Escalante River Hikes
The maze of canyons that drain the Escalante River presents exceptional hiking opportunities. You'll find everything from easy day hikes to challenging backpacking treks. The Escalante’s canyon begins just downstream from the town of Escalante and ends at Lake Powell about 85 miles beyond.
In all this distance, only one road (Hwy. 12) bridges the river. Many side canyons provide additional access to the Escalante, and most are as beautiful as the main gorge. The river system covers such a large area that you can find solitude even in spring, the busiest hiking season. The many eastern canyons remain virtually untouched.
The Escalante canyons preserve some of the quiet beauty once found in Glen Canyon, which is now lost under the waters of Lake Powell. Prehistoric Anasazi and Fremont cultures have left ruins, petroglyphs, pictographs, and artifacts in many locations. These archaeological resources are protected by federal law. Please don't collect or disturb them.
Before setting out, visit the rangers at the information center on the west edge of Escalante for the required free permit to backpack overnight in GSENM and to check on the latest trail and road conditions before setting out. Restrictions on group size may be in force on some of the more popular trails. You can also obtain topographic maps and literature that show trailheads, mileages, and other information that may be useful. Some of the more popular trailheads have self-registration stations for permits.
The best times for a visit are early March-early June and mid-September-early November. Summertime trips are possible, too, but be prepared for higher temperatures and greater flash-flood danger in narrow canyons. Travel along the Escalante River involves frequent crossings, and there's always water in the main canyon, usually ankle- to knee-deep. Pools in the "Narrows" section between Scorpion Gulch and Stevens Canyon can be up to chest-deep in spots (which you can bypass), but that's the exception. All this wading can destroy leather boots, so it's best to wear canvas shoes or boots. High-topped boots, available at surplus stores, work well and prevent gravel from getting inside.
Occasional springs, some tributaries, and the river itself provide drinking water. Always purify it first; the BLM warns of the unpleasant disease giardiasis, caused by an invisible protozoan. Don't forget insect repellent—mosquitoes and deer flies seek out hikers in late spring and summer.
Escalante Canyon Trailheads
The many approaches to the area allow all sorts of trips. Besides the road access at Escalante and the Highway 12 bridge, hikers can reach the Escalante River through western side canyons from Hole-in-the-Rock Road or eastern side canyons from Burr Trail Road.
The western-canyon trailheads on Hole-in-the-Rock Road can be more easily reached by car, thus facilitating vehicle shuttles. To reach eastern-canyon trailheads, with the exceptions of Deer Creek and the Gulch on Burr Trail Road, you'll need lots of time and, if the road is wet, a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Carry water for these more remote canyons; with the exception of Deer Creek, they're usually dry.
Escalante to Highway 12 Bridge
This first section of canyon offers easy walking and stunning canyon scenery. Tributaries and sandstone caves invite exploration. You'll find good camping areas all along. Usually the river here is only ankle-deep. This 15-mile hike begins either by entering Escalante River at the bridge next to the sawmill or going one mile east of town on Highway 12 and turning north past the cemetery (visible from the highway).
Almost immediately, the river knifes its way through the massive cliffs of the Escalante Monocline, leaving the broad valley of the upper river behind. Although there is no maintained trail along this stretch of the east-flowing river, it's relatively easy to pick your way along the riverbank.
Death Hollow, which is far prettier than the name suggests, comes into the Escalante from the north after 7.5 miles. Several good swimming holes carved in rock lie a short hike upstream from the Escalante; watch for poison ivy among the greenery. Continue farther up Death Hollow to see more pools, little waterfalls, and outstanding canyon scenery. You can bypass some pools, but some you'll have to swim—bring a little inflatable boat, air mattress, or waterproof bag to ferry packs.
Sand Creek, on the Escalante's north side 4.5 miles downstream from Death Hollow, is also worth exploring; deep pools begin a short way up from the mouth. After another one-half mile down the Escalante, a natural arch appears high on the canyon wall. Then the Escalante Natural Bridge comes into view about one-half mile farther, just two miles from the Highway 12 bridge. In fact, Escalante Natural Bridge makes a good day-hike destination upstream from the highway.
