The Needles District has about 55 miles of backcountry trails. Many interconnect to provide all sorts of day and overnight trips. Cairns mark the trails; signs point the way at junctions. You can normally find water in upper Elephant Canyon and canyons to the east in spring and early summer, though the remaining water often becomes stagnant by midsummer. Always ask the rangers about sources of water—don't depend on its availability. Treat water from all sources, including springs, before drinking. Chesler Park and other areas west of Elephant Canyon are very dry; bring all the water you'll need.
Mosquitoes, gnats, and deer flies can be very pesky from late spring to midsummer, especially in the wetter places—bring insect repellent. To plan your trip, obtain the small hiking map available from the visitor center, Trails Illustrated's Needles District map, or USGS topo maps.
Confluence Overlook Trail
This trail (10 miles round-trip) goes west 5.5 miles from Big Spring Canyon Overlook (at the end of the scenic drive) to a fine viewpoint overlooking the Green and Colorado Rivers 1,000 feet below. You might see rafts in the water or bighorn sheep on the cliffs. The trail crosses Big Spring and Elephant Canyons and follows a jeep road for a short distance. Higher points have good views of the Needles to the south. Except for a few short steep sections, this trail is level and fairly easy. A very early start is recommended in summer, as there's little shade. Carry water even if you don't plan to go all the way—this enchanting country has lured many a hiker beyond his or her original goal!
Squaw Flat Trailhead
The main trailhead sits a short distance south of the campground and is reached by a separate signed road. You can also begin from a trailhead in the campground itself.
Squaw Canyon Trail follows the canyon south. Intermittent water can often be found until late spring. You can take a connecting trail (Peekaboo, Lost Canyon, or Big Spring Canyon) or cross a slickrock pass to Elephant Canyon.
Peekaboo Trail (10 miles round-trip) winds southeast over rugged terrain, including some steep sections of slickrock (best avoided when wet, icy, or covered with snow). There's little shade; carry water. The trail follows Squaw Canyon, climbs over a pass to Lost Canyon, then crosses more slickrock before descending to Peekaboo Campground on Salt Creek 4WD Road. Look for Anasazi ruins on the way and rock art at the campground. A rockslide took out Peekaboo Spring, shown on some maps. Options on this trail include a turnoff south through Squaw Canyon or Lost Canyon to make a loop of 8.75 miles or more.
Lost Canyon Trail (8.7 miles round-trip) is reached via Peekaboo or Squaw Canyon Trail and makes a loop with them. Water supports abundant vegetation; you may need to wade. Most of the way is in the wash bottom, except for a section of slickrock to Squaw Canyon.
Big Spring Canyon Trail (7.5 miles round-trip) crosses an outcrop of slickrock from the trailhead, then follows the canyon bottom to the head of the canyon. You can usually find intermittent water along the way except in summer. At canyon's end, a climb up steep slickrock (hazardous if covered by snow or ice) takes you to Squaw Canyon Trail and back to the trailhead. Another possibility is to turn southwest to the head of Squaw Canyon, then hike over a slickrock saddle to Elephant Canyon (10.5 miles round-trip).
Elephant Hill Trailhead
Three miles west of the campground turnoff is the picnic area and trailhead at the base of Elephant Hill. Sounds of racing engines and burning rubber can often be heard from above as vehicles attempt the difficult four-wheel-drive road that begins just past the picnic area. All of the following destinations can also be reached by trails from the Squaw Flat Trailhead, though distances will be slightly greater.
Chesler Park is a favorite hiking destination. A lovely desert meadow contrasts with the red and white spires that gave the Needles District its name. An old cowboy line camp is on the west side of the rock island in the center of the park. Chesler Park Trail (6 miles round-trip) winds through sand and slickrock before ascending a small pass through the Needles to Chesler Park. Once inside, Chesler Park Loop Trail (11 miles round-trip) circles completely around the park. The loop includes the unusual half-mile Joint Trail, which follows the bottom of a very narrow crack. Camping in Chesler Park is restricted to certain areas; check with a ranger.
Druid Arch (11 miles round-trip) reminds many people of the massive stone slabs at Stonehenge, popularly associated with the druids, in southern England. The arch is a 15-mile hike if you start at Squaw Flat Trailhead. Follow the Chesler Park Trail two miles to Elephant Canyon, turn up the canyon 3.5 miles, and then climb 0.25-mile to the arch. Upper Elephant Canyon has seasonal water, but the narrow canyon is closed to camping.
Lower Red Lake Canyon Trail (8-19 miles round-trip) provides access to Cataract Canyon of the Colorado River. This is a long, strenuous trip best suited for experienced hikers and completed in two days. Distance from the Elephant Hill Trailhead is 19 miles round-trip; you'll be walking on four-wheel-drive roads and trails. If you can drive Elephant Hill 4WD Road to the trail junction in Cyclone Canyon, the hike is only eight miles round-trip. The most difficult trail section is a steep talus slope that drops 700 feet in 0.5 mile into the lower canyon. Total elevation change is 1,000 feet. The canyon has little shade and lacks any water source above the river. Summer heat can make the trip grueling; temperatures tend to be 5-10 degrees hotter than on other Needles trails. The river level drops between midsummer and autumn, allowing hikers to go along the shore both downstream to see the rapids and upstream to the confluence. Undertows and strong currents make the river dangerous to cross.
Upper Salt Creek Trail
Several impressive arches and many inviting side canyons attract adventurous hikers to the extreme southeast corner of the park. This trail (12 miles round-trip) begins at the end of the 13.5-mile four-wheel-drive road up Salt Creek, then goes south upcanyon to Cottonwood Canyon/Beef Basin Road near Cathedral Butte, just outside the park boundary. The trail is nearly level except for a steep climb at the end. Water can usually be found. Some wading and bushwhacking may be necessary. The famous "All American Man" pictograph, shown on some topo maps (or ask a ranger), is in a cave a short way off to the east at about the midpoint of the trail; follow your map and unsigned paths to the cave but don't climb in—it's dangerous to both you and the ruins and pictograph inside. Many more archaeological sites can be discovered near the trail; they're all fragile and need great care when visited.
© W.C. McRae and Judy Jewell from Moon Utah, 9th Edition