Desert River Walks

United States' flag
North America » United States » Utah » Escalante
October 15th 2011
Published: October 20th 2012
Edit Blog Post

Calf Creek Canyon Calf Creek Canyon Calf Creek Canyon

Calf Creek Canyon surrounded by a vast plain of white slickrock
One of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments great features, beyond the low visitor numbers, is the wide variety of landscape within its borders.

This monument holds a huge number of natural features, all different.

I moved to the east side today, to explore the Escalante River.

It’s the last major river system in the continental United States to be named and mapped.

Highway 12

Highway 12 east of the town of Escalante first crosses a grassy plateau.

Just outside town, it has a view of a red ridge to the north with an obvious gap in it.

The gap is the start of Escalante Canyon, one of Utah’s most impressive multi-day backpack trips.

The highway, by contrast, is downright dull.

All at once, that changes.

The roadway reaches the plateau edge and an overlook, Head Of Rocks, of an unbelievable expanse of white slickrock beyond.

The sandstone is all smooth, almost like frozen waves.

It stretches a long way, toward a canyon and mountains in the far distance beyond.

I’ve never seen anything like it.

The road then plunges over the edge into
Highway 12 east of EscalanteHighway 12 east of EscalanteHighway 12 east of Escalante

Any questions why this is the most scenic road in Utah?
that slickrock world, with white sandstone all around.

The view swallows up visitors, in as alien a landscape as I’ve ever seen on earth.

The sandstone does eventually end, when the highway reaches that canyon seen in the distance.

It first passes another overlook, Boynton; this one shows a wide red crack.

Immediately afterward, the surrounding rock changes from white to deep red.

A building them appears on the left, looking utterly out of place in this landscape.

It’s a coffeehouse!

From here, the road drop steeply into a narrow canyon with big red cliffs all around, and follows it to the main canyon seen from the overlook.

This canyon is filled with cottonwood trees, surrounded by more red cliffs.

It’s the Escalante River.

The highway passes through here thanks to a major tributary on the far side of the river, Calf Creek.

It enters the side canyon, another narrow crack with steep vertical red walls.

After a while, the pavement climbs the side wall, passing through a number of artificial rock cuts.

When it reaches the rim, the
Escalante CanyonEscalante CanyonEscalante Canyon

Junction of the Escalante and Calf Creek Canyons, from Boynton Overlook
rock changes from red back to white slickrock.

It’s less impressive on this side, and the canyon on the left dominates the view.

Soon afterward, the highway enters pine trees.

The dirt spur road I need is along this stretch somewhere.

I missed the turn, so I need a place to turn around.

Instead, I got what the highway passes through next.

It’s not obvious thanks to the trees, but the highway follows the rim of Calf Creek as the canyon gradually widens out.

Known only to regular drivers, ANOTHER canyon, Dry Hollow, is slowly encroaching from the other side.

The ridge between them, which the road follows on top, becomes narrower and narrower.

People find this fact out rather dramatically, when the ridge becomes too narrow to support the trees and they disappear!

The ridge is now almost too narrow to support the road for that matter!

Drivers must now cross the highway version of the Steps of Faith to Angels Landing (see To Reach Where Angels Land, Master Fear), Hogback Ridge.

The road runs right next to steep (but not vertical) drops on both sides,
Hogback entranceHogback entranceHogback entrance

The only safe place to get a picture of Hogback Ridge
with long views of white slickrock canyons.

Just to add to the distress, this stretch has no guardrails either.

The crossing takes ten intense minutes, after which the ridge widens out again.

Since what I want falls on the other side, I then had to turn around and do it twice!

Upper Calf Creek Falls Trail

Just after the ridge ended I found the road I wanted, a single lane dirt track branching through the pine trees toward Calf Creek.

It quickly ends in a sandy parking area next to an obvious trail head.

A big warning sign sits here listing the same hazards as the one at Willis Creek, including the reminder that this desert can kill.

Anyone for whom the warnings are not utterly obvious probably shouldn’t be out here.

The first stretch of trail is flat and sandy, passing through juniper trees.

These abruptly end when the trail reaches the top of a huge and steep bowl of white slickrock.

The surface is covered in black boulders of all sizes, volcanic tuff.

They make quite a contrast to the white sandstone underneath.

This, believe it or not, is the path. Its just as steep as it looks.

The bowl stretches a long way to Calf Creek Canyon in the distance, with seemingly endless slickrock on the far side.

The trail appears to just end here, with no way down.

Careful observation reveals a ribbon of white.

A stretch of white slickrock with no boulders snakes down the side of the bowl from the overlook.

People have moved rocks to create a path.

This one is very steep, at least thirty degrees downward.

