What: an on and off trail hike across southern Utah
Where: from Gateway, Colorado to Highway 56 on the Utah/Nevada border
When: April 18 – May 22, 2017 (35 days)
Distance: about 630 miles walked
Highlights: the satisfaction of crossing the state on foot; fabulous weather; diverse and stunning scenery including three small mountain ranges and too many five star red rock canyons to list
Why we went
The red rock canyons of the Colorado Plateau are one of our favorite hiking destinations. We enjoy hikes of four to six weeks and crossing the state gave us the opportunity to see significant parts of the southern Utah we had never previously visited. Hiking from border to border provided logical start and finish points and gave us a nice sense of accomplishment.
We used AcrossUtah.com extensively to plan this trip. We greatly appreciate the significant effort Jamal has spent building this key source of information for hiking in southern Utah. He also kindly answered specific questions during our trip planning efforts and offered us a lot of encouragement.
Paul Magnanti walked a route similar to ours in the fall of 2017. His website has useful information and a personal account of his trip.
The Hayduke Trail (HT) is a reasonably well-known route through the Colorado Plateau; although called a “Trail” it is actually a route with extensive off-trail sections. It is contiguous with portions of our walk. We did not find much useful information in The Hayduke Trail Guidebook, however we used the HaydukeTrail website for planning purposes. Andrew Skurka sells a Hayduke Resource Bundle which has detailed maps and other data. We did not use this, but understand that it is a useful resources for the HT.
Google satellite imagery and Caltopo.com were critically important tools during the route planning phase. And, as always, Gaia GPS on the iPhone was our tool of choice for electronic navigation while on the trail. We also carried a set of printed maps we made using Caltopo.
Click map to open an interactive CalTopo map in a new browser tab. Instructions for using CalTopo.
Disclaimer: Do not rely on our exact tracks for your route; use skill and common sense. Water levels can change making creeks impassable. Logjams and rockslides create cold temporary lakes in canyons. Rockslides obliterate previously passable cliffs. Our rock climbing skills are not the same as your climbing skills. Our gpx data may have errors that could lead you into impassable situations. NEVER ascend something you can not descend to retreat and NEVER descend something you can’t ascend to retreat.
This trip reinforces my choice to put southern Utah on my Top Ten List. To put it in perspective, every day of this trip was more aesthetically pleasing and thrilling than any day of our Colorado Trail thru-hike or 90% of our Arizona Trail thru-hike. The red rock canyons lined with cottonwoods, willows, maples and oaks are indescribably beautiful and fun. I thoroughly enjoyed crossing the mountain ranges and plateaus and seeing how the major land formations fit together.
In general I prefer hiking conditions that allow me to day-dream and look at the scenery, rather than focus on my footing, and this route provided a nice combination of walking conditions; there were obstacles and challenging sections to keep it interesting, but enough of the walking was straight-forward and carefree.
So many canyons, so little time. I liked this trip so much that I’d like to go for another month next spring and follow a different itinerary to visit new canyons.
This was a terrific walk and I enjoyed every day of it. Southern Utah is a truly special place and the opportunity to see a lot more of it was greatly rewarding. With great weather for the bulk of the trip and no significant adversity, the trip went extraordinarily smoothly. Crossing an entire state was also emotionally satisfying and I was pleased with how well a lot of planning translated into a successful journey.
For me, the highlights included:
- great views of Castle Valley from the Porcupine Rim Trail
- a fun, intricate, and improbable route through the Behind the Rocks near Moab
- the unexpected and beautiful wide open grasslands on Hatch Mesa
- the fabulous contoured walk across the western side of Lockhart Basin
- an exciting descent down the cliffs to the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers
- the beautiful stormy skies near the Doll’s House which illuminated the rocks with an unearthly light
- the long walk down Happy Canyon from its upper end down on through the narrows to the Dirty Devil
- expansive views while skirting Bert Mesa
- an unexpectedly nice campground in Hanksville
- the ad hoc route up Slate Creek to skirt the snow covered and stormy Henry Mountains
- a fabulous campsite on Tarantula Mesa with just enough clean fresh water left in the collector
- the convoluted route through strange rock formations after descending from Tarantula Mesa
- another fabulous campsite in Upper Muley Twist and the following morning’s ridge walk on top of the Waterpocket Fold
- Egg Canyon and The Gulch, another outstandingly beautiful canyon system
- the terrific Boulder Mail trail with a 5-star campsite on a rim overlooking Death Hollow
- Wahweep Creek floodplane with its fabulous clean water seep
- pristine Round Valley and Hackberry Canyons
- walking up the Paria River
- the evening clearing storm at Bryce with perfect light illuminating the rock formations
- successfully descending the Elkheart Cliffs down to Orderville, a route devised by studying maps and google street-view images
- Parunuweep Canyon with its fine riverside campsite
- crossing Zion and reclimbing Angel’s Landing which I last did in 1965
- the much more interesting than expected Pine Mountains which wasn’t a let down, but a fine finish to the trip.
