Utah is famous for the Mighty 5 National Parks. And for good reason — from the red cliffs of Zion to the rivers of Canyonlands to Arches’ namesake formations, they’re some of the treasures of the United States. But nestled between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef is a well-kept secret: the tiny town of Escalante, gateway to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. You could spend weeks exploring the many things to do in Escalante, Utah. And you wouldn’t even regret missing the rest of southern Utah.
Escalante is a destination for the truly adventurous. It’s managed by the Bureau of Land Management, a little-known agency that oversees use of public lands across the west for energy, livestock grazing and recreation. The town has a total population of 800 people, and it’s two hours away from the next-biggest town. In short — you need a spirit of adventure to enjoy Escalante.
In this post, I’ll cover all the off the beaten path adventures available in Escalante. Get yourself a paper map, pack your compass, rent a truck and let’s get started!
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Things to do in Escalante, Utah for hikers
Hiking is one of the top activities drawing visitors to Escalante. Choices range from developed trails to deep backcountry.
Hiking in this region is not for the faint of heart. It’s an extreme environment — temperatures above 100 degrees in spring, summer and fall are not uncommon. Water access is rare. Canyons can be dangerous. Trails are mostly unmaintained. It is shockingly easy to get lost, even if you know what you’re doing.
The best resource for would-be hikers in town is the Interagency Visitors Center, on the main strip. The staff are incredibly helpful and can help you choose a hike that’s appropriate for your experience level. You can also apply for backcountry permits here.
Whichever hike you choose, avoid being outside between 10 am and 2 pm. Carry much more water than you think you’ll need. 3 liters is the minimum for a super-short hike. I regularly carried 8-10 liters, and I still ran out twice.
Lower Calf Creek Falls
The crown jewel of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Lower Calf Creek Falls is a mini-oasis in one of the harshest landscapes known to man. If you only have 1 day in Escalante, this is the hike to choose.
This hike is fairly accessible, at 6.7 miles and less than 1,000 feet of elevation. I’d call it easy if it weren’t for the heat.
Park at the day-use parking lot, which charges $5 if you’re lucky enough to get a space in the lot. (Chances are you’ll have to park along the road and hike in.) The lot has restrooms, and you can even camp here at one of the primitive sites if you have a car that can handle vehicle fords.
The trail runs through a wide canyon, where you’ll see the colorful, weather-eroded rocks. You’ll mostly be walking on Navajo sandstone, but sometimes the trail becomes deep sand. Keep an eye on your map where various social trails intersect.
About 3 miles in, you’ll land beside the river, where it instantly gets shady and cool. Mosquitoes are an issue here — bring repellent. It’s a short stroll to the huge swimming hole and cascade. When you finish, return the way you came.
You need at least 4 liters of water for this hike. I went at 4 pm and it was still fairly crowded and very hot in May.
Upper Calf Creek Falls
Nowhere near as spectacular as its lower cousin, the upper drop on Calf Creek is mainly worth hiking to because of the sweeping views from the sandstone cliffs above.
This trail starts from an unmarked lot on Highway 12, just after Milepost 81 if you’re coming from Escalante. There are no facilities at the trailhead.
Unlike the lower falls, this hike is moderate-difficult. You’ll descend for about a mile on completely exposed sandstone, using cairns to navigate. (Do not touch the cairns!) Eventually you’ll come to the pools and drops of the Upper Falls. It is possible to swim here, but be very careful, as you’re just above where the river plunges another 77 feet to the lower falls.
A word of warning: This hike would be extremely dangerous in a lightning storm. I almost got caught in one in May. If the weather is even remotely iffy, give it a miss.
Even though the hike is only 2.1 miles, it’s all uphill — and fairly steep — on the way back. Plus, if you go early in the day you’ll be hiking back in hotter conditions. Bring at least 3 liters of water.
Escalante River Trail
If you want an easy hike that’ll give you a good feel for the barrenness of the desert, the Escalante River Trail is one of the best things to do in Escalante.
