The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument provides some of the roughest, most remote wilderness opportunities in southern Utah. It is a place where you can definitely lose yourself- and get lost if you are not careful- in the rugged terrain of the Escalante River corridor with its Navajo and Wingate sandstone walls, slot canyons, Fremont rock art, and windows into the unique history of the region.
Trailheads and Water
Robert and I spent a fairly leisurely 8 days walking along, and in, the Escalante River and some of its side canyons starting at the trailhead at the Highway 12 bridge and ending at the Early Weed Bench trailhead. The trek from trailhead to trailhead is just about 50 miles, not including any side trips, which are unlimited in number. We began by dropping the Land Cruiser at the Early Weed Bench trailhead. The road to the trailhead demands a solid high clearance vehicle, as do many of the trailhead roads. From there it is about a two hour drive to the Escalante River Highway 12 bridge trailhead, not including a stop at the Kiva Koffeehouse.
The river at the bridge was calm and the water was clear and clean when we began. For the most part, until a storm clouded the water with silt on day 5, we just scooped water out of the river and treated it with the MIOX. After day 5, when the river rose from .2 CFS to 130 CFS and became a silty and potentially dangerous mess, we had to take other steps to get water. Fresh water is available in many of the side canyons, and is more abundant on river right, in the canyons to the southwest.
To say that there is bushwhacking along the river corridor is an understatement. There is some relatively easy walking on cattle trails higher up river. Many trails were fresh, and we were grateful for our bushwhacking, route-finding bovine friends. Game trails can be followed along most of the river. But be prepared to squeeze, break, chop, push, and crawl through tangled masses of willow, tamarisk, Russian olive, sagebrush, and cottonwoods. Also, be on the lookout for poison ivy- it is here and there along the way. There will be many river crossings, some in deep water- your pack should be waterproofed. Be prepared for deep, sucking mud and quicksand further down river. In the end you will be scratched, scraped, muddy, and your gear, clothes, body, and mind will have been tested. All in all, it’s a great walk!
Prehistory and History
There were at least 10 rock art panels along our walk. Much of the rock art was Fremont era, but some of the elements appeared to be older. I am in the process of looking over photos and identifying some of the elements and will write another blog post specifically on the rock art soon.
Some of the rock art panels are identified on the maps that you can review at the Escalante Interagency Visitor’s Center in the town of Escalante, where you can get the latest road and weather conditions and a permit. In many of the canyons you will also see historical inscriptions dating from the late 1800’s through the 1950’s and 1960’s. There are a number of cowboy camps with a foundation or two, corrals, fences, and historic trash piles. If you look carefully you might find evidence of occupation, or even a ruin or two, under an alcove.
Camps, Trash, and Animals
Dry, sandbar campsites are abundant along the route, making for comfortable sleeping and helping with Leave No Trace policies. Regarding Leave No Trace policies, the middle section of this trek, around Fence Canyon to Neon Canyon, was some of the filthiest wilderness I have ever seen.
We encountered literal piles of trash there- shoes, shorts, pants, socks, endless ramen bowls and bags, wrappers of all types, toilet paper and even human waste on the ground surface! Additionally we counted at least 20 fire pits along the way, most of them along this same section. Many of these fires had partially burned trash in them, especially those around Fence Canyon. Most were made right on the ground surface with just a bit of sand or a few rocks thrown over them. Many were probably made by the same person, someone using fire as a means to heat water, as they were not large, warming fires. Fires are not permitted in the canyons by the way. I have since contacted the Glen Canyon subagency, which administers the lower part of the Escalante, and reported the mess. The ranger’s first remark was about a possible illegal growing operation in the area.
We slept in bug shelters most nights, and right on the ground a few nights. A few mosquitoes did come out for an hour or so around dusk, but for the most part mosquitoes and other bugs really weren’t a problem. Animal tracks were everywhere along the trek- turkey, coyote, deer, raccoon, and beaver were most common. Turkey were everywhere- we saw them 5 of the 8 days and in the end found that they had a pretty good idea of the paths, and so followed them along the easiest routes. We also found ringtail, fox, and elk track and scat. River otter have been reintroduced in the river, but we did not see them nor any sign that they were around. Apparently they are nomadic, and could have been anywhere along the river. We had visits every day from whiptail, desert spiny, side blotched, and eastern fence lizards. We also saw a number of toads- Woodhouse’s most definitely and red-spotted as far as I could tell. We saw one Utah black-headed snake and no rattlesnakes at all.
Gear and Food
We carried the usual ultralight backpacking gear- see the Desert Explorer Ultralight pages for more information on what we pack. We tested some new gear on this trek including the new, improved Sealline HP map case, a small Drypak cell phone case, Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Packliners and Ultra-Sil Dry Sacks, and Merrell Waterpro Maipo water shoes. The Sealline, Drypak, and Sea to Summit waterproofing equipment all performed flawlessly- they were all tested with submersion numerous times and maps, cameras, and all gear were perfectly dry. The Merrells on the other hand fell apart after just a few days of walking. If you buy them, they should not travel much further than your local park unless you bring backups. Full reviews of this gear will be in an upcoming post.
For food we both carried our homemade, dehydrated backpack meals, many of which can be rehydrated in Ziplock bags. Although they get a little heavy when you get 10 days or more of them in your pack, they are hearty, tasty meals and will definitely keep you moving. For more on making you own meals see our Backpacking Foods pages at the Desert Explorer website.
This trek is definitely not for everyone. From the looks of things not many people do it. We encountered tracks close to the highway bridge, from Fence Canyon to Neon Canyon and Ringtail Canyon- popular technical canyoneering locations, and no where else. If you go, you may find yourself alone for miles and miles, and you will have an experience you won’t soon forget. But be prepared- you could die out there.
For more information about desert backpacking see the Desert Explorer website. For more information on the town of Escalante, see our Desert Links page. See our Escalante Pages for information on more treks in the area.