Hiking GSENM

Start location

Calf Creek Recreation Area

Description

A sandy, creekside canyon walk past Native American sites to a 126ft-tall waterfall and pool.

Difficulty

moderate

Duration

4hr

Round-trip distance

6 miles

Elevation change

250ft

Features

Views; Great for families; Waterfalls

Facilities

Restrooms; swimming

Start location

Cottonwood Canyon Rd

Description

A pleasant hike through a deep, narrow gorge that’s cooled by a shallow stream.

Difficulty

easy-moderate

Duration

2-3hr

Round-trip distance

3-6 miles

Elevation change

100ft

Features

Facilities

Start location

Cottonwood Canyon Rd

Description

Accessible slot canyon that alternates between narrows and open sections along a seasonal creek.

Difficulty

easy-moderate

Duration

up to 3hr

Round-trip distance

up to 4.4 miles

Elevation change

300ft

Features

Views; Great for families; Waterfalls

Facilities

Swimming

Start location

Hell’s Backbone Rd

Description

Hearty wilderness hike following the historic Boulder–Escalante mail route through Box-Death Hollow.

Difficulty

difficult

Duration

2-3 days

Round-trip distance

16 miles one way

Elevation change

1800ft

Features

Views

Facilities

Backcountry campsite

Start location

Hole-in-the-Rock Rd

Description

Drops steeply down slickrock to reach four sinuous slot canyons.

Difficulty

moderate-difficult

Duration

3hr

Round-trip distance

4.5 miles

Elevation change

600ft

Features

Views; Rock climbing

Facilities

Restrooms

Start location

Hwy 12

Description

A flat, sandy trail crisscrosses the river numerous times before reaching a large natural bridge.

Difficulty

easy-moderate

Duration

3hr

Round-trip distance

4.4 miles

Elevation change

200ft

Features

Views; Great for families

Facilities

Restrooms

Start location

Hwy 12

Description

A short but strenuous trail down slickrock leads to falls and two sets of pools.

Difficulty

moderate

Duration

1½hr

Round-trip distance

2.2 miles

Elevation change

600ft

Features

Views

Facilities

Restrooms

Day Hikes

Escalante River Natural Bridge

Duration 3 hours

Distance 4.4 miles

Difficulty Easy–moderate

Start/Finish Hwy 12, 15 miles east of Escalante

Nearest Town Escalante

Transportation Private

Summary A fairly flat, but sometimes sandy, trail crisscrosses the river six times before reaching a large natural bridge and arch beyond. Be prepared to get your feet wet.

If you want a level walk with dramatic scenery, you’ve found it. The Escalante River hike is not as demanding as Lower Calf Creek Falls and it allows (requires) you to play in the water. Park at the trailhead by the Hwy 12 bridge over the Escalante River, just west of the Calf Creek Recreation Area. Water sandals are best for the alternating sandy and wet conditions. Note that biting flies can be bothersome in early summer.

Descend and cross the Escalante River. Walk through cottonwoods, then an exposed sagebrush and sand valley. Trees appear again when you get closer to the second river crossing, and the cliff walls close in before the third. After another full-sun stint, Escalante Natural Bridge appears off to the left. The 130ft-high sandstone arch with a 100ft span is best viewed from the fourth crossing at 1.8 miles.

Continue, and look up and left for the rock alcove that has a small granary ruin. You’ll ford the river three more times before you get to Natural Arch up on the skyline to the southwest. Note that this is the end for the day hike, but you can continue on this trail for a total of 15 miles and end up at a trailhead back in Escalante town.

Upper Calf Creek Falls

Duration 1½ hours

Distance 2.2 miles

Difficulty Moderate

Start/Finish Hwy 12

Nearest Town Boulder

Transportation Private

Summary A short, but steep and strenuous, trail down slickrock leads through a desert moonscape to an oasis. The two sets of pools and waterfalls at hike’s end appear like a mirage.

Soaking your feet in a moss-covered pool while canyon wrens and mountain bluebirds dart about seems like an impossible dream when you first start your slickrock descent. The upper hike may not be as well known or dramatic as Lower Calf Creek Falls, but stick with it and you’ll be rewarded with unexpected beauty. The quarter-mile unmarked dirt road to the trailhead is outside of Boulder, on the north side of Hwy 12 between mile markers 80 and 81.

Start at the rim, which overlooks all of Calf Creek Canyon, the Straight Cliffs beyond. From there the trail descends 550ft down steep white Navajo sandstone littered with dark volcanic boulders. Follow the cairns down until the incline levels off. The rock becomes more stratified and colorful just about the time you get a glimpse of treetops in the inner canyon to the west.