The hike begins where Highway 12 enters a gap from the top of a cliff — you’ll see cars parked all along the road here. There’s also a small bridge.
It’s a flat 3 miles out, 3 miles back to the natural arch. But what makes this hike so much fun are the many river crossings. You’ll be in and out of the water every 10 minutes, starting from the very beginning of the trail. Trust me: there’s no point in taking off your shoes.
Even though your shoes will get wet on this hike, it’s still better to wear proper hiking shoes. Sandals leave you exposed to the elements along the trail, including cacti, extremely hot sand, and scorpions!
There are a few beautiful backcountry campsites along this route as well. Pack in your water — the river didn’t look super appealing to filter from.
Bring at least 4 liters of water for a day-hike here, or 8 liters of water for a quick overnight.
Looking for a bigger adventure in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument? Try backpacking the iconic Coyote Gulch trail!
This hike ranges from 13-22 miles, depending on which route you choose. Long day hikes are possible — but due to a very challenging scramble into the canyon at the day hike access point, backpacking is a far better option.
The Jacob Hamblin Arch is the most famous feature of this area. But it also makes a fantastic beginner desert backpacking trip due to the availability of water. You only need to carry 3 liters.
Due to the heat and exposure, and difficulty of access, Coyote Gulch is only a viable trip in spring and fall. Reaching the trailhead would be tough in winter and in summer, heat exhaustion would be a real possibility.
The biggest issue with backpacking Coyote Gulch is access. The closest trailhead to Escalante is Hurricane Wash, and it’s typically done as a shuttle hike. But even Hurricane Wash is 33 miles down the very rough, washboard Hole in the Rock Road. Check at the Interagency Visitors Center to see if it’s 2WD-friendly when you visit. (It’s never ok to bring a low clearance car out here, and you’ll probably violate your rental car agreement if you’re driving any rental.)
This is undoubtedly one of the best hikes in Escalante — well worth planning your trip around.
Choose your own adventure
Looking for even more remote hiking in Escalante? I got you.
One of the beauties — and dangers — of BLM lands are that they’re nominally managed for recreation. In Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, you can park at any pull-off and go explore the desert on your own. No trail required. (Map and compass definitely required.)
One of my favorite things to do near Escalante was the off-trail exploration I undertook through the Lower Gulch. I hiked 16 miles off-trail, through the most remote and desolate backcountry I’ve ever seen, to a spooky slot canyon hidden far, far from the nearest tourist.
If I’m being totally honest, Lower Gulch pushed my comfort level. The only thing preventing it from being genuinely stupid was that the BLM office knew where I was and when I expected to be back. I’m also an experienced off-trail hiker, an expert map-and-compass navigator, and I had emergency food, water and shelter.
Even so, I still got lost. Twice. “Follow the canyon” sounds easy in theory, but it’s harder in practice when there are tons of intersecting canyons!
This was one of the hardest hikes I’ve ever done. I would only recommend it for the most confident backcountry travelers. Inexperienced hikers and navigators could very easily put their lives at risk.
Remember to follow the spirit of Leave No Trace principles even when you’re off-trail. Go with no more than two other people, don’t disturb plants, don’t walk on “living soil” (which, yes, means you need to know how to identify the biocrusts), don’t mark your route in any way even if it’s temporary, pack out absolutely all of your trash and waste, and follow worn cattle tracks if you can.
Things to do in Escalante for canyoneers
Want to go beyond hiking? The Escalante area has ample slot canyons to explore. All you need is a spirit of adventure, a knack for navigating tight spaces, and a 4WD/high clearance vehicle.
Remember to never, ever, ever enter a slot canyon when rain is in the forecast. It’s not just the immediate area you need to monitor — storms dozens of miles away can flood canyons downstream. The Interagency Visitors Center posts flood risks daily.
Peekaboo and Spooky Canyons
The most popular slot canyons in Grand Staircase-Escalante are Peekaboo and Spooky Canyons. They’re located a couple miles apart and can be hiked together in an 8-mile loop, or individually.
