Utah Canyon Country: 3 top-notch hikes in Escalante

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Three Awesome Hikes in Escalante

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is one of those places in Utah that a lot of people have never heard of. It often gets overshadowed by the places with National Park status such as Zion, Bryce, and Arches. But that doesn’t mean that Escalante should fall to the bottom of your list.

During my first visit to Escalante in October, I was shocked to find waterfalls, icy rivers, endless miles of slick rock, isolated camping, and some of the craziest canyons I’ve ever traveled through. In three days, I crammed in as many highlights as I could, and I still feel like I only scraped the surface.

If you are planning your first trip to Escalante and want to do some hiking, here’s three trail options to get you started. All of these hikes are non-technical, so all you need is water, your hiking shoes, and a camera, and you’ll be ready to explore some of Utah’s finest landscapes.

Escalante-Map

(1) Lower Calf Creek Falls

The trail to Lower Calf Creek Falls is one of the more accessible hikes in Escalante, as the trailhead is directly on the main highway. This 6 mile round-trip trail travels through a broad but beautiful canyon, leading to a soaring 126-foot waterfall. A majority of the trail is flat and easy, making it a great hike for beginners.

Calf-Creek-Falls-hike-2

Once you reach the falls, you’ll be tempted by the inviting pool that forms below the waterfall, but be prepared to brave the cold. And even those who aren’t up for a swim will be mesmerized by the amphitheater’s colorful walls.

Getting here: The trailhead is located 15 miles from the town of Escalante on Highway 12. Park at the Calf Creek Recreation Area.

Calf-Creek-Falls-Escalante

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Calf-Creek-Falls-Hike

(2) Neon Canyon / Golden Cathedral

This is a moderately challenging hike in Escalante, mostly due to the distance and the ascent as you make your way back to the trailhead. There are also a few navigational challenges, but as long as you have a map and pay close attention to your surroundings, you should be ok. This 9 mile round trip trail begins with an immediate and steep descent down into a slickrock bowl. After this initial descent the elevation change becomes gradual again until the last drop down to the Escalante River. As you make your way towards the Escalante River, you are treated with vast views of the red landscape that makes up the National Monument. Notice the rock cairns (small stacks of rocks) that mark the location of the trail. Keep an eye on these, since they will let you know that you are still on track with the trail.

hike-to-Neon-Canyon-Escalante

Once you reach the Escalante River, be prepared to wade downriver, eventually crossing, sometimes in knee-deep water. The current wasn’t swift, but conditions can change depending on the time of year. I suggest bringing a pair of Tevas or other water sandals that you can change into once you get to this point. Also feel free to pick up a walking stick that you can use to probe the river bottom and help maintain your balance.

Escalante-River

After a few crossings, keep an eye out on the left for the opening to Neon Canyon. This is where the landscape really starts to get interesting. As you travel deeper into Neon Canyon, you’ll find huge boulders scattered throughout, and canyon walls rapidly rise, making you feel very small.

Neon-Canyon-3

Neon-Canyon

The grand finale of this hike is the Golden Cathedral, located at the end of Neon Canyon. This is a mind-blowing grotto whose ceiling contains two cavernous holes. If you arrive at the right time of day when the sun is at the right angle, the sun beams through the holes lighting up the canyon walls and emerald pool below.

Golden-Cathedral

Once you are ready to head back, retrace your footsteps, fording the Escalante River again until you get back to the main trail. Then start your ascent back up.

hike-to-neon-canyon

Be sure to give yourself plenty of time. This hike took longer than we expected and with our 12:30pm start, we ended up making the final push in the dark. Avoid this by starting early and bring a headlamp just in case.

Getting here: The trailhead to Neon Canyon takes some effort to get to, but it is worth it. First you must drive 16.3 miles down Hole-in-the-Rock-Road. Then take a left and drive another 9.9 miles down Egypt Bench Road. This took us over an hour in a Toyota 4-Runner, and I would not suggest attempting Egypt Bench Road unless you have a 4WD, high-clearance vehicle.

Neon-Canyon-2

(3) Peek-a-boo and Spooky Gulches

Escalante is also home to some of the narrowest non-technical and easily accessible slot canyons in Southern Utah. Peek-a-boo and Spooky Gulches are just a short hike from the trailhead and can be explored in just a few hours.

When you first hit the trail, you will follow the frequent rock cairns down into Dry Fork Coyote Gulch. Once down into the dry bed, turn right, go about 100 yards, and Peek-a-boo Gulch will be there on your left.

Peek-a-boo-Gulch-Trailhead-Escalante

The initial entrance into Peek-a-boo requires stretching those legs and a bit of fancy footwork, but once you are in, the canyon is easy, taking about 30 minutes to reach the end.

