Trip Summary

What: off-trail backpacking in the side canyons of the Escalante River.
Where: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument between Harris Wash and Highway 12.
When: Sep 19-24, 2020 (6 days).
Distance: about 83 miles.
Highlights:  spectacular canyons and vistas, traversing vast areas of slickrock, moqui marble gardens.

Why we went

We are passionate about hiking in Southern Utah and try to return for a backpacking trip whenever we can. For this trip, we chose a region that we had not previously explored in detail that included a number of potentially interesting side canyons to the Escalante River and some overland connections that would be fun to navigate and provide grand vistas. James put together a route that linked up these canyons using bits of information from the AcrossUtah website, topo maps, and satellite imagery.

We previously had been able to get an overnight camping permit on Santa Cruz Island, and we drove to Utah directly after completing that visit. As such, the timing of our Utah trip was based on the Santa Cruz Island permit. For weather and foliage reasons it would have been bit better to go to Utah a couple weeks later in the season, but that would have required that we do some additional driving.

Resources

Canyoneering 3, Loop Hikes in Utah’s Escalante, by Steve Allen, is an excellent hiking guide for the region and includes detailed descriptions of hikes for backpackers at all skill levels.

Jamal Green’s AcrossUtah website has much useful route data for hiking in this region.

Canyons of the Escalante, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map covers the entire region. It is a good overview, but is not as detailed as the 1:24,000 USGS maps that we print using CalTopo.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument BLM site, NPS site, and wiki page.

Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and Grand Canyon Trust have worked for decades to defend Utah’s redrock wilderness.

As for all our trips, we used our favorite mapping tools: Google Earth and CalTopo.com to prepare gpx data and printed maps, and Gaia GPS while hiking.

Click map to open an interactive CalTopo map in a new browser tab. Instructions for using CalTopo.

Amy’s Assessment

This was a good time for me personally to escape from the real world into the calm beauty of nature. For this reason alone this was a deeply satisfying trip.

To my eyes, every place in the southern Utah canyons is overwhelmingly beautiful. I love the vast expanses with big vistas juxtaposed against the intimate canyon bottoms. The route finding is always fun and walking on slickrock is truly delightful. The canyons we visited on this trip were neither more nor less gratifying than other trips, so in some sense the most fun part was just getting to explore new places.

In James assessment he lists the places he liked the best, and I concur with his list. I’ll comment on one canyon he didn’t mention: The Gulch between highway 12 and the Escalante River was OK, but it lacked the magical qualities present in so many of the Escalante side canyons. That is one of very few side canyons that I don’t feel a need to return to.

While there I often felt it was too bloody warm, unseasonably warm, even hot. But I’ve only been home for a week and that memory has already faded; memories of beautiful landscapes, fun slot canyons, and fields of moqui marbles are foremost in my mind.

As with every other trip to the region, I feel an overwhelming desire to go back and see beautiful surprises are hiding around the next bend.

James’ Assessment

We have visited the Escalante region so often now that I feel very much at home there. Even though it is a wild, isolated, and challenging place to travel in, I find it always welcoming. There is a constant engaging visual contrast between the close up and intimate details of the rocks you are walking on and the vast open vistas that extend for tens of miles. Some of the canyons envelope you and cut off much of the rest of the place focusing you on the right here, while others open up and invite you to just stand and stare into space

When the wind is not blowing, it is so quiet.

Around every corner is someplace new and intriguing that says: explore this.

When on a canyon bottom, I wonder what is up on the rim; when on the rim I wonder what is down in that canyon: the tension is delicious.

Is there anything better than walking across square miles of open undulating and constantly varying slickrock?

At night there are no man made sources of light anywhere except that reflecting off of passing satellites.

It is just so plain satisfying to travel in this extraordinarily beautiful place.

The places I liked the best included:

  • the slickrock benches to the east of Red Breaks: fabulous walking over beautiful and colorful stone;
  • lower Horse Canyon: a classic east of the Escalante side canyon with a bit of good water;
  • lower Wolverine Canyon: a very satisfying and visually coherent canyon;
  • the traverse of King Bench: a fine open juniper forest with great vistas from local high point;
  • the slickrock found just south of the Escalante River and east of Big Spencer Flats with fascinating narrow and linear canyons connecting to the Escalante to the north and scattered big fields of moqui marbles;
  • upper Phipps Wash: a nicely open canyon with some fine big walls;
  • Big Horn Canyon: a fun descent through a wide and shallow canyon that included some very fun narrow slots incised into its bottom.

Notes for Potential Hikers

Route Description

On this trip we visited numerous side canyons to the Escalante River including portions of Harris Wash, Red Breaks, Horse Canyon, and Little Death Hollow, Wolverine Canyon, The Gulch south of Highway 12 (we walked its upper reaches on our Across Utah trip), part of Phipps Wash, and Big Horn.

