This scenic, moderately trafficked trail winds its way through a large and dramatic canyon along the Escalante River. It features soaring canyon walls, unique geologic formations, ancient petroglyphs, swimming holes, and frequent river crossings. It's great done as a 2 or 3 day backpacking trip, or can be lengthened to allow for trips up one of the many side canyons along the way.

The Escalante River trail is an easily accessible, moderately strenuous hike within Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The national monument encompasses over 2 million acres of wilderness, choc-full of large canyons, narrow slot canyons, rivers, hoodoos, arches, natural bridges and more. This trail follows the Escalante River through a large canyon, and allows access to many side canyons for day trips as well.

To reach the west trailhead: from the town of Escalante, head east on Main Street (turns into Highway 12) for one mile. Turn left at the cemetery and stay to the right. A dirt road will take you a little ways through a field. Turn left when it forks and follow the road down about 500 yards to the parking area.

To reach the east trailhead: from the town of Escalante, head east on HWY 12 for 14 miles. (If you hit Calf Creek Falls campground, you've gone too far.) You will see a turn-off for the trailhead on your left that leads to a small dirt parking area.

Our party backpacked this west to east over three days.

Day One

Western Trailhead to Mamie Creek - 6.5 miles

You'll descend .3 miles from the parking area to the first river crossing. Stay to your right and head through the makeshift wooden gate, welcoming you to the edge of the national monument.

From here you'll follow the trail as it winds through the canyon. This is a nice choose-your-own-adventure trail: sometimes the overland route through the sand and along the banks will be easier, sometimes walking directly in the river will be easier, sometimes a combination will be easiest, and other times you won't get to choose. The river can be deep and swift during certain times of the year, but is easily traversed when low.

The first 1-2 miles are easy and quite scenic. The red sandstone walls of the canyon stretch hundreds of feet overhead, and are riddled with all kinds of peculiar shapes and craters due to millions of years of erosion. In the spring, expect to see dozens of varieties of wildflowers, in addition to flowering prickly pear. There are many tall cottonwoods and box elders along the riverbanks, which make for nice shady resting spots.

At 1.25 miles, you’ll see a small side trail on a bank on the left side of the canyon. There are some beautiful petroglyphs there that were carved into the rock by the Anasazi and Fremont people, who inhabited the area between 500 and 1250 AD. Look but don’t touch!

At about 2.5 miles, the canyon's meanders will become a little tighter, and after having the option to cross over several broad sections of sand, you'll eventually have to hike directly in the river for some sections.

Continue following the river for 6.5 miles, at which point you will reach the confluence of Mamie Creek and the Escalante River. There are many great campsites to pick out here - there are several right at the confluence, and many more as you head up the creek. The creek is clear, cool, and delicious! If you walk up the creek about a half mile and the water is high enough, you’ll come to several swimming holes in the creekbed, which are perfect for cooling off after your hike in.

If you continue on .5 miles, you’ll come to Death Hollow, a side canyon popular for camping and day hikes along the Escalante Trail. Take your pick!

Day Two

Mamie Creek to Sand Creek - 4.5 miles

Continue heading east along the river. Within the first half mile, the canyon narrows considerably, and the banks become steeper. Because of the constant scrambling up and down steep slopes with a pack (and a lack of handholds on the banks), we gave up on the trail and hiked directly in the river at this point. The riverbed changes frequently throughout this stretch, ranging from small boulders to medium-sized pebbles to thick, silty sand. The going is slow, especially if the river is running deep, but still scenic and enjoyable. Since the canyon is so tight at this point, shade is abundant beneath the tall willows and cottonwoods. You can often see ferns and moss living in the overhangs of the canyon walls as well.

At 11.1 miles, you’ll arrive at the confluence of Sand Creek and the river. Head up the creek to find petroglyphs, campsites, and another beautiful canyon to explore.

At about .4 miles you’ll reach a fork. If you follow it to the right, you’ll reach a broad sandy beach and a large collection of boulders. Cross the beach and hop across the boulder trail leading across the other side of the creek up to the edge of the canyon wall. There are more large boulders strewn up the slope. There are several petroglyphs in the rocks here, and we also discovered some small hand tools and a collection of corn husks lying in a bowl in the rock. Look, admire, take pictures, but do not touch the petroglyphs or move/remove any of the artifacts (it is illegal, and ruins the experience of everyone who comes after you!). Camp on the beach, or continue heading up Sand Creek to find another spot.

Day Three

Sand Creek to eastern trailhead - 3 miles

The last day of your hike is a piece of cake. River crossings become less frequent, and the canyon widens significantly as you approach the eastern edge of it. You’ll start to walk over broad stretches of sand, complete with meadows of waist-high grass. We passed so many wildflowers and blooming prickly pear in this stretch as well. There are some nice views off to the north of red and white canyon walls and cliffs.

After 1 mile, on the southern (right) side of the river, you’ll come to Skyline Arch. There is a social trail that leads up to the arch, as well as an ancient Fremont drawing and a petroglyph panel. Head down the social trail back into the river, and after another .5 miles you’ll spot another social trail on the south side. This trail will take you to the natural bridge, a great photo opportunity.

After 2 miles you’ll reach mile 14, the eastern trailhead at Highway 12. Just when your boots were starting to dry, you’ll cross the river one more time to the parking lot.

Remember to always practice Leave No Trace principles while backpacking and to respect other hikers, plants, wildlife, and artifacts. You will need to obtain a backcountry permit to backpack in the national monument. You can get one at the Interagency Visitor Center in Escalante, or at established trailheads (Calf Creek Falls is one).

This hike is best experienced during the spring or fall. Summer temperatures can reach triple digits and winters can be snowy. In addition, you'll have a better chance at the river being lower and thus easier to cross when it hasn't been raining frequently. This trail crosses the river many times, and you may find it easier at times to follow the river itself down, so be prepared to get your feet wet! Dogs are allowed on this trail, but should be leashed or under voice control of the owner. Keep your eye out for poison ivy.

As always, bring plenty of water when hiking in the desert (a gallon per person per day is recommended). Bring a filtration system as the river water, while silty, is potable once filtered, and creeks along the way are clear and also drinkable once filtered.

The Escalante River trailhead can be reached by a 2-wheel drive road on either the east or west side. You will need to arrange shuttle service if you do not have two cars in your party or are not willing to hike it out-and-back. (You can reserve shuttle service through Excursions of Escalante). 

Happy trails!

Pack List

  • Backcountry Permit (Interagency Visitor Center in Escalante or established trailheads)
  • Backpack
  • Tent/shelter
  • Sleeping pad
  • Sleeping bag
  • Headlamp
  • Food for 3-4 days, cooking items
  • Clothing for 3-4 days
  • Sunscreen, hat, and sunglasses
  • Bug spray
  • Comfortable and waterproof hiking boots or shoes
  • Topographical map
  • Compass or GPS
  • First aid kit
  • Water filter
Show More
RT Distance 14 Miles
Elevation Gain 400 Feet
Activities Chillin, Camping, Photography, Swimming, Backpacking, Hiking
Skill Level Beginner
Season Spring, Autumn, Winter
Trail Type Point-to-Point
Features
Dog Friendly
Easy Parking
River
Scenic
Wildflowers
Wildlife
Swimming Hole

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Please respect the places you find on The Outbound Collective.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More

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