sunset on hole in the rock road

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument sits along Scenic Highway 12 between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef. It offers some of the best hikes in the state outside of Utah’s infamous Big 5 National Parks. It is definitely worth spending a day in Grand Staircase Escalante.

After our short but steep drive on Scenic Hwy 12 from Bryce Canyon, we arrived in Escalante. To learn more about visiting Bryce Canyon, check out our post.

Before visiting I had read online what to expect at Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and I had high hopes.

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. Grand Staircase Escalante was a pleasant surprise.

Table of Contents

drive from bryce to grand staircase escalante

History of 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”.

grand staircase escalante

Grand Staircase Escalante National Park Basic Facts

Location: south-central Utah

Park Size: one million acres (the size of Delaware)

Elevation: 5,820 feet in the town of Escalante to the park’s highest point at 8,605 feet

Established: National Monument designation in 1996

Admission: free admission; permits are required for all camping

Visitor Centers:  Kanab Visitor Center located at 745 E. Highway 89 Kanab, UT, 84741

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.

The Grand Staircase is visible from some of the viewpoints in Bryce Canyon National Park. To plan your trip, check out our Bryce Canyon National Park blog.

Camping at Grand Staircase Escalante

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.

kara with lizard statue at grand staircase escalante visitor center

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 road continues 56 miles and leads to several popular trailheads including several slot canyons. Slot Canyons at Grand Staircase Escalante has all of the details on the slot canyons on Hole in the Rock Road.

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.

What to do in one day at Grand Staircase Escalante

What to do when visiting Grand Staircase Escalante varies based on your interests and abilities. With one day at Grand Staircase Escalante, a few of the best options are hiking or scenic drives to explore the area.

Hiking is the top activity at Grand Staircase. If you are limited on time I would focus hiking on one geographic area. The top contenders are Escalante Canyon or Hole in the Rock Road slot canyons.

Escalante Natural Bridge or Lower Calf Creek Falls are the highest rated trails in Escalante Canyon.

Hole in the Rock Road is well known for its slot canyons. After driving the long dirt road, you’ll find multiple trails including Spooky Gulch, Peek a Boo, Zebra and Tunnel.

I would also recommend driving around the National Monument on your trip. The drive along Highway 12 is very scenic with several overlooks with interpretative signs.

If you have one day to spend in Grand Staircase Escalante, you should definitely drive the Burr Trail Road. It is a scenic drive through the canyons with several walking paths available along the road. If you aren’t looking for a longer hike, choose any of the short paths that interest you.

Driving Burr Trail Road in 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.

burr trail road

The drive was breathtakingly beautiful as we drove down into the canyon.

Singing Canyon on Burr Trail Road in Grand Staircase Escalante

On Burr Trail Road, we also walked a quarter of a mile into the Singing Canyon. It was completely shaded.

singing canyon

Singing Canyon is named for its acoustics.

Best Hikes in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument

If you want some longer hikes, Escalante has great options. 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 Area Slot Canyons on Hole in the Rock Road

  • Peek-a-Boo and Spooky Slot Canyon, 4.4 miles roundtrip
  • Zebra and Tunnel Slot Canyon, 6.6 miles roundtrip

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.

Hiking Escalante Slot Canyons

Slot canyons are a big hiking attraction in Escalante. For more details about Peek-A-Boo, Spooky, Zebra and Tunnel Slot Canyons check out this post.

Hiking Grand Staircase Escalante Canyon Area

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 in preparation for hikes without a cellular signal.

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. It was worth the trip. The hike itself was sunny and sandy with a few scenic overlooks.

lower calf creek falls hike in grand staircase escalante natioanl monument
kevin hiking at grand staircase escalante
scenic overlook on calf creek trail in grand staircase escalante

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.

lower calf creek falls

One couple 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.

kara at lower calf creek falls waterfall in escalante utah

Hiking Escalante Natural Bridge

escalate 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 the 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 5.5-mile hike required 12 river crossings.

wild flowers in grand staircase escalante
plants we saw in our one day at grand staircase escalante
spring wildflowers are a good reason to plan one day at grand staircase escalanate

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 a fallen tree to traverse without removing our shoes. But otherwise, we took off our shoes and socks at each crossing.

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. We perfected our technique of removing boots and socks, wading across the river, drying our feet, and donning socks and boots at each crossing.

kevin at river crossing on escalante natural bridge trail

Can you walk in the river at Escalante Natural Bridge?

You can walk in the river along the Escalante Natural Bridge trail. It is slow walking. I would not attempt if you are on a schedule.

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 it. 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.

kevin walking in escalante river

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.

kevin on sandy trail in escalante

Where to get lunch when hiking Escalante

I packed sandwiches for lunch and planned to buy sides and drinks from the Kiva Koffeehouse.

Kiva Koffeehouse is the only restaurant in the Escalante Canyon area. The coffeehouse provides great scenic views of the area. Unfortunately, their menu was very limited due to COVID and they were not allowing customers indoors.

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.

view from kiva koffeehouse

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 via Scenic Highway 12.

Check out our Capitol Reef post to plan your trip. 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. The park was equally as beautiful as Utah’s Big 5 but with smaller crowds. A day in Grand Staircase Escalante is definitely worthy of your next adventure.

viewpoint in grand staircase escalante

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument YouTube Videos

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