“Enjoy an epic, and likely multi-day journey in the heart of Utah.”
— Matthew Kidd
Fall Colors · River/Creek · Views · Commonly Backpacked
With minimal elevation gain and plentiful spots to take scenic breaks, this hike is perfect for the whole family.
Enjoy all the beauty of Utah in splendid isolation. Gorgeous views, slickrock, a river running through a narrow canyon, genuine narrows, the yellow of autumn, Navajo sandstone, Kodachrome colors, Ansazi dwellings, petroglyphs, and a natural arch and a natural bridge—this hike has it all.
Need to Know
Take a good camera. Subpar smartphone pictures will never do the trip justice. There is still a huge quality difference between the Lumix GF-1 micro four-thirds camera that I took (or the smaller high-end Sony RX100 point-and-shoot that I might take today) and the very best smartphones.
This shuttled route could be done in 2 days but your campsites are better if you make this a 2½ day journey, and the trip is too beautiful to hurry. For a fee, you can arrange in the town of Escalante to have your car moved from the start to the junction of the Escalante River and Highway 12 where you'll exit. Escalante Outfitters
is a good place to make inquiries, check recent conditions (mid-May through mid-June spring runoff can boost river flow), and buy topo maps (though GPS works well along this route even in the deep Lower Death Hollow
The trip begins at the Boulder Mail Trail
trailhead at the Boulder airport which is nothing more than a dirt landing strip. You can depart as late as noon and easily make your first campsite, 5 miles away, high above Little Death Hollow. Begin a gradual descent through pinion pine and juniper across the McGath Point Bench, traveling on a sandy trail and also across slickrock with reasonably spaced cairns. Provided you have brought enough water for dinner and breakfast, it is preferable to camp at the canyon rim and enjoy a great sunset and sunrise. There is a natural alcove campsite near the bottom if you chose not to camp at the top.
Enjoy sunrise on day 2 and start down a steep slickrock trail to lose about 640 ft of elevation. The next 7.8 miles through Lower Death Hollow
to the Escalante River will take most of the day. The trail is not marked but it is easy to follow and there is nowhere to get lost except up the occasional side canyon. There are dozens of river crossings so be prepared to get wet up to your knees. I did okay with the combination of waterproof hiking boot and waterproof knee high socks; my companion just wore waterproof toe socks that gave him good traction and didn't hurt his feet because the trail is mostly sand and riverbed rocks are small. Sometimes it is easiest to just navigate in the river, particularly towards the end of this section. I suggest wearing a hat, mostly to prevent getting your head scratched by low branches.
Flash floods are possible, so this route should be postponed if rain is likely. However, this is not a slot canyon per se. If you are caught by a flash flood, you should have time to scramble to location two or three meters above the river and set up camp.
The junction of Lower Death Hollow
and the Escalante River is not as pretty as the area upstream partly because of the carnage from the park service removal of Russian olive trees, a non-native species originally planted in a misguided effort to prevent stream bank erosion and later found to be changing the ecosystem by shading the stream too much. I suggest camping in one of the alcoves about half a mile above the junction, e.g. at 37.7890946, -111.5109086. But be prepared for the occasional rat because they have learned the human preferred campsites.
On day 3, endure a little subpar scenery and possibly the sound of chainsaws, to connect to the Escalante River from Little Death Hollow to Highway 12 trail. The Escalante riverbed is sandy, wide, and shallow and the valley is enclosed by Navajo sandstone. I've edited my GPS track to more closely follow the actual trail but in practice you'll probably zigzag across the riverbed as things catch your eye with a preference for the south side where the most interesting features are. First comes the crescent shaped Escalante Natural Arch. Another 0.4 miles east brings you to an Anasazi cliff dwelling, which include petroglyphs. Around the corner from the cliff dwelling is Escalante Natural Bridge
. From here, it is a short jaunt to the finish at Highway 12.
Flora & Fauna
Pinion pine, juniper, cottonwood trees, willow, tamarisk, and Russian oak (non-native).
History & Background
The beginning of the route follows the Boulder Mail Trail
once used for postal delivery between Escalante and Boulder before the construct of Highway 12.