Backpacking the Escalante River Trail in Utah

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When it comes to backpacking trips in Utah, the Escalante River Trail is one of my favorites. Between the natural arches, cliff dwellings, pictographs, and 1,000 ft canyon walls, this trail really does have it all. This write-up is intended to help you plan your own backpacking trip along the Escalante River Trail. I’ll be sharing everything I learned from doing the hike, and some of the things I wish I did differently.

Backpacking the Escalante River Trail in Utah.

In this post we’ll cover:

  • trail info
  • trailhead options
  • hike description
  • water availability
  • hazards and challenges
  • other hikes and places to eat nearby
An alcove along the Escalante River Trail in Utah.

The Escalante River Trail

Length: about 15 miles

Hike Type: end to end

Trip Duration: at least 1 night

Elevation Gain/Loss: our GPS said about 600 ft net gain or loss depending on which direction you hike the trail (more on trailhead options below)

Permits: Yes, permits are needed for this hike. They are free and can be obtained at either trailhead or at the Escalante Visitors Center, however, most of the time the trailheads tend to be out of permits so the visitors center is your best bet.

Escalante Visitor Center:

  • Phone – 435-826-5499
  • Address – 755 West Main Street, Escalante, UT 84726
  • Check the website for current hours

Current Water and Trail Conditions: At the visitors center, you can also ask about the current conditions within the canyon. Conditions will vary year to year and season to season, so it’s a good idea to stop by or even call to get accurate info on the conditions and water levels for your trip.

Difficulty: While trail difficulty ratings are subjective, I would rate this as an easy-to-moderate backpacking trip. The trail is mostly flat, but hiking in sand and water for 15 miles does complicate things a bit and makes it way more tiring.

Dog friendly?: Yes, off-leash.

Best Time of Year: Spring and Fall are my favorite times of the year to head down to the desert. I think the best time of year to hike this trail is in the Spring months of April and May, or in October.

I did this hike in mid-April. Of course, the few days that we went it was colder than average, but April is generally a beautiful month to be in Escalante!

In the Summer, things are very hot and dry. It’s also monsoon season when the flash flood potential is at its highest.

The Winter is cold and windy. Walking in cold water when it’s freezing out is not something I would enjoy or recommend.

Trail along the Escalante River in Utah.

Escalante River Trailhead Options

This is an end-to-end trail, meaning you start at one point, and end at a different point.

There are 2 trailhead options.

You can hike this trail in either direction.

We hiked this trail from East to West. By hiking in this direction, we were hiking upstream the entire time.

The current wasn’t too strong to cause any difficulty, but this is definitely something to consider when you’re deciding on the direction you want to hike. (More on this below.)

A map showing where we started and where we ended the hike. Map not for navigation. Informational purposes only.

Trailhead Option #1:

  • Escalante River Trailhead off of Highway 12
  • Directions

Trailhead Option #2:

  • Escalante River Trailhead in the town of Escalante – this is also known as the Boulder Mail Trailhead
  • Directions

Which direction should you hike?

I think if I were to do this hike again, I would do it in the opposite direction from what I listed above.

I would start hiking at the Escalante River Trailhead in the town of Escalante and I would end the trip at the trailhead along Hwy 12.

Do you need a shuttle?

Since we only had one car, we needed a shuttle for this backpacking trip. If you have 2 cars, then you can do the shuttling yourself.

We used Escape Goats Shuttle Service for this hike. They can shuttle up to 4 people and the price was $70.

(Note: A dog equals 1 person.)

We had the shuttle pick us up at the Escalante River trailhead in town and shuttle us to the Escalante River trailhead right off Highway 12.

Then, it was finally time to start hiking!

Beautiful desert landscapes along the Escalante River Trail in Southern Utah.

Hiking the Escalante River Trail

Again, please note that the hike description below is based on hiking this trail from East to West.

You’ll be hiking in and out of the water on both days.

Day 1 – about 9 miles

Starting at the Highway 12 trailhead, we had to cross the river within the first 30 seconds!

Right away, the trail is beautiful.

Around the 1.6-mile mark, you’ll see a large red rock bridge on your left called the Escalante Natural Bridge.

It’s definitely worth checking out. This is a popular day hiking destination.

Natural bridge in Escalante, Utah.

We also saw cliff dwellings around mile 2, again on our left.

They would be easy to miss if you’re looking down at your feet.

Cliff dwellings along the Escalante River Trail.

Shortly after the cliff dwellings, there was yet another smaller natural bridge on the left.

The trail was very easy to follow the entire time and we continued hiking through sand and water for a few hours until we reached the confluence with Death Hollow.

Note: There is a trail that goes through Death Hollow, so make sure you continue following the Escalante River Trail here and don’t accidentally wander up Death Hollow.

We stopped for a break and a snack. There were several nice campsites in this area.

Gear Spotlight:

I wore neoprene socks and trail shoes for this water hike.

