16 Escalante Hikes that Deliver Stunning Desert Scenes

Last Updated on June 13, 2024 by foxintheforest

There are few places in the desert more rugged and beautiful than Grand Staircase Escalante. Well known for its many thrilling adventure opportunities, you don’t want to miss these amazing Escalante hikes.

If you’re into rugged, quiet desert landscapes that take a bit of effort to reach, then look no further than this list of amazing Escalante trails.

This place is what desert dreams are made of.

I’ve been coming to Grand Staircase Escalante for hiking, backpacking, canyoneering, and camping for nearly a decade. I relish in the opportunity to get my butt kicked in this gorgeous setting. So if you’re looking to experience the best hikes in Escante like a local, not a tourist, then you’re in the right place.

About this Guide to Escalante Hikes

Inside this pro guide to amazing Escalante hikes, you’ll find:

  • An overview of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and what makes it so great
  • The best time to visit
  • An in-depth list of the best Escalante hikes with useful info such as difficulty, mileage, and approximate time.
  • An inside look at what to expect while hiking in the desert
  • Additional Utah hiking resources.

Welcome to Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument is one of the most remote and largest swaths of public land in the Lower 48. It spans an area of 1,870,000 (yes, million) acres of land that is largely inaccessible by road.

The incredibly Scenic Byway 12 gives you a sense of just how vast and diverse this desert landscape is. The sandstone cliffs can span upwards of 2,000 feet high, while the seas of never-ending slick-rock house countless secrets from ancient ruins to incredible desert scenes.

Is Grand Staircase Escalante Worth Visiting?

Grand Staircase Escalante offers incredible recreation opportunities for the more adventurous traveler. Many of the best Escalante hikes and canyons are off of rugged 4×4 roads in extremely remote areas. So if you’ve got a knack for the intrepid, this place is paradise.

However, if you’re the type of traveler that enjoys paved roads and the conveniences of civilization, you’ll want to look elsewhere.

When is the Best Time to Enjoy Escalante Trails?

The best time to visit Escalante for hiking is from April through May and September through October. Summers can be brutally hot, with little shade and no water outside of major towns. Not to mention a monsoon rain plagues the desert almost daily, making some of the slot canyons deadly during the day. Winters are bitterly cold, but still possible with the right gear.

Keep in mind, this is also the busy season. Some of the hikes on this list are some of the best hikes in Utah. Don’t expect solitude on some of the more popular locales, especially during the spring.

Pro Tip: One important thing to know about Escalante is it sits at an elevation of 5,820 feet above sea level. It’s much higher up than other areas of the American Southwest. As a result, winters come in sooner, and hang out later.

A Map of Escalante Hikes

As you can tell, most of the best hikes in Escalante are clustered in a small area – mostly due to access issues.

You can get the interactive version of the map here.

Pro Tip: Hole in the Rock Road is a dirt, washboard road that stretches for nearly 180 miles. The further down the road you go, the more rugged. If it’s snowed or rained recently, the road can be totally impassible, especially for passenger cars. Always check at the Escalante Ranger Station for recent conditions.

Map of the best Escalante Hikes

Tips for Safely Hiking in the Desert

When it comes to hiking in the desert, there are a few important things to know.

Don’t bust the crust. The raised, black soil of the desert is actually a living thing. It’s a bacteria that prevents erosion and enables plants to take root. Stepping on it undoes years of life. Stay on marked trails and when traveling cross-country, avoid patches of cryptobiotic soil.

Bring plenty of water. Budget about 4 liters of water per person per hike. Water is scarce in the desert and collecting water is not recommended. Local wildlife relies on potholes and intermittent water sources so when you take theater, you take from them.

Salty Snacks. You’ll need to replenish salts when hiking in the desert so don’t forget the ChezIts and Potatoe chips.

Pack it out. All of these hikes require you to pack out all trash, including human waste. Poop doesn’t break down in the desert, so bring a WAG bag for number 2s.

Rain is deadly. It’s a bad idea to enter a slot canyon if rain is in the forecast within a 30-mile radius of where you are hiking. Slot canyons flash flood easily and can kill. Roads become impassible, often stranding people for days if there is heavy rain.

The Best Escalante Hikes for Every Ability

This list of stunning Escalante hikes delivers a near lifetime of adventures to have. Every year I come back and enjoy the many trails in Escalante.

Just keep in mind that most trails out here are not as easy as those you’ll find in Utah’s National Parks. Expect fewer trail markings, more remoteness, and often times you’ll need a GPS, even for easy trails.

Easy Escalante Hiking Trails

These easy Escalante hikes offer a great intro to the area. Just be aware that some hikes are quite difficult to get to, so be sure to read up on road conditions before you head out.

