Ultimate Weekend Guide: Escalante, Utah

The town of Escalante is one of Utah’s last remaining hidden gems, untouched in so many ways, with true sense of adventure still able to be found here. This desert landscape, that surrounds the tiny town of Escalante, is expansive and seemingly endless in all directions. A haven for both off-roaders and human powered alike. And after five years of adventures here, I still have barely touched the surface of possibilities here. There are so many more slot canyons, jeep roads, canyoneering, hikes, and climbs to be explored.

As I mentioned, I’ve only scratched the surface, but I’ve spent so many hours walking this desert landscape and driving it’s seemingly endless dirt roads. Escalante is a 5.5hr drive south from Salt Lake City, and the town is only about 1 square mile, at the base of a desert plateau. The town is right at the transition of the lush green, high elevation, Dixie National Forest to the expansive desert landscape of the Grand Staircase Escalante that eventually drains into Lake Powell 61 miles south. In the region around Escalante, tourists, adventure seekers, and wanders alike flock here during the months from Spring to Fall to go hike, explore canyons, and stand on-top of staggering heights. 

The famous area where so many people drive to explore, is called “Hole in the Rock Road”. Just a short drive from town, it acts like a gateway to adventure. From this dirt, bumpy road, you can access endless, iconic hikes and slot canyons. To reach the slot canyons, you park alongside the main road, then hike off into the desert, usually along a wash or dry river bed for 2-5 miles, until you reach a crack in the rock, wide enough to fit your body through. Some slot canyons are wide enough to easily walk through, while others may only be 12″ wide, requiring you to squeeze and slip through sideways as far as you can. Others, more technical, can require you to rappel using climbing gear and ropes to go down 30-90ft into caves and other canyons. All of which can be found off this road. A few famous slot canyons and hikes are called Zebra, Tunnel, Peak-a-Boo, Spooky, Brimstone, and Witches

On the opposite end of town, you can hike down to Upper Calf Creek, which is a desert Oasis that sits a few hundred feet below the narrow road that you dive in on from the town of Boulder. This steep hike down, and I mean really steep, will eventually lead to a handful of pools that are tucked away on the top of a desert mesa. One year, we hiked, swam, and jumped off the cliff edges into these pools for an unforgettable day in the Utah sun. But don’t forget, getting down was the easy part, because the hike out with our dogs was twice as hard after a long day of play. But that is only scratching the surface of a few slot canyons that are named and identified. But in reality, you could pick any dirt road, drive to the end of it, and then go explore for yourself a sandstone cliff or canyon and find yourself an adventure. 

For those looking for a more mellow experience, don’t worry, there is still plenty to see and do. One can see pure beauty just driving around to different view points along Hole in the Rock Road or head to the easily accessible Devil’s Garden which will have you hike around massive boulders.  Head north of town to the Lower Calf Creek Trailhead for some hiking. The Lower Calf Creek trail is a 3 mile hike, on a sandy trail, through a desert canyon, that takes you to a massive waterfall. Along the way to this trail, you’ll cross over the Escalante River, which you can get out to explore, play in, and even hike up its shallow bottom in either direction. Additionally, you can head out to the local Petrified Forest State Park where you can learn about petrified wood, dinosaur bones, and the desert animals that currently inhabit the area. Plus there is a big lake in the state park for those hot days in summer!

Because there are no towns in any direction for hours, you are all but forced to spend the night in, or around, the town of Escalante to truly experience in the right way. The obvious way to spend the night would be at one of the many hotels, motels, cabins, or campgrounds within the Escalante town limits. A perfectly great option, especially during the summer months when temperatures are really hot during the days, or in the fall with its really cold nights. During our first trip to Escalante, we stayed in cabins near the West end of town, at Canyons of Escalante RV Park, which was amazing. But most other times we’ve visited here, we’ve camped out on the amazing public lands south of town. This area, free for all to camp in, is a very popular place to camp. Of course, the open areas closest to town are usually packed, and filled up on most busy weekend. The further you drive down Hole-in-the-Rock Road, the more the dispersed the people become, and that’s normally where you’ll find us. It’s worth the additional hour of driving after getting to Escalante, down a bumpy, dusty road, to find the perfect campsite far from everyone else, to enjoy the desert in the best way possible, in solitude. 

The highlight of my trips to Escalante over the years was backpacking the 13 mile Escalante River trail. 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! We slowly made our way down the sandy river trail, eventually to camp, and then the following day out to the trucks through water for 7 miles. The trip left an everlasting impression on me about how much more of the desert there is still to be explored.

Though most of the time we spend our entire weekends outside of town, out on the public lands, we to end up in town every now and then to eat or for a drink. And without a doubt, we always end up at Escalante Outfitters, for their incredible pizza, beer, and of course any gear needs one might have on an adventurous weekend. This was a must after we backpacked the Escalante River trail and were starved for some real food after eating only granola bars and freeze dried food for a couple days. We’ve even spent a few nights drinking away at 4th West Pub late in the fall months before the cold winter rolled into Utah. But beyond that, there are a few other new restaurants that come in every year, small convenience stores, a couple of gas stations in town, and a small grocery store for those looking for bigger items to cook.

I am torn writing about areas in Utah that aren’t nearly as popular as the towns like Moab or Park City. I do feel like I’m letting the secret out sometimes, a secret that we’ve kept to ourselves for so long. Sure, Escalante is no secret to those who live here. I guess the nearly 6 hour drive from Salt Lake City and 9 hour dive from Denver, has kept most tourist at bay until now. But to me, this place is incredible, and I want more people to see this place and experience the magic it has, before it turns into a town like Moab, where you can’t go two feet without seeing a hundred cars parked at trailheads and 4-wheelers ripping around everywhere. This place still feels empty, desolate, and where a true adventure can still be had off in the vast wilderness of the Grand Staircase Escalante!

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