Peek-a-boo-Gulch-Escalanate-entrance

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Rather than turning around and heading back the way you came, go right when you exit Peek-a-boo and follow a low ridge for about 15 minutes until you reach a sandy wash.

Peek-a-boo-Gulch

Here you should turn right again and follow the wash until you reach the top end of the second slot canyon called Spooky Gulch. This slot canyon is longer, darker, more narrow, and slightly more technical than Peek-a-boo.

Spooky-Gulch-Escalante

Spooky-Gulch-Escalanate-3

The sandstone patterns and textures in these two slot canyons offered some pretty remarkable photo ops. Visit in midday for the best sunlight. Also in Spooky Gulch, there were a few spots that were a little tricky, so if at any point you feel uncomfortable, simply turn around and come back down Peek-a-boo instead.

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There is also a third slot canyon called Brimstone Gulch that we didn’t have time to explore. I hear that this often has deep pools of water that make passage impossible during certain seasons. This is also the narrowest of the three slot canyons. If you are feeling adventurous, go explore Brimstone until it gets too narrow or wet to continue.

Getting here: Drive 26 miles down Hole-in-the-Rock Road. Make a left on the dirt road headed towards Dry Fork Coyote Gulch. When you come to the fork, go left and reach the road’s end and trailhead parking at 1.7 miles. A 4WD vehicle is also recommended for this hike. However, a regular car under normal conditions can make it most of the way there. At whatever point it gets too rough on the road to Dry Fork Coyote Gulch, park and walk the rest of the way to the trailhead. It might add a little bit of distance to your hike, but once you are hiking in those slot canyons, you’ll have no regrets.

Where to Stay in Escalante

There are two main established car campgrounds within Escalante National Monument. The first is at the Lower Calf Creek Falls Trailhead . Sites here are $15 per night and are first-come, first-served. The other is the Deer Creek Campground located 9 miles southeast of Boulder on the Burr Trail, which is a paved county road. Sites here are $10 per night and also first-come, first-served.

If you are looking for something a little more off-the-beaten-path, one of the really great things about Escalante is that it is managed but Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and there are numerous free campsites scattered throughout the monument. All of these are primitive sites with no facilities or restrooms. You must pack out your trash and the BLM asks that you only camp in already disturbed areas. That means if it looks like someone has set up there before, you are allowed to camp there too. Most of these primitive sites were quite obvious. Some of them had signs indicating camping was allowed, as well as established fire rings (check on current fire regulations at the Visitors Center before heading out).

Our first night we found an awesome secluded spot off a dirt road south of Highway 12 between Calf Creek Falls and Hole-in-the-Rock Road. No fires were allowed at this site, but the view of the vast desert landscape was gorgeous.

BLM-Camping-escalante

The second night, we camped right at the Neon Canyon trailhead. It was late when we made it back to the car, and we didn’t feel like driving and searching in the dark. Luckily there was only one other camper van parked at the trailhead, and the sites were spaced out enough that we still had privacy. There was also an established fire ring here, so we were able to sit by the fire and enjoy some spectacular stargazing.

If you would rather stay in a hotel, check out these options on Trip Advisor, which include a couple of B&Bs.

Other Important info about Escalante

  • Amenities in the town of Escalante are pretty limited. There is a General’s Store where you can buy basic groceries and ice. There are also a few restaurants. However, it is good to come prepared with a majority of what you think you will need (including any late night beverages that you might want while sitting next to the fire).
  • It’s always a good idea to stop by the Escalante National Monument Visitors Center, which is located on the west end of town on the main drag. They have maps and trail descriptions and can give you an idea of current trail and road conditions.
  • All of the trails listed here are described in detail in the book “Wow Guides: Utah Canyon Country.” This is an excellent book with beautiful photos. I highly recommend you pick this up if you are headed to Escalante or anywhere else in Southern Utah. In addition to helping us narrow down which hikes we wanted to do, the book also contains maps and full descriptions of each trail. Before heading out each morning, I would take a picture of each trail map with my phone, which we found ourselves referring to during the hikes.

Need more inspiration to start planning that desert adventure? Follow my Southern Utah board on Pinterest!

Follow Bearfoot Theory I Kristen Bor’s board SOUTHERN UTAH on Pinterest.

Got questions about these hikes in Escalante or suggestions for other cool spots to check out? Let me know in the comments below.

There are 42 comments on this post.

About the author

Hi! I'm Kristen....blogger, hiker, sunset-watcher, and dance floor shredder. I feel most alive in the outdoors and created this website to help you enjoy the best that the West has to offer.

42 Comments on “Utah Canyon Country: 3 top-notch hikes in Escalante

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  1. Amazing site, useful details and beautiful photos. Loved it. All the best.

