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.
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