Grand Staircase Escalante Hikes: epic slot canyons without a tour

Escalante is one of those little gems you come across when planning a trip. This national monument doesn’t get the coverage of the Mighty 5, but that means you’ll find multiple slot canyons and hiking trails that are worthy of any of the national parks but without the crowds. Oh, and as it is not a national or state park it’s free too!

Have you been to Page and are rueing that you didn’t visit in the days when the slot canyons were able to be visited independently? That was us too. Luckily Utah has its fair share of stunning slot canyons and several are just waiting to be explored in Grand Staircase Escalante.

If you’re up for some adventure, then a day or two in Escalante will be right up your street.

Walking into Spooky Canyon


Orientation

The walks in Escalante are in two different areas which are over three hours apart. The majority of hikes and slot canyons are accessible from Hole in the Rock Road, but there are trails such as Toadstools which are accessible from Highway 89 that runs between Kanab and Page.

Hole in the Rock Road (marked on the map below) is an unsealed dirt track that starts three miles south of Escalante town. We were able to take it on in a 2wd drive, but were lucky that the road had recently been regraded and this meant that it was in pretty good condition.

There are a lot of small stones and there are sections of corrugations, but on the whole the track was decent, but we advise checking with Escalante Outfitters in town before you take it on. 4wds and cars with high clearance won’t have a problem.

 

Grand Staircase Escalante Hikes

Peek-a-boo, Spooky & Dry Fork Gulch

Distance down Hole in the Rock Road - 30 miles one way

These three canyons are at one of the furthest points on the Hole in the Rock road and are probably the most popular attractions in the park. Peek-a-boo and Spooky are two narrow slot canyons that can form a loop track, whereas Dry Fork is a wide canyon that makes for a very leisurely stroll. Coming from Page, we absolutely loved that you could hike these slot canyons without a guide.

Grand Staircase Escalante Hikes

Read next: How to have an adventurous day in Capitol Reef National Park and Should you go to Bryce Canyon in winter?

Getting there

We recommend parking at the first car park you see as the second is down a pretty rough road where one side of your car will be about a metre higher than the other! If you have a 4wd, we only recommend it if you are confident offroad driving (its only a mile closer anyway).

The road to the second car park

From the second car park, the path goes down into the wash, leading to Dry Fork before going onto Peek-a-boo and then Spooky. Make sure you follow the cairns, not the footprints!

There are plenty of people who go wrong and this has led to so many footprints that you can easily lose the track. You won’t have a problem if you trust the cairns and know that you should be heading downwards immediately from the car park.

Can you hike Spooky Gulch without hiking Peek-a-boo?

Cat wasn’t sure if she would be able to get into Peek-a-boo Gulch as it requires an initial 10m scramble so in case anyone else is wondering the same you can still hike Spooky Gulch even if you don’t do Peek-a-boo. So if you aren’t overly keen on scrambling then the good news is you can go and give it a try and if you don’t fancy it, Spooky is just a 10 minute walk further on.

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Peek-a-boo Gulch

A lot of people focus on how hard it is to get into Peek-a-boo and then overlook the fact that things don’t get much easier when you’re in. The climb to get into the gulch is up small foot holes that have been worn very smooth by the numerous visitors per day.

The smooth and slippery rock up to Peek-a-boo

The first ledge is easy to get to, but the second section into Peek-a-boo is harder, particularly as it requires putting your foot out in what feels a very exposed position. There is no grip and I didn’t see a single person who wasn’t slipping and sliding on the way to get in. The difference is some people loved that and some people hated it. Cat decided not to go up after trying and then freaking out!

If you are hoping for solid steps or an easy way of climbing in, you won’t find it at this entrance. Bar a select few, most people needed another person to help push or pull them in, but almost everyone made it!

Just how narrow it gets

It’s best to leave your bag at the entrance if you are going to do Peek-a-boo as a return walk as things get so narrow that you’ll struggle to fit the bag and yourself through several parts of Peek-a-boo. If you are going to do Spooky following on from Peek-a-boo you could still leave your bag and come back for it after the loop as Spooky is even narrower.

After getting to the first section, you’re the faced with a similar - but shallower - challenge. The grip the sandstone would traditionally have has been worn completely smooth, meaning you have slip, slide and scramble up once more.

From here the gulch continues with several sections of smooth rock which involves climbing more than hiking. There are narrow parts, places to squeeze under, scramble over and fall down continuously. I really recommend wearing a long sleeved shirt and trousers as you will be scraping against the canyon walls continuously which is basically the same as rubbing sandpaper against your bare skin.

Soon the canyon opens wider before three more narrow sections. There are parts where you can’t touch the ground (you keep your feet on either side of the canyon) and a few spots which you literally can’t turn around in. According to our AppleWatch the canyon itself is around 500m long and soon opens out to the top of the cliff where Peek-a-boo has formed. From here you can choose to turnaround or hike cross-country to Spooky.

Read next: Grand Canyon Hikes that will blow you away and Hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon - a bucket list experience

The connection trail

To get to Spooky, turn right and follow the cairns. This time you can also follow the footprints if you want. Follow this track for 750 metres before it drops down to the wash. This then leads to another drop down into Spooky Canyon.

Accessing Spooky from this trail requires dropping down past a boulder where you will be a couple of feet from touching the ground (requiring you to do a little leap of faith). Some people struggled with this section and turned round to do Peek-a-boo as a return walk. You can then access Spooky from another entrance which is a simple walk in at ground level.

The connection trail


Spooky Gulch

We are describing Spooky as accessed from the trail as a return walk, if you have come on the loop trail from Peek-a-boo it will be in reverse.

