Notes for Potential Hikers
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 possible cliff-break, labelled “Circle Cliffs ascent” on our Caltopo map, that we thought would go 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 suggested 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; retreat and 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 viable route based on the small topographic details that do not show up on a map. This 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 an exact track during our hike and the route shown in the CalTopo map is a post-trip reconstruction.
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 a bit 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 as 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 the Harris Wash Trailhead registration box. This trailhead is accessible via a graded dirt road that was easily driveable in our two-wheel drive Toyota Matrix. A four-wheel drive vehicle may be necessary if the road is wet due to recent rains.
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.
Cell phone service in the area is spotty at best: carry a PLB.
Harris Wash between Big Horn and the Harris Wash trailhead has been cleared of most but yet 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.