Notes for Potential Hikers
We have taken many backpacking trips in southern Utah and it is one of our favorite places to hike. During our thru-hike of the Arizona Trail (AZT) in 2016, we started thinking about doing a similar walk in Utah. During our initial investigation, we focused on a north/south route starting at the Arizona/Utah border where the AZT terminates.
While doing research to explore whether such a route had either already been done or had at least been mapped, James found Jamal’s Across Utah website. Jamal has done extensive exploration of the region and has completed his own thru-hike across the state, border to border. He provides extensive documentation for his Suggested Route Across Utah (AU), including detailed information on water sources, obstacles, points of interest, and possible variants. We quickly realized that this was a better option than our north/south concept. Jamal’s AU route provided a framework for us to start planning our own version of an AU walk.
We had already researched the Hayduke Trail (HT) and it wasn’t appealing to us for several reasons. It is too convoluted as it wanders across the Colorado Plateau, particularly the multiple diversions within the Grand Canyon. We liked the idea of hiking clear across the state, border to border, and the HT does not do that. And finally, we had already walked portions of the HT including all of its routing in the Escalante River drainage, the parts where it is concurrent with the AZT, and most of the rest of its Grand Canyon sections; we wanted to plan a trip that did would not repeat prior hikes.
Our Variant of Jamal’s Across Utah Suggested Route
We started with Jamal’s AU suggested route, chose the variants that suited us, and then modified it further to meet our needs. Because much of our route was designed and documented by Jamal we consider our walk to be a variant of his AU route.
The first significant change was our starting point. Jamal’s AU starts at a point on the Colorado border essentially in the middle of nowhere and it was proving difficult and expensive to actually get there. The AU immediately climbs high into the La Sal Mountains; normally this would not be an issue, but during our planning phase during January/February 2017, the snowpack in the La Sals was about 150% of normal and we were concerned that Jamal’s route might be impassable at our mid-April start date. We did not want to delay our start date to wait for the snow to melt because a late start could mean warm to hot weather during the majority of the trip.
James mapped an alternate route on the north slope of the La Sals that stayed lower than Jamal’s route. Our trip started in Gateway, Colorado, a small resort community south of Grand Junction, Colorado. We could take Amtrak to Grand Junction and we had confidence we could hitch the 50 miles to Gateway. Gateway is a bit less than 10 trail miles from the Utah border.
Once we decided on Gateway as our starting point, heading to Moab became an obvious choice. There are several ways to do this, but we chose to cross Negro Bill Canyon on an off-trail route to eliminate walking the heavily used Sand Flats Road heading east out of Moab. This also allowed us to hike the quite nice Porcupine Rim Trail above Castle Valley. Just west of Moab, we joined Jamal’s AU and took his Behind the Rocks variant.
We took the more southerly route across Canyonlands NP which Jamal used during his 2009 walk across Utah. He recommends heading north into the Maze portion of the park, but we preferred going south because we thought it would have fewer tourists than the popular Maze and we wanted to see the Golden Staircase and the upper reaches of Happy Canyon.
Our second significant change was in the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument. We had already hiked extensively in the Escalante Canyon complex and we wanted to see new places. We had never hiked the Boulder Mail Trail and so chose that route to connect Capitol Reef to Escalante.
In the Bryce area, we created our own version of AU. We went much further north up Sheep Creek and then followed it to its source in the park. From there, we walked the road to the Bryce Lodge and our resupply package. This eliminated having to hitch to Tropic or carry a lot more food from Escalante. In Bryce, we took the Under the Rim Trail to Rainbow Point, which is a classic walk we had never done before. Then we headed south to and then walked west on the Skutumpah Road (dirt), instead of the BLM dirt roads further north. This area is less interesting scenically and there was trivial amounts of traffic on the Skutumpah Road; by following that road we were able to make better mileage and pass through the region more quickly.