Spooky Canyon is definitely not one for anyone who is remotely claustrophobic. We don’t normally have a problem with tight spaces (we’ve travelled in third class on Indian trains), but we got a bit freaked out by certain parts of Spooky. If you are ok with tight spaces it’s an amazing slot canyon, very beautiful and a lot of fun! Unfortunately it is a two way traffic canyon and that can get pretty interesting!

This canyon starts out pretty wide, but it isn’t long before things become incredibly tight. So tight that you can’t move anyway but sideways! Trousers and a long sleeved top will help to stop your body from being sandpapered.

How to get sandpapered in Spooky

What makes this more difficult is that there is no one-way system in Spooky, so you are likely to have people coming at you head on. You’ll have to negotiate tight spaces to pass other groups and after the initial section it is quite narrow throughout. When five guys were coming in the opposite direction, all with backpacks, it took us a while to find a possible passing spot and it was still a lot of body contact!

Soon the trail becomes really scrambly where there are no foot holes to help. This is where having a partner comes in really handy to help get you along the path. A few bits required pushing Cat up. If you had come from Peek-a-boo canyon it would be easier as you would be going down these sections.

Eventually this will lead to the exit where there are huge boulders you have to scramble up through to get to the wash, it is much easier to turn around at this point and go back the way you came.

A wider section in Spooky Gulch




Dry Fork

Put Dry Fork anywhere else and you’d see many people visiting to take in this picturesque canyon. However, the adventure of Peek-a-boo and Spooky draws the majority of people, leaving Dry Fork blissfully empty.

The swirling walls of Dry Fork

The majority of the walk is flat and stony. After around ten minutes you come to a bit of rock hopping but it’s not difficult and you can see the best of the canyon without even doing this section if you prefer not to.

 

Devil’s Garden

Distance down Hole in the Rock Road - 12.5 miles

The Devil’s Garden is a lot more sedate than the rest of Escalante, but it makes for a unique lunch spot and good place for a stroll. It’s a really impressive area of hoodoos which reminded us of the Toadstools area just outside Page, Arizona. You can simply take in the view or go for a wander around the rocks. You can also scramble up close to them as long as you don’t touch the hoodoos themselves which are extremely fragile.

The Devil’s Garden

Devil’s Garden Location

 

Zebra slot canyon

Distance down Hole in the Rock Road: 8 miles

Zebra Slot Canyon is another pretty popular place to explore because of its distinctive striped walls. However, check for the recent weather as this slot canyon floods after rain and can hold a large amount of water for a long time.

A flooded Zebra Slot Canyon, note that you can’t see the beautiful striped section unless you venture further than the water allowed us

The hike to Zebra is a picturesque 2.5 mile walk along the Harris Wash. You’ll take in beautiful multi-coloured cliffs and desert landscape.

Eventually the track will lead to the entry of the slot canyon. Hopefully you get more luck than us and have a dry slot canyon to take some amazing photos in.


The scenic drive to Boulder

This drive is full of incredible views to take in, all the way to the town of Boulder. At one point the road literally goes across a narrow ridge, offering 360 panoramic from your car!

The road from Escalante to Boulder


The Toadstools

The Toadstools are on the Southern side of Grand Staircase Escalante, making it easily accessible from Kanab and Page, not from Escalante town.

The Toadstools in Escalante

This relatively easy 1.8 mile walk is just gorgeous, the whole landscape seems to be straight out of a fairy tale.

The trail goes through a dried up river bed before opening up to a multi-coloured landscape where different types of rock have formed in layers. This has produced the toadstools, these unusual rock formations (hoodoos) have been created by the harder rock eroding more slowly than the softer rock beneath. This has led to white towers with brown rocks on top and there are so many of them! Make sure you explore further than just the initial patch you come to.

We can honestly say we’ve never seen anything like it, even if you’ve seen the hoodoos in Bryce.


Getting to the Toadstools

The Toadstools are on the side of Escalante along Highway 89, near Kanab and Page (40 minutes from Kanab, 30 minutes from Page). We wouldn’t recommend going from Escalante town as it would take nearly three hours to get to!

 

Things to consider

Weather in Escalante plays a huge factor in what you’re doing. Don’t go into the slot canyons when it is raining as flash fooding can make them very dangerous.

Similarly, we recommend checking the weather prior to your arrival. In the winter, water can linger in the slot canyons for a very long time and Zebra in particular is prone to holding a lot of water for a long time. In summer this can evaporate quickly, but check with locals before you do a long hike and are disappointed! If you have neoprene socks and gear you can get wet you may want to bring them along just in case.

 

Parts of all of these hikes are very exposed, so bring suncream, a hat and plenty of water.



Winter in Escalante

Normally, Escalante is a great place to explore if Bryce is closed because of the snow. It is at a much lower elevation which means that it is a lot warmer.

However, it isn’t immune to rain and snow, so check the trail conditions with a local ahead of time so you can pick one which is suitable.


Where to stay in Escalante

Escalante Outfitters

Escalante is a small town but there are a few places to stay in the area. We stayed at Escalante Outfitters where the staff are amazing, so friendly and knowledgable. So much so that even if you don’t stay there we’d advise popping in for coffee or some lunch and getting the heads up on the latest trail conditions.

The rooms themselves are actually cabins, all with shared bathrooms. Some have queen beds and some are bunks. The cabins and facilities are all very clean, if basic. The thing we found a pain visiting in winter was that you needed the heater on at night but it did that thing where it clicks on and off all night which made it quite difficult to sleep….

Booking.com


Canyon Country Lodge

If you want something a little more luxurious whilst still being in a really central location then try the Canyon Country Lodge. It gets fantastic reviews and from the pictures it looks old fashioned but very comfy.

Booking.com
Booking.com

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Are you planning a trip to Southern Utah? Would you take on Spooky & Peek-a-boo Gulch? Let us know in the comments below!


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