4 days in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and Capitol Reef National Park
Updated: Sep 22
Avoid the crowds of Utah's more famous National Parks and explore the remote area of Escalante. Climb through narrow slot canyons, hike to desert waterfalls and enjoy the local food and hospitality of small-town Utah.
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Tips for Hiking in Southern Utah Parks:
1. Hiking in desert landscapes is different from tree-lined, forested trails. Trails in forests carve their way through trees so they are easier to see clearly. In the desert, there is often no vegetation for the trail to cut through so it’s much easier to get lost. Cairns, an intentional pile of stacked rocks, is a way in which trails are often marked in a desert setting. Be sure to watch for them along the hikes in this itinerary, especially the longer hikes with fewer crowds.
2. I also recommend that you download offline trail maps to access in areas with no service. Cairns can still be confusing. They aren’t always visible when you need to decide which direction to go. Offline maps are another back-up option for trail navigation.
Alltrails offers a subscription app service with the option to download trail maps.
Maps.me is a free option that allows you to download an entire region (like Southern Utah), and includes hiking trails and driving roads in that area.
3. No trees also means limited shade on hikes. Bring double the water you think you will need, especially if you are hiking midday or in the summer months.
Grand Staircase Escalante- Coyote Gulch and Hurricane Wash Loop Trail or Cathedral Cove
These are both long day hike options in the Escalante area that are less well known and avoid typical National Park crowds. Both are exposed hikes with minimal shade, so bring lots of water. They also are not well marked, so download offline maps and be prepared to navigate and look for cairns.
1. Coyote Gulch and Hurricane Wash-A 10.6 mile loop hike with 1,532 feet in elevation gain
From Escalante, the trailhead is an hour and forty-five minute off-road drive. You will know you reached the trailhead when you come to a parking area near a water tank. Hiking down into the gulch is a scary, steep descent. There is usually a rope set up to use, or you can bring your own rope. Alternatively you can sit down and slide/shimmy down into the gulch. Long portions of the hike may be in shallow water depending on the time of the year so bring or wear hiking sandals or water shoes. On the trail you will see multiple arches, a small waterfall, and narrow canyon areas.
2. Golden Cathedral/Neon Canyon- A 9.1 mile out-and-back hike with 1,581 feet in elevation gain
From Escalante, the trailhead is an hour off-road drive. There are multiple river crossings on the trail. You are rewarded at the end with the grand golden cathedral rock formation and a small pool below it.
Grand Staircase Escalante-Dry Fork Narrows, Peek-a-boo, and Spooky Slot Canyons
This hike is an absolute must do while in the Escalante area. It is a fun and unique experience to crawl and climb through these narrow slot canyons. The hike to and through the canyons is 6.3 miles long with 738 feet in elevation gain. It is not an overly strenuous hike but the maneuvering through the canyons does create fun challenges. You have to use your arms and be creative in many spots. Pack a compact backpack for the hike to make it easier to maneuver through narrow sections.
The trailhead is about an hour drive from the city of Escalante, and the majority of the drive is off road. There will be a sign when you reach the parking area for the Upper Dry Fork Trailhead. Go as early as possible to beat the crowds. Even a small group of people could completely change your experience on this hike. The slot canyons have narrow sections where you would have to wait in line to let people pass through if there’s a crowd. We started right at day break and had the canyons to ourselves. Hiking early also helped to avoid the desert heat, as the majority of this hike has no shade.
The trail is not well marked or maintained so download offline maps and look for cairns as you go. To start the hike, walk across the road from the parking lot and follow the carved-out path through the low bushes. There are hot pink ribbon markers on bushes to follow for this portion of the hike. You’ll have to look for cairns after that.
First you will hit the Dry Fork Narrows, then loop through the Peek-a-Boo Slot Canyon and then Spooky Slot Canyon. There is one section of the Spooky Slot Canyon that has a rope set up to descend into the canyon. It looks scarier than it is, and it’s possible to descend without the rope too! You have the option to come back through the Dry Fork Narrows on the way back to the parking lot or take the Rim trail back.
My friends and I spotted a baby rattlesnake in the Dry Fork Narrows section, so beware that they are in the area.