We also decided to explore a direct route dropping down the Elkheart Cliffs into Orderville instead of walking south around the Glendale Bench to Mount Carmel Junction. This route seemed more direct and an interesting challenge. Using maps, satellite imagery and Google street-view imagery, James figured out a route that he thought would work. If it was impossible to descend the cliffs, we had a backup plan; fortunately, our planned route was usable.
In the Pine Mountains, our route varied from Jamal’s AU in several places. We wanted to re-supply in New Harmony, avoid large pieces of private property on the east side of the mountains, and stay off of the forest service roads as much as possible. We mapped our own route assuming that cross-country travel would be possible in a number of places, and again, it all worked out.
Our route is just that: the route we walked. There are innumerable options and we don’t claim that our variant of Jamal’s route is the best way to walk across southern Utah. We are sharing the track of our hike for reference purposes only, not because we think anybody should necessarily follow the route we walked. We suggest that anybody interested in hiking Across Utah use Jamal’s site as a primary reference resource. Hike your own hike.
What would we change?
A better route through the La Sal Mountains would avoid some miles on the paved La Sal Loop Road. A possibility is mapped in green in the CalTopo map file. However, this option crosses the 10,700’ pass between Horse Mountain and Mt. Wass so is not viable if there is significant snow. Another change would be to eliminate walking the paved Burr Trail from The Gulch to Boulder. Jamal’s AU heads south into the Escalante, thus avoiding the road but missing Boulder and the Mail Trail. It is probably possible to map a route approaching Boulder from the northeast and thus avoid both the Burr Trail and the private land along Deer Creek and east of Boulder. A final change would be to find a better way to connect the exit from Zion NP and getting into the Pine Mountains. We went the way we did to resupply in New Harmony, but it meant about 5 miles of pavement walking. There are pieces of private land on the east side of the Dixie NF, so it was not completely clear during planning what was legal access between the forest and Interstate 15. But it would be nice to delete the road walk.
Our route was a mix of pavement, dirt roads, jeep tracks, abandoned jeep tracks, established footpaths, and off-trail hiking. 15-20% of the mileage was off-trail and varied in difficulty from class one to class three. The route includes several off-trail descents of very steep, high cliffs and wading in flowing water in canyon bottoms. A small amount of scrambling was needed to get over rockfalls and chockstone obstacles in the canyons. Our route across the Henry Mountains included climbing over three chockstones in a narrow canyon with flowing water wall-to-wall, a feat which required Jim’s climbing skills combined with a serendipitous log that we hauled and reused as a ladder at each obstacle.
Although much of the walking is quite straightforward, this in NOT a route for beginners. If you plan to hike this route, you should have excellent navigational and map reading skills, the ability of read terrain, and previous experience hiking in this type of environment. As Steve Allen, the guru of canyon country hiking says in Canyoneering 2: “If you have any doubts about your qualifications to do any of the routes, they are not for you. Those with enough miles under their feet and days under the rim know who they are.”
There are long stretches without sources of water and you must be able to locate the ones that are there. Many of the water sources are intermittent.
Sections of this walk are remote, have no cell phone coverage and if you become injured or otherwise incapacitated, rescue is uncertain. Even with a gpx track, it requires expertise to read the landscape and pick a useable line. We saw no other hikers on the off-trail portions of this route.
We took the overnight Amtrak from Oakland to Grand Junction. Although it took longer than air travel, the trip was vastly more pleasant; including a sleeper room and meals, it was the same price as flying. We hitched to Gateway; the hitching was not difficult but it did take four rides to get there. There is a small store and fancy resort in Gateway. We ate a tasty meal at the resort restaurant.
We finished our hike at Highway 56 on the Nevada border about 20 miles east of Panaca, Nevada. There are no services in Panaca. We hitched 60 miles east to Cedar City, Utah. At the time we were there, traffic going to Cedar City was sparse and it took about 80 minutes to get a ride. Cedar City has all services, including an airport with regularly scheduled flights to Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. We arrived in Cedar City in the early evening and were able to book an early morning flight home the next day.
