After being stuck inside for a three days while the wind howled and the temperatures barely made it out of the 40s, things improved around mid-week and we were able to resume our exploration of the area. Starting with an easy hike to a very impressive waterfall.
Lower Calf Creek Falls
The trail to Calf Creek Falls is an easy 6-mile round trip hike into a deep canyon. With not much elevation change, and a big pay off at the end, this is one of the more popular, family friendly hikes in the area. Expect the parking lot to be full. We arrived around 3:30 on a chilly Wednesday afternoon and were surprised to only find one or two open parking spots. I guess the lesson is get there early.
The trail meanders along the bottom of deep canyon with towering mineral-streaked cliffs on either side.
It passes some ancient pictographs and stone granaries high up on cliff, but I didn’t bother to take any pictures as we’ve seen much better examples in other places (this whole full-time traveling thing has really made me hard to impress). I did, however, take a picture of this really cool alcove. We like to call these “someday arches”.
While it is rated a family friendly hike, there are a few steep sections and areas where you have to walk through deep sand, which means it might be too much for some little legs to handle.
The best part comes at the end when the canyon closes in on itself and a massive 130 foot waterfall tumbles down over the cliff.
It was fairly chilly and fully in the shade by the time we got to the falls, but I bet in the hot summer months this a great place to cool off. For driving directions and more info visit: Utah.com/calf-creek-falls-lower
Devil’s Garden is located about 12 miles down Hole-in-the-Rock Road. Here you will find a small area of hoodoos, arches and spires. To be honest, if you’ve visited the parks more famous for these kinds of formations like Arches and Bryce, it’s not terribly impressive. But what makes it unique is that the surrounding landscape looks nothing like this. All around are vast stretches of flat slick rock, open fields, and the giant cliffs that make up the Grand Staircase. And then bam…these unique formations rise up as if out of nowhere.
There is no formal trail here, just a bunch of rocks that you can scramble on and around. The garden was crawling with kids on the day we visited. I mean literally crawling with kids. They were climbing on, over, and under every surface they could possibly get their little hands and feet on. Tim remarked that it looked like an out of control school field trip. Oh rolling spring break, will you ever end?
As a result of the crowds I didn’t take a lot of photos. And most of the ones I did take have a slew of strangers in them. Including the one I tried to take of a really cool rock arch — except there was a guy standing on top of it while he played frisbee with his son below. Seriously, what kind of example is that? Oh well, I guess we can’t have all the good places to ourselves.
Neon Canyon to the Golden Cathedral
We try our best to take advantage of the extra time we have on the weekends to tackle longer adventures. We’ve also been making an effort to up our game when it comes to physical activity by choosing hikes and bike rides that challenge and push us past our comfort zones. I would say the hike to the Golden Cathedral hit both these marks.
This 9.5 mile hike required physical stamina along with some route finding skills. Most of the trail is not marked, but if you pay close attention it’s easy enough to follow the footsteps and well worn paths from other hikers. We also read a number of trail descriptions to prepare. Most mentioned a large rock formation called the Neon Dome that marks the entrance of the canyon. We easily located it way off in the distance at the start of the trail.
The trail started with a 500 foot descent down a slick rock cliff. This section was fairly well marked with cairns. If you’ve ever hiked in this area then you know that slick rock is anything but slick. In fact, this plentiful sandstone that stretches across southern Utah is quite grippy and easy to hike on (provided you have the right shoes). We were thankful for that quality since much of this section was really steep. We couldn’t help but dread the hike back up!
At the bottom we reached a sandy wash and a sign saying that we were entering the Glen Canyon NRA. If you look at a map you can see where a section of Glen Canyon juts up into the Grand Staircase NM. It was at this point where our route finding skills came into play. There are two ways to get to the Golden Cathedral. The first is to continue following this wash down the Escalante River and then hike along the river until you come to the Neon Canyon. This route is well marked, but it’s also quite a bit longer and requires four river crossings. The other route is more direct, shorter, and only crosses the river once. But it’s not marked.
We made the mistake of following the marked trail for a about 10 minutes before Tim realized that we should have veered right at the start of the wash and made our own path across the rock. So we back tracked a bit and as a result had to scoot up and around a few canyons. Luckily, the Neon Dome was always in view letting us know that we were on the right track. This is one those hikes where a small handheld GPS comes in handy. We’ve had this one for several years and take it with us on nearly every hike, bike ride, and kayaking adventure. Much more reliable and rugged than a phone app.
For about three miles we trekked across the desert trying our best to stay on the firm rocky sections but finding that in many cases the loose sand was unavoidable.
Eventually the Escalante River came into view.
The photos don’t illustrate the grade very well, but to reach the river we had to walk down a 500′ fairly steep sand dune. Going down was fun, but once again we couldn’t help but dread the hike back up.
We had read that the river wouldn’t be very wide or deep at this crossing, but there was still a bit of worry about how wet we would get. Turned out there was no need to worry. It was less than two feet deep and sandy on the bottom which made for an easy crossing. It was very, very cold though.
