The Escalante River offers outstanding scenery as it winds through a deep canyon gorge in the heart of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The remote location of the Escalante River helped it to be the last river of its size to be discovered in the continental United States. The river spans approximately 90 miles from the town of Escalante to its terminus at Lake Powell. This trail description covers the first 15 miles of the river between the town of Escalante and the bridge on Highway 12.
The Upper Escalante River is best completed as an overnight backpack from the Town Trailhead to the Highway 12 Bridge, but can also be completed as an out-and-back from either end. Numerous attractions near each end of the hike make this an appealing route for day hikers as well.
This hike is suitable for most healthy adults. Kids may enjoy shorter day trips along the river but the full 15-mile overnight route may be too difficult for most children due to the distance and rough terrain.
There are two trailheads used to access the upper Escalante River: the Escalante Town Trailhead and the Escalante River Highway 12 Trailhead. A shuttle is necessary to complete the hike one-way. Commercial shuttle services may be available from some of the outfitters in Escalante.
Reaching the Escalante Town Trailhead from Escalante, Utah:
- From Main Street in Escalante, drive east on Highway 12 for about 1 mile.
- Turn left onto 350 South at the signed junction for the Escalante Cemetery.
- Continue on the dirt road east past the Cemetery for approximately 0.4 miles.
- Turn left onto a dirt road and continue 0.3 miles to the trailhead and parking area.
Access to the Town Trailhead is on a dirt road but is passable under dry conditions to most passenger cars.
Reaching the Escalante River Highway 12 Trailhead from Escalante, Utah:
- From Main Street in Escalante, drive east on Highway 12 for 14.4 miles.
- Just beyond the bridge over the Escalante River, turn left into the signed Escalante River Trailhead.
From the Escalante Town Trailhead, follow the dirt road from the parking north for about a quarter mile to a gate where the trail begins. High clearance vehicles can sign in at the trailhead and drive this short distance if desired. Continue on the footpath as it descends the ridge and winds through some trees before arriving at the Escalante River.
The Escalante River is usually very small here, sometimes only a trickle. Continue down canyon following the sandy trail and crossing the river as needed. Soon the confluence with Pine Creek appears on the left. This tributary often adds significant flow to the river but depending on the time of year, it may still only be ankle deep.
As you continue hiking, the walls become taller and the canyon narrows. The route is easy to follow as it continues down the watercourse, occasionally crossing over sandy benches on well-worn trails. River crossings are frequent for the entire 15-mile length of this hike and sturdy wading shoes are strongly recommended.
After about 3 miles of hiking, look for a large alcove on the left side of the canyon (37.781926,-111.557046). There are some ancient pictographs to be seen inside the alcove and the shade provides a good place to take a break on a warm day.
Beyond the alcove, the canyon continues to wind between towering sandstone walls. For those interested in backpacking, campsites are plentiful. Be sure to setup camp on sand or rock and at least 200 feet from water sources and trails. Water is available from the Escalante River but should be treated before drinking. Silt can be a problem at times so a good pre-filter may be necessary. During dry seasons, the Escalante River may run dry in these first 7 miles.
Approximately 7.5 miles from the trailhead, watch for the confluence with Death Hollow on the left. The vegetation in the area may partially block the entrance, but the flow of water out of Death Hollow is often much greater than that of the Escalante, making it hard to miss.
Death Hollow is a beautiful canyon with a perennial stream fed by the Aquarius Plateau to the north. The water is usually quite swift, and often knee deep or more, but runs clean and cold, making it an excellent place to fill up your reserves. Be sure to treat all water before drinking.
With its numerous swimming holes and small cascades, a short hike into lower Death Hollow is well worth the time. Death Hollow is much narrower than most of the Escalante River Gorge but is not without its challenges. Rampant poison ivy, deep pools, and limited camping make lower Death Hollow somewhat inhospitable.
Continue following the Escalante River beyond Death Hollow. Depending on the time of year, walking in the Escalante River may become significantly more difficult due to the increased water flow. A network of sandy trails traverses the river 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 field on the opposite side of the canyon. There is a perennial stream in Sand Creek and a nice spring near the 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 arch 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 is 15 miles, not including possible side trips into Death Hollow or Sand Creek.
Rules and Regulations
- No littering.
- Pack out all trash, including toilet paper.
- No campfires are 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 most trailhead registers, including the register at the Egypt Trailhead.
- Flash flood risk is high in the Escalante River and its tributaries such as Death Hollow and Sand Creek. Do not enter the canyon 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, the Escalante River Gorge 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. 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.