How to Spend a Day at Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument: Some of Utah’s best hikes outside the National Parks
March 15, 2021
Originally posted July 2020; Revised and migrated March 2021
Travel date June 2020
After our short but steep drive on Scenic Hwy 12 from Bryce Canyon, we arrived in Escalante. I had read online what to expect at Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. We decided to detour through Escalante to try a few of the highly-rated hikes. Even with high expectations, the area’s beauty impressed me. It is definitely worth spending a day in Grand Staircase Escalante.
Grand Staircase Escalante
The Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument spans nearly 1 million acres. Due to its rugged terrain and remote location, it was the last area of the continental US to be mapped. In 2018, the White House administration reduced the protected area of the National Monument from 1.88 million acres to 1 million acres, essentially opening the area back up to other uses such as mining. The official White House statement stated the area no longer needed protection. The new boundaries were “confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected”.
How far is Grand Staircase to Bryce and Zion National Park?
Grand Staircase Escalante is a great addition to a Utah National Parks road trip. We loved our time in this area and would recommend spending at least a half-day at the National Monument. Grand Staircase Escalante is 46 miles to Zion National Park and only 22 miles to Bryce Canyon National Park.
Why is it named Grand Staircase Escalante?
The Grand Staircase Escalante is named for the nearby river and its stair-shaped cliffs. The Escalante River had carved canyons and gorges over time. The unique sandstone shapes including slot canyons attract hikers and backpackers. The monument is named for the cliffs that step up in elevation from the south to the north. The Monument has five different levels of steps or cliffs that have eroded revealing distinctively different colors of stone. The last step on the staircase ends at the Grand Canyon.
We chose to boondock which requires a free permit from the Bureau of Land Management within the national monument. On our way into Escalante, we stopped at the regional BLM office but it was closed due to COVID. We did find a few good maps posted on the outside of the building. Along with a sign that advised us to continue to use the public lands despite the office being closed.
They didn’t have any big ‘Welcome to Escalante’ signs for photo ops but they had a giant lizard statue.
What is boondocking on BLM land?
Boondocking is also called dry camping but simply put it is camping without electric, water, or sewer connections. Pippi, our motorhome, has solar panels and large storage tanks for fresh water and wastewater so lack of connections doesn’t affect our quality of life. To learn more about our solar modifications, check out Kevin’s blog post.
BLM campsites are free for everyone, usually with 14 days stay limits to protect the land and prevent permanent residents from dominating the available spots.
Free Camping at Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
Based on previous research and confirmation from the BLM posted information about free camping at Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, we chose to camp along Hole in the Rock Road. If you are only staying one day at Grand Staircase Escalante, Hole is the Rock is an easy in-and-out location for the night.
The wind was strong the day we arrived and the majority of the area was sandy. We did our best to find the least dusty spot and chose a lovely spot on a small cliffside overlooking the nearby valley. We were surrounded by scrubby grasses on three sides which kept the dust to a minimum. While staying here we watched giant dust clouds beating up other campers in less ideal spots.
Needless to say, we were really thankful for our views and protection from the dust. Thankfully, we had a little bit of cell service at our campsite and were able to do a little computer work while there.
Hole in the Rock Road Utah
In 1879, the San Juan Mission of Mormon pioneers named The Hole in the Rock near Escalante Utah. The almost vertical Glen Canyon walls made crossing the Colorado River impossible until they discovered this “hole in the rock”. Even here, they spent six weeks creating a path for the wagon party to descent the 45-foot cliffside.
Hole in the Rock Road is a 56-mile maintained dirt road with several popular hikes. However, we only explored the first mile to find our camping spot.
What to do in 1-day at Grand Staircase Escalante
What to do when visiting Grand Staircase Escalante varies based on your interests and abilities. If you have 1-day to spend in Grand Staircase Escalante, you should drive the Burr Trail Rd and chose a hike that interests you.
Best Hikes in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
Hiking is the most popular activity in this area with waterfalls, narrow slot canyons, arches, and sculpted slick rock for variety. A few of the most highly rated hikes in the area are:
Escalante Canyon Area
Lower Calf Creek Falls, 7 miles roundtrip
Escalante Natural Bridge, 5.5 miles roundtrip
Longer hike option: Coyote Gulch requires 8-10 hours or overnight in the gulch.
Hole in the Rock Road Slot Canyons
Peek-a-Boo and Spooky Slot Canyon, 4.4 miles roundtrip
Zebra and Tunnel Slot Canyon, 6.6 miles roundtrip
Hole in the Rock Slot Canyons
Peek-a-Boo and Spooky Slot Canyon is a really popular hike about 25 miles down the dirt Hole in the Rock Road. Slot canyons are narrow canyons eroded into the slick rock. They are very common in this area of Utah. Intrigued by slot canyons, I watched YouTube videos of others taking this hike. One guy, without any fear of small spaces, scraped up his legs and arms on the hike. He took an audible breath of relief at the end of the hike as he exited the end of the canyon. I quickly decided slot canyons were not the best choice for my slight claustrophobia. This is a really good blog post by Earthtrekers about the hike if you are interested.