1. Toadstool Hoodoos

Okay, so this one is in a totally different part of Grand Staircase compared to the other hikes on this list. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing.

If funky rock formations are your jam, then head to the Toadstool Hoodoos. There are arches, hoodoos, and tunnels – plenty of places for the kiddos to explore. In fact, this is my number one recommendation for hiking in Escalante with young kids.

The short trail has plenty to explore, making it an easy excursion.

Distance: 1.8  miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 141 feet
Difficulty: Easy
Estimated Time: 50 minutes
Dog Friendly: Yes but on a leash

Toadstool Hoodoos, Paria Rimrocks in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah, USA

2. Escalante Natural Bridge

One of the many Escalante hikes off of Highway 12, Escalante Natural Bridge offers a great intro the monument. This hike meanders in and out of the Escalante River, so bring gear to get wet!

This amazing hike not only features a natural bridge (a fin of rock that goes from one end of a canyon to another, but you’ll also see a small cliff dwelling, petroglyphs, and an arch if you keep going.

Distance: 4.4 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 292 feet
Difficulty: Easy
Estimated Time: 2 hours
Dog Friendly: Yes but on a leash

3. Devil’s Garden

Another easy wander with lots of funky rock formations, Devil’s Garden is a great intro to the Hole in the Rock area. However, this is a well-trodden trail and an easy path, so don’t let the difficulty lull you into a false sense of security along this road.

A lot of people complain that the hike is not worth the road – but Devil’s Garden is hardly down Hole in the Rock Road. So if you want to test your patience with a lot of the other trails on this list, hit up Devil’s Garden first.

Distance: 0.37 miles loop
Elevation Gain: 36 feet
Difficulty: Easy
Estimated Time: 10 minutes
Dog Friendly: Yes but on a leash

Toadstool Hoodoos, Paria Rimrocks in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah, USA

4. Fortymile Ridge to Sunset Arch

For the arch lovers out here, a visit to Sunset Arch is a worthwhile trip if you’re in the area. The road to the trailhead is long and tedious.

Although the hiking is easy and there are a few social trails, there is no official trail to the arch. You’ll want GPS coordinates to navigate and find this unsuspecting landmark.

In fact, there are five arches in the area, and here’s where you’ll find them:

  • Sunset Arch: 37.37586, -111.04834
  • Sunrise Arch: 37.37296, -111.04727
  • Moonrise Arch: 37.36793, -111.04553
  • Rocket Arch: 37.35876, -111.03977
  • Passageway Arch: 37.35461, -111.04176

Distance: 2.8 miles out and back to Sunset Arch, further for the others.
Elevation Gain: 246 feet
Difficulty: Easy
Estimated Time: 1 hour and 20 minutes
Dog Friendly: Yes but on a leash

Moderate Escalante Hikes

These moderate Escalante trails have a bit more distance but still maintain a more remote feel (with the big exception being the Calf Creek Falls Trails). Expect plenty of natural obstacles.

5. Phipps Arch Trail

What makes Phipps Arch a unique hike is how high up it is. The arch itself is fat and stout, maybe even a little low.

Hike along the Escalante River, then up to gain the point where the arch is. The surrounding scenery is much more impressive the arch itself. The endless sea of sandstone really gives you a sense for how small you really are.

Distance: 6.4 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 603 feet
Difficulty: Moderate
Estimated Time: 3 hours
Dog Friendly: Yes but on a leash

6. Lower Calf Creek Falls

Located right off of Scenic Highway 12 Lower Calf Creek Falls is a great option if you’re simply passing through Escalante. Enormous sandstone walls and a verdant creek canyon await you on this Escalante Classic.

You’ll see ancient rock art from the Freemont People – a little-known ancient culture that called this area home before the Ancestral Puebloans showed up.

The route is pretty sandy, and some spots have little shade. However, at the end you’ll be treated to quite the oasis – a 126-foot waterfall. You can swim here too, so plan accordingly.

Local Tip: The flow rate changes based on precipitation, so be sure to check before you go to ensure the creek is really flowing!

Distance: 6 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 531 feet
Difficulty: Moderate
Estimated Time: 2 hours and 50 minutes
Dog Friendly: Yes but on a leash

7. Upper Calf Creek Falls

Along with Lower Calf Creek, this is one of the more well-marked hiking trails in Escalante. There are quite a few cairns (small rock piles marking the way).

This hike will take you to the top of Calf Creek Falls. Not as many swimming opportunities (read: none) as Lower Calf Creek Falls, but instead you’ll have sweeping views of the nearby area and get to see the water spill over the cliffs.

