grand staircase escalante national monument
Jump to: Burr Trail & Notom-Bullfrog Road Cottonwood Canyon Road Hole In The Rock Road Lower Calf Creek Falls
the burr trail / notom bullfrog road
Feel like you’re on top of the world on the only road that crosses a notch in the Waterpocket Fold, a 100 mile long bulge in the earth’s crust, in Capitol Reef National Park.
Capitol Reef has some great hiking trails and viewpoints within the park – red rock domes, monoliths, canyons, meadows and forests – but to my mind, this part paved, part dirt, road is nothing short of spectacular. John Burr, a rancher, developed the trail in the late 1800s to move his cattle through impassable country.
The road begins at Boulder and runs to Bullfrog Marina, some 67 miles distant. From Boulder the twisting and turning paved road descends into beautiful, red rock walled Long Canyon. Once you reach the park boundary the road becomes graded dirt. Most people stop here and the views are stunning over the Henry Mountains, Circle Cliffs and Long Canyon, but I urge you to keep driving and descend the steep switchbacks for more stunning vistas down to the desert below. You don’t need a high-clearance, though it's preferable, or a 4WD vehicle if the road is dry. Close to the intersection with the Notom-Bullfrog road there’s a deep wash which can be very muddy. Do get out and check before you attempt to cross. I’ve seen passenger cars cross when the wash condition has been bad – they made it but it wasn’t pretty. After rain it can be very slippery for any vehicle. There are many trailheads along the way if you feel like stretching your legs.
Once at the bottom, at the junction of the Notom Bullfrog Road, you can turn right towards Bullfrog Marina or take a left and head north towards Notom and UT24. Either way is very scenic though the road to Bulldog is faster. If you're aiming to take this road south to catch the ferry across to Hall's Crossing, then do check the departure times or you may have to wait a few hours. The road north towards Notom follows the base of the Fold all the way. It can be a little bumpy along the way but it’s a fun drive, though nothing can match that ride over the Fold. Allow half a day if you’re not driving any of the spur trails or hiking. (Note: I’ve given this trip an overall rating of 5 but that’s for the part of the Burr Trail down to the bottom the switchbacks. I would give the a rating of 3 for the Notom-Bullfrog road section.
cottonwood canyon road
A scenic 46 mile graded dirt road that runs beside the Cockscomb formation, with many hiking opportunities. It connects H89 and Ut12.
In this part of Southern Utah, deep in the heart of the huge Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, blacktops are a rarity due to the terrain. Driving directly north/south is often near impossible with long detours around geological features necessary. This has led to locals using the dirt roads as short cuts, and Cottonwood Canyon Road is no exception.
For example, if you need to drive from Page to Bryce Canyon or Escalante, this is the road for you. It’s quiet too, even on a dry day at a weekend, but like any dirt road it’s best not to run it after rain. When it’s dry it’s passable with a carefully-driven 2WD car, though you will need to cross washes that may have been degraded after previous storms. The northern 9 miles are paved from Cannonville to the Kodachrome State Park turn off. Do check conditions before you attempt it.
The southern section starts out featureless but soon becomes more dramatic as the Paria river comes into view. The mid section is the best as you drive alongside the spectacular Cockscomb.
As a drive, this is a small adventure passing stunning scenery. If you have time, though, get out and hike some of the trails nearby. Check out the magnificent Grosvenor Arch and, further south, the Cottonwood Narrows, an easy 3 mile roundtrip.
hole in the rock road
Drive a 62 mile historic road in one of the country’s newest national monuments to trailheads of some of southern Utah’s best hikes in the canyons of the Escalante.
You could spend weeks here exploring the many trail opportunities so I’d recommend using the small town of Escalante as a base. Twenty years ago it was barely on the tourist map but since the Grand Staircase National Monument designation the tourist numbers are rising fast. It still doesn’t get the numbers of Canyonlands, Arches, Bryce and Zion though.
Hole in the Rock Road closely follows the route of Mormon trailblazers in 1879-80 who wanted to colonise south-eastern Utah by trying to establish a shortcut over the Colorado river. 250 people, 100 wagons and over 1000 head of livestock made the journey. It started so well but they eventually came to what appeared to be an impenetrable barrier at the cliffs of Glen Canyon. They discovered a crevice in the cliffs (the ‘hole in the rock’) where they blasted a wagon trail down the 45 degree slope to the canyon floor. After 6 weeks of lowering their wagons they were down and continued on to found the town of Bluff. In the cemetery of that town you can see the well-marked gravestones of some of those pioneers.