We sent resupply boxes to the following places:
- Moab: GearHeads outdoor store
- Needles: the Needles Outpost
- Hanksville: Duke’s Campground; via a 30+ mile round trip hitch
- Escalante: Escalante Outfitters outdoor store and pizza restaurant
- Bryce Canyon: The Lodge at Bryce
- Orderville: Maynard Dixon Living History Museum
- Springdale: accessed via the free NPS bus from the trailhead, our resupply box was mailed to a friend
- New Harmony: Texaco Gas Mart at I-17 and Highway 144
In each case, we made arrangements ahead of time with the recipients. They may or may not be willing to take packages in the future. Packages could also be mailed to yourself c/o the local Post Office, but the closing times at post offices may mean a delay in picking up your stuff.
Besides getting our boxes, we also used services in these places:
- Moab: City Market is a large and fully stocked grocery store. GearHeads has a fine selection of backpacking supplies of all kinds. There are many restaurants.
- Needles: the Needles Outpost was surprisingly well stocked for such a tiny store and offered both paid showers and hot food. However, the place was recently sold and it is unclear whether the campground and small shop will remain open. Call ahead to confirm what services are available. The NPS visitor center is also purported to accept packages.
- Hanksville: Duke’s Campground had a nice grassy field for tents, good showers and a laundromat. There is a store in town, but it is not well stocked with supplies useful for backpackers. There are also several restaurants in town.
- Boulder: we got a fine meal here and the Hills and Hollows gas mart store stocked some useful food.
- Escalante: Escalante has several restaurants, a decent grocery store, and the Outfitters offers paid showers.
- Bryce Canyon: The Lodge at Bryce has a nice dining room and the store has a useful selection of food, paid showers and a laundromat.
- Orderville: There is a decent grocery, but no restaurants.
- Mt. Carmel Junction: a gas mart store we didn’t check out and a couple of restaurants.
- Springdale: the expensive Sol grocery is well stocked and there are many restaurants. We had a five-star burger and salad at Oscar’s. There is also a laundromat in town.
- New Harmony: the Texaco Gas Mart’s stock remains a mystery as the place had been burglarized the morning we arrived and was closed down while the police did their investigation. Fortunately the burglars didn’t steal our re-supply box. There are no services other than a friendly Post Office in the town itself.
Mapping potential water sources was an important task during trip planning. Outside of the perennial rivers, most of which are quite silty, southern Utah is a dry place. We used small seeps and springs, decrepit cattle wells and ponds, and the occasional pothole. Many of these sources can be dry, depending on what the weather has been for the previous period of time. Be prepared to carry significant quantities of water.
Our longest section between known good sources was about 35 miles. Some people who do long distance hikes in this area cache water ahead of time, but this is a tedious process. We did not have a car with us, let alone a 4WD vehicle, and we were not interested in driving across the state pre-hike to set the cache and again post-hike to retrieve the containers. On one occasion we left a water source carrying a total of twelve liters of water; if the weather had been hot we would have needed to carry more.
We treated all water that was not flowing out of the ground at a spring, as both cows and beaver are present in the region.
We prepared detailed information about water sources based on information on Jamal’s website, various HT websites, and USGS maps. Some of the USGS springs are potentially seasonal, but all were flowing when we were there, as is to be expected in April/May after a wet winter.
We camped every night except in Springdale where we stayed with a friend. Finding decent to superb campsites was not difficult except when we had to stealth camp in a National Park. Most of our campsites were not near water sources.
Permits are required for overnight camping in Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce, and Zion National Parks. The logistics and temporal uncertainties of the route make it impossible to obtain these in advance. In all four parks you enter the park many miles and in some cases, days before you are anywhere near a place permits can be obtained. We were able to acquire walk-up permits at Canyonlands and Zion. In Bryce and Zion, we were twice able to legally camp just outside the park borders on Forest Service or BLM lands. We stealth camped twice on NPS lands. Grand Staircase/Escalante NM requires a permit, but you can self-issue one at trailhead kiosks. When there were no kiosks we didn’t worry about it.
We saw two rangers in vehicals while hiking: one was helpful and friendly and excited about our trip; the other was stodgy and only cared about our permit. Fortunately in the second case, we actually had a permit. Getting backcountry camping permits is a common problem for long distance hikers as it is impossible to predict arrival dates and we often walk through NPS lands prior to reaching the place where permits are issued.
Timing and Direction
There are two seasons during which this hike can be done: spring and fall. During the winter, there is substantial snow at higher elevations, and potentially snow even at the lower elevations. It may be possible to do the walk then, but it would likely require snowshoes or skis to cross at least the La Sal and Henry Mountains, Bryce, Zion, and the Pine Mountains. Daylight is short in winter, requiring carrying more days of supplies.