Shortly after, you’ll come to a fork. Follow cairns down to the left and you'll reach the lower pool of the Upper trail – a vegetation-covered oasis beneath an 86ft waterfall. Follow the path up to the right for the upper pools, where water cascades through shallow potholes and ponds before falling over the rim. Take the time to explore both pools: swim if it’s warm, look over the canyon edge and appreciate the isolation.

Lower Calf Creek Falls

Duration 4 hours

Distance 6 miles

Difficulty Moderate

Start/Finish Calf Creek Recreation Area, Hwy 12, 14 miles east of Escalante

Nearest Town Escalante

Transportation Private

Summary The sandy track eventually follows a year-round running creek through a spectacular canyon before arriving at a 126ft waterfall, a joy on a hot day.

Lower Calf Creek Falls’ beauty is no secret; this is easily the most heavily traveled trail in the entire monument. Its accessibility – right off Hwy 12 between Escalante and Boulder – makes it a perfect stopover. Though it doesn’t climb much, the trail has long sandy stretches that can take a lot out of you. Carry plenty of water (available at the trailhead); the creek is not safe for drinking.

Park at the Calf Creek Recreation Area (day use $5) and campground, between mile markers 75 and 76 on Hwy 12. As you work your way toward the creek, you’ll pass honeycombed rocks and Navajo sandstone domes, an 800-year-old Native American granary, a box canyon where calves were once herded (hence the name Calf Creek), prehistoric pictographs and lush green wetlands.

Past the last bend, the trail ends in an amphitheater of rock with a 126ft-tall waterfall with a thin stream cascading into a large pool. The sandy shore and extended knee-deep wading area, before the deeper drop-off, make this a favorite with families. Remember, the sandy walk out is as strenuous as the walk in, so pace yourself.

Slot Canyons of Dry Fork & Coyote Gulch

Duration 3 hours

Distance 4.5 miles

Difficulty Moderate–difficult

Start/Finish Dry Fork Rd, off Hole-in-the-Rock Rd

Nearest Town Escalante

Transportation Private

Summary A remote but popular Hole-in-the-Rock Rd hike leads to four different slot canyons, complete with serpentine walls, incredible narrows and bouldering obstacles.

GSENM is famous for its sculpted slot canyons, spillways of brightly colored, weathered rock, and the four slots on this route are some of the most visited in the monument. Expect to encounter pools of water in some. From Hwy 12, drive 26 miles down Hole-in-the-Rock Rd to Dry Fork Rd (Rte 252), turn left, and drive 1.7 miles to the parking area, bearing left at all junctions.

From the parking area the route switchbacks steeply down the slickrock and you find yourself alternately sidestepping and pitching forward. An overabundance of willy-nilly rock cairns can lead you astray here. Look up and see where you’re headed: toward the reddish-brown dirt hills with little vegetation to the north (leftish). You reach the bottom in Coyote Gulch wash. Follow it north, and when you emerge into an opening, Dry Fork slot canyon is immediately to the left (west). Dry Fork is often overlooked as not tight or physically challenging enough, but it’s our favorite. You can walk for miles between undulating orange walls, with only a few small boulder step-ups.

Double back to Coyote Gulch and head downstream (east), keeping your eyes peeled for the first slot on the left, Peek-a-Boo. Even to get into this dramatic canyon, you have to climb up a 12ft handhold-carved wall (much easier if you’re tall or not alone). From there the hanging slot tightens dramatically and passes under several arches. You may have to navigate some water, and scrambling is definitely required to the end point. Hikers have climbed up and over Peek-a-Boo to sneak up behind Spooky but it requires good orienteering skills, otherwise it's easy to get lost.

Retrace your steps to the main wash. A half-mile further downstream, veer left and hike through the sandy wash to Spooky Gulch, which is even narrower. The 0.3-mile slot is less technically challenging, but impassable for larger hikers. Turn back and return to the trailhead from here.

If you really want to lengthen your hike, you could continue to Brimstone Gulch, half a mile further.

Willis Creek

Duration up to 3 hours

Distance 4.4 miles

Difficulty Easy–moderate

Start/Finish Skumptah Rd, 6.9 miles southwest of Cannonville

Nearest Towns Cannonville, Escalante

Transportation Private

Summary A great little slot-canyon hike, accessible to young and old. Actually it’s more like four little slot canyons, as you alternate between open and narrow sections.

Unlike most of GSENM’s slot canyons, the cliffs around Willis Creek are light beige, not red – an interesting contrast to the oftentimes orange mineral stream flowing through it. The trail starts 3 miles south of Cannonville on Skumptah Rd (access via Cottonwood Canyon Rd). Easy access and an almost-level canyon floor make this a great family route.

Across the road from the parking lot, follow the well-worn path down the hill and proceed left, down canyon. In less than five minutes the serpentine walls rise around you. There’s no trail per se, you’re just wandering from bank to bank following Willis Creek. Avoid drinking from the creek, there is sometimes horse manure about. The narrows open up after about half a mile, and this is where many people turn around. But you shouldn’t.

