Your family loves every gulch and hoodoo of southern Utah, every dark sky and soaring arch and slippery stretch of slickrock. Once you’ve worked your way past Arches, Goblin Valley, Moab, and countless other red rock treasures, you’re going to find yourself inevitably wondering: what is there to do at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument? (It’s a mouthful, I think we can all agree).
The massive wilderness of Grand Staircase-Escalante is waiting for you — even if you aren’t a serious climber or canyoneer-er — as long as you have the right vehicle, lots of water, a hardy constitution, and a sense of adventure.
What to Know About Grand Staircase-Escalante:
- Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument currently covers almost a million acres (reduced from 1.9 million acres by executive order in 2017).
- It is remote and wild, the largest national monument administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the last area to be mapped in the contiguous United States.
- There are three main areas: the Grand Staircase, the Kaiparowits Plateau, and Escalante.
- Most of the monument is roadless backcountry wilderness.
- Several of the most accessible sights can be found in the northeast Escalante section, including the Escalante river trail, Upper and Lower Calf Creek Falls, and Hole in the Rock Road.
- The nearest towns to the Escalante section are Boulder and Escalante.
What is hiding in these million acres? A great expanse of nothingness to some, a wondrous desert of everything to others.
Here are our favorite, most accessible things to do in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, sights that can be seen just by driving and hiking (relatively) short distances. The list for serious backpackers and technical climbers will have to wait for another day, mostly because my technical climbing skills don’t exist. (Yet.)
Hike to Lower Calf Creek Falls
In an otherwise parched desert environment, a cluster of green grows along the creek here. Lower Calf Creek Falls is a 6.5-mile out-and-back hike, which is a little long for some kids, plus there are some sandy areas to trudge through. However, there are a few shady areas. At the end of the trail, the waterfall cascades 130 feet down into a swimmable pool. It’s the perfect reward for a hot summer hike.
Calf Creek is home to a popular first-come, first-serve campground, so get there early on holiday weekends. I’d say this is pretty much the most crowded area in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Hike to Upper Calf Creek Falls
Upper Calf Creek Falls is a less trafficked hike to another waterfall, which tumbles 88 feet and is likely impressive in the spring, but rather light in the fall. You can swim here, too, if you like, but watch out for poison ivy growing along the edges of the pool.
This hike is shorter, but not necessarily any better for small children. It’s only a 2.1-mile out-and-back hike, but it’s mostly on slickrock, totally exposed to the elements, with cairns to guide the way. It drops down 500 feet from the road, too, so it’s no walk in the park, especially on the climb back out.
Explore the Escalante River Trail
This one is a family favorite. The Escalante River Trail winds along, over, and through the Escalante River. From the trailhead on Highway 12, where the river crosses the road, you could walk 15 miles all the way to the town of Escalante. But, don’t.
Hiking just 2.5 miles along the trail here brings riches galore: not only are the trees along the creek pretty enough in fall to make the whole trip worth it, but soon enough you’ll be walking along the sandstone cliffs you’ve heard so much about. And then the real payoff: the 130 foot tall Escalante Natural Bridge.
Beyond the the Natural Bridge, you’ll also see the skyline arch, some Anasazi ruins, and a petroglyph panel. All of these can be seen within 2.5 miles of the trailhead.
The hike is easy, but be aware you will be walking in the river for part of it. Don’t be like me. Wear appropriate footwear. (And maybe I’ll write a post about hiking miles in wet socks sometime just for fun).
Drive the Hole-in-the-Rock Road
This is a 62-mile stretch of dirt that runs from the town of Escalante to Hole-in-the-Rock on the western shore of Lake Powell. It is the route of the original Mormon Settlers’ Hole-in-the-Rock expedition, but also one of the few roads of any kind running through the national monument.
If you just want to drive it for historical interest, the BLM has a good guide to driving Hole-in-the-Rock Road that lists all the mile markers for points of interest along the road. This is helpful because driving this road feels a little like you are driving off in to nothingness. Forever. With only sand and blue sky stretching out beyond you on both sides, for eternity, with a little sagebrush thrown in for interest.
Devils Garden, Peekaboo Slot and Spooky Gulch, Coyote Gulch and other adventures are down this road, making it worth the drive, even if you aren’t a history buff.
This is a graded dirt road with zero services along it. The BLM recommends a high-clearance two-wheel drive vehicle, and only driving in dry weather. I would agree, but with one caveat: if you plan on getting off the road, you will wish you had a 4×4.
Stop at Devils Garden
Drive 12 miles down the Hole-in-the-Rock Road from the town of Escalante, and you’ll reach Devils Garden. This is a fun collection of hoodoos rising out of the sand with convenient picnic tables around.
This is a great spot for lunch. Kids will love it. Also, it’s a spectacular reprieve from the general nothingness of this dusty road. (Can you tell I had some issues with this road?)
Squeeze Through Peekaboo and Spooky Gulch: “Easy” Slot Canyons
These are popular slot canyons, relatively short, and not considered technical, although some scrambling (more than I had anticipated) is required.
To reach them, drive 26 miles down (the nothingness of) Hole-in-the-Rock road, then turn off on to Dry Fork Road and stay left. Once you turn off, be aware that you’ll have to drive through a sandy wash to reach the trailhead, and you’ll want a four wheel drive vehicle here.
From the trailhead at the Dry Fork Overlook, you can see the rock formations that hide the slot canyons. The trail descends down into Dry Fork and leads you first to Peekaboo. Right away, I realized this was going to be harder than anticipated: climbing into Peekaboo requires climbing up a sandy rock wall that technically has “handholds” carved in — easy peasy if you are a climber, less so if you are not.
Peekaboo Gulch is actually super fun for kids to play in, especially the first little stretch of twisty arches. However, if you plan to bring your kids, bring a rope to help get them in and out of the slot canyon. That’s what the smart, outdoorsy parents I met there did.
If you are a slot canyon novice like me, Peekaboo is just scary enough that you’ll avoid Spooky Gulch altogether. I didn’t actually get stuck in Peekaboo, but I could imagine it happening if I’d had a bigger breakfast. I did love the voluptuous sandstone walls, the shafts of light, the maneuvering of my body around the rock. I also loved emerging at the end of the canyon without having to call for emergency help.
Spooky Gulch is so named for the darkness that settles between its tight, high walls. Enough said. After emerging from Peekaboo alive, we hiked ourselves right back to our car.
Where to Stay in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Although we love this place more than hot cocoa on a cold camping morning, it’s not for everyone. Be forewarned: there are no four-star hotels here. You will most likely be camping. Alternatively, there there are a few motels and B&Bs in Escalante, as well as these pretty rad yurts, if that’s your kind of thing.
A Few Last Things to Know…
Remember that gas stations and services are few and far between. Don’t leave Escalante or Boulder without a full tank of gas and several gallons of water in your car. Plus snacks! And sunscreen.
There are obviously a lot more places to explore within a million acres of wilderness than these few stops. There are also quirky and beautiful things to see on your drive down to Grand Staircase-Escalante: places like Hell’s Backbone, Kiva Koffeehouse, and, you know, a couple national parks you may have heard of. (Bryce Canyon ring a bell?)
And if you’re looking for a good read, check out my very long list of things to do with kids all over the great state of Utah.