best day hikes in utah's

grand staircase - escalante national monument


lower calf creek waterfall

The 1.7 million acres of the Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument, together with the nearby Paria Canyon and Death Hollow wildernesses and Capitol Reef National Park, contain some of the best canyon hiking to be found in the Southwest US. Although the region is famous for its slot canyons, backpacking trips, and technical canyoneering possibilities, the relatively sparsely visited area also has easier trails that can be accessed out of the small towns of Boulder, Escalante and Kanab. This page (and the accompanying Google map) summarizes some of the best day hikes I've found in the Escalante. If you're in the area you'll also want to check out the hiking possibilities in Capitol Reef National Park, which is nearby.

Coyote Gulch via Hurricane Wash

jacob hamblin arch, coyote gulch

Trailhead: Hurricane Wash trailhead, about 33 miles down the Hole-in-the-Rock road from its junction with Utah 12 just outside Escalante. Road conditions vary, but on the occasions I've driven it this wide unpaved road was in great condition all the way to the trailhead, and readily passable in a normal car. Allow about an hour from Escalante to the trailhead. Watch out for cattle wandering onto the road!

Exploring Coyote Gulch is at the top of most hikers' wish-lists in the Escalante, and with good reason. The sinuous sandstone canyon features spectacular rock arches, deeply undercut alcoves, and lush vegetation. It's a remarkable yet relatively easy to visit place that stands comparison with better known canyons in Zion National Park.

For a day hike, the easiest access is via Hurricane Wash. A nondescript drainage at the parking area, the wash rapidly deepens into a pleasant open canyon as you hike down the normally dry streambed. It's easy if somewhat sandy and unremarkable going for the first three miles. After passing the Glen Canyon Recreation Area boundary at the three mile point, there's a short section of modest narrows before the canyon deepens dramatically and water starts appearing along the floor. For the last couple of miles before the confluence with Coyote Gulch the canyon is quite lush, and it's easy to lose the main trail amongst the willows.

huge alcove in coyote gulch canyon

All this is pleasant enough, but the drama of the hike begins once you reach Coyote Gulch proper at the 5.4 mile mark. Heading downstream, the Gulch is marked by sweeping bends with huge undercut alcoves at almost every corner. It's often easiest (and lower impact) to hike in the ankle deep stream rather than follow the trail. About one and a half miles down canyon - 7 miles from the trailhead - you reach Jacob Hamblin Arch, an impressive arch that cuts through the canyon wall where the stream makes a sharp U-bend. Just beyond the arch there's an amazing alcove, beneath which several backpackers had set up camp (you can see their tents in the panorama above, which gives an idea of the incredible scale of the place!). We had lunch here and returned, but there are no obstacles to continuing a further 2 miles down the canyon as far as Coyote Natural Bridge.

The Hurricane Wash route gives the easiest access to the Gulch, but there are other possibilities too. The lower part of Coyote Gulch, at the confluence with the Escalante River near Lake Powell, can be reached from the Forty Mile Ridge trailhead, a little further down the Hole-in-the-Rock road. It's also possible to make a loop from the Forty Mile Ridge trailhead by first heading to the lower Gulch, then hiking upstream and exiting the canyon near Jacob Hamblin Arch. We didn't try this since guidebooks differ on the difficulty of the exit route, with some suggesting that climbing experience is necessary to exit safely.

Boulder Mail trail to Death Hollow

Trailhead: Along the McGath Point Road, which departs from the Hell's Backbone Road immediately past the junction with Utah 12 southwest of Boulder, Utah. The road is short but rough. Trailhead parking is available just after the road crosses the Boulder Airstrip. Note that the trail now leaves directly from the parking area (unlike in years past, when you had to hike down the closed road for a mile or so before joining the trail proper).

sand creek death hollow escalante boulder mail trail death hollow

A great out-and-back hike that traverses the heart of the Box-Death Hollow wilderness, the Mail Trail is one of the best slickrock routes in the Southwest. It follows the route of the old mail trail (and still visible telegraph line) for about 16 miles between the towns of Boulder and Escalante. The trail - much of which is marked only by cairns as it crosses the slickrock - meanders across the upper reaches of the Sand Creek drainage for several miles before reaching the rim of Death Hollow. There are some sandy sections that slow progress, but the route is clear and the landscape dramatic. Death Hollow is a deep, imposing gorge, and the view from the top is outstanding. The trail descends sharply for about 600 feet to reach the floor of the canyon, some 5.5 miles from the trailhead. It's possible to explore Death Hollow in either direction, though the vegetation is fairly dense (watch out for poison ivy) and you'll need to ford the modest stream to do so.

