By southern Utah, I mean the area south of I-70 and east of I-15. Being a desert rat, I admit a bias. Also, I love rattlesnakes. However, the area is remarkable, by any yardstick, for its geological wonders and archaeological experiences. When I thought about my favorite hikes, they all fell into that one area that I love. That was not surprising, even though I have lived north, south, east, and west of this beautiful country of ours. I will be concentrating on three of my favorite hikes in the following categories; ancient Pueblo (or incorrectly Anasazi) ruins and art, a dirt trail, a geological slot canyon. I have expanded the hikes to two days each, not because one day is not good, but because it is not enough.
Although these areas that I will be covering are not as famous as Bryce or Zion, they are just as cool.
Also, now that I think about it, my favorite mountain climb (it’s a hike, not technical) might be in the same area, and not in Colorado! Mt. Peale is only about 13,000 feet (elevation above sea level), if you call it a mountain at all. It is in the beautiful La Sal mountain range, near the famous Moab, UT. I won’t give much guidance here, because if you can’t find your way down an obvious mountain trail, you don’t belong there.
Boulder Mail Trail It is my favorite overland trail. It is the true mail (mule) trail that was used between the cities of Boulder and Escalante in the early 20th century. It is now in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. I like to hike half the trail (up to Death Hollow or so) out and back from the Boulder airstrip and then the other half out and back from the Upper Escalante Canyon Trailhead. Or, of course, there’s the option of stuff on your back for camping. The entire trail is 16 miles one way. That could be done in a rushed day trip for sure. But he wouldn’t have time for the side trip to the natural bridge at Mamie Creek. (The bridge is a one-mile side trip each way.) The trail is beautifully landscaped (it even follows an old phone line for much of the way) and is scenic throughout. As you look at the topography, imagine what the postmen went through. Sand Creek, Death Hollow, and Mamie Creek are possible water sources along the trail. Do proper research. Folly is here a death wish. 1 GALLON OF WATER REQUIRED PER PERSON PER DAY. Start early! This trail is a full two day charge. This is not a loop, but a path from point to point.
Utahcanyons is a good web reference. If a book is preferred, Steve Allen does a good job with “Canyoneering 3.”
Access to the BMT is from Rt. 12 at both ends. The western terminus is the Upper Escalante Canyon Trailhead near the town of Escalante. The east terminal is near the Boulder airstrip.
I consider this hike difficult due to its length and exposure.
buckskin broken, a tributary of the normally dry Paria River, is the world’s best slot canyon hike (pay area). A slot canyon forms from the relentless erosion of water, usually flood waters. It is 13 miles long, 2 feet wide in places, and up to 500 feet deep. I did about ten miles out and back once (20 miles total), coming in at Wire Pass Trail Head, which offers the quickest access to the narrows. The gorge walls are so vertical and tall that the mind-blowing spectacle of Antelope Canyon (near Page, Az.) is not available here. But as the light filters into Buckskin Gulch, there’s a soothing, cathedral-like feeling in the straits. Buckskin also has ancient rock art, at the junction of Wire Pass Trail and Buckskin Trail where it turns right into the narrows. This is an extremely dangerous place if a flash flood happens. My group got caught in a flash flood once, thank goodness in Paria River Canyon and not Buckskin Canyon. It was still terrifying. Some Australian hikers who got stuck in Buckskin had water up to their noses. As you travel through the straits, look for logs stuck overhead. Duh, that’s the water level, up there. You will get wet on this hike more often (potholes), but check weather conditions with the Paria Ranger Station. You want to get wet only from the neck down. A daily use fee is required on the trail. Just pay it, you’re in the middle of nowhere if your vehicle gets towed.
Americansouthwest has more good information. You must get the “Hiker’s Guide to Paria Canyon” from BLM. My recommendation is to drive as far as you feel comfortable and get back in the vehicle, for a long day trip. Or make it an “easy” two-day trip to the Paria River confluence (13 1/2 miles each way) and back, with gear. For multi-day backpackers, there is at least 60 miles of hiking available on the Paria and Buckskin River. Although Buckskin is the best, I prefer the idea of Day 1 there and Day 2 in Coyote Buttes (pay area). This gives it nice and cool in the narrows to nice and hot and exposed near the buttes. Lots of drinking water will be needed in Coyote Buttes, which is divided into north and south units. The more famous northern section can be accessed from the Wire Pass trailhead. “The Wave” is the attraction (also the recently discovered dinosaur tracks!) and you can see a preview at americansouthwest.com.
