Hike the Escalante River

Backpacking
Mar 2017

If you are thinking of planning a hiking trip in Southern Utah this summer, a visit to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument should definitely be one of the stops you hit along your adventure.  One of the treasures of Grand Staircase Escalante Monument is a hike along the Escalante River, a tributary of the Colorado River, which runs southeast for nearly 90 miles until it reaches Lake Powell and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The river cuts through a deep canyon, creating an oasis of remote, unspoiled wilderness with plenty of great areas for wandering, floating and hiking. Of all the places our guides have explored, many will say that Escalante is at the top of their list of favorite hiking spots.

Hiking through the Escalante River

If a guide’s recommendation isn’t enough, there are plenty of other reasons you should hike, backpack, and explore Utah’s Escalante River. The Escalante River was the last river in the U.S. to be discovered and mapped, and to this day much of the basin remains unexplored and unnamed on topographic maps. It’s not crowded like the Zion Narrows and has some of the most unique terrain you will ever see; from the navajo sandstone cliffs, red rock that has been bleached by the sun creating a checkerboard effect at the top, to narrow slot canyons, lush greenery, natural bridges, arches and even waterfalls.

 

WHEN TO GO

The best time to hike the Escalante River and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is March through June and September through October. Flash floods can occur at any time, but the high season for monsoon storms is July and August so you might want to avoid planning your hiking trip to the Escalante River during these months.

 

HOW TO GET TO THE ESCALANTE RIVER

Fly into either Las Vegas or Salt Lake City. From either airport, you will drive about 5 hours to the town of Escalante, which is the best starting point for your trip exploring the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

There are multiple locations from which to begin hiking the Escalante River. Where you start will depend on what you want out of your hike. The biggest determining factor is: are you day hiking or backpacking?

Day Hikes: The best starting point for day hikes is the Escalante River trailhead. To get there, head east out of town on Highway 12 for about 13.5 miles. After you pass the Kiva Koffeehouse you’ll descend and cross a bridge over the Escalante River. The trailhead is located immediately across this bridge on the north side of the river. (Another popular day hiking spot nearby is Lower Calf Creek Falls.)

Backpacking Trips: If you want to plan a multiple day backpacking trip on the Escalante, or are up for a long one day hike, most people begin at the Escalante Town trailhead in the town of Escalante and hike 15 miles (one direction) to the Escalante River bridge on Highway 12 (mentioned above).

*Escalante is a small town full of friendly locals and like-minded adventurers. Stop in at Escalante Outfitters off Main St with any last minute questions.

backpacking trip on the Escalante River camp set up

 

DAY HIKING THE ESCALANTE RIVER

Begin your day hike at the Escalante River trailhead close to the bridge crossing along Scenic Byway 12, instead of starting at the Escalante Town trailhead for a few reasons:

  • It is easier to park along Highway 12
  • There are fewer river crossings
  • In the case of flash floods it is easier to get on higher ground because this area is not as narrow as the west end of the river
  • There are unique highlights like the Escalante Natural Bridge, a natural arch, human-sized pictographs, remains of a granary built by the Fremont Indians (2,000 to 700 years ago), and Sand Creek, a narrow tributary canyon where you can hike in as far as you want.

In a short, 4.4 mile out-and-back hike, you can explore all of those highlights. The natural arch is on the south canyon wall and easy to miss if you aren’t observant, but it is one of the subtle features that make this area so unique. The Escalante Natural Bridge on the other hand is quite the impressive show-stopper, as it is the largest geological structure in the National Monument. On this section of the Escalante River the canyon is wide and the scenery varied. You’ll walk through corridors of trees and even small meadows beside the flowing river that is bordered by the tall cliffs of Navajo sandstone.

Day hiking the Escalante River in Southern Utah
The Natural Arch, Fremont Culture Pictographs and The Natural Bridge

 

BACKPACKING TRIPS ALONG THE ESCALANTE RIVER

Escalante is a great backpacking trip for beginners. You can spend a few days backpacking along the Escalante River, going as far as you’d like, exploring the many endless side canyons. The most common itineraries for backpacking the Escalante River are typically 2 – 5 days and 20 – 40 miles. You could start from both the Escalante River Trailhead (Highway 12 bridge crossing) or Escalante Town Trailhead (in the town of Escalante). Or, depending on the canyon you choose to explore, Hole in the Rock Road provides access from the west and the Burr Trail provides access from the east.

Beginning in the Town of Escalante

From the Escalante Town trailhead, it is about a 10-15 minute overland trek before getting into the canyon. Head 15 miles east to the Highway 12 bridge and from here opt to do an out-and-back hike or arrange for a shuttle to take you back to your vehicles parked in town. Some people camp overnight in Sand Creek and hike back the next day.

Exploring Downriver

Further down the Escalante River, east of the Highway 12 bridge, there are some incredible areas to explore. Some of the more famous and awe-inspiring canyons are Sand Creek, Death Hollow, Coyote Gulch, and Neon Canyon.

Death Hollow is a slot canyon with plunge pools carved out of navajo sandstone, Sand Creek has lower, red walls within ancient granaries built within them, and while backpacking through Coyote Gulch you will have the chance to sleep at the foot of massive arches and climb atop enormous flat boulders, which make an incredible stargazing platform at night. Most of these points along the Escalante River can be accessed via more direct routes typically down Hole in the Rock Road. The easiest way to reach Coyote Gulch is a 2 hour drive down Hole in the Rock Road from the town of Escalante.

Use of this area is free, but you must obtain a backcountry permit if you are spending more than a day in the area. Permits can be obtained from the BLM office in Escalante or filled out at trailhead register boxes.

Backpacking the Escalante River
Hiking through Death Hollow on a backpacking trip along the Escalante River

 

THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU HIKE THE ESCALANTE RIVER

  • The Escalante River is one of the main highlights of hiking in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
  • There are no bathrooms or water on either of the Escalante River access points mentioned above. Day hikers should be aware of this and should always be prepared to Leave No Trace!
  • Bring plenty of water (hydration is key in the desert), sunscreen, hat, and water shoes like Chacos, Tevas, or something else with a sturdy sole and secure ankle strap. as there are many river crossings
  • Backpackers should be prepared to filter water, as always
  • Watch out for poison ivy, it’s easy to avoid but it is still there, not in the river corridor
  • When planning a trip further down river toward Lake Powell, research your route carefully. Many stretches of river make for difficult hiking as the canyons narrow and the river is larger and stronger. These sections often require roped-in technical descents/rappelling in some areas

 

It’s Worth It

Grand Staircase-Escalante was designated as a National Monument because of the extreme cultural significance of the ruins found in this area, belonging to both the Fremont and Anasazi cultures. The hikes along and near the Escalante are rich with ruins, granaries, petroglyphs, and remnants of the cultures who once thrived here. The region is a mix of lush farmland, high desert pine forest, and low desert canyon bottoms filled with shady cottonwood trees and creeping canyon grapevine. There are so many reasons to plan a hiking or backpacking trip along the Escalante, and you won’t want to miss it on your next trip to Southern Utah.