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Death Hollow

From the southern flank of Boulder Mountain, Death Hollow cuts a sinuous gorge through miles of Navajo Sandstone on its way south to the Escalante River. Access to this remote and rugged canyon is far from easy and usually requires a multi-day backpack trip just to step foot in it. To truly experience the canyon, 3-5 days is recommended. This trail guide describes one of the more popular route possibilities, accessing Death Hollow via the Boulder Mail Trail and ending at the Escalante River Trailhead at the Highway 12 Bridge.

This hike is only suitable for adults in excellent physical condition with extensive backcountry experience. Advanced navigation skills are required as there is no constructed trail for nearly the entire 22-mile route, much of which is spent walking in swift, cold water. Segments of the route follow extremely narrow ledges with sheer drops of several hundred feet, making it unsuitable for children or anyone uncomfortable with heights.

Check with the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center at 755 W Main Street in Escalante, or call (435) 826-5499 for current conditions before beginning your trip.

Trailhead

Death Hollow can be accessed from a number of trailheads. This trail guide describes a route between two of the most common access points: The Boulder Mail Trail Trailhead and the Escalante River Highway 12 Trailhead.

To reach the Boulder Mail Trail Trailhead from Boulder, Utah:

  1. Drive south on Highway 12 for approximately 3.0 miles.
  2. Turn right at the signed junction for Hells Backbone Road.
  3. Continue 0.1 miles and turn left onto a narrow dirt road.
  4. Drive 0.5 miles to where the road intersects an airstrip with a graded dirt surface. Check for aircraft before proceeding.
  5. Continue on the dirt road across the airstrip for 150 yards to the signed Boulder Mail Trail Trailhead.

The short dirt road to the Boulder Mail Trail Trailhead is accessible to most passenger cars until the final 150 yards beyond the airstrip where the road passes through some large rocks where a high clearance vehicle may be required. Parking is available near the airstrip for cars that cannot access the final distance to the trailhead. Do not park on the airstrip.

To reach the Escalante River Highway 12 Trailhead from Boulder, Utah:

  1. Drive south on Highway 12 for approximately 12.4 miles.
  2. Just before the bridge over the Escalante River, turn right into the signed Escalante River Trailhead.

The Hike

From the Boulder Mail Trail Trailhead, follow the trail west past the trail register as it winds through a pleasant juniper and pinion forest. After about 1.6 miles, the trail reaches the edge of the New Home Bench, offering the first views of Sand Creek and the slickrock wonderland you must navigate before reaching Death Hollow.

Soon the well-worn path gives way to vast areas of solid rock marked by rock cairns, eventually winding down into a small side canyon of Sand Creek before reaching the perennial stream at the bottom of the canyon, approximately 2.7 miles from the trailhead (37.862522,-111.490032). Once at Sand Creek, follow the stream down canyon a short distance until rock cairns mark a clear route out of the watercourse on the west side of the canyon.

From here follow the cairned route as it climbs nearly 500 feet to the top of the bench that separates Sand Creek from Death Hollow. This interesting section of the hike showcases the history of the area and the reason the trail is called The Boulder Mail Trail. From 1902 until 1924, this route was the primary channel for communications between the small town of Boulder, Utah and the rest of the world. In addition to providing access for mail delivery, a telegraph line was installed the entire length of the Boulder Mail Trail between the towns of Boulder and Escalante. Look for the old wire where it can still be seen strung through the treetops, and at times strewn across the ground. It wasn’t until 1940 that final construction of Highway 12 between Escalante and Boulder was complete and not until 1971 before it was paved, giving Boulder the distinction of being one of the last towns in the continental United States to gain automobile access.

About 5.0 miles from the trailhead, the route begins the nearly 700-foot descent into Death Hollow. The route is possible thanks to paths that have been carved out of the sloping cliff face, offering access to the canyon below. From the top of the descent (37.842974,-111.513846), follow the cairned route northwest down an open area of slickrock. Soon the rock becomes nearly vertical and the faint, chiseled-path is visible ahead. Follow the cairned route along the wall, which eventually leads to the canyon below. Several steep sections and small obstacles are encountered along the way but nothing that requires climbing skill or technical gear. Take your time and pay careful attention to the rock cairns marking the route down. A misstep or failure to stay on course here could easily result in serious injury or death. After 6.0 miles, the trail arrives at the creek in Death Hollow (37.843984,-111.518787).

