By Rob Samuelsen

Many years ago my father decided to rent a Jeep in Moab, Utah to explore parts of Canyonlands National Park. At the rental desk, the attendant told my father that he was prohibited from going to Elephant Hill but other trails were open. As a teenager, the Elephant Hill prohibition made such a strong impression on me that it has stuck with me for decades. On my recent voyage to Moab, I decided it was time to vindicate my father and do the prohibited! I secured a permit from the National Park Service, watched their required Technical Four-Wheel-Drive video, and headed to Elephant Hill in my new Jeep Rubicon. The National Park Service calls it “one of the most technical four-wheel-drive roads in Utah and presents drivers with steep grades, loose rock, stair-step drops, tight turns, and tricky backing.” It did not disappoint!

The toughest part is at the beginning (and end) with a very steep up and over. The road is a loop but the Elephant Hill part must be traversed twice. At times my vehicle was at a 45-degree angle and other times it felt as if I would roll over sideways. If the rocky ledges, steep grades, and tippy camber didn’t get you, one of the switchbacks is so narrow you have to drive it in reverse both ways—coming in and going out! Especially with a terrified spotter, it was crazy white-knuckle driving!

The gauntlet start is also what makes it so special. With a limited number of permits and a requirement for a specialized vehicle such as a customized Jeep, very few of the Canyonlands tourists get to see the incredible remote beauty of the Needles district. There are many spectacular vistas but nothing was more special than the Devils Kitchen. I’ve camped in some pretty amazing places but the Devils Kitchen may be the most beautiful campground in the world! Nestled in rocks and slot canyons, it has its own ecosystem of flora and was a full 20 degrees cooler than the surrounding desert. Scrambling to the rocks above, the namesake hoodoos are so impressive that it was hard to decide to stay in the cool campsite or the watch the kaleidoscopic panorama of the needles!

Not far from the campsite, the road goes through a slot canyon that only allowed three inches of clearance on each side of my oversized tires. I had to pull in my side view mirrors to pass through and again I used a spotter to keep me from getting stuck. Later I traversed the Silver Stairsteps – a series of 18″ ledges created by the layers of slickrock that they call the road. If the rocks, slots, and stairs aren’t enough, the path to the amazing confluence overlook is deep sand which would stop most other forms of human transportation.

The Y-shaped confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers is the center point of Canyonlands National Park. The area east of the Colorado is the Needles district, the land between rivers is the Island of the Sky district, and the terrain west of the Green is the 4WD-only Maze district. My promontory from the Needles side was 1,000 feet above the water – a place I would be two days later in a whitewater rubber raft.

My photographs are beautiful, but jeeping the Elephant Hill road is a multi-sensory experience. It’s impossible to capture the fear, trepidation, adrenaline, excitement, amazement, adventure, and beauty of this region on single fibrous substrate. The photographs are proof of my station but the full experience is memorialized only in my memory.

Rob Samuelsen is an executive and adventurer supported by his long-suffering but supportive wife!

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