More ambitious shuttle hikes are also possible, though I haven't tried them myself. With two vehicles, you could do a one-way hike all the way from Boulder over to Escalante. That would make for a long day hike, or you could camp near Death Hollow where there're good camp sites and abundant water. An altogether more ambitious hike, bordering perhaps on a canyoneering trip, continues down Death Hollow to its confluence with the Escalante river, then heads downstream to the Utah 12 bridge which is 10 miles (all uphill) by road from the Boulder Airstrip trailhead. This 20 mile hike, which involves a lot of wading and swimming in the middle part of Death Hollow, is described in Day's guidebook Utah's Favorite Hiking Trails. I'd avoid any of these hikes in mid-summer or when storms threaten, there's no shade and neither the canyon nor the exposed slickrock would be good places to be in a storm.

The Golden Cathedral in Neon Canyon

Trailhead: Egypt trailhead, at the end of the Egypt road which leaves off the left of the Hole-in-the-Rock road 17 miles from the Utah 12 pavement just outside Escalante. The Hole-in-the-Rock road is dirt but usually easily passable, while the 10 miles of the Egypt road present more of a challenge: there's a short rocky stretch and several places where sand and dried mud might cause grief after any rain. Use common sense, but in good weather I had no problems reaching the trailhead in a small 4WD SUV (a Toyota RAV4).

neon canyon escalante utah golden cathedral escalante

The Golden Cathedral is a magnet for photographers and adventurers alike, and if you're familiar with the Southwest you'll surely have seen pictures of it, often with beams of sunlight or canyoneers descending from the holes in the roof (more remarkable is this footage of water pouring through the roof!). The Cathedral lies at the dead-end head of Neon Canyon (as it's informally called, on maps it's unmarked), a small but beautiful tributary canyon off the Escalante. Assuming that your vehicle can reach the trailhead it's a moderately difficult 4.5 mile (one-way) hike to reach the Golden Cathedral.

Orientation: The trickiest part of the hike to the Golden Cathedral is finding your way down to the Escalante. There are two alternative non-technical routes, but neither option is 100% obvious on the ground and it's possible you'll lose the trail temporarily. Before leaving the Egypt trailhead it's worth taking a moment with a map to orient yourself, since from this lofty vantage two levels above the river the easiest route down can clearly be seen. You want to keep to the left of the south fork of Fence Canyon, which can plainly be seen leading off toward the Escalante. Visible, but less prominent, is the north fork of Fence, which joins the south fork shortly before it reaches the river. The simplest route down descends from the bench almost exactly at the tip of the inverted "V" where the two branches of Fence come together. If you do lose the trail, track toward the rim of the south fork of Fence near the tip and you'll easily find it again.

From the trailhead, a steep cairned route leads down the slickrock slope to the bench above Fence canyon. Near the signed boundary of the Glen Canyon recreation area the trail divides, somewhat indistinctly, with both branches taking different routes down to the Escalante in the vicinity of the mouth of Neon Canyon. We followed the left-hand trail, which tracks the rim of the south fork of Fence until it reaches the point above the junction with the north fork. The trail is blazed by white hoof-marks on the slickrock, and intermittently by cairns, and as long as you stay on route it's easy walking as far as the overlook where the two branches of Fence - by now quite an impressive canyon - come together. From the point, a clearer cairned trail leads down into the tree-lined depths of Fence, and in no time at all you find yourself on the banks of the Escalante, 3 miles from the trailhead. If you're camping, there are good campsites both here, and a short distance downstream along the river.

The final stretch to the Golden Cathedral is fun and easy. Taking to the water, which is normally not too deep, there's a mile of river wading interspersed with sections of trail across the canyon floor to reach the mouth of Neon Canyon, which is the first side canyon to join the Escalante from the left heading downstream. It's clear and would be hard to miss! From the Escalante it's about half a mile of easy walking up Neon to reach the Golden Cathedral. It's a magical spot, equally as impressive to see in person as in photographs. After savoring the experience, I returned the same way, but if you have more time there are other side canyons off the Escalante in the vicinity that are worth exploring. Just a short walk further downstream the next drainage entering from the left leads to Ringtail Canyon, a dark non-technical slot that's another favorite for photographers.

The Pine Creek Box trail

pine creek box canyon utah

Trailhead: start at the signed "Upper Box access" about midway along the Hell's Backbone road between Boulder and Escalante. This road is unpaved but poses no obstacles to any vehicle. For a one-way hike (about 9 miles), you'll want a shuttle car at the "Lower Box access" closer to Escalante along the same road. An out-and-back hike from the top is also very pleasant.

