The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is one of the best places on the planet for getting an up-close look at landforms such as arches, natural bridges, slot canyons, and “hoodoo” rock formations. And unlike other popular areas like Moab, Bryce, and Zion, you have a good chance of finding some solitude out on the trail. These four must-do day hikes in Escalante will give you a good introduction to the monument’s unique landscape.
Not to be confused with the Devils Garden in Arches National Park, this Devils Garden near Escalante includes some of the most iconic formations in all of canyon country. Here, erosion has transformed the Entrada Sandstone into an enchanted playground of spires, arches, and hoodoos. There isn’t much of a trail to speak of—you can just wander among the otherworldly rock structures as you wish. Kids and adults alike can amuse themselves for hours playing hide and seek and exploring the sandstone nooks and crannies. As you walk through the maze of rock spires, you’ll eventually stumble upon Metate Arch, the landmark feature of the Devils Garden. This uniquely shaped caprock arch was created when adjacent layers of rock eroded at different rates. Not far from Metate is its companion, Mano Arch (a mano is the round stone used to grind corn inside the metate). Plan to visit just before sunset, and you’re likely to capture some truly spectacular photos. Note that you must drive 12 miles down Hole-in-the-Rock Road, which is unpaved but nearly always doable in a regular vehicle.
Trailhead location: 12 miles down Hole-in-the-Rock Road, 18 miles from Escalante
Hiking distance: Wander as far as you like
Lower Calf Creek Falls
If you’re an Instagrammer, you probably know that photos of this waterfall often get featured on #waterfallwednesday—and for good reason. Lower Calf Creek Falls plunges about 125 feet from the canyon rim into a scenic pool that will cool you off on a hot summer day. Although the 3-mile hike to the falls is not technically difficult, a few sections of deep sand can make it seem long. But along the way are many short detours to Calf Creek, so you’ll have lots of opportunities to dip in the water. Be sure and pick up a trail guide, which will indicate points along the trail where you can see ancient granaries and pictographs in the cliff walls. Most of the trail runs parallel to Scenic Byway 12, so you can stop at several pullouts and get a glimpse of the trail from high up on the roadway. Note that there is a day use fee to park at Calf Creek Recreation Area.
Trailhead location: Calf Creek Recreation Area off Utah Scenic Byway 12, 15 miles east of Escalante
Hiking distance: 6 miles (round-trip)
Upper Escalante River Trail
The Escalante River Trail runs for about 85 miles from the town of Escalante to Lake Powell, but you don’t have to hike anywhere near that distance to get a taste of this scenic canyon. You can do an easy day hike to the massive Escalante Natural Bridge, which towers 130 feet above the river. The 2-mile trail involves fording the Escalante River five times, and you’ll really appreciate these crossings on a hot summer day. If you’re up for a longer adventure than hiking to the natural bridge and back, the Upper Escalante Canyon runs for 13 miles from the town of Escalante to the parking area on Scenic Byway 12. You can hike the entire canyon in one long day, or you can do an overnight backpack trip and enjoy a more leisurely pace. For overnight trips, obtain a free Backcountry Use Permit from the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center.
Trailhead location: UT Scenic Byway 12, midway between Escalante and Boulder
Hiking distance: 4 miles (round-trip) to natural bridge; 13 miles (one way) for entire upper canyon
Upper Calf Creek Falls
This waterfall isn’t quite as dramatic as the one you’ll see at Lower Calf Creek Falls, but Upper Calf Creek offers a much more peaceful setting with a lot fewer people. In addition, you’ll get to see this 88-foot waterfall from both the top and bottom perspective. After leaving your car in a small dirt parking area, you’ll head straight down a sandstone formation, with the route marked by cairns. About 300 feet below the rim you’ll reach a sandy path, which eventually splits: the left fork takes you to the bottom of the waterfall, and the right leads to the top of the falls and some small pools. These potholes are often filled with water and provide a great cooling-off spot during summer months. Note that the hike down from the rim is fairly steep, and you’ll definitely get a workout coming back up! Also, be aware that poison ivy grows around the lower part of the falls—know what it looks like so you can avoid it.
Trailhead location: UT Scenic Byway 12, near mile marker 81
Hiking distance: 2 miles (round-trip)