In the afternoon you could also add a stop at Zebra Canyon. It unfortunately had high water levels when we visited so we couldn’t hike it. It is not far off of the same dirt road you drove to Spooky and Peek-a-boo. Zebra Canyon is known for its striped colors throughout.
See Where to Eat for dinner options in Escalante.
Grand Staircase Escalante- Lower Calf Creek Falls
This is a 6.7 mile out and back trail with only 521 feet in elevation gain. It’s a relatively flat and easy hike to a rare desert waterfall.
Midway through the hike there are also Petroglyphs. You’ll find numbered markers along this trail. At marker #8, look across to the rock wall in the distance to see the petroglyphs. When you arrive at marker #14 you have reached the Falls. Pick up a brochure in the parking lot if you want descriptions of the various fauna and rock formations along the other numbered markers. The majority of the hike is on sandy terrain so hiking sandals or shoes that won’t hold on to sand are best for this trail.
The trailhead is on the road between Escalante and Boulder/Capitol Reef National Park, so it is a convenient hike on your way to your lodging near Capitol Reef. The drive to the trail, part of Scenic Byway 12, is a stunning drive as well. Kiva Koffeehouse is along the same road and works well for a coffee or lunch stop.
Capitol Reef National Park
For an easy, classic day trip to Capitol Reef National Park, I recommend taking the scenic drive, making a couple stops and then doing a combination of the hikes listed below. If you have plenty of time, and are experienced in off-road driving, then consider going to the Cathedral District.
Capitol Reef Scenic Byway Stops:
A historic home built in 1908, The Gifford Homestead is located in the Fruita Historic District of the park where the fruit trees grow. The home is now a gift shop that sells reproduction utensils and tools used by the pioneers, as well as quilts, aprons, candles, jams and homemade ice cream.
Most importantly they sell delicious individual fruit pies that are a must buy. We tried multiple varieties, loved them all, and wished we had bought more to take home.
Across the street from the homestead is the Gifford Barn, an iconic spot in Capitol Reef National Park.
You can see Fremont Culture Petroglyphs (from between 300-1300 CE) along State Route 24 in the National Park. There are large human-like petroglyphs, as well as big horn sheep and other animals and designs.
Capitol Reef Hike Options:
Chimney Rock Loop Trail-A 3.6 mile loop with 590 feet in elevation gain
It has panoramic views of the park and is an ideal spot for enjoying the sunset.
Rim Overlook Trail- A 4.6 mile hike with 1,100 feet in elevation gain
Here you can see panoramic views of the Fruta area of the park from the top of a cliff.
Hickman Bridge Trail-A 2 mile out-and-back trail with 400 feet in elevation gain
The trail leads to a large rock bridge formation.
Cassidy Arch Trail-A 3.4 mile out-and-back trail with 670 feet in elevation gain
It takes you to a viewpoint of a natural Arch and views of the surrounding canyons.
Grand Wash Trail- A 4.4 mile out-and-back trail with 200 feet in elevation gain
This hike winds inside a deep, narrow canyon. Since we had already hiked the impressive slot canyons in Escalante and the Narrows in Zion, we decided to skip this hike.
Capitol Gorge Tanks Trail- A 2 mile out-and-back trail with 80 feet in elevation gain
The trail leads you through a deep canyon and has historical inscriptions on the gorge walls and natural water pockets (also called water tanks).
The Cathedral District
If you want to see a different section of Capitol Reef National Park, or have multiple days there, then I recommend going to the Cathedral District. It is located in a remote area with no gas station, food, etc. and will have to drive off road and drive over a river crossing to reach the district. Many of the roads become impassable when wet. Stop at the park information center to talk to the rangers about current conditions and the best driving routes.
If you make the trek to the area, you will be rewarded with magical-looking Monoliths and vast desert landscapes. There are numerous hikes in this section of the park as well, but they are not maintained or marked.
The popular hikes in the Cathedral District are:
Jailhouse Rock and Temple Rock Route- A 4.5 mile loop hike that leads to a viewpoint of Jailhouse Rock and then on to a viewpoint of Temple Rock
Lower Cathedral Valley Overlook-A 1.5 to 2.5 mile round-trip hike that leads to a bird’s eye view of the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of Moon monoliths
Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook- A .5 mile out and back walk rewards you with a panoramic view of the entire Cathedral Valley area.