The Pine Creek Box is one of the three main canyons that cuts through the Box-Death Hollow wilderness. Unlike the others - Death Hollow and Sand Creek - which are beasts to descend, Pine Creek can be followed from top to bottom on a mellow day hike. Starting from the top, the canyon is initially intimate and tree-lined, though it broadens and deepens into a more typical desert canyon a few miles downstream. The trail crosses the creek countless times, though when I did this hike in mid-May it was generally possible to hop across without getting my boots wet. I'd rate this as a good hike. The scenery is not the most spectacular you'll find in the Escalante but it's an enjoyable option, perhaps especially on a hot day since this route is high up and offers a lot more shade than most of the other hikes featured here.

Calf Creek Falls

lower calf creek falls upper calf creek falls utah

Trailhead: The trail to Lower Calf Creek Falls leaves from a prominently signed picnic area / campsite off Utah 12 between Boulder and Escalante. The Upper Calf Creek Falls trail parking is unsigned - look for a spur road between mileposts 82 and 83 nearer Boulder.

The very popular trail to Lower Calf Creek Falls is the best easy day hike in the Escalante region, and makes a good introduction to the beauty of the Escalante canyons. The almost flat 6 mile roundtrip hike to the Falls, along an excellent trail, runs through a lovely canyon with some easily visible petroglyphs and Native American ruins. The setting of the Falls is very attractive, and makes a good spot for lunch.

Contrary to what you might think, the Upper Calf Creek Falls trail does not go to the top of the same waterfall you see from the Lower trail! It's a completely different spot further up the same drainage. Upper Calf Creek Falls are less impressive, but the 2 mile roundtrip across slickrock yields nice views across the Calf Creek drainage. An oddity here is masses of black, volcanic boulders that litter the slickrock.

Upper Escalante Canyon

Escalante natural bridge backpacking in upper escalante
	canyon escalante river canyon

Trailhead: Two trailheads provide easy access to the Upper Escalante Canyon. Upstream, the short road to the Escalante Trailhead is signed off Utah 12 in the outskirts of the town of Escalante. Downstream, you can access the river at the Utah 12 bridge.

The Escalante river runs for 85 miles from Escalante down to Lake Powell. Coyote Gulch is one of its tributaries, and many of the best hikes in this region follow side canyons of the Escalante. The upper Escalante Canyon itself is very easy to access, since there are trailheads both near Escalante and where Utah 12 crosses the river on its way toward Boulder. It's about 14 miles by trail between these points, and a similar distance by road (though the highway does not intrude upon the canyon except at the bridge). It's possible to do a shuttle day hike along this whole stretch, or to explore from either end on out and back hikes. In either case, wading shoes are useful - the trail fords the river innumerable times. When I visited in mid-May, the river was only ankle deep near Escalante, but more like shin deep downstream near the bridge.

The upper part of the canyon near Escalante feels deeper and more imposing. It's pleasant hiking along the canyon floor, though the pace is slowed by the frequent stream crossings and generally sandy trail. Starting from the Escalante end there are no particular landmarks until you reach Death Hollow (which can be explored upstream if time permits) after about 7 miles, but it's a beautiful canyon well worth savouring. Beyond Death Hollow the canyon widens, and there are a number of Native American ruins and rock arches, of which the most impressive is Escalante Natural Bridge. The bridge is only 1.5 miles from the Utah 12 trailhead, so it can easily be seen on a short day-hike starting from the lower end.

Paria Canyon and Buckskin Gulch

Trailhead: White House trailhead in the Paria Canyon / Vermillion Cliffs wilderness. The short dirt road to the trailhead is about 30 miles northwest of Page, Arizona, or 42 miles east of Kanab, Utah. Note that Kanab is about 120 miles from Escalante - the base for the other hikes described on this page.

confluence of paria canyon and buckskin gulch

The hike through Buckskin Gulch and the Paria Canyon is often described as the best non-technical narrow canyon hike in the Southwest. Although I beg to differ (my vote goes to the Zion Narrows) there's no doubt that a hike into the Paria and (especially) Buckskin is a unique experience. The Paria River - which is often dry in its upper reaches - flows from the region south of Bryce Canyon down to a confluence with the Colorado at Lees Ferry not far from the Glen Canyon dam. About 7 miles downstream of the White House trailhead (and 30 miles above the Colorado) lies the confluence with Buckskin Gulch, seen in the panorama above with the Paria flowing from right to left past the entrance of the Gulch. It's a truly memorable meeting of deep narrow canyons in a remote and unspoilt wilderness setting. This is the must-see section of the Paria.

