GSENM: Utah’s Best Desert Canyons & Roads
Oct 26, 2016
By: Ann Whittaker
Okay, that’s a bold statement because Utah’s got a lot to choose from. But follow our family-friendly 3-day Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument itinerary and see if you don’t agree. At least until your next trip to another part of the desert…
“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.” Ed AbbeyTweet This
Day 1: Canyons of Escalante Slot Canyons
Mandatory for families: Spooky & Peekaboo Slot Canyons
Salt Lake City → Escalante: 5 hours, 5 minutes
Las Vegas → Escalante: 4 hours, 42 minutes
Pro tip: Plan to arrive in Escalante by early afternoon to make sure you can get in a couple hikes in the monument.
First and absolutely foremost, stop at the visitor center (755 W Main St.) in Escalante to get a permit to camp on Hole-in-the-Rock Road. They’re free. Camp only in established areas; the desert is a fragile beauty. Along those lines, while you’re in the visitor center, ask about weather and the possibility of flash floods. Always check with rangers before you head into slot canyons. Always. You can also pick up a map of hikes to do off Hole-in-the Rock road and get suggestions for camping spots.
Now, you have your permit, the weather looks good and you’re on your way to a remote desert playground.
Spooky & Peekaboo Slot Canyons
Spooky: 3.2 miles roundtrip
Peekaboo: 2 miles roundtrip
These slot canyons share the same trailhead, and both can be done in approximately four hours with kids. Make sure you give yourself enough time to be finished well before sunset, and keep in mind your kids will want to take their time exploring (aka dawdling).
When you’re done exploring the canyons, you’ll want to immediately begin looking for a camp spot off Hole-in-the-Rock Road. You can camp in any established camping areas. If you’re not used to identifying appropriate camping sites, make sure you ask a BLM employee while you’re at the visitor center.
CAMP: Hole-in-the-Rock Road
Be prepared to see the most spectacular night sky you’ve ever seen — some of the darkest skies in the country are in Utah’s remote deserts. Bring your charts, guides, astrophoto lenses and your wide-open eyeballs.
Day 2: River Walk, Desert Oasis & Museum
Breakfast blithely at camp. Bring your stove to burn up some hash browns, eggs, ham, oatmeal… Start early, savor it, then pack up. Keep camp simple and you’ll be as mobile as a mouse on a motorcycle.
Hiking the Escalante River Bridge Trail
After leaving Hole-in-the-Rock Road, head towards Boulder on Highway 12. Just after Kiva Koffeehouse and before the Calf Creek Falls Campground you’ll bump into the trailhead for the Escalante River Bridge Trail, which runs along and through the river. The river walk will help you keep cool in August, but the weather is pleasant during the cooler months.
If your kids aren’t quite up for the full 15-mile hike you can stop after an hour or so and let them play in the water and sand. The trail has a few river crossings so bring suitable shoes or be prepared to take them off.
All that should drum up a decent appetite. You can pack your own picnic, or if you want to have lunch in one of the most remote cafes in the country, just pop on into the aforementioned Kiva Koffeehouse. Their patio seating is pretty/incredible.
Afternoon: Hike or Museum
Take your pick. Variables to consider: how tired your kids are; how tired they say they are; how well they’ll sleep if you make them keep hiking; how annoying they’ll be if you make them keep hiking; how much character you want them to build.
Lower Calf Creek Falls Hike: 3 miles to the falls
This is the most popular hike in all of the monument. For good reason. A desert oasis that will restore your faith in family vacations and justify the protestations you endure along the way. They’ll love it. You’ll love it.
Anasazi State Park Museum & Archeological Site
See artifacts and dwellings that were occupied from A.D. 1050 to 1200 by Ancestral Puebloans and enjoy a lovely park under cottonwood trees with a playground to boot. This is where you can all zone out for a bit and just enjoy being in a small town in the desert.
Find your next camp site. We recommend:
Deer Creek Campground
Singletree Campground (on Boulder Mountain)
Oak Creek Campground (on Boulder Mountain)
Fees range from $5–10 per night per vehicle. Have some cash ready to drop in an envelope.
Cook up some dinner. Or pick up the best burrito you’ll find in the desert at the Magnolia food truck in the parking lot of Anasazi State Park.
Day 3: Waterpocket Fold & Capitol Reef
Drive the Burr Trail into Capitol Reef’s backyard.
Capitol Reef National Park is the least crowded of the parks, and entering from the back door on the Burr Trail will remind you that there is still solitude in the wilderness. You’ll drive inside and through the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile monocline, or pinch in the earth’s crust.
Fill up your tank in Boulder and plan on stopping approximately every 3.1 miles to soak in the scenery. Burr Trail Road begins just south of the Burr Trail Grill in town. The road is paved for a few miles before it turns into a maintained dirt road. If the weather has been rainy, you’ll want to check with local land management to make sure there aren’t any muddy traps to get stuck in.
When the road forks 36 miles later, go left on Notom-Bullfrog Road, which takes you north along the Waterpocket Fold. In another 32 miles you’ll hit Highway 24 on the eastern edge of Capitol Reef National Park. Go west to the Gifford House in Fruita because it will be time for homemade pie.
Bonus: Petroglyphs & a Hike
If you’ve got the time and energy, we recommend:
Capitol Reef Petroglyphs Viewpoint
Hickman Bridge Hike — 2 miles roundtrip, easy
Time to go home. Unless you find a deal on a little property in Torrey. Then you can just stay.