Hiking Grand Staircase Escalante
With limited time in the area and slightly uncertain how much hiking my knees could handle, I chose two moderately difficult trails in Escalante. But based on my research both seemed unique enough to justify the effort. During our exploration of the area, we had no cellular signal which made navigation and spur-of-the-moment plan changes challenging. It was a great reminder of how much we rely on our phones to research throughout the day. After this experience, I decided to buy a Pro license for the AllTrails app. My Pro license allows me to download offline maps.
Hiking Lower Calf Creek Falls
Lower Calf Creek Falls was 7 miles out and back (3.5 miles from the start to the end of the trail and then 3.5 miles back along the same path). The end of the trail was a spectacular waterfall worth the trip. The hike itself was sunny and sandy with a few scenic overlooks. The trail was fairly busy for our morning hike but crowds were increasing when we finished in the early afternoon. We saw all types of people hiking this trail including small kids and people carrying camp chairs. Once we arrived at the falls we saw why.
The rocky walls around the sandy beach provided great shade and combined with the mist from the waterfall the air temperature dropped at least 15 degrees. This was a place you’d want to spend a while.
One couple had hung their hammock between two trees and were having a photoshoot complete with wardrobe changes. As usual, we found a rock in the shade to enjoy our lunch and indulge in people-watching before heading back to the car.
Hiking Escalante Natural Bridge
The next morning, we got an earlier start because the Escalate Natural Bridge trailhead parking lot fills quickly during the summer. I am not certain if we were the first people on the trail but we didn’t see any other people until we reached the end of trail. At that point, we saw backpackers who had clearly slept in the backcountry the night before. The Escalante Natural Bridge trail was our first experience with river crossings. And we started big, this 5.5mi hike required 12 river crossings.
How to hike over river crossings?
We didn’t have a solid plan of attack of how to hike over the river crossings. I considered wearing my waterproof hiking boots in the river. Kevin had no interest in walking the sandy trail with wet shoes, so we decided to remove our shoes for each crossing. No other hikers stopped at the water crossings to remove their boots and socks but in hindsight, I agree with Kevin. Removing our shoes was the smartest plan. There was one crossing we used rocks and at a fallen tree to traverse without removing our shoes.
We saw many hikers wearing hiking sandals or water shoes. Some others just walked through the river in their boots. The river levels ranged between my knee and ankle but the water would have flowed over the top of my boots and soaked my socks at every crossing.
We laughed a lot. It was an adventure finding the most forgiving river bank at each crossing and perfecting our technique of removing boots and socks, wading across the river, drying our feet, and donning socks and boots at each crossing.
Escalante Natural Bridge: Can you walk in the river?
Another hiker’s online review stated she had walked through the river from crossing #3 to #4 (or #9 and #10 on the return trip). We decided to do the same as the day was warming up quickly. The river bottom was nice and sandy in some spots but volleyball to baseball-sized river rocks covered most of the river bottom. We found tree branches to use as hiking/guide sticks and laughed as we slowly made our way down the river. We saw several fish in the clear, cool water along the way.
The river walking was both physically and mentally challenging because we had to choose each step carefully. It was a nice change from mindlessly putting one foot in front of the other on the flat sandy trail. Plus the cool water on our feet felt great on a hot afternoon.
Where to get lunch
I packed sandwiches for lunch and planned to buy sides and drinks from the Kiva Koffeehouse. This was the only restaurant in the area of our hikes and provided great scenic views of the area. Unfortunately, their menu was very limited due to COVID and they were not allowing customers inside.
A folding table was blocking the front doorway and acting as a temporary ordering counter. We saw a similar setup at the liquor store in Escalante with a cart showcasing their beer selection to patrons. Kiva Koffeehouse had an interesting setup with a nice view.
Can you drive the Grand Staircase Escalante?
You can also drive the Grand Staircase Escalante if you don’t want to hike. After lunch, we took the Burr Trail Road scenic drive. If you only have one day in Grand Staircase Escalante, I would highly recommend Burr Trail Road.
The drive was breathtakingly beautiful as we drove down into the canyon. On Burr Trail Road, we also walked a quarter of a mile into the Singing Canyon. Singing Canyon, named for its acoustics, was completely shaded.
Is there a grocery store in Escalante?
While in Escalante, we also visited the local grocery store, Griffins Grocery & General Merchandise. During our visit, their hours were noon until 6 pm on Monday- Saturday. However, I am not sure if the hours were normal or limited due to COVID. Griffins is a small shop compared to our usual supermarket experience, but they had very fair prices and a decent selection. We were able to restock our pantry and refill our supplies of fresh produce without breaking the bank. They offered gloves, masks, and hand sanitizer at the front door to keep customers safe.
Sadly, a few highly rated restaurants in Escalante were completely closed due to COVID, so we ate at home while visiting this area. Our next stop near Capitol Reef National Park was less than 70 miles away. After a few days in Escalante, we hit the road for a short travel day heading north to our next national park.
Is Grand Staircase Escalante worth seeing?
To sum up, we loved our detour to Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. The hikes in the area were a beautiful addition to our Utah National Parks road trip. A day in Grand Staircase Escalante is definitely worthy of your next adventure.