Utah’s canyon country is a popular summer destination…the kids are out of school, you can camp without freezing your patooties off, and you get to wear those Chaco sandals that have been sitting in your closet all winter. There is one hitch, though—it’s gonna be HOT. And heat can be a dangerous thing in the dry desert Southwest. You can, of course, avoid being outside during the “peak heat” hours. But do you really want to have to get up at the crack of dawn on your vacation? Or sit around in your hotel room waiting for sunset? Here are four cool summer hikes that provide ample opportunity to splash in the water, in addition to jaw-dropping canyon scenery.
Sulphur Creek (Capitol Reef National Park)
Many people stop at Chimney Rock on Hwy 24, never realizing that just across the road is the start of one of the most fun adventures in Capitol Reef. This hike takes you along Sulphur Creek’s narrow streambed, where you’ll have plenty of opportunities to wade and swim in the stream. You’ll also get to climb over and around three scenic waterfalls along the way. Start the hike by entering a dry wash on the other side of Hwy 24 from the Chimney Rock parking lot (a small sign marks the entrance to the wash). After about 1.5 miles, the wash joins Sulphur Creek, eventually leading you through the winding Sulphur Creek narrows. Although you can do this hike from either direction, it’s best to start from Chimney Rock, as that will enable you to down-climb the waterfalls (getting UP the waterfalls can be challenging or impossible). For a shorter hike, you can start from behind the visitor center and walk less than one mile to the first waterfall. Be sure and check weather conditions and water levels before setting off on this hike. Flash floods on Sulphur Creek can prove deadly, and high water levels can create impassable conditions in sections of the creek.
Trailhead Location: UT SR-24, across from Chimney Rock in Capitol Reef National Park
Hiking distance: 5.5 miles (one-way shuttle trip)
Lower Calf Creek Falls (Grand Staircase-Escalante NM)
Ever see one of those movies where they hike to some majestic waterfall in the middle of a tropical island paradise? Well, here it is—in the middle of canyon country. Lower Calf Creek Falls plunges about 125 feet from the canyon rim into a refreshing pool that will not only cool you off—it’ll downright chill you. You’ll have plenty of chances to dip in the water along the way, too, as the trail intersects several access points to Calf Creek. From the trailhead at the Calf Creek Recreation Area campground, it’s a fairly easy 3-mile walk to the falls. Pick up a trail guide at the start of the trail, which will indicate points along the way where you can see ancient granaries and pictographs in the cliff walls. Although the trail runs fairly parallel to Hwy 12, you won’t hear much, if any, traffic noise. This is one cool summer hike in canyon country you don’t want to miss!
Trailhead Location: Calf Creek Recreation Area, on Utah Hwy 12, 15 miles east of Escalante
Hiking Distance: 6 miles (round-trip)
Escalante River Trail (Grand Staircase-Escalante NM)
The Escalante River is a tributary of the Colorado and one of two main arteries that flow through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Along this journey, the river has spawned a maze of steep, narrow canyons—a utopia for hikers and canyoneers. From Hwy 12, the upper section of the Escalante River Trail runs 13 miles to the town of Escalante. Although you can hike the entire canyon in one long day, an easier day trip is the short hike to Escalante Natural Bridge. The 1.6-mile trail (one way) involves fording the Escalante River five times, and you’ll really appreciate these crossings during the hot summer months. Most of the river crossings are easy—like wading across a sandy-bottomed swimming pool. The BLM description for this hike says, “Hikers must be willing to walk in water.” And in the middle of August, you’ll say…”Bring it on!”
Trailhead Location: Utah Hwy 12, midway between Escalante and Boulder
Hiking Distance: 3.6 miles (round-trip) to the natural bridge
Morning Glory Natural Bridge (Moab)
The Moab area is surrounded by national parks, but the trail to Morning Glory Bridge offers a different experience: no entrance fees, fewer people, and cool water to splash in during the summer months. Just three miles from the intersection of Hwy 191 and SR-128 in Moab, this trail follows a year-round stream through picturesque Negro Bill Canyon. The canyon was named for William Granstaff, the first black settler in the Moab area (public pressure may soon lead to a name change for the canyon). With a cool stream and thick vegetation, this is one hike that will ease your suffering a bit on a scorching desert day. The main destination for most people on this trail is Morning Glory Natural Bridge—a 243-foot-long sandstone bridge set in a cool alcove. If you happen to arrive here at the right time, you’ll get to watch one of the popular canyoneering trips, which involve rappelling from the top of the rim behind the bridge, or from the bridge itself. A bonus for pet owners is that you can bring your dog on this hike, unlike the trails in the national parks. Be cautious of poison ivy, which is prolific in this canyon.
Trailhead Location: Utah SR-128, 5 miles from Moab
Hiking Distance: 5 miles (round-trip)