It’s also on smooth sandstone with no vegetation and no holds other than the boulders on the edges.

Veteran hikers in the Southwest call this type of path a slickwalk.

Against all appearances, the sandstone does provide traction.

It still gives the distinct impression that if I started sliding, I would keep going until I hit a rock, painfully.

The huge view, of the bowl all around and the canyon in the distance, adds to this effect.

I walked it slowly and carefully, checking balance at all times.

In places, I zigzagged across the slickrock to reduce the slope.

I rested holding onto
Rock SnakeRock SnakeRock Snake

Truly unusual cairn along the trail to Upper Calf Creek.
particularly large rocks.

Along the way, the path passes something clever, a spot where someone arranged a number of boulders in decreasing size creating a snake.

Finally, the path reaches the bottom of the bowl.

The land flattens out here.

Soon afterward it passes actual soil with some trees, where a traditional trail briefly appears.

The canyon appears much closer now.

After this, the path starts crossing over sandstone ledges.

Following it becomes much harder.

It’s now marked by cairns, little piles of rocks.

The cairns stick out from the natural rocks all around, but only with practice.

Many are tiny.

I looked for long rows of them to ensure I had the right spots.

The route passes into an obvious wash, the one that drains the bowl above.

It follows it briefly, then climbs onto the rock slope on the far side.

This one slopes gently to the rim of the canyon, with juniper trees in places.

It has fewer rocks and almost no landmarks, so finding the path is trickier.

The cairns here mainly
Path near canyon rimPath near canyon rimPath near canyon rim

The path near the rim of Calf Creek Canyon. Yes, its there somewhere.
consist of only two or three rocks each.

Memorize the place where the trail enters, since this may be the only clue for getting back.

The path (this is definitely not a trail in the traditional sense) finally reaches the rim of Calf Creek Canyon.

It has a great view of the canyon downstream.

The rocks change from white to red.

The path now works its way upstream along the rim, passing over flat red rocks.

Many of them appear to have flaked off the surrounding walls.

It’s a real problem for finding the path, because they all sit in irregular piles.

Only the artificial appearance of the cairn piles gives them away.

The path reaches a four foot ledge, which must be scrambled down.

Soon afterward, it crosses a steep sandstone slope covered in broken red rocks.

Finding the cairns is hard in this stretch.

The path then forks.

The only sign is cairns going in two different directions.

The wanted path goes down the slope, then over a long series of sandstone ledges.

It works
Upper Calf Creek FallsUpper Calf Creek FallsUpper Calf Creek Falls

The falls in low water, an oasis in the desert. Look for the plants on the back wall, watered by the spray.
its way upstream while doing so, climbing down the wall of the canyon.

A water rushing noise appears in this part.

The descent ends when the path finally reaches Calf Creek.

Getting here took a lot of work.

Upstream shows a large rock ledge, with a thin ribbon of water pouring over it.

Trees block the bottom half of the waterfall.

Now a real trail, the path heads upstream through the trees to an obvious amphitheater in front of the ledge.

It’s filled with bushes and small trees, a rare sight in this desert.

The path now becomes a bushwack through the foliage to the edge of a pool at the back of the bowl.

The final stretch is really muddy.

The path ends on the edge of the pool, with a glorious view of the back part of the bowl.

The goal of this hike, Upper Calf Creek Falls, drops down the ledge on the far side of the bowl.

It’s fifty feet high, and has a small sliding portion above.

Unlike many waterfalls in this part of Utah, this one
Calf Creek CanyonCalf Creek CanyonCalf Creek Canyon

Calf Creek Canyon on the way to Lower Calf Creek Falls.
runs year round.

The lower part of the ledge is green, plants and algae supported by the waterfall spray.

Like most canyon hikes, hiking out is tougher than hiking in.

The uphill portion occurs last, when people are the most tired.

Climbing out of the canyon to the sandstone slopes is tough but manageable.

Navigating across the slope is just as difficult in the other direction, even knowing where the path is.

Approaching the final slickrock bowl, it appears as a steep slope covered in black rocks, with no possible way to climb it.

Close up, the clear path through the rocks appears again.

It must be done as a careful friction climb, just like getting down.

The slope appears less intimidating in this direction thanks to the lack of a huge view, but it’s much more draining to actually climb.

Lower Calf Creek Falls Trail

The name Upper Calf Creek Falls implies another waterfall downstream.

It looks similar, but the rest of the hike is completely different.

I headed for it next.

A narrow road branches off from highway 12
Calf Creek PictoglyphCalf Creek PictoglyphCalf Creek Pictoglyph

The rock art on the way to Lower Calf Creek Falls
at the point where it starts climbing out of Calf Creek Canyon.