Hiking in the Escalante area is generally a combination of following both wet and dry canyon bottoms and crossing the open upland areas between them. The canyons are bounded by mostly impassable Navajo or Wingate Sandstone walls with few passable breaks. Creating a nicely varied loop trip requires mapping ways to link various segments by using known access routes between canyon bottoms and rims or by finding and exploring likely routes that do so. When routing in a canyon bottom, you also have to be sure you can bypass the pour-offs found in many of the side canyons, many of which cannot be identified in the topographic maps or satellite images. Information can sometimes be found in trip reports or guidebooks that confirms whether a canyon or upland route is navigable.

For this trip, we could not find any data about accessing the top of King Bench through the Circle Cliffs from the Horse Canyon drainage’s. Studying maps and satellite images, we identified a break, labelled “Circle Cliffs ascent” on our Caltopo map, that we thought would work so we committed to the itinerary. If our planned ascent route was not negotiable, we would have to double back the way we came. Fortunately, the notch in the cliff wall turned out to be easy class 2 climbing and an old cairn at the top indicated that the route had been used by others sometime in the past.

Navigation was straightforward and we primarily used printed USGS topographic maps created using CalTopo.com. It was helpful, but not mandatory, to have phone based GPS track as well.

Navigation challenges and other risks that hikers encounter in this region are different in nature from those in other landscapes and this entire route is off-trail. However, compared to other southern Utah backpacking trips we have taken, this is one of the least risky and is therefore appropriate for a moderately skilled backpacker who is not yet familiar with hiking in this region. There were some scrambles, but no significant technical rock-climbing. A key to a successful experience is being able to navigate off-trail and to be able to read a landscape. This means being willing to turn around and backtrack if a particular place appears too difficult or risky; find another alternative. Locating the unmarked pour-off bypasses and traveling across the large trackless tops requires more than just the ability to follow a pre-recorded GPS track. The hiker must be able to plan on the ground a route based on the small topographic details that do not show up on a map. The route does touch or provides easy access to public roads at six locations, so if a backpacker is having difficulties, it would be possible to abort a trip early. Highway 12, the Burr Trail, and the Hole-in-the-Rock Road all have regular traffic. The Purple Hills Road and the Spencer Flat Road may or may not have daily vehicles, but would provide an easy and safe  path to walk out to one of the more traveled roads.

On our trip we saw a one person at the Horse Canyon road crossing, a couple at the Lower Gulch Trailhead where they generously gave us several gallons of water, one party at the Spencer Flat road crossing, and two near the Zebra Slot Canyon, which is very close to a trailhead. All of those people were at or within a mile of a drive-able road; we did not see any other hikers during the remainder of our trip.

Disclaimer: Do not rely on our exact GPX track for your route; use skill and common sense. We did not record a track during our hike and the route shown in the CalTopo map is a post-trip reconstruction.

Additional Notes

The biggest challenge on this hike was the scarcity of water. Normally, this region has summer monsoon rains that fill the bench top potholes and recharge canyon bottom springs, providing reasonably reliable and widely distributed water sources. The summer of 2020 was exceptionally dry; almost all of the potholes were empty, and many springs and streams were not flowing at all. The mid 80’s to low 90’s daytime temperatures were hotter than is usual for this time of year. We were extremely rigorous about collecting water from known reliable sources, and we carried much more water than normal, 15 liters at one point. Fortunately, we had a tiny bit of rain on nights three and four and this filled a few very shallow ephemeral pools in the bench top slickrock. There was one side benefit to the lack of rain: the the usually silt laden Escalante River was running quite clear. The water sources included in the Caltopo map may or may not have water when you are there. The waymarks labelled “vsw” mean “visible surface water” seen in satellite imagery; since the rainfall conditions at the time the images are captured is unknown, these markers simply indicate potential sources and do not imply water is guaranteed to be there.

We obtained a free backcountry permit at the Interagency Visitor Center just west of the town of Escalante on Highway 12. However, as of this writing, you can also self-issue yourself a permit at trail register at the Harris Wash Trailhead. This trailhead is accessible via a graded dirt road easily driveable in our two-wheel drive Toyota Matrix.

Finding good to superb campsites is not difficult if you are willing to make camp away from a water source. As always, be cautious about camping in dry washes if there is any possibility of precipitation as these washes can flash flood with no warning.

We had no significant insect problems.

Harris Wash between Big Horn and the Harris Wash trailhead has been cleared of most but not all of the invasive Russian Olive trees. This impressive and difficult work throughout the Escalante drainages has been a multi-year labor of love by volunteers; we can’t thank them enough.