      Thank you so much! I really appreciate that. -Kristen

    Neon Canyon isn’t in the national monument…. Glen Canyon NRA.

    great article, thanks for promoting our beautiful area…Escalante Outfitters has everything you need if you return. cabins, campground, great little café, outfitter’s store with maps, camping gear, and lots of folks that will help you have a great visit.

      Thanks Dana! I really appreciate that. I will most definitely be returning and will absolutely get in touch. Thanks for your support! -Kristen

    Let’s give Escalante a little more love 😉 I worked at Escalante Outfitters for several years. Besides being a top-notch gear store, they have a campground and the information they have and share readily is based on years of traveling the area . . . not to mention it’s the only liquor store with a hundred mile radius . . . the Best Pizza for miles . . . and Nate will take you to some amazing little streams for trout fishing . . . And as for Neon . . . WELL worth the time and effort. When I was narrowing down my search for where to live and work in Utah (where I’d guided rafting trips, and traveled much already) I saw one photo of the Golden Cathedral and immediately started looking for the closest town to it.

      Scott – Totally! Golden Cathedral was absolutely stunning. I saw a picture of it and when I planned my trip there it was a must-do. Totally worth the effort to get there. That’s so cool you got to live and work there! Just checked out your website by the way…beautiful photos! Thanks for sharing the info about Escalante Outfitters. Hoping I can make it back to that cute little town sometime soon. Thanks again! Kristen

        🙂 Thank you Kristen for the nice words about my site.

        Another great and easy hike in the area is simply walking down the Escalante River Canyon. Just beyond and above the cemetery, about a mile east of town (and over an increasingly rutted dirt road), is the access to the Escalante River. From there to the Highway 12 bridge is about 14 miles. The upper half of the walk is especially nice, with a pretty narrow canyon. About seven miles down is an enormous overhang with pictographs. Just a 1/2 mile below this is the confluence with a gorgeous, clear sidestream – nice camping in that area (and generally better water than the Escalante). Just a couple of miles from the bridge there is a natural arch that is difficult to see. Once you get to the highway, a walk back into the parking area will allow a climb/scramble up to another overhang, called the 100 Hands Wall. Anasazi handprints cover a large wall. There is also some kiva remains in that area.

        And of kivas . . . just up the hill from the parking lot on highway 12 is the Kiva Cafe. Some nice fresh baked items. The Kiva also sports two very nice rooms (and two rooms only!) GREAT location in the fall when the cottonwoods along the Escalante are going off.

          Oooh that hike sounds awesome. Is there a time of year that it’s best based on temps and water levels?

            Kristen, I’ve hiked it from late March through October – which is (if you’re prepared for a possible late snow 😉 ) Prime Time. Water in the river depends on the snowpack up on the Aquarius Plateau: there are years where it’s really a small stream, rather than a river . . . and there are years where you can float the river (small inflatable kayaks/Pak Rafts/etc) to Lake Powell, starting at the Highway 12 bridge mentioned here.

            Water in the Southwest – as you know – can save your life, and it can kill you. In general I’d suggest really checking weather and snow pack conditions before setting out, and also, for the duration of your stay. People at the Outfitters can answer questions . . . many of them float the river when possible.

            There can be bugs down there during certain years, mosquitoes, etc. They show up mostly when it’s been a wet winter with lots of standing water around. I found early in the season Delightful. Freezing, barely, most nights, but days are warm. I’ve also walked across frozen snow bridges on the river in March. Just a nice, mellow 14 mile downhill walk.

            Great advice. Thanks Scott. I’m going to get in touch with them and see if we can’t get something organized. Glad we connected!

    They’ll take good care of you, Kristen. Some really good people there.
    Ask them about the goatpacking trips 🙂
    If you’re interested in a conservation angle, Kris – the wife of Nate (one of the owners of the Outfitters) – runs crews down along the river in the summer. They’re removing Russian Olive trees, an invasive species, much like tamarisk – but with really sharp thorns.

    Thank you, Kristen. I’m glad we connected too.

    Wow! Those photos are incredible! So much to see in that state. What fantastic adventures 🙂

      Thanks Aaron! Yeah every time I go to Utah, it totally blows me away. Thanks for checking out my site. -Kristen

    Nice article, while we’ve never been to that part of the world..yet, it’s really great to read such a detailed post!