It quickly ends at a parking lot surrounded by high red walls.

Unlike the previous hike, this one is quite popular.

Good accessibility plus relative ease makes this the most popular hike in Grand Staircase Escalante by far.

Parking requires a fee.

The trail heads up the canyon.

Although it follows the creek, it stays a distance away along the canyon wall.

Parts of it require scrambling over little red ledges, otherwise it is completely flat.

The canyon is wide through most of the hike, making this pretty dull by the standards of the rest of the monument.

At one point, the canyon really widens out.

A small meadow appears on the floor with the creek flowing through it.

This spot is wide enough to see above the red canyon walls to the white sandstone slickrock above.

It looks like a continuous sheet, but look very carefully to spot the guardrail for highway 12 climbing above the canyon.

The wide spot leads to an obvious junction; the trail
Desert OasisDesert OasisDesert Oasis

Lush vegitation along Calf Creek
crosses the dry canyon on the left and continues on.

Numbered posts appear along the trail.

They are keyed to a brochure for sale at the trailhead that lists the major features.

Two of them are next to views of ancient stone granaries.

They are squeezed into cracks in the far wall and pretty small.

Another post shows a view of a black streak dropping down the far wall of the canyon, desert varnish.

Look very carefully to its left to spot a single pictograph of three humans.

I would not have found it without the picture in my guidebook showing what to look for.

Eventually, the canyon becomes narrow, although far from a slot.

Some alcoves appear in the walls.

The trail drops to the creek at this point, passing through reeds, vines, and trees.

An environment this lush is rare in the desert, a welcome oasis.

The trail ends at the real reason many people do this hike, a large sandstone bowl.

Like the upper falls, a small pond fills the bowl.

Unlike the
Lower Calf Creek FallsLower Calf Creek FallsLower Calf Creek Falls

This waterfall is 160 feet high
upper falls, this pond has a beach under cottonwood trees.

Lower Calf Creek Falls drops over the back side of the bowl into the pond.

It hits the back side of the bowl where it spreads into a fan.

The overall waterfall is twice as tall as Upper Calf Creek Falls and prettier.

The ending is better than the upper falls, but the rest of the hike isn’t nearly as scenic.

Escalante River Trail

I want one last experience in the monument today, so I drove back to the Escalante River.

A parking lot sits just before the bridge.

The canyon between here and the town is one of the best backpack trips in the monument.

The canyon has some nice things along the way, so I decided to see a few of them.

The trail requires lots of river fords, so I made sure to check the water level at the ranger station this morning.

I also wore river sandals and wool socks.

Given the position of the sun, I’m risking running out of daylight on this hike, so I made sure I have my headlamp and that it works.

Escalante RiverEscalante RiverEscalante River

The lush environment of the Escalante River, at the first river ford.

The far end of the parking lot has another of those signboards seen at monument trail heads, plus the permit register.

The registration stand has walking sticks leaning on it, which are almost required for fording the river.

Take one, and be sure to return it!

The trail beyond heads right for the river, where it reaches a junction with the actual Escalante Canyon trail.

At the junction, I headed upstream.

Two minutes later, I got a taste of the hike to come when the trail forded the river.

In this one, the river was calf deep, fast, and surprisingly cold for the desert.

Footing was all slippery rocks.

Falling in leads to a very short hike.

I used the walking stick to carefully probe the water ahead, looking for obstacles and testing the depth.

Take some steps using the stick for balance and repeat, over and over.

Finally, I was across and climbed the bank into a cottonwood grove.

The grove was pretty short, after which the trail entered open desert scrub.

The view looked exactly
Above Escalante CanyonAbove Escalante CanyonAbove Escalante Canyon

Sandstone knobs above the red walls of Escalante Canyon
like the one I saw from the highway this morning, a wide canyon between tall red walls.

The river itself is lined with cottonwood trees and bushes, and the rest of the floor is desert scrub.

The trail angles away from the river through the scrub, heading for the wall.

It reaches it, and briefly scrambles through sandstone boulders.

The far side reveals something new.

The river, still lined with vegetation, now curves toward the trail.

It really sticks out from the surrounding desert.

On the other side of the canyon sits a series of rounded sandstone knobs.

I felt unexpected sadness seeing this view, because it resembles the pictures of Glen Canyon.

As noted back on Oct 10th, (see Long, Empty, Glorious Southwest) Glen Canyon was drowned by Lake Powell in 1965.

When the reservoir is high, it backs up into the lower part of Escalante Canyon (miles from here) and drowns it as well.

The trail now heads for the river, through yet more scrub.

It finally gets close at a large sandstone ledge.

