If you want to get an up-close look at southern Utah’s arches, natural bridges, and hoodoos, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM) will introduce you to the region’s world-renowned landscape. Although the area has gotten more popular in recent years, you have a much better chance of finding some solitude on the trails than in places like Moab, Bryce, or Zion. Here are my favorite Escalante day hikes, all of them doable in a half-day or less!
Lower Calf Creek Falls
If you’ve looked at a Utah guidebook, you’ve no doubt seen a picture of this waterfall. Lower Calf Creek Falls plunges about 125 feet down lichen-covered sandstone into a scenic pool. Although the 3-mile hike to the falls is not technically difficult, sections of loose sand make it seem longer than it is. If you set out on this hike in the summer without enough water (which I did once and do not recommend), several short paths lead down to the creek, where you can jump in the water and cool off.
Be sure and pick up a trail guide, which will indicate points along the trail where you can see ancient granaries and pictographs on the cliff walls. Most of the trail runs parallel to Scenic Byway 12 (Hwy 12), so you can stop at several pullouts and get a glimpse of the trail from up high. And in case you’re wondering why it’s called Lower Calf Creek Falls, yes there is an Upper Falls, which is not nearly as dramatic as the lower falls). Note that there is a day use fee (currently $5.00) to park at Calf Creek Recreation Area.
Trailhead location: Calf Creek Recreation Area, 15 miles east of Escalante on Hwy 12
Hiking distance: 6 miles (round-trip)
Not to be confused with the Devils Garden in Arches National Park, this Devils Garden near Escalante includes some of the most iconic formations in all of canyon country. Here, erosion has transformed the Entrada Sandstone into an enchanted playground of spires, arches, and hoodoos. As you walk through the maze of rock spires, you’ll eventually stumble upon Metate Arch, the flagship feature of the Devils Garden. This uniquely shaped caprock arch was created when adjacent layers of rock eroded at different rates. Not far from Metate is its companion, Mano Arch (a mano is the round stone used to grind corn inside the metate).
I love to come here at sunset, when the low angle of the sun makes the hoodoos glow against the blue sky. Kids absolutely love this place, so if you have little ones be prepared to drag them out kicking and screaming when you leave. Getting to Devils Garden requires driving 12 miles down Hole-in-the-Rock Road, which is unpaved but usually doable in a regular vehicle. You might have a bumpy ride, though, depending on road conditions.
Trailhead location: 12 miles down Hole-in-the-Rock Road, 18 miles from Escalante
Hiking distance: Wander as far as you like
Upper Escalante River Trail
The entire Escalante River Trail (both upper and lower) runs for about 85 miles from the town of Escalante to Lake Powell. But you don’t have to hike anywhere near that distance to see a portion of this scenic canyon. An easy day hike will take you to the massive Escalante Natural Bridge, which towers 130 feet above the river. The 2-mile trail involves fording the Escalante River five times, and on a hot summer day this is one of my favorite Escalante day hikes.
If you’re up for a longer adventure, the Upper Escalante Canyon runs for 13 miles from the town of Escalante to the parking area on Hwy 12. You can hike the upper canyon in one long day as a shuttle trip, or you can do an overnight backpack trip and enjoy a more leisurely pace.
Trailhead location: Midway between Escalante and Boulder on Hwy 12 (small parking area)
Hiking distance: 4 miles (round-trip) to natural bridge
This is one of my favorite arches in all of the Southwest, and there’s no park entrance fee required to see it. Standing like a grand sandstone cathedral in the middle of the desert, Grosvenor Arch is a testament to the dramatic power of erosion. At 152 feet high, the formation is a geologically rare double arch—a pair of arches that share the same rock base on one side.
It’s really not accurate to call this a “hike,” as it’s just a short stroll from your car. However, getting to the parking area does require driving about 10 miles on unpaved road. (It always makes me laugh to see the paved sidewalk to the arch after driving on a dirt road to get there.) Depending on weather conditions, the route is typically suitable for most vehicles if you drive slowly. Most people snap a few photos and get back in their car, but you should really spend some time here. I could spend hours here doing photography, as the arch looks different from every angle. Check road conditions before you go.
Trailhead location: 17 miles from Cannonville, off Cottonwood Canyon Road (unpaved)
Hiking distance: 100 yards from parking area to base of arch
Have you done any of these Escalante day hikes? Let us know what you thought!
Images and text ©Laurie J. Schmidt, All Rights Reserved