Summer is too hot over large portions of the route. You would need to carry a lot more water and many sources dry up during the summer months. There are also problems with annoying insect during the summer months.
Spring is perfect as the days are longer, the weather usually not too hot, and the snow has mostly melted. The snowmelt means water sources are usually flowing. Another significant advantage to a spring hike is that the cows are not driven to the upper elevation grazing areas until the end of May or early June. We saw very few cows during our hike, and that makes for much nicer walking conditions. The wind is consistently stronger and more frequent during the spring, but it was never a significant issue during our hike. Water levels in some canyons, like Parunuweep, will be higher and colder during the spring.
The weather during the fall can be glorious and the trees are changing color in the upper elevations. Late summer rains may have replenished some water sources. The weather can be cool and crisp. Days are shorter and fresh snowfall more likely at upper elevations. However, the cows will have done their thing, grazing all plant life down to the dirt, trampling the water sources, and leaving vast quantities of fresh dung.
We walked east to west. The route is viable in both directions. There are high mountains at the start and finish either way. An advantage of traveling east to west is that crossing the significant off-trail big cliffs is easier in that direction. This includes dropping into Kane Creek from Behind the Rocks, descending Hatch Mesa into the Lockhart Basin, the descent to the Colorado River near the confluence, the descent down Tarantula Mesa, and the drop down the Elkheart Cliffs into Orderville. It is also a lot easier to descend the Virgin River in Parunuweep Canyon than to go upstream, at least during the spring high water; it might be quite difficult or impossible to surmount the obstacle in that canyon if walking upstream in high water. We think the route through the Pine Mountains on balance is probably easier east to west as well.
The river must be crossed between the confluence with the Green and Spanish Bottom. Unless carrying a packraft, hitching a ride on a boat is imperative as swimming across would be extremely dangerous. Fortunately, there is a reasonable amount of river traffic in this area as rafting and canoeing down from Moab are popular. Spanish Bottom, just upstream of the difficult Cataract Canyon section, is the take out for most of these trips and commercial boat services provide pickups at the Bottom on almost a daily basis.
We found a sandy beach on the east side of the river and were able to flag down a boat from Tex’s Riverways who kindly gave us a ride across. The edge of the river is mostly thick and impenetrable vegetation, so finding an accessible beach took a while. In hindsight we should have called Tex’s from Needles Outpost to learn their schedule and give them notice that we would be attempting to catch a ride in the following days.
All other rivers can be easily waded unless they are in flood stage.
We were extremely fortunate with the weather. There was only a single day that was hotter than we like. It rained on the day we hiked into the Bryce Lodge, but we spent most of that rainy day eating at the Lodge, showering, doing laundry, and shopping. As it was raining heavily when it was time to leave, we elected to stay for a second meal at the Lodge, and by the time we finished, the rain had stopped, the evening cloud show over Bryce Canyon was glorious, and we were able to get in a couple of hours of walking.
We had a cold and wet day on the west rim of Zion, it snowed most of the afternoon and our shoes froze overnight.
Due to high winds, fresh snow, and socked-in conditions we opted for a low level crossing via Slate Creek of the Henry Mountains rather than higher up as we had planned. That route turned out to be a lot more difficult than expected.
Otherwise, we had perfect hiking weather with daily high temperatures in the 60s or low 70s, light to moderate wind, and primarily clear skies.
We met only two solo long distance hikers during our trip; neither was following the HT or crossing the state, but were working their way north and east on itineraries they had created to meet their own needs. We met a pair of backpackers out for a week in Canyonlands, two parties on the Boulder Mail Trail, about five parties out on the Below the Rim Trail in Bryce, and dozens of people backpacking the main trail across Zion. During our trip we met just a few day hikers.
Birds and Critters
We saw 127 species of birds. We saw Ravens daily and they were the most conspicuous birds around; these masters of the air provided good company and a lot of entertainment. We saw Blue-grey Gnatcatchers every day and declared it our bird of the trip. These engaging pairs of little birds were constantly gnatchattering to each other as they moved around the bushes catching insects. Canyon Wrens are the emblematic bird of the red-rock canyons and we heard their quintessential musical song most days.
Bryce has black bears; we saw tracks, but no bears.
For large mammalian wildlife, we saw Mule Deer, Pronghorn Antelope, Big-horn Sheep, Coyote, and feral (a.k.a. wild mustangs) horses.