The river runs right at the base
Sandstone cliffSandstone cliffSandstone cliff

Crossing the cliff above the Escalante River, with no trail markers
of the ledge, with the trail on top.

Since the trail has no markings (not even cairns), the only clue where it goes is following the river.

A real path reappears when the trail enters trees on the far side.

Slowly, the river is moving toward the canyon wall on the same side as the trail.

The upstream view shows a thin but tall rock fin that reaches nearly to the water.

The trail needs to get around it.

It does so by fording the river again.

This one is easier than last time, with a sandy bottom.

The first part is knee deep, though, so probing with the walking stick is still essential.

On the far side, the defined path nearly disappears.

It enters an area of muddy grooves containing lots of little rocks.

This is an overflow channel, which floods when the river rises.

The path appears as many boot marks through the mud.

It follows the channel.

The path soon enters an area of dense trees where the channel constricts to a wash.

Escalante CanyonEscalante CanyonEscalante Canyon

Another view of the Escalante Canyon heading upstream. Note the natural arch on the far left.
becomes a trail again at this point and climbs out of the wash.

The trail then passes through the trees for a while and reaches a sandy bank along the river, yet another ford.

The next part of the trail is all in trees, so it has little view of the canyon.

The river is still close to the wall, so the trail doesn’t have much room.

Views of the wall do appear between the trees at some points.

The trail quickly reaches a point with the red wall directly in front of it and goes the only place it can, yet another river ford.

On the far side, the trail leaves the trees for an area of desert bushes.

The view from here is great, the wide red walled canyon.

The tree lined river runs along the wall to the left, and more rounded sandstone knobs appear far to the right.

Ledges appear downstream.

The trail now swings away from the river through the bushes, for some distance.

Just when I’m wondering whether it’s worth continuing,
Escalante fordEscalante fordEscalante ford

Did I mention this hike requires lots of river fords?
the big feature for this stretch of canyon appears: Escalante Natural Bridge.

It’s a high and majestic natural bridge on the canyon wall across the river.

The bridge is nearly as tall as the canyon wall, and the same color.

It’s one hundred feet wide.

The trail now moves back towards the river, so the bridge grows as the hike continues.

An unofficial scramble path appears that leads to the river bank across from the bridge.

From this vantage point, the bridge spans a short box canyon; water seeping from the rocks eroded the formation.

At the bridge, I finally turned around.

The sun has dropped over the rim of the canyon at this point, which means I have a problem that will get steadily worse.

Daylight is fading.

In a canyon, the floor gets dark before the walls do.

I’ve hiked at night before, have the headlamp, and the trail is flat; so my real concerns are animals and getting lost.

The trail, as noted above, is completely unmarked.

The most difficult part finding the path was where it followed
Escalante Natural BridgeEscalante Natural BridgeEscalante Natural Bridge

View of the natural bridge from directly across the river
the flood channel, so I figured I had to get beyond the third ford (which is just beyond it) before dark to get out safely.

I hiked as quickly as I could while staying safe.

The first stretch through all the bushes I still had daylight, although the canyon is getting dark.

After the first ford, the day had entered twilight and darkness is falling.

I put on the headlamp at this point, to deal with animal risk.

The canyon has rattlesnakes, and they come out at twilight.

With the headlamp, I could see them.

Thankfully, none appeared.

Soon afterward, I crossed the second ford and entered the flood channel.

I could still see as I carefully made my way down the path, looking for things I saw on the way in.

Many of these were subtle: rock piles, logs, clusters of bushes, debris, etc.

The technique worked, because I found the third river ford with enough light to cross it.

I made it beyond the cottonwood trees when twilight faded out.

From now on,
Escalante TwilightEscalante TwilightEscalante Twilight

A view most sane day hikers never see, Escalante Canyon at twilight
all I can see is what the headlamp provides.

Thankfully, the trail is pretty obvious for most of the next stretch.

The exception, a painful one, is the part where it crosses the ledge above the river.

Here, I had to follow the river and trust what I think I saw now matched what I remembered from the other direction.

My experience came through and I found the dirt path again on the far side.

At this point, the trail climbs through bushes to the canyon wall.

Escalante Canyon is a long way from civilization, so the stars were glorious in the sky.

The only negative is the canyon walls, which block much of the view.

The trail, as on the way in, reaches and briefly climbs near the wall.

I carefully probed for snakes in this stretch using the walking stick.

That finally led to another open area, and then the last river ford.

I had to do this one with the headlamp, one careful step at a time.

At last, I’m back at the trailhead.

I made it out, although I won’t recommend most other people try it.


Tot: 0.467s; Tpl: 0.033s; cc: 17; qc: 31; dbt: 0.0261s; 1; m:saturn w:www (; sld: 1; ; mem: 1.4mb