ESCALANTE: A Complete Adventure Guide

When Utahans really wants to disappear, they head to the magnificent canyons of Grand Staircase-Escalante.
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When Utahans really wants to disappear, they head to the magnificent canyons of Grand Staircase-Escalante.

DON'T GET ME WRONG: I love every quiet corner of Zion, Bryce, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef. But when this longtime Utah resident really wants to disappear, he heads to Grand Staircase-Escalante. This 1.9-million-acre sandstone fantasyland sprawls over a huge swath of the state, encompassing thousands of mesas, canyons, and pocket Edens that rarely see visitors. It's so big and labyrinthine that even after 20 years of visits, I still get lost there. That doesn't mean there aren't easy red-rock hikes to enjoy, but this is not the place for backpackers who prefer signed and manicured trails. You'll need good navigation skills just to find some trailheads - but in return, you'll get trip options that are limited only by your imagination and the size of your canteen. In fact, think of the six adventures we've mapped and waypointed on the following pages as mere beginnings - launching pads for your own high-desert disappearing act.

Round Valley Draw-Hackberry Canyon

A stunning slot canyon leads to excellent camping and side hikes.

This 20.5-mile, one-way hike begins in the beautiful mile-long slot of Round Valley Draw, then meanders the rest of its length through Hackberry Canyon, one of southern Utah's finest cottonwood-filled gorges. The route makes an excellent overnight, but reliable water and numerous side canyons make it even better for basecamping. The upper canyon is hauntingly austere - just slickrock cliff and sand-floored wash (no water) until Hackberry Creek emerges from a spring at mile 10.5, filling the canyon with willow thickets and cottonwoods. Bring waterproof boots or wading shoes for the frequent ankle-deep crossings.

The only real obstacles, presently, are a short nontechnical downclimb into Round Valley Draw that's .6 mile from the trailhead, and a massive boulder pile that temporarily swallows Hackberry Creek at mile 14.5; bypass it via a subtle trail beneath the east cliff face. Once Hackberry widens south of Sam Pollock Canyon (an arch and exit trail are up this spur), climb onto sage-covered benches west of the creek to find the historic Watson Cabin, a log structure with a sandstone chimney. Hackberry Canyon passes through a soaring sandstone gorge before emerging suddenly onto Cottonwood Canyon Road.

The Way

From Cannonville, drive 7 miles south past the Kodachrome Basin State Park turnoff onto the dirt Cottonwood Canyon Road (impassable when wet). Go another 6.5 miles and follow signs for BLM 422 and Round Valley Draw. Drive or walk 1.6 miles to the trailhead. Stash another car or a bike at the hike's endpoint for the 17.4-mile shuttle back down Cottonwood Canyon Road.

USGS quads Slickrock Bench, Calico Peak
All map datums NAD 27

2. Bull Valley Gorge Loop

Plumb deep, dark narrows on this fast-changing canyoneering adventure.

Two slickrock gorges hundreds of feet deep highlight this challenging 12.2-mile loop, which can be done as an aggressive dayhike but has enough water and scenery for an overnight. Bull Valley Gorge is technical; bring a 50-foot rope for hauling and lowering packs, and be aware that canyon conditions can change in hours due to upstream rainfall.

From the Bull Valley Gorge bridge, pass through a gate and hike up the canyon's northeast rim for .4 mile until you can easily enter the wash. Heading downstream, you'll encounter logjams, pouroffs, and potholes that are often thigh-deep with cold, muddy water. During unusually wet springs, this becomes a full-on canyoneering experience, requiring a wetsuit and waterproof pack. Not far below the bridge, you'll encounter a recent boulder collapse that must be scrambled; beware of loose rock.

After several miles of deep narrows, the canyon widens and ponderosa pines appear. The confluence with Sheep Creek comes after 6.5 miles. Look downstream for water seeps and campsites, or hike 4 miles up Sheep to the Willis Creek confluence, then return west to Skutumpah Road and your car. This trip is also a good start for extended treks into the Upper Paria River.

The Way

Drive 3.6 miles S from Cannonville to the Skutumpah Road turnoff. Steep, exposed grades on this road are slick when wet. Continue on Skutumpah Road past Willis Creek trailhead, and park after 9 miles near the bridge over Bull Valley Gorge. Hike or bike the 1.8-mile shuttle to close the loop.

USGS quad Bull Valley Gorge

QUICKHITS

Dry Hollow Dayhike

Unspoiled canyons and slickrock bowls

This gorgeous canyon sits just east of Hogback Ridge on UT 12. From the town landfill gate southwest of Boulder near milepost 85, search south along the rim 200 yards for the easy chimney (12S 0460504E 4193188N) down the short, overhanging cliff. Descend northwest down a slickrock ramp to the bottom.

Follow the gorge south through slickrock bowls, cattail beds, and cottonwoods. After 7 miles, you'll intersect Boulder Creek. Stay left, following trail for 2 miles until you can look west up a broad slickrock valley to power poles on the horizon. Near a stream meander, locate user trails across the river and climb past a pourover (12S 0465343E 4184968N) to UT 12 near milepost 77.

