The Wild West is arguably one of the most fascinating backpacking destinations across the U.S. and if you’re looking for an adventurous place to lace your boots, look no further than Utah—an absolute hiking hotspot. Some of my all-time favorite hiking has been through the state’s unspoiled wilderness and impressive rocky red deserts. The place to start? Canyon land.
While one of southern Utah’s biggest draws is the beautiful Bryce Canyon, there is so much more to see and do in the area, especially within the nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
It’s a two-million acre playground full of canyon slots and rugged cliffs beckoning the adventurous souls to come and play. And from horseback riding and fishing to canyoneering and mountain biking, there’s undoubtedly an adventure activity for everyone!
But above all, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is a backpacker and hiker’s paradise, and the best way to get acquainted with the region is through a series of day hikes that cover the monument’s varied landscapes.
Considering each of these hikes is accessible via Utah’s Scenic Byway 12—an All-American Road considered the gateway to canyon country—your best bet is to make the towns of Boulder and Escalante your base to explore these six great hikes over a week during your visit to Garfield County and Bryce Canyon Country.
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
1. Zebra Slot Canyon
5.3 miles roundtrip, (7.2 miles including Tunnel Slot); 3-4 hours average (5-6 with Tunnel Slot loop)
Perhaps the most visually stunning slot of Grand Staircase-Escalante is that of Zebra Canyon, streaked by pink and white stripes that line the towering walls of this extremely narrow passage. This premiere canyon is surprisingly overlooked by the crowds (in comparison to Bryce Canyon’s Queen’s Garden Trail and the ever-popular Navajo Loop, for example,) making the trip even more desirable considering the potential of having the slot to yourself.
The easy, 3-5 hour hike first leads you through sand dunes and fields of wildflowers (during the summer months) for a mile or so before deepening into the canyon of sculpted sandstone. As an added bonus, the nearby Tunnel Slot is often filled with water and a great place to cool down before heading back. It’s a great hike for any time of year, although recommended during the spring and fall.
Trailhead and parking start 8 miles down Hole-in-the-Rock Road, just off of Scenic Byway 12 outside of Escalante. Cross to the east side of the road and follow the unmarked trail northeast towards Halfway Hollow, continuing north and keeping right when the trail forks at Harris Wash toward the canyon entrance.
2. Lower Calf Creek Falls
6 miles roundtrip, 3-4 hours average
Who doesn’t love jumping into a pool of cool, cascading falls after a full day’s trek under the desert sun? If waterfalls are what you’re after, then this is the hike for you.
To sum up this trail in one word, it would undeniably be: hot. While relatively flat, this hike is nonetheless tiresome due to its sandy trail and lack of shade throughout the 3-mile trip to the Lower Calf Creek Falls just outside of Boulder. It’s worth every step to make it to the refreshing, 126-foot waterfall, though, so plan plenty of time for a swim!
TIP: Leaving later in the afternoon helps with the shade coverage if you start hiking around 2p.m.
3. Peek-a-Boo/ Spooky Gulches
3.5 miles roundtrip, 2-3 hours average
Highly regarded as some of southern Utah’s best canyons for adventure hiking, the famous slots of Peek-a-boo and Spooky Gulches make a great day loop for exploring the desert. As some of the most surreal canyons of Escalante, they are also some of the most-visited, and certainly some of the most exciting trails within the monument. Pairing the two canyons (which are less than a half mile from each other) make for a classic, and captivating experience.
Visit Bryce Canyon Country for more info on these must-see canyons.
4. Willis Creek Slot
4 miles roundtrip, 1.5-3 hours average
Unlike the claustrophobic canyons of Zebra and Spooky, the Willis Creek Slot is an easygoing, flat hike trail following the water that long ago carved the great Navajo sandstone walls into the canyon of today. It’s a photographer’s dream (especially during the morning when the sun is glowing against the orange rock) and is a great spot for canyoneering in the heart of the monument.
5. Little Death Hollow
16 miles roundtrip, 8-12 hours average
Despite it’s harrowing name, the hike through the Little Death Hollow is anything but dark and unpleasant. The 8-mile trail leads you through a little bit of everything that GSENM has to offer, from fields of petrified wood, stone carvings and petroglyphs, tight slots, flowing rivers and wide open canyons. Depending on the season, many sections of this canyon can fill with waist deep, icy-cold water making for an added challenge to navigate the trail obstacles and twisting walls of the area’s most interesting geology.
Bonus: The trailhead is best accessed from the town of Boulder, about 20 miles down Burr Trail Road, taking you along one of the most scenic drives in all of Garfield County.
6. Coyote Gulch
11.5-17 miles roundtrip, 8-12 hours average
Arches, bridges, and waterfalls make this spectacular section of Grand Staircase-Escalante the crown jewel of the monument and a very popular starting point for hikers new to the area. The gulch itself is grand, and there are various paths and trails you can take to create various backpacking routes, giving you a wide range of scenery and activity along the Escalante River. Here you’ll spend most of your time in or around the water, and you can’t miss the immense sandstone arches that tower over streams and cascading falls.
When planning your trip to Grand Staircase-Escalante and the surrounding Bryce Canyon Country area, be sure to check their website for the latest trail info and updates as hiking conditions vary by season.