A back-road tour allows you to see beautiful canyon scenery, arches, and Native American rock-art sites in the Needles District. Check with a ranger about special hazards before setting out. Also obtain a backcountry permit ($30 per vehicle) if you plan to use one of the backcountry campgrounds available along Salt Creek or in the area past Elephant Hill. Mountain bikers enjoy the challenge of going up Elephant Hill Road and the roads beyond. Colorado Overlook 4WD Road is good riding, too, but Salt Creek and the other eastern canyons have too much loose sand.
Salt Creek Canyon 4WD Road
Salt Creek Road begins near Cave Spring Trail, crosses sage flats for the next 2.5 miles, then heads deep into this spectacular canyon. Round-trip distance, including a side trip to 150-foot-high Angel Arch, is 26 miles. Agile hikers can follow a steep slickrock route into the window of Angel Arch. You can also explore side canyons of Salt Creek or take the Upper Salt Creek Trail (the “All American Man” pictograph makes a good day-hike destination; 12 miles round-trip).
Horse Canyon 4WD Road (permit required) turns off to the left shortly before the mouth of Salt Canyon. Round-trip distance, including a side trip to Tower Ruin, is about 13 miles; other attractions include Paul Bunyan’s Potty, Castle Arch, Fortress Arch, and side canyon hiking. Salt and Horse Canyons can easily be driven in four-wheel drive vehicles. Salt Canyon is frequently closed due to quicksand after flash floods in summer and shelf ice in winter.
Davis and Lavender Canyons
Four-wheel-drive roads enter Davis Canyon and Lavender Canyon (permit required) from Highway 211 east of the park boundary. Both canyons are accessed by Davis Canyon Road off Highway 211 and contain great scenery, arches, and Native American sites, and both are easily visited. Davis is about 20 miles round-trip and Lavender is about 26 miles round-trip. Try to allow plenty of time in either canyon, as there is much to see and many inviting side canyons to hike. You can camp on BLM land just outside the park boundaries, but not in the park itself.
Colorado Overlook 4WD Road
Colorado Overlook 4WD Road begins beside the visitor center and follows Salt Creek to Lower Jump Overlook. It then bounces across slickrock to a view of the Colorado River (upstream from the confluence). Driving is easy to moderate, though very rough the last 1.5 miles. The round-trip distance is 14 miles.
Elephant Hill 4WD Road
Elephant Hill Road begins three miles past the Squaw Flat Campground turnoff. Only experienced drivers with stout vehicles should attempt the extremely rough and steep climb up Elephant Hill (coming up the back side of Elephant Hill is even rougher). The loop is about 10 miles round-trip. Connecting roads go to the Confluence Overlook Trailhead (the viewpoint is one mile round-trip on foot), the Joint Trailhead (Chesler Park is two miles round-trip on foot), and several canyons. Some road sections on the loop are one-way. The parallel canyons in this area are grabens caused by faulting, where a layer of salt has shifted deep underground.
In addition to Elephant Hill, a few other difficult spots must be negotiated. This area can also be reached by a long route south of the park using Cottonwood Canyon/Beef Basin Road from Highway 211, about 60 miles one-way. You’ll enjoy spectacular vistas from the Abajo Highlands. Two very steep descents from Pappys Pasture into Bobbys Hole effectively make this section one-way; travel from Elephant Hill up Bobbys Hole is possible but much more difficult than going the other way and may require hours of road building. The Bobbys Hole route may be impassable at times—ask about conditions at the BLM office in Monticello or at the Needles visitor center.
© W.C. McRae and Judy Jewell from Moon Utah, 9th Edition