Cathedrals Trail- An easy 2.4 mile out and back hike that follows a ridge along the Cathedral monoliths.
Build an Itinerary for a Grand Staircase Escalante Trip
This itinerary works well as a stand alone long weekend trip. We included it as part of a longer Utah 3-week road trip that started with Moab, Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and then continued on to Lake Powell, Zion and Bryce National Parks and then ended with Grand Staircase Escalante and Capitol Reef. Click on the links for blog posts for each of those areas as well. If you want to plan a longer 2-week Utah road trip read this post on how to combine all of the stops.
Lodging near Escalante and Boulder, Utah
I recommend staying in Escalante for the first 3 nights to be close to the Escalante hikes, and then stay in Boulder for the remaining two nights to be close to Capitol Reef National Park. We loved our experiences in both of these small towns. The locals were friendly and they had our favorite restaurants in all of our Southern Utah trip.
Lodging options are limited in this area, there are no large hotels. There are unique Airbnb and home rental options available in both towns, like tiny homes, yurts, and ranch stays.
In Escalante we stayed in tiny homes through Escalante Escapes. The homes feature modern design and decor, and each has its own firepit and outdoor space.
In Boulder we rented a home through Airbnb. For a tranquil ranch lodging option, consider the Boulder Mountain Guest Ranch. We ate at the restaurant there, and the property and surrounding area are beautiful. The ranch is located in a valley overlooking a creek, with expansive views in every direction.
Advanced Bookings for Escalante and Boulder
There are limited lodging options available, so book in advance for the best selection. These are less popular destinations than the other Utah National Parks, so you will probably be okay booking last minute.
What to Wear and Pack for Escalante
What to Wear
Hiking boots or shoes
What to Pack
Where to Eat near Escalante and Boulder, Utah
A local couple sells homemade breads, pastries sandwiches and quiches at this quaint shop in Escalante. They have a large yard for outdoor seating.
A natural grocery store that is a perfect stop for stocking up on snacks for road trips and hikes. They have homemade sandwiches packaged and ready to go to bring on a hike and a wide selection of organic, healthy snacks. You can also buy coffee, pastries, smoothies and salads.
Georgie’s Outdoor Mexican Cafe
A permanent food truck with outdoor seating that serves made-to-order, fresh, Mexican food.
In between Escalante and Boulder
A perfect halfway point and pre-hike stop on the drive between Escalante and Boulder. They offer a wide selection of coffee and tea drinks, and also serve house-made baked goods as well as breakfast and lunch options including quiche and soups. Sitting on a canyon ledge this restaurant overlooks the desert. It is a beautiful stop with lots of outdoor seating to take in the views.
After spending nearly 3 weeks in Utah, we all agreed this was our favorite restaurant experience and our best food of the trip. It is located on a picturesque family-operated ranch. They offer seating on a wrap around porch with sunset and ranch views. Ingredients are locally sourced and everything is handmade (even their pasta). Their food rivals a well-ranked metropolitan restaurant, featuring farm-to table ingredients from outside their back door and small-town friendly staff. We will never forget their a-la-mode skillet berry crumble.
A permanent food truck set-up in a local park. Magnolia’s is open for breakfast and lunch and sells classic tacos and burritos as well as more creative dishes such as Kimchee Breakfast Tacos and Loaded Garden Fries with kale, mushrooms, pickled onions and avocado. We loved their peach agua fresca too!
Getting around Escalante
To follow this itinerary you need to rent or bring a car. A 4-wheel drive vehicle with high clearance is ideal for the off-road drives required for most of the hikes near Escalante or for exploring the Cathedral District in Capitol Reef National Park.
When to Go to Escalante and Capitol Reef National Park
Restaurants and shops in these areas all close on October 31st for the season. Even the pie shop in Capitol Reef National Park closes October 31st. As winter snow arrives many of the roads in the area become impassable. Most places will start to open up again in early-to-mid March. While it is easy to travel in the area between March and October, spring and fall are most ideal to avoid hiking in the summer desert heat. Most of the hikes in this area have no shade.
Trip Dates: October 2020
Article Updated: February 2021
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