Neoprene socks are one of my favorite pieces of gear to take on water hikes.

They make such a difference when walking through cold water all day.

Even though the water was cold, my feet never actually felt that cold thanks to the neoprene!

Since we wanted to hike a little more than halfway on the first day, we decided not to camp at this confluence.

If I do this hike again, I think I would hike in the opposite direction and stop to camp around the confluence with Death Hollow.

Once the trail branches off and you continue to follow the Escalante River, the water is not as fresh.

(More on water availability below.)

After the confluence, we hiked for a few more miles and set up camp for the night.

Camp for the night along the Escalante River Trail.
Trees growing in the canyon in Southern Utah.

Day 2 – About 6 miles

Day 2 was a lot more hiking in the sand and less in the water.

After we passed Death Hollow, the water was much more shallow and warmer.

This section of the trail was a little more narrow and we spent the day weaving our way through huge 1,000 foot red and white sandstone walls.

Views from the Escalante River Trail in Utah.

Towards the end of the hike, we passed a huge alcove on the right with large white pictographs.

I think this is the largest alcove I’ve ever seen, and the view from underneath it was spectacular.

Pictographs in the canyon on the Escalante River Trail.

This is a great place to get some shade and have a snack.

From there we continued the last few miles out of the canyon and back to the car!

Hiking the trail along the Escalante River.

Water Availability

Water was available on the entire hike, but again, I would check on current conditions at the visitors center before your trip.

As I mentioned above, most of the water was actually flowing out of Death Hollow (Mamie Creek) and into the Escalante River.

Upstream of the confluence with Death Hollow, the Escalante River had much less water, and it was flowing a lot slower.

Even further upstream, the Escalante River runs through the town of Escalante passing farmland and ranches.

If possible, I would try to filter water at the confluence of Death Hollow, or downstream of it, for the best water.

The water from Death Hollow is mostly snowmelt from the mountains.

Unfortunately, I did not think much about this and ended up having to filter water from upstream of the confluence. The water clogged up my filter pretty fast and it did not taste great.

It was frustrating knowing that a few miles back I could have filtered from the fresh cold snowmelt!

Gear Spotlight:

Sawyer Squeeze water filter for backpacking and hiking.

I’ve been using the Sawyer Squeeze water filter on my backpacking trips for years. Nick and I each carry one on every trip. They’re small, lightweight, and easy to use. As with all filters, make sure they never freeze!

Note: I recently learned that if you back-flush your filter at home with tap water and then don’t use it for a few months, the minerals in your tap water can actually clog up your filter. I switched to cleaning and back-flushing my filter with distilled water to help prevent this problem. It’s always a good idea to check and make sure your filter is working properly before a trip!

Hiking through water on the Escalante River Trail backpacking trip in April

Hazards and Challenges

Hiking in Water and Sand

Be prepared for your feet to get and stay wet all day, both days. Bring appropriate shoes for the hike.

For this water hike, I wore my neoprene socks with my trail running shoes. I also packed in a pair of sandals and dry socks to wear at camp after I was done hiking for the day.

On my trip, the deepest the water got was to just under my butt, and that was only in one spot.

Most of the first day, the water was mid-calf to knee-deep. On the second day, it was only ankle-deep.

That being said, water levels will definitely vary depending on the season and the year.

Flash Floods

Flash floods can result from heavy rain and thunderstorms. The flash flood potential is highest in July, August, and September. Powerful thunderstorms can come through and dump several inches of rain in just a few hours.

The rocky landscape doesn’t absorb the water very well and all that water runs off into the narrow canyons forming flash floods.

You do not want to be in a canyon during a flash flood.

Always check the weather before your trip.

A sunny day hiking the Escalante River Trail to the natural bridge.

Hikes and Things to do Nearby

There’s a lot to see and do in the Escalante area. Below are are few of the other hikes and places I love:

Sunrise in the canyon

That wraps up my trail guide to backpacking the Escalante River Trail. I really hope it’s helpful in planning your own trip! This is definitely is one of my favorite backpacking trips in Utah.

If you have any questions, chat with me in the comments below.

Have you done this hike? Come back and let me know how it went!

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  1. I completely agree that it’s best to start at the Escalante town end of this hike and end at Hwy 12. Also, it’s great to make this a 3-day trip as follows: Day 1-Escalante to Death Hollow (set up camp at confluence); Day 2-explore beautiful Death Hollow day hike (avoid poison ivy); Day 3-continue to Hwy 12 exit. We did this hike last year (2022) in early May and portions of the Escalante River above the Death Hollow confluence (Mamie Creek) were bone dry for several miles. BRING WATER! Water is abundant and great condition coming down Death Hollow. This is a great hike and perfect introduction to backpacking in the region. For slightly heartier experiences, don’t miss Coyote Gulch or Fence Canyon to the Golden Cathedral.