And then just like that we were inside the Neon Canyon. For about mile we walked along the bottom of the canyon gazing in wonder at the steep, mineral streaked walls towering around us. There was a little water in the canyon, but not so much that we couldn’t easily step over or around it.
At the end of the canyon we climbed over a few rock fall areas, and then the Golden Cathedral came into view.
There was a group of college students who had just finished rappeling down into the canyon. Can you see the rope hanging down? Unfortunately we didn’t get to see them in action. That would have made for a great photo. We hung out in the canyon for awhile eating lunch and chatting with another couple. The climbing group left not long after we arrived and about 20 minutes later we saw the rope being pulled up to the top. I guess they had hiked back to the top to retrieve it.
Eventually we had to pry ourselves away and begin the long hike back through the canyon, across the river, up the sand dune, across the desert, and up the massive wall of slick rock. I didn’t take many photos on the way back, but I can confirm that the hike back up the sand dune was the hardest part. Anyone who’s ever hiked up a massive mound of deep sand knows just how tiring it can be.
The end part up the giant cliff was no picnic either.
But we made it, and the sense of accomplishment at the top was incredible. This was one epic hike. The crazy thing is that even after all the hiking we had only begun to scratch the surface of what there is do in the Escalante area. We’re already hoping to come back here sometime next fall to spend a few more weeks exploring. For a detailed description of the hike to the Golden Cathedral including driving directions (high clearance vehicles recommended) and GPS waypoints visit intermountainhealthcare.org.
Before we move on to our next stop here are a few notes about Escalante:
Escalante is a very small town. This is both good and bad. Good because it lacks all the generic chain stores and gross Dollar Stores that have taken over so much of our country. Bad because if you show up with a nearly empty fridge you won’t have much luck buying groceries. We stocked up as best we could before heading to Route 12. We did good with pantry items, but you can only fit so much fresh stuff in a tiny RV fridge and freezer. We try very hard to eat a diet free of processed and packaged foods. That means lots of fresh produce and (when possible) local meats and eggs. When we rolled into town our supply of fresh items was dwindling and we didn’t have much luck stocking back up. Makes me wonder what the people who live here eat? There are two grocery stores in town.
- Griffin Grocery: A small general store with basic pantry items and a poor selection of fresh foods. I asked when the produce shipment came in and returned that day. It was slim pickings. On the other hand, they did have a large selection of frozen burritos and pizzas. Too bad we don’t eat those things. On the plus side the prices were not much higher than most large grocery chains.
- Escalante Mercantile and Natural Grocery: This cute little store had an entire room of tea, but not much in the way of fresh produce. It could be the time of year. I did find a few things here to supplement the pitiful selection at Griffin. I also chatted with the owner, Marcy and got the impression that if you were in town for awhile and wanted something special she would go out of her way to get it for you. Just remember that this was not a store for the budget conscience.
For such small town Escalante has a lot of restaurant options — everything from fast food style burgers and shakes, to high end steak houses. We tried out two places and would highly recommend them both.
- Escalante Outfitters: A gear store, cafe, and cabins rental place all in one. We came here for dinner one night with our friends Jeff & Coffee. The pizza is amazing. They do have other things on the menu, but since everyone in the restaurant was eating pizza I assume that’s their speciality. They are also open for breakfast with fresh coffee and pastries. We are not coffee people so I can’t comment, but when I drove past one morning the parking lot was packed.
- Circle D Eatery: This is also a combo style business with a hotel and restaurant. It’s been my experience that when a hotel and restaurant are combined the food is often an after thought. That is certainly not the case here. They specialize in smoked meats and burgers made with local beef (they do have vegetarian options as well). I got the smoked chicken and Tim got the brisket. Served with a side of extra crisp fries and fresh greens beans this was a really good meal. We came here with Jeff and Coffee on the day we hiked to the Golden Cathedral and both cleaned our plates. Just what we needed after a long day of desert hiking!
I already told you all about our boondocking spot in my last post. The one thing I failed to mention is that this spot is NOT big rig friendly. I would say medium size rigs only (no more than 30 feet). If you have a bigger RV and want to boondock the sites off Hole-in-the-Rock Road would suit you better. For more info about our spot including pics and details about the road, check out the review I wrote for Campendium.
Other camping options:
- Canyons of Escalante RV Park: A small, typical looking RV park located in town. From what I could see the sites looked very close together. They do report having WiFi, but since you’re in town expect to have very little working cell service.
- Shooting Star RV Resort: Half RV park, half Airstream hotel, the concept behind this place is pretty cool. They have a number of fully furnished Airstreams for rent in addition to traditional RV sites. They also have a drive-in movie theater! Sadly, the movies were not up and running at the time of our visit. We only drove past here, so I can’t add much more info, but I can confirm that at this end of town you will get zero cell service.
- Escalante Petrified Forest State Park: A small state park located a few miles west of town. We didn’t visit here, but from what I saw online they have two camping area in a really pretty setting. Expect no cell service here either.
Up next: We continue along Route 12 to the tiny town of Torrey for a week of hiking at Capital Reef National Park!