Last week, Tricia and I took a 3 days 2 nights camping trip in Coyote Gulch in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. We were blown away by the unique landscape every step of the way in this park. I hope my photos come close to showcase its breathtaking natural beauty.
How to get there?
- We flew into Las Vegas and got a rental car (An AWD, high ground clearance vehicle made our drive, especially the last few miles to Fortymile trailhead, less stressful).
- Driving from Vegas to Escalante, UT: between 4-5 hours.
- Driving from Escalante to Hole-in-the-wall road was about 20 mins
- Driving on Hole-in-the-wall road for about 1.5-2 hours to get to Fortymile trailhead.
What’s the route of our trek? What are some other potential routes?
We parked our car at the Fortymile trailhead. We entered the gulch through crack-in-the-wall and hiked upstream (east to west). We camped the first night midway through the gulch and second night west of Jacob-Hamblin bridge. We exit the gulch by climbing the wall near Jacob-Hamblin Bridge. Total distance of the trek without side explorations: ~12 miles.
- Red Well to Escalante River: 13+miles one way
- Hurricane Wash to Escalante River 12 miles one way
- Water Tank to Coyote gulch: 2 miles one way
Useful tips for your trip planning:
- Get your backcountry camping permit at Escalante Interagency Visitor Center in the town of Escalante.
- Bring a 40 foot rope to lower your backpacks down “Crack-in-the-wall”. The crack was narrow for me and my wife without our packs so it would be very difficult to get down the crack with a pack on.
- Bring gloves for lowering your backpacks to prevent rope burn on your hands. I didn’t think this was a big deal before this trip but I was really glad to have brought a pair.
- Bring water shoes. If you have only hiking boots and try to stay dry on this trek, you will find yourself crossing the stream a couple dozens of times by stepping precariously on branches and rocks in the stream. It’s far easier to wear your water shoes (or even going barefoot) up the stream.
- Bring enough WAG bags. They are $4 each at the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center in the town of Escalante where you get your permit. Each bag is 2 use by volume, but do you really want to reuse your WAG bag? Yes, you will need to carry your used WAG bags during your trek. More nights you stay means more WAG bags your carry with you.
- Bring a filter for your water. The stream water is silty. We brought our Platypus water filter and it worked wonderfully.
- Having a GPS really helps when you exit the gulch. Cairns lead to Water Tank Trailhead not Fortymile Trailhead. You must make a left soon after climbing up the wall and march in that direction (eastward parallel to the gulch) for about two hours. Without a GPS, you may get very frustrated/lost/unhappy in the middle of a desert without any signage.
We started our journey from Escalante around 9 am. Got our permit from the Visitor Center and drove directly to Fortymile trailhead. We started our hike around 11 am. The two miles from the trailhead to crack-in-the-wall was almost entirely downhill and sandy until we found ourselves standing on giant red sandstones at the edge of an enormous valley. It looked like a giant scar on earth carved by water and time. We stood on the cliff edge in total awe of the grandeur in front of us.
Descending crack-in-the-wall consisted of two components: bags and people. Since the crack is too small to fit us carrying bags, we had to lower our bags with a rope first. Tricia went down the crack first to receive the bags from below and I was tasked with lowering the bags using a rope.
After reunited with our bags at the bottom of the cliff, it was an easy sandy descent to the river at the bottom of the ravine.
When we first started on this trail, we ran into a couple who told us about a secret lagoon in the gulch. The directions we received were “after the amphitheater”, “before the landbridge” and “find a secret path on your right side”. These direction proved to be insufficient since there was a giant stone amphitheater at every turn of the river and passages seeming to depart for secret places on our right hand side all the time. I took a few exploratory treks and found only small ponds at the bottom of cliffs with residual watermarks mocking my failure.
By 6:30 pm, we decided to set up camp by the river. It had been hours since we saw the last human. After dinner, we decided to take a random stroll into a valley on the right side of the trail. The little trail lead to a small stream which lead us further into a lush patch of woods. And then, voila! There was the secret lagoon we had been searching for all trip.
I marked the location of this lagoon on the GPS map above. I didn’t swim in it because I saw a couple leeches in the water. Several young trekkers swam in it– even jumped off the cliff into the lagoon– without getting bit or resulting in head injuries, so I suppose it’s safe.
We slept in that morning, waking up only to the loud calls of birds around us. The wind was strong for a brief time in the morning swaying trees back and forth in unison in the valley. We were sheltered in the woods while cooking our breakfast leisurely. I climbed up a hill behind a giant boulder for a morning WAG. The scenery was breathtaking. So was the smell.
We continued to hike upstream after breaking camp. The canyon seemed to get deeper as we marched forward. The bend of the river became more drastic. After a few waterfalls, we encountered our first arch. Two fellow hikers set up their hammock on the trees next to the arch. A few handprints and animal shaped modern art hieroglyphs were left on the base of the arch adding to the wonder of this trail.
Before lunch, we found the ropes hanging down a 45 degree wall on our left side which marked the point of exit from the gulch. We weren’t ready to leave the gulch yet, so we marched forward. Around the next river bend was the famous Jacob-Hamblin Arch, a two hole three way land bridge that epitomizes the beauty of this hike.
We set up camp one river bend west of the JH arch. With our big pack off our backs, we were ready to continue our exploration up the river.
It was another quiet evening in the gulch except occasional shuffling noises of critters and a few bats flapping their wings over our heads.
Tricia had been nervous about climbing up the wall before we started this trip. We spoke with several groups of trekkers who had relied on the ropes to enter and exit the gulch. It sounded reassuring. Tricia lead the climb up. It took us no more than ten minutes to get to the top.
At the top, we found three ropes anchored on the same hole in the rock. While it was steady, it may not be the most reliable anchor for long. I’d recommend to rely on your foothold more than the rope on the exit climb.
After climbing out of the valley, we stopped following the cairns since they lead towards Water Tank Trailhead. We turned to our left, hiking on top of the giant red sandstone boulders with deep grooves from water and wind erosion in time. A few fluffy clouds float above our heads sheltered us occasionally from the blazing desert sun of southwest US as we hiked towards our car. The sandstone terrain disappeared after about an hour and replaced by desert sand which was much harder to trek on. My GPS helped guide us and reassured us that we were heading in the right direction.
Finally, we found the car. It was almost 1 pm by the time we got to our car. And it was just in time to start our second adventure of the day: Zebra Slot Canyon!