      Hey guys! Appreciate the comment! Hope you can make it over to this part of the states soon. Southern Utah is unlike anywhere I’e ever been. Thanks for checking out my blog! Kristen

    Hey guys I’ve made a lot of videos I know you’ll like that would work well on your blog! Here is one of my videos of the subway in Zion national park and I’m coming out with a video of neon canyon next week. I would live to work with you guys movie forward just let me know. Thanks guys! Love your blog!https://youtu.be/793rW-2oCPM

      Hey Aaron – Thanks for sharing your Subway video. You did a great job. Looks like you had a complete blast. Looking forward to checking out your Neon Canyon video! -Kristen

    Looking forward to receiving Bearfoot’s Theory monthly emails.

    For the Neon Canyon/Golden Cathedral trail, is there a way to reach the trailhead without a 4WD/high clearance vehicle? Is there a spot I could start at (I assume it’ll be further away), or should I just not attempt it?

    Thanks!
    Elliot

      Hey Elliot – I don’t believe there is another way to access the trail. You should call the rangers station in Escalante and ask them. They will be able to tell you about current road conditions as it changes depending on rain.

    Hi, I loved reading your post about one of my most favorite areas in all of Utah!! I’ve been down to this area a few times for hiking but have never done the Neon Canyon/Golden Cathredal hike that you wrote about. I definitely want to do it this June when I’ll be back out there. But I have a question for you, does it require rappelling to get in/out of the canyon?

      Hey Megan – There are two ways to access Golden Cathedral. One is a out and back day hike as described in the post. This doesn’t require any rapelling gear. For experienced canyoneers, there is also another way to access Golden Cathedral where you can rappel down from the top.

        Is there a way to climb up and rappel down through the hole at Golden Cathedral if I take the trail you suggest here?, I’m hoping to get pictures so I’d have to setup my camera at the bottom first.

    When I went to the Golden Cathedral, I walked in and spent the night. Was glad I did . . . got a Great shot (IMHO 😉 ) of the sun rising on a pictograph on a panel down by the river. A good route to the Cathedral, without rapelling, can be found on Tom’s Canyoneering site . . . well worth the trip.

    Hi Kristin,

    I stumbled upon your website doing research on Grand Stair hikes – its a great site and love the pics!
    I am wondering if you can suggest any “short” but decent hikes as well vista points if I were to leave Boulder in the morning and drive via Scenic Hwy 12 and aim to be in Bryce Canyon by early evening. I know it’s a short timeframe, but we have limited time…any suggestions would be appreciated. Many thanks!

    Hello, I love your site — and this post is very helpful. I’m considering a 5 day backpacking trip in the Escalante area in mid-June (that’s the only time I can go), and I wonder what you think about that time of year. I understand that temperatures really start rising in June, but I’m hoping it’s still viable to backpack. What do you think? Thanks so much!

      I think you can find something that is down in the canyons where you’ll have some shade or water, i think it’s still doable. Just make sure you bring sunscreen, a hat, and carry plenty of water.

    Love your site Kristen! So helpful. I\’m planning a trip with me, my mom, and my sister in mid May this year, and I wanted to know if peek a boo and spooky slots were okay for my mom who is in her early fifties. I just don\’t want to push her in to all these activities and have them be too strenuous for her! From what I can tell Peek a boo will be just fine, but if Spooky is borderline just let me know!

    Thank you! (I also followed on Insta and love all your pics!)

      Hey kristen – We definitely saw people in that age group in the slots, although it depends on her personal comfort level and fitness. If she isn’t comfortable in spooky, then you can always go back down peek a boo. Have fun!

    I’m planning a trip with my family in late May, early June. We would like to do some backpacking in this area. Are these hikes good for backpacking? Are there others you would recommend? Can’t wait to check it out!!

      Hey John,

      Yes there is definitely good backpacking in the area. I highly recommend checking out this Utah hiking book. It’s never steered me wrong: http://amzn.to/2kT2lPp

    We have a dog and are interested in a 4 night max backpacking trip this May. any suggestions? Paria Canyon does not have permits available.

      I believe they reserve some permits for walkups so you might look into that. I’m not as familiar with dog-friendly backpacking trips down there, so I don’t really have any solid suggestions. Sorry about that!

    We only have a total of about 72 hours to do both Bryce Canyon National Park and Escalante. Want to maximize our hiking time. Do you have a recommendation on which place we should do more hiking in? We are average hikers. We hiked about 35 miles last year in Glacier in 3 days to give you some idea of what we can do. Just starting this hiking thing and loving it 🙂 We want to do a new National Park every year. Thanks for any info.

      The hiking in Escalante provides a little more variety than Bryce. However, getting around Escalante takes quite a bit of time due to the roads, so keep that in mind.

    Question: if I only did the peekaboo part of the trail would I be able to take a 4 and 5 year old?

      You would probably be able to do part of the trail! The entrance to one of the slots is a little tricky but you could try and see what happens. Might end up being a great experience!

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