USGS quads Boulder Town, Calf Creek

Window Wind Arch

5-star views atop the Kaiparowits Plateau

This 20-foot-high hole punches through a fin of white sandstone on the edge of the Straight Cliffs, offering 100-mile vistas across Escalante and Canyonlands. Reach it via a 13-mile round-trip on the Middle Trail, beginning from the Hurricane Wash trailhead 34.2 miles south of UT 12 on Hole-in-the-Rock Road. Head 2 miles southwest, then climb 2,500 feet through cliff bands to the 7,300-foot plateau. Continue southwest to the rim-edge pack trail; follow it northwest a mile, looking for the fin to the NNE (12S 0482854E 4134592N).

USGS quads Blackburn Canyon, Big Hollow Wash

This perfect weekend route twists through two narrow, nontechnical slot canyons.

Little Death Hollow-Wolverine Canyon Loop

This perfect weekend route twists through two narrow, nontechnical slot canyons.

Love canyons, but not climbing? This 15.8-mile near-loop takes you through two stunning slots that don't require swimming, rope work, or exposed scrambling, which makes it a spectacular but straightforward trip for folks with limited technical experience. Much of the route runs through narrow stone hallways less than 20 feet wide that were cleared of obstacles by massive floods last winter (this could change overnight, of course). The loop can be done in either direction. For overnighters, the scenery crescendoes from Wolverine to Little Death; dayhike speedsters should head in the opposite direction for easier dusk travel up Wolverine.

Approximately 6 miles down Wolverine, the terrain suddenly opens into Horse Canyon. Note the controversial graded road that appears briefly near the derelict cabin once used by cattlemen. In another 1.7 miles, you'll come to the junction of Horse and Little Death Hollow, marked by a large cottonwood grove and a small, old pump shack. Your only reliable source of water nearby is the Escalante River (an excellent basecamp location); this sidetrip requires a 2.4-mile, one-way hike downstream (southwest) from the Horse Canyon/Little Death Hollow junction. The route can also be linked up with the Upper Escalante River and The Gulch via UT 12 trailheads for a fine weeklong trek.

The Way

From Boulder, drive east on the (asphalt) Burr Trail for 18 miles. Just east of Long Canyon, take Wolverine Loop Road south for 12.6 miles to the Wolverine trailhead, or to the Little Death Hollow trailhead 2.7 miles farther. Drive, hike, or bike the shuttle to close the loop.

USGS quads Pioneer Mesa, King Bench, Silver Falls Bench, Red Breaks

Quick Hit

Dry Fork Coyote Gulch

It's no secret, but if you like your canyons narrow, this is your place.

Three incredible slots - Peek-a-boo, Spooky (on the cover and at right), and Brimstone - enter Dry Fork from the north. The first is an easy hike, making this a popular trail on weekends and holidays. But most visitors turn around after visiting Peek-a-boo. Spooky, .6 mile downcanyon, is long and scrambly, with winding corridors and exotically textured rock. Brimstone takes more effort. Continuing 1.5 more miles, you must downclimb a 20-foot boulder jam to locate the unremarkable beginning of the ultratight gulch a few feet beyond mile 2 (12S 0482623E 4147514N). Spooky and Brimstone both favor skinny hikers; several sections require you to suck it in, hard and your pack must be dragged. Turn around in Brimstone once the canyon becomes too narrow for passage.

The Way

From UT 12 just east of Escalante, drive 26.5 miles south on Hole-in-the-Rock Road. Follow the signed spur road for .7 mile, turn left at the fork, and go 1 mile to the trailhead. Dogs are specifically prohibited here.

USGS quad Big Hollow Wash

Trip Planner

Getting There:

Salt Lake City and Las Vegas are 5 to 7 hours away by car, but your real challenge is getting to trailheads. Poorly marked dirt roads are the norm, and the clay soils become impassable when wet. Four-wheel-drive helps, but always stock extra food and water in case you get stranded.

Season:

Spring and fall. Locals say late September and early October are best.

Cautions:

Heat, remote-ness, lack of water, tough routefinding, and loose rock combine to make hiking here more demanding than most forest and mountain environments. Canyoneering requires special caution, because one-way rappels, exposed scrambles, and frigid pools can be unforgiving. Avoid canyon bottoms when thunderstorms threaten. Mandatory safety items: good maps, compass, extra food and water, and an itinerary left with a responsible person.

Regulations:
Permits (free) are required for all backcountry overnights. Get them at BLM visitor centers located in the monument's gateway towns, or self-register at trailheads. Group size limit is 12. Campfires prohibited.

Maps: Visitor centers carry USGS quads.

Guides: Hiking and Exploring the Paria River, by Michael Kelsey. Canyoneering 3; Loop Hikes in Utah's Escalante, by Steve Allen.

Contact: (435) 826-5499