangers were sceptical of my Tacoma and got me second guessing the capability of my Taco. I had watched the videos and read on ExPo so I knew it could be done. I saw this as a challenge and decided to go for it.

After airing down we stopped to admire the awesome view and just how spectacular Canyonlands actually is.

We get to elephant hill and drop it into 4LOW and go for it. The road is tight and narrow but no problem although I was looking over at my wife and I could see her eyes closed and holding on tight. She thought then would be a good time to get out and take some pictures and be my spotter.

We get to the top and I thought that was too easy. Then I thought, crap! there is still some going down to do and that's what I get worried about. Because of my Tacoma Off Road progressive springs, there is plenty of free movement on the upper end of travel. Couple that with the 3.73 rear diff relatively fast crawl pace you can unexpectedly got over a step and slam! I have to take things really easy with the stock lift and have a foot on the brake on any descent. I have no problem because I'm well armored but my wife does not like it especially when she can see it the sliders or skid plate scraping when she is spotting.

Here we are assessing the situation before going down

The drop on backside of Elephant Hill was much harder than the videos on the interwebs portrayed. The turns are tighter and the steps bigger than on video. But taking it easy and placing rocks at the steps it was manageable with minimal impact to my skid plates.

I was so excited that I was able to go through the squeeze route in Devils Pocket

My wife was relieved to get to the campsite. Even though Elephant Hill is a short distance we had been slowly crawling for a couple hours so my boy was getting cranky and we all needed a break. So we decded to have some lunch and set up camp.

Devils Campsite is such a cool campsite. There is this big rock overhang and in the back there is this grand opening. The number 4 is the best site because it's the last one and is the most secluded. I can see why the rangers recommended it.

After lunch we made our way over to the Joint Trail. In order to get there we had to get past SOB Hill. SOB was a tricky place because there is such a sharp turn. Heading south there was no problem but I knew coming back it was going to be a helluva lot tougher to manage that turn. Another one of those places that looks tougher in real life than on video.


The Joint Trail is such a cool trail and a great place to get away from the heat for a little bit. You have to hike in about ¾ of a mile but what a cool place to be. The formation of the crack is in fact a crack. Rather than from water erosion this rock fractured and separated. Ones of wide girth would have a hard time making it through this.

My boy loved running around through the cracks

Then when we got out we hiked to the viewpoint that could look on to Chestler park. That view right there was the highlight of the trip. Absolutely breathtaking!

When I got back to the parking lot for the trail I ended up talking with this man from the UK in a 2nd gen 4Runner. He said he traveled from the South from Beef Basin and down Bobby's Hill. I wanted to take that way out but I wasn't sure of the condition. The man said that the Bobby's Hill was in good condition and was manageable. I also talked with another that gave me some pointers on how to make it over SOB Hill on the way back.


When I got back to the campsite I saw the my son's box of Caprisuns demolished and scattered all over the campsite. Upon further inspection, it looks like the ravens got a hold of them. There was a square hole the size of a beak in everyone. They didn't leave any extra for us. Be sure to put away all of your food in a rigid container. Cardboard doesn't cut it.

Next morning we decided to leave out the south over Bobby's Hill. I was a little bummed we were bailing after only spending a single day in the park. The Canyonlands deserve so much more. But on the way out there were such good scenery I was glad I was able to explore this end of the park. My wife was happier because it was a lot more smooth than Elephant Hill.

When we got to Bobby's Hill I realized this was the only hill more mild compared to the videos I had watched. We had no problem getting over it but you could tell that it was recently improved.

Going out Beef Basin was a tease because we knew it would take a long time and we were planning on having lunch in Moab. That place definitely deserves a trip of its own. I was reading on ExPo before that there are cliff dwellings if you are willing to get out and walk around and explore for a while. Luckily for us there were some ruins easily accessible from the road.

After airing back up the tires we made it to Moab around 3:30. Luckily we had some leftover snacks to munch along the ride out but we were really hungry regardless. We were glad to be able to accomplish this trip and enjoy this awesome place before it got busy on the weekend. Can't wait for the next adventure.