You could chalk Escalante up as the most charming little town in Utah with the most colossally epic surroundings. The place has roots in farming and ranching, but over the years, especially after the designation of the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument in 1996*, the town has seen a big uptick in visitors curious to see what all the excitement is about.
A handful of down-home cafes and diners, along with a number of cozy inns and motels, serve the visitors who come through or use the town as a base camp for extended exploration. We may be biased, but extended exploration is exactly what this place deserves. The desert is a wild (and at times, rough) place, but fortunately there are a few superb outdoor guiding services in town who will show newbies around and share the tales hidden amongst the red rocks.
While much of Southern Utah gets piping hot in the summer, Escalante’s higher elevation keeps temperatures moderate — most of the time. In the summer, temperatures can get above 100 degrees, and in the winter it usually drops below freezing at night. Sudden and heavy rainstorms can pop up quickly, so have a plan for that possibility wherever you go.
Spring, summer, and fall are all perfect times to descend into mysterious slot canyons, dipping your toes in cool riverbeds, hiking miles of soft-sand trails, and gazing at the inscriptions of humans who stood in the same spot thousands of years ago. Exploring the sun-drenched Utah backcountry around Escalante is an unforgettable experience.
Escalante is located along Utah's All-American Road: Scenic Byway 12 in the south-central part of the state. It’s about a three-hour drive from the town of St. George (173 miles), or 90 minutes south of Capitol Reef National Park (67 miles).
*Note: On December 4, 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order to draw new boundary lines for Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. The proposal introduces three new national monument units in this area named, west to east, Grand Staircase, Kaiparowits and Escalante Canyons. The area is open to visitors.
This part of Southern Utah is famous for its slot canyons — twisting, turning narrows carved into the rock by water and wind over the millennia. A few can be scrambled without technical gear, but if you have the gear and knowledge (and/or a professional guide), you can navigate the colorful depths of the desert. Hiring a guide is well worth the once-in-a-lifetime experience of rappelling, shimmying, and scrambling your way through these dramatic slots.
For hikers, the trails near Escalante wind through sandstone slot canyons, pristine riverbeds, rock art meccas, and sparse sagebrush-studded desert plateaus. Every step is a sensory experience. Plan on countless stops to take photos, soak in the views, and admire nature’s most kaleidoscopic rocks. (Note: Very few trailheads are accessible via paved roads. A four-wheel drive vehicle is a good idea — and watch weather reports to ensure roads are passable.)
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Most of the must-dos in the area involve outdoor adventure and scenic drives within this expansive 1.9 million acres of the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. The town of Escalante is the perfect launching point for hiking, camping, fishing, canyoneering, horseback riding, and four-wheel-drive explorations. Plan on frequent stops to admire the otherworldly and jaw-dropping beauty of ancient multi-hued rock formations. Before heading out, stop by the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center at 755 Main Street or call (435)826-5499. It’s open daily and you’ll find anything and everything you need to know about exploring the national monument here.
Escalante Petrified Forest State Park
Everything in this landscape bears an ancient beauty, but the Escalante Petrified Forest State Park offers a rainbow-hued look into prehistoric times. Ancient petrified trees, petrified dinosaur bones, ammonite, and shell fossils dot this state park’s rocky trails. While the trail distances are relatively short, you could spend an entire day taking in every surface there is to see.
Legend has it that the first Mormon pioneer settlers trekking southward hit a major obstacle: a 1,000-foot cliff towering over the Colorado River, which they needed to cross. After months of blasting, chiseling, and digging, they created a “Hole in the Rock,” a notch wide enough to lower their wagons. The 62-mile road to this spot from the town of Escalante is named after their monumental determination.
The entire drive is stunning, but it’s truly remote and should be undertaken with caution. Four-wheel- drive is a must for the last few miles, and the road becomes impassable with rain, so plan ahead and check the weather before exploring this untamed terrain.
Devil's Garden and Metate Arch
A colorful formation in contrast to the gray cliffs that follow the Hole-in-the-Rock Road, Devil’s Garden is a unique, easily-accessible natural play park. After driving 12 miles down the graded road, there is a signed pullout for this spot designated as an “Outstanding Natural Area.”
Calf Creek Falls
The drive alone to this famous hike’s trailhead is beautiful enough to be worthwhile. The trail to the waterfall is just three miles with minimal elevation change, and it’s an oasis-like wonderland with a cool stream gurgling right alongside the path. You’ll pass ancient rock art (visible if you know where to look) and striated rock walls on your way to an incredible 200-foot waterfall cascading into a perfect swimming hole.
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