Access the trailhead from the Lower Dry Fork Turnoff, 26 miles down Hole in the Rock Road. If you don’t have a very good off-road vehicle, you’re better off parking at the turnoff — the last quarter mile down to the trail is ridiculously rough.
Peekaboo starts with a tough 12-foot climb up into the canyon. The trail is popular enough that you can find someone to give you a boost if you need one. The canyon then narrows, where you’ll scramble and hike through natural arches and tight passages for 30-45 minutes. Traffic is two-way through the canyon, so be mindful of others on their return.
If you felt a little claustrophobic in Peekaboo, you may want to turn around here — Spooky Canyon is even narrower. It takes about 30 minutes to hike through and is also two-way, although it’s much more difficult to pass people. However, less scrambling is required.
If it’s rained recently, wear shoes you don’t mind getting wet. Water stagnates on the canyon floors and it can get pretty nasty. This is also a hike to leave as much behind as you possibly can — you won’t regret carrying nothing but your water bottle, phone and keys. You can shimmy through Spooky with a small day-pack though.
If you don’t want to drive as far down Hole-in-the-Rock Road, Zebra Canyon is a good alternative to the two listed above. The turnoff is just 6 miles after you reach the gravel.
This canyon is famous for its zebra-striped walls. It also has some extremely narrow sections. A hike here can be combined with Tunnel Canyon, although you need very good navigation skills to attempt this.
Zebra Canyon is less visited than Peek-a-boo and Spooky, and more difficult to navigate. Before heading out, check out this guide for some of the pitfalls.
Other Slot Canyons on Hole-in-the-Rock
If you have a really good off-road vehicle, there are plenty of more remote slot canyons to explore. Among the most beautiful are Red Breaks, Egypt 1 and Egypt 2.
The biggest challenge with exploring these slots is access. The roads are often beyond even 4WD access. You may have to park at a turnoff and hike several miles down the access roads to reach them. Don’t even think about it if it’s rained recently.
If you plan to explore the more remote canyons, check in at the Interagency Visitor Center first. And to get a sense of what’s possible, pick up one of the local guidebooks at Escalante Outfitters. Advanced canyoneers with technical skills may appreciate the resources here.
Take a canyoneering course
Did you try a slot canyon and get hooked? Escalante is one of the best places in Utah to level up your canyoneering skill set. Several outfitters in town offer one-day courses where you’ll learn to rappel, navigate, and swim your way through more challenging canyons.
Excursions of Escalante is a highly rated local operator. You can choose from group classes or private instruction. Expect to pay upwards of $300 for a class.
Excursions also offers advanced courses for experienced canyoneers hoping to learn new skills. You can even take a rescue class or train as a guide.
Once you’ve learned the basics, head to Zion to practice your new skills in the Subway.
Road trips around Escalante, Utah
If you’re after a more laid-back way to see Escalante’s vibrant rock formations, consider spending some time in the car. The town provides easy access to one of the most scenic roads in the country, and several more low-key drives.
Highway 12 to Capitol Reef
Highway 12 stretches from Bryce Canyon, through downtown Escalante, up and over the mountains of Dixie National Forest, all the way to Capitol Reef. It’s an 80-mph, two-lane road with perilously steep cliffs off both sides. And no guardrails.
You can stop at plenty of overlooks along the way, whether to take in the views or get a break from white-knuckling the steering wheel.
The most scenic stretch is between Escalante and Boulder. But if you need a break from the heat, it’s often 30 degrees cooler in Dixie National Forest, and there are a lot of great hikes there too. The overlooks just outside Escalante going east make a nice sunset spot.
The only gas stations are in Escalante and Boulder, so fill up before heading over the mountains to Torrey.
Hole-in-the-Rock to Devil’s Garden
If you don’t want to commit to a serious drive on washboard roads, try the quick trip out to Devil’s Garden. This rock formation is 12 miles down Hole-in-the-Rock at a large, easily accessible parking area. Restrooms are available.
