Sand, Slot Canyons, Arches, and Oases: Exploring Along Southern Utah’s Hole in the Rock Road
Southern Utah’s Hole in the Rock Road is a remote byway that runs through both Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Though it’s out of the way, it’s well worth the effort to explore its slot canyons, arches, and desert oases. Though Coyote Gulch is well known, many adventurers haven’t made their way to this epic canyon due to its remote location, and even fewer have explored the other features along this unpaved road. But it’s replete with opportunities for superb outdoor fun, and definitely worth the time and the bumpy ride.
Hole in the Rock Road is remote. It begins just outside the town of Escalante and meanders its way southeast to Lake Powell. Though only 60 miles between those two points, it will take you two and a half hours driving on the rugged terrain. The road is rough: think washboard rivets in a dirt road that will rattle you to the bones. You definitely want to have a car that can handle it.
That being said, smaller cars can be seen braving the road, but it likely wouldn’t be a comfortable ride. Be sure to fill up your gas tank and stock up on water and supplies before you leave Escalante, as you won’t find any services after that. It is also recommended that you plan ahead and download whatever maps and/or GPS coordinates you’ll be using, as you will not have cell service in the area.
Certainly the most well-known feature off of Hole in the Rock Road, Coyote Gulch is a stunning canyon with red rock walls that tower over a shallow creek that runs into the Escalante River. Coyote Gulch offers an oasis in the desert for backpackers and day-hikers. There are a handful of different places to start from and ways to get into the gulch, depending on your abilities and how far you want to hike. Whichever route you choose, many hikers arrive at the trailhead in the evening and make camp there, starting on the trail early in the morning.
Plan for direct sun exposure and deep sand on the trail, and ankle-deep water once you’re down in the gulch. Getting down into the gulch could take you shimmying down a crack in the rock, or using ropes to assist in a steep scramble near Jacob Hamblin Arch. Once you are down in the canyon, walk along the riverbed to find a perfect spot to make camp. Be sure to plan enough time to play in waterfalls, admire rock formations, and just take in the majesty of the gulch.
Cosmic Asthray is an otherworldly rock formation that looks like a large red rock ashtray full of fine red sand. It’s a great day hike and will be less crowded than others along the road. There are a couple of different access points to Cosmic Ashtray, but to access it from Hole in the Rock Road, you will turn on Harris Wash road between Zebra canyon and Devil’s Garden and head east.
Once at the trailhead, the hike is 9 miles on both rock and in fine sand, and is very exposed. To descend into the bowl of the ashtray, assess your own comfort and skill level; many hikers make the climb down into the bowl without aid, but you can also bring a 20-meter rope to aid your descent.
Reflection Canyon offers stunning views over Lake Powell, and is more suited for experienced hikers. The trail is nearly 19 miles, and though not technical is exposed and unforgiving of the desert heat. For those that do venture it, it will be well worth your time. The route is out-and-back, but can be difficult to find at times, so be sure to go prepared with your downloaded map.
You will be looking down into Reflection Canyon, which is filled with water, but there is no way to get down to that water, so pack all that you need. Because this trail is more difficult and trickier to navigate, it will be less crowded, so you may get the views all to yourself. Perhaps plan on being there for sunrise or sunset for optimal views.
Peek-a-boo and Spooky Canyons
Peek-a-boo and Spooky are slot canyons in the Dry Fork Narrows that feel like a playground. From Hole in the Rock Road, you should find the trailhead easily by mapping it ahead. From the trailhead, you’ll be on an easy trail descending into the narrows. While you’re in the canyons you’ll be mostly shaded, but the hike to and from the entrance to your car will be very exposed, so plan accordingly. Once down, the trail through the two canyons is a loop.
You can choose which way you start with, but we recommend going north and starting with Peek-a-boo canyon. There is a short scramble right at the beginning of the canyon that gets you up into the rock formation, but it is not technical and no aid gear is needed. After that, enjoy the twists, turns, and windows in the rock as you make your way through. Once out of Peak-a-boo, the trail will open up again as you loop around to Spooky, where you’ll once again be in a narrow slot. Always be aware of flash-flood risk when hiking slot canyons, and check the weather report before venturing out.
Another slot canyon to explore along Hole in the Rock road, Zebra Canyon is the best for kids and less experienced hikers. The trail is shorter, at only 5.2 miles total, and easier, with little elevation change. This one is a lot different than Spooky & Peek-a-boo canyons, with stunning painted walls and narrower passages. Most people hike in and out the same way, as the canyon isn’t typically a through hike, so be aware that it can get congested in the more narrow sections. You can choose to add about 1.5 miles to your trail and head to Tunnel Canyon as well, though this canyon is very short and may not be worth the extra effort after the beauty of Zebra Canyon.
We hope you aren’t tired yet of grand, towering canyon walls in panted reds and golds, because Golden Cathedral gorgeous. Though the trail isn’t technical or difficult, there are 1,500’ of elevation change, so be prepared for a good decent and climb back out. Once down in the canyon, follow the river until you reach the opening of the cathedral.
You will be crossing through the river, so plan ahead to have a pair of water shoes with you. This will also give you good opportunity to fill your water bottles if you bring a purifier. Give yourself time to revel and reflect at the cathedral, as it is awe-inspiring. For more experienced goers, you can also canyoneer from Neon Canyon, with the final rappel dropping you right through the center of Golden Cathedral. This is a technical route with gear and canyoneering skills required.
Hole in the Rock
Hole in the Rock has significance in Utah’s history, as settlers descended through the opening in 1880 to attempt to settle on the San Juan River. It’s hard to imagine the early pioneer settlers making this harrowing trek down the steep canyon walls with wagons and livestock, but knowing that history makes the trail even more fascinating.
From the parking area, it is a short hike, but be aware that you are climbing out a steep incline. Some visitors will choose to do the short hike just to get a beautiful view of the river and to see the historical marker that is placed at the top of the cliff. But if you’ve made the commitment to drive all the way on the unpaved road to get there, consider conquering the scramble down to enjoy a dip in the water.