Grand Staircase-Escalante Must-Do Guide

Discover endless outdoor adventure, rugged scenic drives and star-filled night skies. The rugged landscape is a destination for families seeking scenes and outdoor recreation a little off the main highway and big adventurers with backcountry expertise or a guide. Below is an overview of the monument's must-do activities. Once you have a sense of the lay of the land, check out the family and adventure guides for both the Grand Staircase and Escalante River Canyon sections to explore top hikes.

Hiking and Backpacking

The Grand Staircase area hiking scene is world class. It’s fair to say the Escalante Canyons are the premier hiking destination in the region, and the reason can probably be summed up in one word: slickrock. The Grand Staircase, on the other hand, is the most remote and seldom-visited section of the Glen Canyon region. It contains the most extensive network of slot canyons in Utah and some of the most breathtaking scenery in the United States. Most of the hikes in the Grand Staircase/Paria River region are off-trail, following dry, easily passable washes through some of the finest narrows in the region.

In the northwest corner of the monument, check out Kodachrome Basin State Park for great family day hikes. From here you can also explore Cottonwood Canyon and some of the prime hikes accessed from that road, such as the Cottonwood Canyon Narrows.

The Calf Creek Recreation Area also has nice hikes to Lower and Upper Calf Creek Falls (the Lower Falls being the easier day hike). In the Escalante Canyons region – any serious backpacker should check out the Coyote Gulch hike. 

Although the Escalante River courses some 80 miles through a wilderness canyon of incomparable beauty, travel down its gorge is often brutal, a test of endurance for even the most experienced canyoneer, though there are some popular shorter and more moderate stretches of trail along the river. The tributary canyons of the Escalante are equally attractive, and they are the primary destinations of most hikers visiting the region. Typical of the canyon country of southern Utah, there are few established trails in the Escalante Canyons. Most hikes follow the corridors of washes or cross open expanses of slickrock. The exception is the trail to Lower Calf Creek Falls, one of the few constructed and maintained trails in the Glen Canyon region.

Backpackers have almost unlimited route options in this vast region. The Escalante Natural Bridge and Willow Gulch to Broken Bow Arch are easier overnight backpack trips that families can consider.

Early spring is one of the best times of the year to hike in the canyons of the region. Springs and seasonal streams are likely to be flowing, and slickrock water pockets will hold rainwater longer at this time of year, providing more flexibility and a margin of safety in the backcountry.

Backcountry camping permits are required within the Monument for all overnight backpacking. These overnight Grand Staircase-Escalante hiking permits are free of charge and may be obtained at visitor centers or at developed trailheads.

Scenic Driving

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has some excellent opportunities for scenic driving, especially if you don’t mind doing some miles on gravel roads. Four-wheel-drive is not required under normal driving conditions, but as always in this environment, a sudden rainstorm changes everything and can make roads impassable.

East of Kanab 8.5 miles on U.S. 89 you will find the start of the Johnson Canyon/ Alton Amphitheater Scenic Backway, a 32-mile drive that loops back north to join US 89, 28 miles north of Kanab. This scenic drive traverses the very colorful country of the Vermilion and White Cliffs and provides fine views to the north of the Pink Cliffs, marking the southern edge of Bryce Canyon. The first 15 miles of this backway are paved; the rest is well-maintained gravel, suitable for passenger vehicles.

NOTE: The unpaved north end of the backway splits into two options: straight toward Glendale (the faster option) or take a right at the fork to Alton on the Amphitheater Scenic Backway, which connects with US 89 a few miles farther north. Or you can just turn around when the pavement ends.

About 32 miles east of Kanab is the start of the Paria River Valley Scenic Backway. The well-maintained 5-mile gravel road is suitable for all vehicles—even larger RVs and trailers, if driven slowly. As always, stay off it when it’s wet.

The short drive to the Old Paria ghost town site passes some truly remarkable geological formations: sandstone cliffs banded in the most lovely and delicate hues. There is a small BLM campground with outhouses, tables, grills, and fire pits, but no water.

Ten miles east on U.S. 89 from the Paria ghost town turnoff is a very nice ranger station and BLM visitor center where you can find information on the many hikes and bike trails in the nearby Paria Canyon Wilderness and throughout the Grand Staircase–Escalante region. The ranger station is also the best place to check on the current status of the Cottonwood Canyon Scenic Backway, which departs US 89 just past the BLM office, on the left.

The Cottonwood Canyon Scenic Backway is perhaps the premier scenic drive in Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. Not only does the 46-mile road afford access to well-known features such as Kodachrome Basin State Park and incomparable Grosvenor Arch, the road also follows The Cockscomb for many miles, one of the most unusual landforms in the monument. The road is passable for most vehicles when it’s dry (though in extremely dry periods dust can pose a problem). Do not attempt it after rain, since the road’s fine sand turns to something more like quicksand when it’s wet. The lower part of this drive, along the Paria River and Cottonwood Creek, provides excellent views of wildly eroded sandstone formations.

One final note: The unusual geology of the “Grand Staircase” itself can be best viewed by car from a scenic overlook off of U.S. 89A, between Fredonia and Jacob Lake, both in Arizona.           

Camping

The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument area offers campers superb opportunities to sleep under the stars, so to speak.

Within the monument itself, there are three established campgrounds operating on a first-come first-served basis. Whitehouse Campground is a small campground (5 walk-in sites) located about 45 miles east of Kanab next to Vermillion Cliffs National Monument. It’s a beautiful spot that makes a great base camp for exploring Paria Canyon. Sixteen miles northeast of Escalante is Calf Creek Campground (14 sites, fire pits, picnic tables, drinking water, and vault and flush toilets), tucked into the cottonwoods in the canyon along Calf Creek. The hike to 126-foot-high Lower Calf Creek Falls is an area classic! Six miles southeast of Boulder is Deer Creek Campground (7 sites, RVs not recommended, fire pits, picnic tables, and vault toilets). From here you can fish in Deer Creek or hike up Deer Creek Canyon.

Other campgrounds in the region include Kodachrome Basin State Park, about 9 miles south of Cannonville off Highway 12. The campground has 23 basic sites, 10 full-hookup sites, and 2 group campsites, as well as fire pits, picnic tables, ADA sites, flush toilets, showers, and a dump station. You can also arrange for guided horseback rides: Phone (435) 679-8536 for additional information. The unique rock formations in Kodachrome Basin State Park are one of the area’s featured attractions.

About 1 mile west of Escalante there is a campground at Escalante Petrified Forest State Park (14 basic sites, 8 partial-hookup sites, and 1 group site). Two interpretive trails allow hikers to learn all about the colorful petrified wood and dinosaur bones found in this park; hike the trails here and you’ll quickly learn where this attraction got its name. Wide Hollow Reservoir, 130 acres in size, offers fishing as well as kayaking and canoeing.

Primitive camping is allowed in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. If not already identified as a “Primitive Camping Location,” look for campsites showing signs of prior use. Do not camp at any trailhead or within 300 feet of corrals, springs, seeps, or streams. Overnight permits are required within the Monument for all overnight car camping. Permits are free of charge and may be obtained at visitor centers or at developed trailheads.