Once in Death Hollow, the character of the hike changes dramatically. Gone are the seemingly endless acres of white Navajo Sandstone. In their place comes a lush riparian oasis nestled between soaring walls streaked with desert varnish and towering ponderosa pines.

Follow the watercourse down the canyon, occasionally on sandy social trails along the side but more frequently, wading down stream amongst basalt boulders and hanging gardens. Trekking poles or some sort of walking stick can be very helpful here. After about 1.0 mile, a cairned route leads out the west side of the canyon. This is the continuation of the Boulder Mail Trail. From here it climbs out of Death Hollow to Antone Flat before continuing to the town of Escalante.

Continue hiking down the canyon doing your best to avoid the plentiful poison ivy that grows throughout the canyon. Occasional small obstacles will crop up but are easily bypassed, the most difficult will come in the form of beaver dams that occasionally cause the stream to back up, forcing you into deep pools or dense foliage to get around them.

Good campsites are available throughout the canyon but can be difficult to find in the narrower sections and in the lower end as you approach the Escalante River. The perennial stream in Death Hollow typically runs cold and clear; a real treat compared to many other desert canyons where silt can be a big problem. Be sure to treat all water before drinking.

The distance from where you first arrived at the creek in Death Hollow to the confluence with the Escalante River is approximately 8.0 miles. This can be done in a day but be sure to take your time as this is truly the highlight of the trip.

Once at the Escalante River, turn left and follow the river downstream for 7.5 miles to the end of the hike at the Highway 12 Bridge. Depending on recent conditions, the hiking may become significantly more difficult due to the brown, silty water often found in the Escalante River. A network of sandy trails traverses the river for the remaining distance to the Highway 12 Trailhead but many river crossings are still required. If water levels are low, staying in the watercourse may be easier.

Approximately 4.5 miles beyond Death Hollow, a large side canyon called Sand Creek appears on the left. Sand Creek is easy to miss as the trail crosses a large sandy bench on the opposite side of the canyon. There is a perennial stream in Sand Creek and a nice spring near its confluence with the Escalante River.

About a half-mile past Sand Creek, look for a thin arch, high on the south canyon wall. Just below the arch is an ancient cliff dwelling. A side trip to get a closer look is well worth the time. Soon after the cliff dwelling, watch the right canyon wall for a large arch known as Escalante Natural Bridge. The feature is about 100 yards off the main trail and may be hard to see without walking closer. Many people hike to this arch from the Highway 12 Bridge Trailhead as a day trip.

Continue on the sandy trail for about 2 miles past Escalante Natural Bridge to the end of the hike at the Highway 12 Bridge Trailhead.

Total hiking distance for this route is approximately 22 miles without side trips.

Rules and Regulations

  • No littering.
  • Pack out all trash, including toilet paper.
  • Do not make marks or carvings on rocks.
  • No campfires allowed.
  • Permits are required for overnight use and are available for free at the visitor center in Escalante. Permits can also be self-issued at trailhead registers.

Special Considerations

  • Flash flood risk is high in the Escalante River and its tributaries including Death Hollow and Sand Creek. Do not enter canyons when significant precipitation is expected anywhere in the drainage area. Even under blue skies, a distant storm can send water surging down to your location. A sudden change of flow or clarity may indicate an impending flood event. If a flood strikes, seek high ground and wait until the water recedes to a safe level.
  • Despite being in a desert environment, Death Hollow is at a relatively high elevation and therefore has a shorter window of ideal conditions. Snow and ice may be present well into the spring and the water can be very cold throughout the year. Check with the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center at 755 W Main St in Escalante, or call (435) 826-5499 for current conditions before beginning your trip.

Credits

This trail guide provided by Backcountry Post.