First off, I had no idea a backpacking route like this could ever exist here in the Utah desert! A trail that snakes below the steep walls of the desert plateau along a winding river. And over the Memorial Day weekend, a group of us decided to do an overnight backpacking trip down the Escalante River trail, and it couldn’t have been a more adventurous trip! We experienced everything from high energy to exhaustion, and dried river beds to wading through waist deep water!
The Escalante river originates in the town of Escalante, UT, flows nearly a 100 miles through the desert landscape, before emptying into the ever-draining Lake Powell. The trail itself is along a 13 mile stretch of the river from the small town of Escalante to its crossing of Route 12. Assuming we’d be hiking with the river, we expected it to be all downhill. And that is about all we knew about the trail and left the rest to be discovered for ourselves.
After spending the previous day hiking around the trails near camp, the group of us, my wife, Courtney, and our two buddies Pete and Nate (with Gregor and Pete’s dog Sven in tow), headed into town to the trailhead. The group headed down the trail where we could see the sparsely populated town towards the west, and the canyon we were about to enter to the east. Right away, it was so exciting, hiking along the sandy trail that ran adjacent to the river and crossed it sporadically. The dogs were living the dream splashing through the water without a care in the world as the rest of us hauled our packs into the sandstone canyon. We hiked for a few miles before stopping for lunch because the trail conditions resulted in such a slow pace, but that just meant more time to spend in a beautiful place.
Of course, all of the fun, like in most backpacking trips, doesn’t last much longer than the first mile or two. Which coincidently, aligned perfectly when the river dried up and the trail turned into a soft sand. This became a bit worrisome, because we had no idea if the river was going to be dry for the rest of the hike. That meant we’d have to conserve water to last us the full two days on the trail. By ourselves, not an issue, but when hiking with a dog in the desert, this becomes a much bigger issue. Who knows how much our dog Gregor will need to drink or if we’ll have to put water on his fur to cool him down. Not to mention, hiking up the sandy, dry riverbed, became beyond exhausting.
Fortunately, more like miraculously, at around mile 6, right near the halfway point, a stream picked back up. The sense of relief that overcame us was indescribable. Even more-so, shortly after that, we came up on the confluence of Escalante River and Death Hallow where the river level picked up drastically, meaning we’d have plenty of water for the rest of the hike. But better than that, mile 6 was our stop for the night were we made camp just back from the river’s edge and spent the night eating our freeze dried food and putting back those heavy beers we brought with us. After a day of backpacking, it’s hard to beat taking off your shoes/Chacos and sitting with your feet in the cold river, as the sun sets over the canyon. And to top of a great night at camp, the temperatures were perfect to sleep outside of your sleeping bag and without the fly on the tent, exposing the beautiful, starry night sky above!
The following day was even more of an adventure. As I mentioned earlier, the river was now flush, and the trail disappeared so we were forced to hike in the river. I guess, “forced” is a stretch, because hiking in a river that is calf-deep is a ton of fun. Or so we thought. As it turns out, even though hiking in the water is a ton of fun, and cooling when hiking in the hot desert temps, it really slows your pace down drastically. Every mile took nearly 45 minutes! With that being said, it was totally worth it, especially with the dogs, keeping them cool and hydrated.
As the miles ticked away, hour by hour, we trudged along as the stunning scenery passed us by. The walls were different shades of tan and orange, towering hundreds of feet above. The river gave life to tons of lush green vegetation. Trees and brush lined the river, a shocking juxtaposition in the normally barren desert landscape. And though I was getting more and more exhausted throughout the trail, it was sad to know the trail was ending, which became more and more apparent as we started seeing day hikers coming from the opposite direction.
Eventually, we made it to the crowded trailhead at the end of our backpacking journey. We experienced highs and lows, which is really the goal for every backpacking trip. If they were all easy, it’d be a pointless endeavor. Rewarding, absolutely. Beautiful, out of this world. Recommend, 10/10, and honestly cannot wait to do it again with a big group next year after knowing what we know now!
My name is Zachary Kenney and I’m an adventure filmmaker & photographer. My passion is to tell stories that will hopefully motivate you to go live a more adventurous life. Whether that is to experience the view from the summit of a mountain, or wandering through a new town on a road trip. Currently based out of Park City, UT.