Once you hike around, not slide down, the 11ft pour-off, the canyon walls grow taller. At times cliffs tower 200ft above, only 6ft apart. Tight and narrow sections alternate until 2.2 miles along you reach the confluence with Sheep Creek, the end to this day hike.

Lower Hackberry Canyon

Duration 2–3 hours

Distance 3–6 miles

Difficulty Easy–moderate

Start/Finish Cottonwood Canyon Rd, 14 miles north of Hwy 89

Nearest Town Kanab

Transportation Private

Summary A pleasant hike through a cool gorge that flows with a shallow stream. Walk as much or as little as you like – Lower Hackberry continues for 26 miles.

This narrow gorge hike provides a welcome stretch for drivers on Cottonwood Canyon Rd. The marked trailhead takes about half an hour to reach from Hwy 89. From Cannonville and Hwy 12, the trailhead is 31 miles south. Wear long sleeves and pants to avoid deer flies in late spring.

Follow the dirt track to a typically dry wash. Past the corral you’ll reach Lower Hackberry Canyon. Water often flows down the canyon, and many stream crossings are required, but it’s not usually deep – normally a few inches. Wander as far as you like; the first few miles of the canyon are the most narrow and interesting. After a while, the canyon opens up; in early summer, clouds of gnats often choose this point to attack. Mostly only backpackers proceed from here.

Overnight Hikes

Boulder Mail Trail

  • Duration 2–3 days
  • Distance 16 miles one way
  • Difficulty Difficult
  • Start Boulder landing strip
  • Finish Upper Escalante River trailhead
  • Nearest Towns Boulder, Escalante
  • Transportation Hiker shuttle

Summary A hearty wilderness hike following the historic Boulder–Escalante mail route around rugged Box-Death Hollow. Detouring into the slickrock wilderness area provides an interesting extra day’s adventure.

The monument is a mecca for hardcore backcountry adventurers, but significant route-finding skills are required (GPS skills don’t count). Be sure to carry 7.5-minute USGS maps. The BLM recommends using portable waste containers (available at the BLM in Escalante); in the future these will be mandatory. Talk to rangers before heading out, and don’t take unnecessary risks. In addition to this epic trail, ask rangers about Coyote Gulch, off Hole-in-the-Rock Rd, and the Gulch, off Burr Trail Rd. Escalante River Natural Bridge day hike can also be stretched into a 15-mile trek.

A free permit is needed for overnight hikes, and can be picked up at any visitor center, information kiosk or trailhead register. Beware: poison ivy abounds along creek banks.

This historic trail was once the supply and mail route between Boulder and Escalante. Much of it is unmarked or follows cairns. Most people do the one-way trip in two days, but a third day allows you to do some cross-country wandering and further explore Death Hollow, a world of gullies, grottoes, spires and other slickrock wonders perched on the east edge of your route.

There are serious ups and downs along the trail. We recommend beginning at the Boulder landing strip, off Hell’s Backbone Rd outside of Boulder at 6800ft, and ending at the Upper Escalante River trailhead, less than a mile outside Escalante at 5800ft. Arrange a hiker shuttle to and from, or just back to your car from the endpoint. The following description is general and is not meant to be your sole route guide; get detailed maps such as the USGS Escalante, Calf Creek and Boulder Town quadrangles. Check with rangers for current conditions and descriptions.

The first leg takes you from the landing strip to Death Hollow (four to five hours, 5.5 miles). Don’t start late: you’ll want plenty of light for the final descent. A mile-long 4WD road leads from the parking lot to the sign marking the start of the Boulder Mail Trail and the flats atop New Home Bench. From there it’s 450ft down to the Sand Creek drainage, where cottonwoods offer shade and there’s water year-round. Then it’s a 400ft trudge back up to the Slickrock Saddle Bench before making the precipitous 900ft drop into Death Hollow, a gorgeous, riparian canyon named for mules lost on the steep trip down. Death Hollow has several springs at the point where the Mail Trail traverses the canyon. Several campsites lie within 0.25 miles of where the trail meets the creek here; some of the best are 300yd downstream.

A strenuous 800ft ascent out of Death Hollow kicks things off on day two. The trail then crosses to a slickrock plateau, descends to the usually dry Mamie Creek and along and over a cracked sandstone formation resembling a giant cerebellum. At Antone Flat you come into open country, where a chalky-white slickrock draw may hold water in deep pockets.

After another 900ft slickrock descent, you climb down to Pine Creek. The creek’s west bank is private, so follow its east bank to the Escalante River. To the west the canyon opens and the trail swings south through the brush, meeting a 4WD road and the Upper Escalante Canyon trailhead.