There is no official trail around the rocks and arches. You’re free to explore on your own — just watch where you step and don’t climb on the rocks. It’s a great spot for younger kids who may not be ready for hikes like Spooky Canyon. Most people end up walking about half a mile in total.
The road is generally pretty okay out to Devil’s Garden. Check at the Interagency Visitors Center for the latest conditions, and it’s still not a good idea to try if rain is in the forecast.
The Burr Trail
Often overshadowed by Highway 12, the Burr Trail is another just-as-scenic, far less crowded, far less nerve-wracking drive.
The road starts in Boulder, about 30 minutes past Escalante. It cuts through the deep BLM backcountry on its way to Capitol Reef National Park’s backcountry. (Note this is not a good way to drive to the main area of Capitol Reef National Park. You’ll end up on a very rough, long gravel road that’s 4WD/high clearance only and takes 3x as long as driving through Torrey.)
Most of the Burr Trail‘s 67 miles are paved, providing easy access to an incredibly remote corner of the world. As an out-and-back drive it’ll only take you half a day. Along the way, you can stop at trailheads (although official trails are limited and you should be prepared for off-trail hiking).
At the 40-mile mark, you’ll hit the gravel section. You should not continue in a low-clearance or rental car, but anything high-clearance can make it in decent weather. (You don’t need 4WD.) The trail switchbacks, ridiculously steeply, up to the Upper Muley Twist Canyon Trailhead — often considered the best hike in Capitol Reef.
If you don’t want to drive the gravel, it’s still worth parking below the switchbacks and watching for awhile. There’s a good chance you’ll see herds of mountain goats poking their heads out once they don’t hear your car.
There are absolutely no facilities once you leave Boulder. Fill up on gas and carry an extra gallon of water in your car.
Where to eat in Escalante
You’ve probably figured out by now that southern Utah is not exactly a foodie destination. Well, Escalante is the exception. Or I should say, Boulder is the exception.
Do not miss a visit to the incredible Hells Backbone Grill when you’re in the area. This unique farm-to-table-in-the-desert concept is far and away the best dining option for hundreds of miles. It’s 100% worth a splurge meal, with rotating seasonal dishes and an A++ ambiance. I’m still dreaming about the mushroom-and-veggie risotto I had there a year ago.
You can either eat on the patio if you have a reservation, or order to-go and grab one of the picnic tables on the lawn out front. I did the latter and it was lovely.
Hells Backbone out of your budget? I don’t care, eat there anyway! Seriously, I mostly ate grocery store bagels when I was in Utah but I forced myself to shell out for this place and I don’t regret it.
Another great stop while you drive along Highway 12 is Kiva Coffeehouse. This atmospheric spot is perched above the canyon, so you can get incredible views from the deck. The coffee is good too, and their breakfast sandwiches looked decent.
If you can’t afford to eat at Hell’s Backbone every day of your trip (which ok, that’s fair), Escalante Outfitters has good pizza, salads and sandwiches. Mimi’s Bakery is amazing if you manage to hit the farmers market at the exact right time, between when they open and when Mimi’s sells out. Their main store is no longer open. And Georgie’s Mexican Cafe is good for low-key burritos and tacos.
Where to camp in and around Escalante
There is very little reason to front-country camp in the Escalante area, unless you have a low-clearance or rental car. You can get a backcountry permit on a moment’s notice and choose from thousands of acres of wilderness to set up your tent in. Hole-in-the-Rock Road has lots of good sites. Just remember to pack out absolutely everything.
But if you’re stuck on tarmac, your best option is Canyons of Escalante RV Park. The tent sites are crowded and you don’t get your own picnic table, but they have plenty of shade. The owner is super cool. The bathrooms are glorious, with really good hot-water showers — it’s a huge step up from your typical campground. And they have a good laundry room with a vending machine full of detergent.
I hope this guide has inspired you to plan a trip to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and the charming town of Escalante!
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