Highway 12 Bridge to Harris Wash
This is where many long-distance trekkers begin their exploration of the Escalante canyons. In this 26.5-mile section, the Escalante Canyon offers a varied show: In places the walls close in to make constricted narrows, at other places they step back to form great valleys. Side canyons filled with lush greenery and sparkling streams contrast with dry washes of desert, yet all can be fun to explore. A good hike of 4-6 days begins at the highway bridge, goes down the Escalante to Harris Wash, then up Harris to a trailhead off Hole-in-the-Rock Road (37 miles total).
From the Highway 12 bridge parking area, a trail leads to the river. Canyon access goes through private property; cross the river at the posted signs to avoid barking dogs at the ranch just downstream. Phipps Wash comes in from the south (right side) after 1.5 miles and several more river crossings. Turn up its wide mouth one-half mile to see Maverick Bridge in a drainage to the right. To reach Phipps Arch, continue another three-quarters of a mile up the main wash, turn left into a box canyon, and scramble up the left side (see the 7.5-minute Calf Creek topo map).
Bowington (Boynton) Arch is an attraction of a north side canyon known locally as Deer Creek. Look for this small canyon on the left one mile beyond Phipps Wash; turn up it one mile past three deep pools and then turn left and go a short way into a tributary canyon. In 1878, gunfire resolved a quarrel between local ranchers John Boynton and Washington Phipps. Phipps was killed, but both their names live on.
Waters of Boulder Creek come rushing into the Escalante from the north in the next major side canyon, 5.75 miles below the Highway 12 bridge. The creek, along with its Dry Hollow and Deer Creek tributaries, provides good canyon walking; deep areas may require swimming or climbing up on the plateau. (You could also start down Deer Creek from Burr Trail Road where they meet, 6.5 miles southeast of Boulder at a primitive BLM campground; starting at the campground, follow Deer Creek 7.5 miles to Boulder Creek, then go 3.5 miles down Boulder to the Escalante.) Deer and Boulder Creeks have water year-round.
High, sheer walls of Navajo sandstone constrict the Escalante River in a narrow channel below Boulder Creek, but the canyon widens again above The Gulch tributary, 14 miles below the highway bridge. Hikers can head up the Gulch on a day hike.
Alternatively, descend the Gulch from Burr Trail Road to join the Escalante Canyon at this point (the Gulch trailhead is 10.8 miles southeast of Boulder). The hike from the road down to the Escalante is 12.5 miles, but there's one difficult spot: A 12-foot waterfall in a section of narrows about halfway down has to be bypassed. When Rudi Lambrechtse, author of Hiking the Escalante, tried friction climbing around the falls and the pool at their base, he fell 12 feet and broke his foot. That meant a painful three-day hobble out.
Instead of taking the risk, Rudi recommends backtracking about 300 feet from the falls and friction climbing out from a small alcove in the west wall (look for a cairn on the ledge above). Climb up Brigham Tea Bench, walk south, then look for cairns leading back east to the narrows, and descend to the streambed (a rope helps to lower packs in a small chimney section).
Most springs along the Escalante are difficult to spot. One that's easy to find is in the first south bend after the Gulch; water comes straight out of the rock a few feet above the river. The Escalante Canyon becomes wider as the river lazily meanders along. Hikers can cut off some of the bends by walking in the open desert between canyon walls and riverside willow thickets. A bend cut off by the river itself loops to the north just before Horse Canyon, three miles below the Gulch. Along with its tributaries Death Hollow and Wolverine Creek, Horse Canyon drains the Circle Cliffs to the northeast. Floods in these mostly dry streambeds wash down pieces of black petrified wood. (Vehicles with good clearance can reach the upper sections of all three canyons from a loop road off Burr Trail Road.)
Horse and Wolverine Creek Canyons offer good easy-to-moderate hiking, but if you really want a challenge, try Death Hollow (sometimes called "Little Death Hollow" to distinguish it from the larger one near Hell's Backbone Road). Starting from the Escalante River, go about two miles up Horse Canyon and turn right into Death Hollow; rugged scrambling over boulders takes you back into a long section of twisting narrows. Carry water for Upper Horse Canyon and its tributaries; Lower Horse Canyon usually has water.
