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Spanning more than 1.8 million acres of public land in Southern Utah, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is an endless playground for the young and young-at-heart. Made of five defining geological layers that stretch 100 miles from Bryce Canyon through Zion and into the Grand Canyon, the giant stairs were formed by tectonic uplift along the Colorado Plateau. From sculpted slot canyons to seemingly-impossible waterfalls, this unspoiled, remote landscape offers countless opportunities for adventure.
After staying two nights in the shadow of Bryce's pink cliffs, we ventured into the heart of the monument. Using the desert oasis of Calf Creek Recreation Area Campground as our base, we pitched our tent and set out to share our favorite spots with our daughters.
Only 16 miles from the town of Escalante, Calf Creek Recreation Area Campground offers 13 small sites nestled along perennial Calf Creek. Available on a first-come, first-serve basis for $15 per night, these pristine sites fill up quickly. Arrive early to secure a spot. Pit toilets and potable water are available in the campground, and flush toilets and sinks are available in the day use area. Trash service is not available; campers must pack out all trash.
Dropping 126 feet over mineral-stained sandstone into a deep pool, Lower Calf Creek Falls seems like a mirage in the middle of the desert. The six-mile out-and-back hike is relatively flat, although sections of deep sand are a slog on a hot day. Mist spraying from the falls and shade from the high cliffs make the alcove a cool haven for hot hikers. On summer weekends, the trail is packed with families, so plan your hike to avoid the busiest time of day. After setting up camp, we waited until late afternoon to hike and had the falls to ourselves.
Helpful Hint: While the falls are the highlight of the hike, don't miss the granaries and impressive pictograph on the surrounding canyon walls. Pick up an interpretive trail guide from the day use area so you know where to look. In early summer, cactus blooms line the trail and bountiful wildflowers surround the falls.
Trail Info: There is a day use fee of $5 per vehicle if you're not staying in the campground. Pay the fee at the parking lot kiosk, and walk along the campground road to the trail head. Dogs are allowed but must remain on-leash. Pack out all trash!
Seeing far fewer visitors than its downstream neighbor, Upper Calf Creek Falls is a short yet challenging 1.2 mile descent over slick rock. Starting at the top of the canyon, the trail immediately drops in elevation. Follow the cairns, and look for a split as the trail levels out. Continue to the left to descend to the base of the 88-foot falls. Beware of poison ivy under the alcove! Take the split to the right to reach the swimming pools above the falls.
Trail Info: The trail head is located between mile post 80 & 81 on the west side of Utah Scenic Byway 12. There is no sign on the highway, but the dirt road dead ends into a signed parking area with a trail register. There is no fee, and dogs are allowed off-leash. The trail is exposed with no shade, and the climb out of the canyon is steep. Be prepared with plenty of water and sun protection.
Running 62 miles from Escalante to the western shore of Lake Powell, rugged and remote Hole-in-the-Rock Road boasts tremendous history and plenty of adventure. Most of the road is passable with two-wheel vehicles, but high clearance is a plus on this rough, washboarded route. Always carry plenty of water and emergency supplies when traveling on remote roads, and check the weather forecast. The road becomes impassable during heavy storms.
Chances are you've seen pictures of Escalante's most popular slot canyons. Second only to Calf Creek Recreation Area, the Dry Fork Slot Canyons have become one of the most visited locations in Escalante. These family-friendly, non-technical slots are well-loved for their accessibility and stunning aesthetic.
When we first explored these spectacular slots canyons more than 15 years ago, they weren't as well known, and getting to the entrances required a little route finding. To improve access, reduce congestion, and minimize impact, the Bureau of Land Management gave the Lower Dry Fork Trailhead a significant overhaul in 2019. The new trail head moved parking out of sensitive wilderness areas and added pit toilets and informational kiosks. The turnoff onto Dry Fork Road is located just past mile post 26 on Hole-in-the-Rock Road.
From the trail head, follow the well worn path as it descends one mile to the bottom of Dry Fork. Follow the wash to the entrance of Peek-a-boo. The 12-foot dryfall at the entrance is the most difficult section of the route; use the mochi steps carved into the sandstone to climb into the slot.
Slowly wind and weave your way through the sculpted sandstone, soaking in the sublime colors. Continue through the narrows until the canyon opens up. Exit the wash to the east, and look for the hiker trail marked by cairns. After resting in the shade of hardy pine trees, follow the cairns to the top of Spooky. Descend and squeeze through the narrower, darker slot until you reach the bottom. Follow the Dry Fork wash back to the main trail, and climb back to the trail head.
For more slot canyon options along Hole-in-the-Rock Road, the Non-Technical Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau is an excellent resource for route details and maps.
On the way back to Escalante, be sure to stop at Devil's Garden. Located at mile post 12 on Hole-in-the-Rock Road, this day use area features head-turning rock formations. Kids will love climbing and exploring the area. Shaded picnic tables and pit toilets are available.
For a small desert town, Escalante is big on services. After a full day exploring Hole-in-the-Rock Road, we stopped in town to refuel and restock. Georgie's Outdoor Mexican Cafe hit the spot with filling quesadillas, tacos, and freshly-made chips and salsa. After picking up a few essentials at Griffin's Grocery, thick shakes from Nemo's Drive Thru were a delicious treat before heading back to camp. For the latest weather forecast, road conditions and trail information, stop at the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center on Main Street.
For more sophisticated palettes, Hell's Backbone Grill in Boulder, Utah serves organic, locally produced cuisine. Many of the vegetables and fruits are grown in the restaurant’s two gardens and six-acre farm.
Even in the dog days of summer, desert temperatures can swing more than 30 degrees between daytime highs and nighttime lows. Pack light-colored, breathable clothing for desert hiking, and don't forget a lightweight jacket for cool - or windy - nights. Sun protection is a must, so find a broad-brimmed hat that fits your style.
Nicole's idea of a perfect vacation involves camping, hiking, trail running, SUP and exploring secluded beaches with her husband and two daughters. She writes about travel, raising KÜHL kids and her obsession with outdoor apparel for KÜHL.