At over 1 million acres, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is one of the largest national monuments in the United States. The majority of the land within the monument is wild, rugged, and much of it is inaccessible except on foot. Ancient cultures inhabited for thousands of years, and extensive ruins and evidence of these thriving civilizations can be found throughout the area. The monument has been in the news recently due to a political decision to reduce its size by 47%, and adventurers who’ve heard this buzz are eager to explore and understand for themselves what this southern Utah treasure is all about.
The area is full of some of the world’s most dramatic geologic features, from thousands of slot canyons cut by the Escalante River, to sandstone arches, natural bridges, and tall, skinny spires peeping throughout the landscape. If you’re planning a trip in the Escalante area, at least a day hike is a must. Below you will find a list of some of the best day hikes in the national monument.
If you have more time, the best way to experience the Grand Staircase-Escalante is to take a backpacking trip (read about our backpacking tips) or take a guided trip with REI to nearby Zion National Park or Bryce Canyon National Park to see those highlights of the region and get a chance to explore the Grand Staircase-Escalante NM.
If you only have a day to see a glimpse of this massive monument, make sure you check out one of the hikes included below. After your hike, check out our favorite local coffee shop, Kiva Koffeehouse, for a refreshing frozen lemonade and sweet treat to bring those blood sugar levels back up. 😉
The trailhead to the Lower Calf Creek Falls hike can be found off of Scenic Byway 12, at the Calf Creek Campground. It is 11 miles south of Boulder, Utah and 15 miles east of the town of Escalante. The trail offers a beautiful hike through a verdant desert oasis with tall multi-colored sandstone walls towering above on either side. If you look closely, you’ll see remnants of ancient cultures painted on the walls. Hiking through this lush canyon, you will understand why the Fremont people lived here for hundreds of years.
For the most part, you will hike along Calf Creek on a very sandy path. Parts of the trail do not follow near the creek and in these sections the trail is very exposed with little shade. Make sure to bring water shoes, sun protection, and plenty of water. The final destination is the cascading 126-foot Lower Calf Creek Falls, perhaps the most beautiful waterfall of Escalante. Be sure to budget time for swimming and cooling down beneath the falls!
A hike along the Escalante River to the Escalante Natural Bridge is a great introductory day hike for getting to know Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. This hike begins at the Escalante River trailhead, just off Scenic Byway 12 and slightly north of the Boynton Overlook. There are multiple river crossings on this hike, so be sure you are prepared to get your feet wet (and then sandy)! You’ll see multiple highlights in just a few miles – first the natural bridge, then petroglyphs, then an arch, and then a cliff dwelling in view on the south side of the river.
Temperatures heat up in the summer, so plan accordingly by starting your hike early, bringing proper sun protection, and plenty of water. Read more about hiking the Escalante River.
Are you looking to explore the slot canyons of Grand Staircase-Escalante? Peek-a-boo and Spooky slot canyons will fill you with amazement at the power of water that has formed such incredible, narrow, and textured canyons. These slot canyons are easily accessible off of the Hole-in-the-Rock Road a dirt road that is accessed from Scenic Byway 12 twenty-six miles south of the town of Escalante. This hike is quite popular, partially due its proximity to another famous hike, the dry fork of Coyote Gulch. If you struggle with claustrophobia, Peek-a-boo and Spooky slot canyons may not be the best hike for you. At some points, the canyon shrinks to only 18 inches wide and you often have to walk sideways. It can create a challenging situation if someone is coming from the other direction! If you’ve never explored slot canyons before, read up on these tips for hiking slot canyons in Escalante before you go.
A “best hikes in Grand Staircase-Escalante” list wouldn’t be complete without Coyote Gulch. You have most likely seen the infamous image on the internet of Stevens Arch, the incredibly immense sandstone structure that stretches above the Escalante Riverbed (if not, it’s pictured below). While well-known, this hike is not for the faint of heart, and those wanting to hike to Coyote Gulch in a day should be prepared for a long day of scrambling, hiking in sand, and through the Escalante River. In fact, we do not recommend doing this hike in just one day. The canyon is best explored when you are able to take your time and spend at least two nights of backpacking along the Escalante River, discovering the many slot canyons, arches, and bridges along the way!
You will need a Coyote Gulch permit if you plan to do a backpacking trip. The access point to begin this hike is located near water tanks on Fortymile Ridge, southwest of the confluence of Coyote Gulch and Escalante Canyon.
The diversity of geology is incredible in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Unlike the narrow Spooky slot canyon, Willis Creek is a wide (almost spacious!) slot canyon to explore. The best time of day to hike in this slot canyon is early, when the sun starts to pour into the canyon and bounce light and shadow off the walls. It is also a great hike to find shade on warm summer days but is not recommended during the late summer monsoon season when slot canyons can quickly become dangerous due to flash floods. The trailhead is off Scenic Byway 12 on a dirt road (BLM500) best for 4WD or high clearance vehicles.
The best time to hike in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is early spring and fall, to enjoy cooler weather and avoid the dangers of flash flood season in late summer.
You do not need to obtain permits to do these day hikes in Grand Staircase. If you are camping or backpacking, you will need overnight permits. Permits are typically free and can be obtained at visitor centers or at developed trailheads.