Grand Staircase Escalante: The BEST Place for a Hybrid Boondock Backpack Trip
In May of 2019 two friends and I (plus my two pups) traveled deep into the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. It was one of the most beautiful and memorable trips I have ever been on. We car camped two nights and did an overnight backpack trip to Reflection Canyon.
There are endless opportunities for camping, hiking, backpacking and even rafting trips down the Escalante River.
I love this area. It is every bit as beautiful as any of the other National Parks in Utah but is harder to get to so the crowds are minimal. Bonus! It is dog friendly (aside from Coyote Gulch).
Itinerary: 4 Days 3 Nights
Day One: Drive from Phoenix to Hole in the Rock Road with a hike at Lower Calf Creek Falls. Camp at Devils Garden.
Day Two: Slot Canyons in the morning, drive the rest of the way down hole in the rock road to Reflection Canyon Trailhead. Overnight camp at Reflection Canyon
Day Three: Drive to Egypt Road dispersed camp near Golden Cathedral Trailhead
Day Four: Hike to Golden Cathedral and then drive home
Our itinerary was a bit packed. We are all very experienced hikers and backpackers. If you are going with young children, crunched for time, or are not wanting to backpack; I highly recommend skipping reflection canyon and taking an extra day along the road hiking, booking a raft trip down the Escalante river, exploring the town / hikes near Escalante or driving up devils backbone. (you could potentially tack on Bryce Canyon or Kodachrome Basin State Park on your way in or out of town)
The drive to Escalante area is a bit of a trek from Phoenix. We started early in the morning. We were there at the end of May and encountered snow flurries as we were driving through the turn off near Bryce Canyon! Case in point, be prepared for unpredictable weather. The drive from Phoenix to the town of Escalante is about 7 hours and 45 minutes
Our itinerary was based along Hole in the Rock Road but prior to entering we did a hike at lower calf creek falls. The drive through Scenic Route 12 is spectacular! (we also recommend this drive from Boulder to Escalante but that will be included in a different post). Before your hike be sure to stop at Kiva Koffeehouse which is right off of the 12. When we were there it was rainy and cold so we stopped for some delicious pastries and hot coffee. The views are beautiful and while we sat overlooking the red rocks the storm system cleared and we had a sunshine for the rest of our hike. Win win situation.
Lower Calf Creek Falls is a beautiful 5.5 mile hike that leads you to as the name suggests, a waterfall.
After the hike we drove back to hole in the rock road. It is a 50 mile dirt road that eventually leads you to Lake Powell. This road can get very dicey in weather and it is absolutely not recommended to drive down after a big rain storm. There are areas that potentially require 4x4 so please pay attention to the road conditions and check with the visitor center before entering this area. There is no cell service for most of the road and it is potentially 50 miles to the closest town (tow truck)
We camped at Devils Garden. There are a few fire rings and picnic tables. Because the weather had been bad the two days prior, we were the only people at the campsite. This is a great place for kids as there are many cool rock formations to see and it is still relatively close to the town of Escalante.
Day 2 was a big day. We woke up early packed up camp and headed towards the slot canyons. Unfortunately, Zebra Slot Canyon was flooded and the park rangers recommended that we skip it as we would not be able to make it very far into the canyon. We went to peek a boo and spooky slot canyons. We did not do the full trail as it got very narrow and was partially flooded due to the recent rainstorms.
After exploring the slot canyons we made our way down hole in the rock road to the Reflection Canyon trailhead. This is a long drive and after a fairly recent rain did get a little muddy. There were also some parts that certainly required a high clearance vehicle. We did not need 4x4 but the conditions are ever changing with the weather. If you do decide to venture down this far I would highly recommend 4x4 and extra gas / water just in case there is an issue. We were very lucky and did not have car trouble but in retrospect I should have been more prepared for poor road conditions.
We did a fair amount of research prior to heading into Reflection Canyon but I can say that we did underestimate the difficulty of this hike. The trail is hard to follow once you get to the canyon and the map on all trails is a little misleading. It is 8 miles and completely exposed the entire time. As you can see with the picture below, it is hard to get your bearings once you enter into the canyon area. Everything looks the same and there are many places where it is easy to get off trail. Use GPS coordinates and have a GPS unit that can breadcrumb if you end up getting turned around.
We finally made it to the canyon just as the sun had set and it was well worth the difficult hike. We were lucky enough to be the only people at the campsites that night. There are very few campsites with a view of the canyon and be prepared for a lot of wind and absolutely no water sources. This is a wonderful place to camp for one night but would not recommend doing so in the heat of the summer, especially not with dogs. In May it was very warm during the day but did cool down significantly at night.
Day three started with an amazing, windy, chilly sunrise at Reflection Canyon. We spent the morning sipping coffee and taking in the views. Around 9 am or so we packed up camp and started our 8 mile hike back to the car.
We then drove to Egypt Road. There are many areas to stop and check out heading back up Hole in the Rock Road. We were exhausted and wanted to set up camp so we headed straight for our destination with a quick jump off at Dance Hall Rock. We initially intended to just camp right at the Golden Cathedral trailhead but as luck would have it we found a turn off onto another road that will filled with amazing views and camping spots. We spent the evening unwinding, sitting by the campfire and discussing all of the fun we had over the last 3 days.
Off in the distance you can see the town lights from Escalante at this campsite. After being so completely remote for the last few days it felt funny to see the city lights and have cell reception! We went to bed early in preparation for our last hike, 9 miles to Golden Cathedral.
Our last day in this beautiful place. I honestly could have stayed there for a few more days despite not having showered or having access to running water. There is something so magical about this entire place I cannot even put it into words.
The hike to Golden Cathedral is rated rated as moderate. While it is long, do not let the distance dissuade you from taking this adventure. The hike was beautiful especially once you get down into the canyon. While I think our judgment was skewed after the difficulty of Reflection Canyon, this hike really did not seem that terribly arduous. It was definitely hot and exposed for most of the hike so bring a water filter or plenty of water. There is a short cut trail that we took, this avoided as many water crossings. Definitely be prepared with GPS for this hike as with any hike in Escalante. This hike was more crowded once you get down into the canyon. We saw a lot of pack rafters on their trip down the Escalante River as well as canyoneering crews headed to rappel into Golden Cathedral
After our hike we headed back out to the town of Escalante and then sadly headed home as our adventure had come to an end.
If you haven't gathered from the rest of this post I am OBSESSED with this area. If you prefer off the grid experiences and minimal crowds this is your place. The sheer difficulty of getting to these destinations combined with the fact that it is so close to many more popular parks means that (hopefully) Grand Staircase Escalante will continue to be the hidden gem of southern Utah. As I will always reiterate, treat these beautiful places with respect and leave no trace.