Access is from House Rock Valley Rd. to Buckskin and Coyote. The closest paved road is Rt. 89 about 40 miles east of Kanab. HRV Rd. passes through Rt. 89A and Vermilion Cliffs, near Marble Canyon in Arizona. Good hikes there too, and petroglyphs on the rim (Eastern Crack, good luck finding it).
Weird Buckskin Gulch difficult for its length, deep water wading possible, rockfall. Coyote Buttes is rated easy barring dehydration issues. If Buckskin doesn’t turn out to be skinny enough, try Spooky Gulch, accessed to the east of the town of Escalante.
My favorite archaeological walks are in Primitive area of Grand Gulch (pay area). My only complaint is that it’s getting popular. The Great Basin desert in southeastern Utah (specifically the drainages of the Colorado and San Juan rivers) has a staggering amount of ancient Pueblo cultural remains. I spent 15 years looking around. I know where the very unique petroglyphs are on the edge of the San Juan River. I know Casa de la Luna, La Citadel, the Panel of the Procession. Unfortunately, some places cannot become tourist areas. Some places can’t handle stress. At least Grand Gulch has a minimum of supervisors, and visitors have so far tried to behave. The closest cities are Blanding (the largest with approximately 2000 inhabitants), Bluff and Mexican Hat. Don’t miss this open-air museum.
The “main trail” into Grand Gulch is the Kane Gulch Trail, which is located just across paved Route 261 from the Visitor Center. The first famous sight is “Junction Ruin”, at the junction of Kane and Grand Gulches. It is four miles from the trailhead. It’s a long wait, but the hike is a nice nature walk and easy. In addition to a pretty ruin, there are lots of old painted handprints. Another half mile or so to the left leads to “Turkey Pen Ruin”, with more pictographs and petroglyphs. Stimper Arch, a good one, is five miles from the trailhead. So a change there makes for a ten mile hike on pretty flat ground. It’s a nice and easy start.
Day 2, at Bullet Canyon, is a different story and a tougher hike. There are a lot more vertical elevation changes involved here, and some difficulties with boulder hopping. I once saw a Midget Faded Rattlesnake on this trail. It is a very small snake (this one was about a foot long) but powerful. Let them have the right of way. There are “watchtower” ruins at the beginning of the canyon as you enter. Bullet also has several barns to see before the trail reaches “Perfect Kiva Ruin” at 4 1/2 miles. “Jailhouse Ruin” has an ultimate creepy aura (half a mile past “Perfect Kiva”), with a ghostly pictogram hovering above it. So again it’s about a ten mile hike.
Got a Day 3 to spare? If so, Todie Canyon will produce “Split Level Ruin” five miles from the Todie trailhead. There is a small ruin and pictographs at 2 1/2 miles, just 1/5 mile past the start of the canyon. (The canyon starts 2.3 miles from the trailhead.) There are also some barns on the way to “Split Level Ruin”.
For multi-day backpacking, there is around 75 miles of hiking available in the primeval Grand Gulch area.
There is a problem if you are a day hiker. You have to see Sheiks Canyon which is a very long day. It is full of great art and housing, especially the “Green Mask Spring” area. Sheiks is 14 miles from the Kane Gulch trailhead, 8.6 miles from the Bullet Canyon trailhead, and 9.3 miles from the Todie Canyon trailhead. There is supposed to be a loop from Sheiks Canyon Trailhead to Bullet Canyon Trailhead. This will be a 17 mile loop, but I never found the Sheiks trailhead. There is a fantastic petroglyph at “Wall Ruin” in main Grand Gulch, near the junction with Sheiks Canyon. They look like two smaller figures balanced on a larger figure, like circus performers.
Bullet Canyon Trailhead: Just south of milepost 22 (Rt. 261) turn west 1 mile.
Todie Canyon Trailhead: Just north of milepost 25 (Rt. 261) turn west 1 mile on CR 2361.
I like to use Trails Illustrated map #706 for Grand Gulch (waterproof/tear resistant).
I rate these hikes from moderate (Kane) to difficult (Bullet) for length and exposure.