Distance: 2.11 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 606 feet
Difficulty: Moderate
Estimated Time: 1 hour and 15 minutes
Dog Friendly: Yes and can be off-leash in some areas

8. Zebra Slot Canyon

Just getting to the slots here is an epic journey through winding sand hills, Navajo Sandstone, and cool Moqui boulders (those round, brown pebbles).

The slot itself is amazing – rivaling that of the famous Antelope Canyon, but it’s guarded with water year-round. Be up for a dirty, cold swim to make it to the scenic striped walls where the canyon gets it’s name.

Pro Tip: This Slot Canyon has water almost year-round. Be prepared to wade through chest-deep water, and bring a dry sack for your clothing and camera!

Distance: 5.2 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 377 feet
Difficulty: Moderate
Estimated Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes
Dog Friendly: Yes but on a leash

9. Willis Creek Narrows Trail

Willis Creek offers a cool narrows section that is a planet away from the harsh, open desert. You’ll need a 4WD vehicle to reach the trailhead. The slot is easily walkable with a sandy bottom (water is sometimes present). It reminds me a bit of Buckskin Gulch in nearby Page.

Pro Tip: Just like any slot canyon, do not do this hike if rain is in the forecast. Rain causes deadly flash floods that sweep hikers away every year.

Distance: 5.7 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 1,227 feet
Difficulty: Moderate
Estimated Time: 3 hours and 15 minutes
Dog Friendly: Yes and can be off-leash in some areas

10. The Golden Cathedral

Technically this hike is a sand slog that leads to the exit of one of the most famous slot canyons in Utah. Neon Canyon dumps out of a hole in the sky (which requires a rappel). It’s a stunning scene to see the hole and water below.

Pro Tip: I personally thought this was a sloggy run through endless sand to a cool viewpoint, but it makes the list of the best hikes in Escalante simply because it’s the most photographed area of the monument.

Distance: 9.1 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 1,581 feet
Difficulty: Moderate to challenging, depending on water and sand
Estimated Time: 5 hours
Dog Friendly: Yes but on a leash

11. Big Horn Canyon Trail

A sandy, shadeless hike guards this smaller slot canyon. You’ll want a GPS to navigate at the start of the trail and an early start to beat the heat.

The sand does make this a bit of a grind – since walking in sand is rough on the ankles. However, the slot section of this hike doesn’t have any rock obstacles, making it a non-technical slot canyon. Enjoy the smooth walls of colorful Navajo Sandstone as you make your way through the narrows.

Distance: 6 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 381 feet
Difficulty: Moderate
Estimated Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes
Dog Friendly: No dogs allowed.

Challenging Escalante Trails

If you’re up for some rugged desert goodness, check out these challenging Escalante hikes. These are serious endeavors, so always be prepared and check conditions before you head out.

12. Boulder Mail Trail

Take the famous Boulder Mail Trail from Boulder to Escalante. This historic route is where ponies used to deliver mail between the two towns. Best done as a backpack, the Boulder Mail Trail goes through interesting canyon systems where you can spot plenty of wildlife and red rock cliffs.

Distances are marked as one-way. There are shuttle services available in Escalante and Boulder, but you’ll have to arrange those on your own, in advance. Day hiking the entire route is not recommended.

Pro Tip: Water can be intermittent on the trail. Check with the Escalante Ranger Station to get the latest conditions.

Distance: 15.1 miles point to point
Elevation Gain: 2,559 feet
Difficulty: Hard
Estimated Time: 2 days unless you can catch a ride back to your car, in that case, 8 hours.
Dog Friendly: Yes but on a leash

13. Peek-a-Boo and Spooky Slot Canyons

Arguably one of the most unique “hikes” in Escalante, Peek-a-Boo and Spooky Slot Canyon are an absolute must-do. In fact, this pair is one of the top slot canyons in Utah.

These two slot canyons don’t require technical skills (read: ropes and harnesses) but they are about as close to needing it as you get. To get into Peek-a-Boo you’ll be scaling an 8-plus-foot rock wall.

Once inside the adventure begins! These canyons are absolutely stunning, with the narrows section of Spooky Slot Canyon get so narrow (less than 18″ wide), you’ll be going sideways with your pack off.

Pro Tip: Wear good footwear, you’ll be smearing your feet against canyon walls, climbing over obstacles, and using a small fixed rope to descend into Spooky.

Distance: 6-mile loop
Elevation Gain: 649 feet
Difficulty: Hard due to the use of fixed ropes and some un-roped climbing required.
Estimated Time: 3 hours
Dog Friendly: NO. Dogs are technically allowed on this trail, but the slot canyon is not suitable for pets due to its skinny narrows (less than 18 inches wide), steep drops, and the climbing required.