There are several options for hikes in the Paria Canyon / Vermillion Cliffs wilderness. I did an out-and-back hike down the Paria to the confluence with Buckskin Gulch starting from the White House trailhead just off Highway 89. At the trailhead the Paria is a broad dry (in early June) wash, which steadily narrows and deepens as you hike downstream. There's no trail and some sandy sections to slow progress, but it's impossible to get lost as there's only one small side canyon. The Paria Narrows begin at about the 5 mile mark, and from there to the confluence at 7.2 miles the canyon is consistently narrow with sheer red sandstone walls. It's very pretty, but nonetheless on reaching the confluence my immediate reaction was I'm hiking in the wrong canyon! If the Paria is attractive, Buckskin Gulch is simply spectacular - a true slot canyon (in places you can touch both walls) with a small year-round stream and sculpted walls. I hiked up Buckskin a further 1.5 miles, past innumerable twists and turns, as far as a small rockjam that presents a minor obstable where a rope is needed. The panorama below gives a sense of what an incredible place Buckskin is. I returned the same way back up the Paria (now very hot in the upper more open section) which made for a 17 mile day in all.

buckskin gulch slot canyon

On reflection Buckskin Gulch was the highlight of the trip, so if you're planning on exploring these canyons other options are worth considering. Instead of the out and back day hike I did, you could also (with a car shuttle) hike down Buckskin Gulch, starting from the Wire Pass trailhead, and then head up the Paria finishing at the White House end. That's about 20 miles, and requires a rope (to negotiate the rockjam which was not - at least in 2008 - a very daunting prospect) and a willingness to face whatever other obstacles lurk in Buckskin (usually, I'm told, just some rather unsavoury pools of deep water). A one-way backpack from the White House to Lees Ferry - with a sidetrip up Buckskin like I did - is the other classic trip... that's about 38 miles and requires a permit. Whichever option you choose you need to watch the weather - the Paria Narrows and, especially, Buckskin Gulch are not places where you'd want to experience a flash flood. April and May are reckoned to be the best months - I did the hike on the first weekend in June and although danger-wise the weather was perfect (no chance of rain!) it was hot on the return up the Paria late in the day. If you're in the region at the wrong time for this trip the other famous hike in the Paria Canyon / Vermillion Cliffs is to the "Wave" - a very beautiful but cliched target for photographers that's to be found in the Coyote Buttes North region of the wilderness. Permits - which are scarce and normally need to be obtained three months in advance - are needed even for a day hike to the Wave, so plan ahead...

Recommendations for Escalante accommodation and dining

calf creek canyon

For most of these hikes, the most logical places to stay are in Boulder, Utah, or Escalante. These are small towns. Boulder, which is said to have been one of the last places in the US to be reached by a road, has about 200 residents, Escalante about 800. I've stayed in Boulder at the Boulder Mountain Ranch (small, good value, and recommended), and at the Boulder Mountain Lodge (which has large rooms, and is also recommended). For dining, the high end option is the Hell's Backbone Grill, which has a beautiful setting and food that is good, but not exceptional for the price. The Burr Trail Grill, next door, is simpler and cheaper, but serves up good breakfasts and decent burgers and beer for dinner. All told there are 3 or 4 places to stay in Boulder, and a similar number of restaurants and shops. There's more going on in Escalante, including an outdoor store that sells guidebooks, maps etc. The Paria Canyon / Vermillion Cliffs wilderness is closer to Kanab or to Page (in Arizona), both of which are rather larger towns.

When to go? The summer months are hot, which together with the obvious dangers of venturing into narrow canyons with thunderstorms around make June / July / August less than ideal times. There are higher altitude hikes you can do in the summer - for example on Boulder Mountain - but you wouldn't travel a long way for them alone I think. Spring and Fall are probably best. I've visited in late March and in May, which were fine, though the weather is variable: I've experienced both hot temperatures and snow in different years in May. Out of season (even into May on occasion) snow at the higher elevations might make it hard to get to the region, especially if you're coming from Denver over the high mountains.

Recommended references:

Hiking Grand Staircase-Escalante and the Glen Canyon Region by Ron Adkinson
Hiking the Escalante by Rudi Lambrechtse
Utah's Incredible Backcountry Trails by David Day

 

photography, text and design by Phil Armitage