Hell's Backbone Road and Box-Death Hollow
Most of the off-pavement roads in the Grand Staircase area cross high desert, but Hell’s Backbone goes ahead and takes a deeper dive into the winding Pine Creek Drainage of the Dixie National Forest between Boulder and Escalante. The 38-mile dirt road was constructed by Depression-Era Civilian Conservation Corps to serve as an alternate route between the two towns, and while it is reasonably well maintained , it’s still an exhilarating adventure off the beaten path that will enable you check “drive Hell’s Backbone” off your life list.
If you leave from the outskirts of Boulder, you’ll descend into the depths of where The Box and Death Hollow lie. The high-point of the road is at about 9,000 feet above sea level; from there it drops down into the twists of rock canyons, changing from higher-elevation forest to rocky desert inferno over the course of dozens of miles.
Occasionally you’ll peer over significant drop-offs at the edge of the road, and halfway through you’ll cross an old wooden bridge spanning a deep chasm. The entire way, you’ll bask in breathtaking views — and may dab your brow while peering into the plunging depths below.
One highlight along the way is a canyon trail known as The Box. It doesn’t see a lot of tourist traffic, but it’s a mysterious, multicolored sandstone canyon carved by water into the rocks. You’ll find the Lower Box trailhead about seven miles outside Escalante. It’s marked by a sign; you’ll just turn off to a short spur road to find the trailhead parking.
You can continue up this trail for about 8.5 miles if you like, although many people just get a sampling of the lower few miles before turning around. More intrepid hikers can hike the entire length, ascending through layers of rock, and differing types of plant and animal life as you hit higher elevations. The rambling Pine Creek follows alongside you for the journey, offering a life-giving vein in this dry desert scene. The Box canyon tops out with an Upper Box trailhead farther up Hell’s Backbone Road near Blue Spruce Campground. If you want to make it an overnight backpacking trip to the campground and back to your car the way you came, you could.
As an alternative, Death Hollow is a far more demanding hike that qualifies as a strenuous multiday backpacking trip. It features hiking, scrambling, wading, and roped canyoneering. This one isn’t exactly beginner-friendly, but if you’re an experienced backpacker with some canyoneering experience, and you have waterproof dry bags, give it a go. The trailhead lies 24 miles up Hell’s Backbone Road from Escalante. You’ll need to very carefully prepare and research before undertaking it, but it’s a jaw-dropping narrows hike you’ll never forget.
If you want to shorten to just one section of the hike (making it less of a big-time undertaking), you could start the hike at the trail’s confluence with the Escalante River, hike north till you’re tired, and return the way you came. Each part of this deep gorge is extraordinary and worth checking out, even if you only see a bit of it.
GPS Coordinates: 37.929235, -111.524748