14. Cosmic Ashtray via Volcano Trail 

If you’re looking for a journey into the weird and wild, a visit to the Cosmic Ashtray needs to be on your list. This massive, odd sand pit appears out of nowhere in a sea of petrified dunes.

The hike here isn’t easy. Expect plenty of time on slickrock, navigating cross country in the desert. There are very few trail markers and the Cosmic Ashtray is extremely difficult to find without GPS coordinates.

Distance: 8.3 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 882 feet
Difficulty: Hard, GPS device strongly recommended as there is no official trail
Estimated Time: 4 hours
Dog Friendly: Yes if on a leash

15. Coyote Gulch & Jacob Hamblin Arch

For a lush, oasis it’s worth the effort to hike Coyote Gulch. This is probably the most crowded trail on the list, but it’s totally worth the effort.

Admittedly, there are many ways to access Coyote Gulch and reach the Jacob Hamblin Arch, but the easiest is via Hurricane Wash. Other ways require ropes

This lush landscape has water year-round. The trail frequently makes its way across the creek and back, so bring water shoes to make the transition easier.

First-come-first-served backcountry permits exist – and many people would find this a worthy backpacking experience.

Distance: 16.7 miles loop
Elevation Gain: 3382 feet
Difficulty: Hard
Estimated Time: 9 hours and 15 minutes or an overnight
Dog Friendly: No dogs are allowed in this wilderness area

16. Reflection Canyon

For an epic cross-country journey, the hike to Reflection Canyon is one of my all-time favorite Escalante hikes. It’s not a gimme – with plenty of up and down over sand. The end of the hike is a 2-mile-one-way haul over steep slickrock.

The journey never seems to end until you round the bend and come face to face with the stunning Reflection Canyon and Lake Powell.

This is one of the best backpacking routes in Utah and should not be missed.

Pro Tip: You’re required to pack out all human waste in WAG bags. There is also no water on this trail, so be prepared to pack it in.

Distance: 16 – 18 miles depending on the route
Elevation Gain: 1,250 feet
Difficulty: Hard. GPS required. Cross-country travel, steep slickrock, no water
Estimated Time: 9 hours and 15 minutes or an overnight
Dog Friendly: No. Dogs are technically allowed on the hike, but due to a lack of shade and water and the need to pack out all waste (you need to pack out dog poop and human poop), it’s best to leave Fido at home. 

What to Pack for Hiking in the Desert

When it comes to hiking in the desert, you’ll want to make sure you’ve got everything you need to stay safe. Here’s a look at what to take on your Escalante hike and if you’re visiting Kanab too,

  • Sun protection. Sun hat, sunscreen, sun shirt, and sunglasses
  • GPS device. Preferably one with an SOS button
  • At least 4 liters of water per person per hike
  • salty snacks
  • A wind layer
  • Non-cotton hiking pants or shorts, and a shirt
  • Beanie and glove liners. The desert can be just as cold as it is hot. 40-degree temperature swings aren’t uncommon out here.
  • A first aid kit with tweezers
  • Sturdy hiking shoes or approach shoes. Sandals are not appropriate out here.
  • Water shoes and a dry bag – for water-based hikes only
  • WAG bag for human waste disposal
  • Pee funnel (optional)
  • camera
  • Headlamp in case of emergencies

Which Slot Canyon Hike is Best in Escalante?

For non-technical slot canyons (those that don’t require special gear), Spooky Slot Canyon and Peak-a-Boo Gulch are fan favorites.

When it comes to beginner technical canyons (you’ll need ropes, harness, and rappel device) a few popular routes include:

  • Red Breaks
  • Egypt Canyons
  • Neon Canyon

Can You Hike the Escalante River?

Yes and no. You can hike parts of the Escalante River, but hiking the entire river is not always possible. Lots of the best hikes in Escalante are along the Escalante River. Backpacking the river is possible during certain parts of the year (it’s over 90 miles long), but some sections can become impassible and work-arounds are serious.

Additional Pro Utah Hiking Resources

Looking to explore Southern Utah like a pro? I’ve got you covered with these amazing resources:

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Meg Atteberry

Meg is a long-time Colorado local and outdoor industry professional. She's spent the last 15 years hiking, climbing, mountaineering, and canyoneering all over Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and Nevada in search of the best views. She's written for Outside Magazine, REI, Backpacker Magazine, and appeared on the Weather Channel.

Hi There!

Meg Atteberry standing on a mountain sticking her tongue out

Meg aka Fox is a 30-something who's born to explore. Toddler mom, queer, and neuro-spicy her favorite things to do are climb in the alpine and camp in the desert. Her mission is to get you out on your greatest adventure.