This rugged national monument offers numerous opportunities for outdoor adventures, including canyoneering through narrow slot canyons, with the aid of ropes. You can get information on the best areas for canyoneering at the monument's visitor centers, but it cannot be emphasized too strongly that this is not the place for beginners. To put it bluntly, people die here and you don't want to be one of them.
Unless you are an expert at this specialized sport it is highly recommended that you go with an expert. One of the best is Rick Green, owner of Excursions of Escalante, 125 E. Main St. (P.O. Box 605), Escalante, UT 84726 (tel. 800/839-7567; www.excursions-escalante.com). Trips, which are available year-round, usually include four people with one guide, and all equipment is provided. In addition to canyoneering trips, the company offers day hiking and backpacking excursions, plus specialized tours. Day trips include lunch. Hiking trips cost $115 per person, canyoneering costs $135 to $150 per person, and a photo safari costs $155 per person. Overnight backpacking trips cost $225 to $250 per person per day, which includes practically everything you need, including food. Credit cards are not accepted; cash and checks are welcome. Excursions of Escalante also provides a flexible shuttle service; call for a quote.
Hiking, Mountain Biking & Horseback Riding
Located about 15 miles northeast of Escalante via Utah 12, the Calf Creek Recreation Area has a campground, a picnic area with fire grates and tables, trees, drinking water, and flush toilets. The tree-shaded picnic and camping area lies along the creek at the bottom of a high-walled, rather narrow rock canyon. The best part of the recreation area, though, is the moderately strenuous 5.5-mile round-trip hike to Lower Calf Creek Falls. A sandy trail leads along Calf Creek, past beaver ponds and wetlands, to a beautiful waterfall that cascades 126 feet down a rock wall into a tree-shaded pool. You can pick up an interpretive brochure at the trail head.
Although the Calf Creek Trail is the monument's only officially marked and maintained trail, numerous unmarked cross-country routes are ideal for hiking, mountain biking (on existing dirt roads only), and horseback riding. Hikers are advised to stop at one of the visitor centers to get recommendations on hiking routes and to purchase topographic maps. Hikers need to remember that this is wild country and can be hazardous. Rangers recommend carrying at least 1 gallon of water per person per day, and say that all water from streams should be treated before drinking. The potential for flooding is high, and hikers should check with the BLM before attempting to hike through the monument's narrow slot canyons, which offer no escape during flash floods. Other hazards include poisonous snakes and scorpions and, in the wetter areas, poison ivy. Slickrock, as the name suggests, is slippery, so hikers should wear sturdy hiking boots with traction soles.
Among the popular and relatively easy-to-follow hiking routes is the footpath to Escalante Natural Bridge; it repeatedly crosses the river, so be prepared to get wet up to your knees. The easy 2-mile (one-way) hike begins at a parking area at the bridge that crosses the Escalante River near Calf Creek Recreation Area, 15 miles northeast of the town of Escalante. From the parking area, hike upstream to Escalante Natural Bridge, on the south side of the river. The bridge is 130 feet high and spans 100 feet.
Also starting at the bridge parking area is a hike downstream to Phipps Wash. Mostly moderate, this hike goes about 1.5 miles to the mouth of Phipps Wash, which enters the river from the west. You'll find Maverick Natural Bridge in a north side drainage, and climbing up the drainage on the south side leads to Phipps Arch.
Hiking the national monument's slot canyons is very popular, but the importance of checking on flood potentials before starting out cannot be stressed enough. A sudden rainstorm miles away can cause a flash flood through one of the monument's narrow canyons, trapping hikers.
One challenging and very strenuous slot-canyon hike is through Peek-a-boo and Spooky canyons, which are accessible from the Hole-in-the-Rock Scenic Backway. Stop at the Escalante Interagency Office for precise directions.
Sightseeing & Four-Wheeling
Because this is one of America's least-developed large sections of public land, it offers a wonderful opportunity for exploration by the adventurous. Be aware, though, that the dirt roads inside the monument turn muddy -- and impassable -- when it rains.
One particularly popular road is the Hole-in-the-Rock Scenic Backway, which is partly in the national monument and partly in the adjacent Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Like most roads in the monument, this should be attempted in dry weather only. Starting about 5 miles northeast of Escalante off Utah 12, this clearly marked dirt road travels 57 miles (one-way) to the Hole-in-the-Rock, where Mormon settlers, in 1880, cut a passage through solid rock to get their wagons down a 1,200-foot cliff to the canyon floor and Colorado River below.
About 12 miles in, the road passes by the sign to Devil's Rock Garden, an area of classic red-rock formations and arches, and a picnic area (about a mile off the main road). The road continues across a plateau of typical desert terrain, ending at a spectacular scenic overlook of Lake Powell. The first 35 miles of the scenic byway are relatively easy (in dry weather); it then gets a bit steeper and sandier, and the last 6 miles of the road require a high-clearance 4X4 vehicle. Allow about 6 hours round-trip and make sure you have plenty of fuel and water.
Another recommended drive in the national monument is the Cottonwood Canyon Road, which runs from Kodachrome Basin State Park south to U.S. 89, along the monument's southern edge, a distance of about 46 miles. The road is sandy and narrow, and washboard in places, but usually passable for passenger cars in dry weather. It mostly follows Cottonwood Wash, with good views of red-rock formations and distant panoramas from hilltops. About 10 miles east of Kodachrome Basin State Park is a short side road to Grosvenor Arch. This magnificent stone arch, with an opening 99 feet wide, was named for National Geographic Society founder and editor Gilbert H. Grosvenor, and is well worth the trip. Incidentally, a professional photographer friend once complained bitterly about the power lines that parallel the road, making scenic photography difficult. However, the BLM notes that the road wouldn't exist at all if it weren't for those power lines.
Wildlife Viewing & Birding
The isolated and rugged terrain here makes a good habitat for a number of species, including desert bighorn sheep and mountain lions. More than 200 species of birds have been seen, including bald eagles, golden eagles, Swainson's hawks, and peregrine falcons. The best areas for seeing wildlife are along the Escalante and Paria rivers and Johnson Creek.
Backcountry camping is permitted in most areas of the monument with a free permit, available at the Interagency Office in Escalante and BLM office in Kanab. Sites are first come, first served.
The monument also has two designated campgrounds. Calf Creek Campground, in the Calf Creek Recreation Area about 15 miles northeast of the town of Escalante via Utah 12, has 13 sites and a picnic area. Open year-round, the tree-shaded campground is situated in a scenic, steep canyon along Calf Creek, surrounded by high rock walls. Facilities include a volleyball court, an interpretive hiking trail, flush toilets, and drinking water, but no showers, RV hookups, RV dump stations, or trash removal. In summer, the campground is often full by 10am. From November through March, water is turned off and only vault toilets are available. Vehicles must ford a shallow creek, and the campground is not recommended for vehicles over 25 feet long. Campsites cost $7 per night; day use is $2 per vehicle.
The national monument's other designated campground is Deer Creek, located 6 miles east of the town of Boulder along the scenic Burr Trail Road. Camping at the four primitive sites here costs $4; no drinking water or other facilities are available. RVs and cars can fit onto the sites here.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.