About 3.5 miles down the Escalante from Horse Canyon, you enter Glen Canyon NRA and come to Sheffield Bend, a large, grassy field on the right. Only a chimney remains from Sam Sheffield's old homestead. Two grand amphitheaters lie beyond the clearing and up a stiff climb in loose sand. Over the next 5.5 river miles to Silver Falls Creek, you'll pass long bends, dry side canyons, and a huge slope of sand on the right canyon wall. Don't look for any silver waterfalls in Silver Falls Creek—the name comes from streaks of shiny desert varnish on the cliffs. You can approach Upper Silver Falls Creek by a rough road from Burr Trail Road, but a car shuttle between here and any of the trailheads on the west side of the Escalante River would take all day. Most hikers visit this drainage on a day hike from the river. Carry water with you.
When the Hole-in-the-Rock route proved so difficult, pioneers figured there had to be a better way to the San Juan Mission. Their new wagon road descended Harris Wash to the Escalante River, climbed part of Silver Falls Creek, crossed the Circle Cliffs, descended Muley Twist Canyon in the Waterpocket Fold, then followed Hall's Creek to Hall's Crossing on the Colorado River. Charles Hall operated a ferry there 1881-1884. Old maps show a jeep road through Harris Wash and Silver Falls Creek Canyons, used before the National Park Service closed off the Glen Canyon NRA section. Harris Wash lies just one-half mile downstream and across the Escalante from Silver Falls Creek.
Clear, shallow water glides down this gem of a canyon. High cliffs streaked with desert varnish are deeply undercut and support lush hanging gardens. Harris Wash (10.25 miles one-way from trailhead to river) provides a beautiful route to the Escalante River, but it can also be a destination in itself; tributaries and caves invite exploration along the way. The sand and gravel streambed makes for easy walking. Reach the trailhead from Highway 12 by turning south and going 10.8 miles on Hole-in-the-Rock Road, then turning left to go 6.3 miles on a dirt road (keep left at the fork near the end). Don't be dismayed by the drab appearance of upper Harris Wash. The canyon and creek appear a few miles downstream.
Dry Fork of Coyote Gulch
Twenty-six miles south on the Hole-in-the-Rock Road is a series of narrow, scenic, and exciting-to-explore slot canyons reached by a moderate day hike. The canyons feed into the Dry Fork of Coyote Gulch, reached from the Dry Fork trailhead. These three enchanting canyons are named Peek-a-boo, Spooky, and Brimstone. Exploring these slot canyons requires basic canyoneering or scrambling skills. From the trailhead parking lot, follow cairns down into the sandy bottom of Dry Fork Coyote Gulch. The slot canyons all enter the gulch from the north; watch for cairns and trails because the openings can be difficult to notice. The slots sometimes contain deep pools of water; chokestones and pour-offs can make access difficult. No loop trail links the three slot canyons; follow each until the canyon becomes too narrow to continue, then come back out. To make a full circuit of these canyons requires about 3.5 miles of hiking.
Coyote Gulch has received more publicity than other areas of the Escalante, and you're more likely to meet other hikers here. Two arches, a natural bridge, graceful sculpturing of the streambed and canyon walls, deep undercuts, and a cascading creek make a visit well worthwhile. The best route in starts where Hole-in-the-Rock Road crosses Hurricane Wash, 34.7 miles south of Highway 12. It's 12.5 miles one-way from the trailhead to the river, and the hike is moderately strenuous.
For the first mile, you follow the dry, sandy wash without even a hint of being in a canyon. Water doesn't appear for three more miles. You'll reach Coyote Gulch, which has water, 5.25 miles from the trailhead. Another way into Coyote Gulch begins at the Red Well Trailhead; it's 31.5 miles south on Hole-in-the-Rock Road, then 1.5 miles east (keep left at the fork). A start from Red Well adds three-quarters of a mile more to the hike than the Hurricane Wash route, but it is also less crowded.
In some seasons, Lake Powell comes within one mile of Coyote Gulch, and it occasionally floods the canyon mouth. Coyote can stay flooded for several weeks, depending on the release flow of Glen Canyon Dam and water volume coming in. The river and lake don't have a pretty meeting place—quicksand and dead trees are found here. Logjams make it difficult to travel in from the lake by boat.
© W.C. McRae and Judy Jewell from Moon Utah, 9th Edition