I've not driven the entire route but if you have a 4WD vehicle you can drive the last few miles right up the 'hole' and scramble down to Lake Powell (formerly know as Glen Canyon). Apparently you can still see the marks left by the wagon wheels. This would be a long day roundtrip and many people don’t get this far. The rest of the road is graded and suitable for passenger cars in dry weather if driven with care.
Near the beginning of the trail is a small area of weird hoodoos known as Devils Garden. It’s a half-hour stop and kids love it. A little way further east is a turnoff for Dry Fork (of Coyote Gulch). At the end of this short road is the trailhead for the Peek-a-boo and Spooky slot canyons and Brimstone Gulch. You can hike all of these in a long day. Peek-a-boo and the incredibly-narrow Spooky are very popular these days. Note the dirt road turn offs can be sandy and may require high clearance/4WD.
Overall, the road is quite scenic as it follows the Kaiparowits plateau, but it’s in the canyons where the true beauty and adventure lies.
peek-a-boo, spooky, dry fork of coyote and brimstone gulches
The best, most accessible slot canyons in the area. A great chance to see how water carves out some beautiful shapes in sandstone.
If there’s just one hike you should do along the Hole-in-the-Rock Road it’s this one. You could hike the first three in around 3 hours so it’s just a half day trip from Escalante. Take the Dry Fork Road turnoff at the 26 mile mark of the Hole-in-the-Rock Road and drive the 1.7 miles to the trailhead. It’s fine for most cars in dry weather but can be sandy. The Dry Fork Road forks after a few hundred yards so stay left to access the trailhead. The chances are you’ll see other cars in the parking area.
There are 4 slot canyons here and you can hike any or all of them, time permitting, as all four are on the same trail that is fairly well marked. The hike down to the canyon floor is not strenuous and after 20 minutes or so. It’s difficult to get lost even if you miss a cairn or two.
At the bottom and to your left is Dry Fork which is well worth a short side trip. Technically it’s a slot canyon though the walls are nowhere near as confined as Peek-a-boo or, particularly Spooky. You could spend 20-30 minutes here.
Hike out of Dry Fork and you’ll find yourself at the base of Peek-a-boo. The entrance is about 10-12 feet above you. There are a few handily carved steps up to it, though it’s not easy and some people may require some help. Once up and inside you’re in a fantasy world of sculpted rock. You won’t miss the unique double arch just beyond the entrance and, as you progress, you find yourself twisting, turning and scrambling while negotiating the contours. It seems a like there’s a photo opp around every bend. After about 1/3 mile the trail splits. You can either return the way you came or turn right to follow the marked ½ mile trail to the head of Spooky.
Spooky is well-named. It’s dark for much of the way with the trail so constricted that you’ll need to remove your pack at times and slither sideways in order to get through. There’s a 10 foot rockfall that requires some scrambling. The gulch is sinuous in the extreme and the pockmarked appearance of the sandstone is quite different from that in Peek-a-boo. As Spooky becomes more popular the more likely it is for you to meet others along the way. If they’re heading in the opposite direction it can get awkward to pass them, and it may mean backtracking a little to find an area wide enough for both parties to pass.
When you hike out of Spooky just turn right and follow the wash back past the entrance to Peek-a-boo and back to the trailhead. However, if you still need more exercise then turn left and head down to Brimstone. It’s a 30 minute walk that becomes increasingly more strenuous. Brimstone is a very narrow and dark slot but it’s tough in places so certainly not for canyon novices. It is possible to get stuck here so please be careful if you attempt it. It’s at least an hour’s hike back to your car from here.
Note: do not enter any of the slots if it looks like rain. These slots are just about the last places I’d want to be caught in in the event of a flash flood. Do check the weather before you enter. That said, I can heartily recommend this trip as a southern Utah highlight. You won’t be disappointed.
Difficulty •••• (Coyote Gulch easy)
lower calf creek falls
A scenic half day hike beside a stream to a spectacular waterfall.
The well-signed trailhead is situated off UT12 between Escalante and Boulder, itself one of the great drives in the southwest. You’ll pay a fee to park in the large lot. Years ago before the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument was formed this trail wasn’t busy. Now it’s well-publicised so it’s best to get there early or hike late afternoon.
The level trail is often sandy underfoot which makes the nearly 6 mile roundtrip a little more strenuous. You’ll see beaver ponds and, further up canyon high on the east cliff, Anasazi granaries and some red Fremont pictographs.
It can be a hot hike but as you approach the 128 feet waterfall you’ll notice the temperature drop significantly. The water plunges into a large shady swimming hole so this a perfect place to cool off and have a snack.