Want to do a world class wilderness trek but can't quite make it to the Himalayas? Look no further than the cyclopean, 400,000 acre Escalante river canyon system in south-central Utah. At this writing it's probably the most isolated, roadless, trailless canyon system in the entire Colorado Plateau. Towering sandstone cliffs, spooky slot canyons, clear springs and flowing streams, majestic stone arches curving above tranquil grottoes—this region has it all. The supreme backpack here is a 70-mile journey, which starts in Harris Wash canyon, drifts down the gigantic Escalante river canyon for fifty miles, and then exits via highly scenic Coyote Gulch. My friends and I did this trek in a relaxed ten days. It's mostly easy hiking too!
The town of Escalante is on Highway 12, east of Bryce Canyon National Park. Pick up free wilderness permits from the BLM ranger station in town. You'll need two cars for the entry and exit points; the ranger station (801-826-4291) can send you a list of shuttle drivers for hire. On Highway 12, 5.1 miles east of Escalante, turn off onto Hole-in-the-Rock Road. It's a good unpaved road, suitable for highway cars in dry weather. Turn left 0.8 mile down this road. Harris Wash trailhead is 6.3 miles from the turn.
At this point it's all flat, dry, desert sand. Standing there with ten days worth of food and gear in my pack, I feared this trip was going to be a fiasco! But soon, as we followed a small stream, canyon walls began to spring up around us. Ten miles (and one exciting encounter with quicksand) later we reached the Escalante river junction.
September is the best time for this trip. The weather is pleasantly hot and the Escalante low enough to easily wade in. That's fortunate, because there are no real trails and the path of least resistance is simply to walk in the river itself. Hiking sticks are a necessity, both for balance and for detecting deep spots in the muddy river. Keep your sleeping bag in waterproof garbage bags in case you go for an unplanned swim! Choose your hiking sticks from the massive amounts of driftwood that line the shore. As for the occasional patches of quicksand, they pose little danger for even a solo hiker. You'll quick learn to recognize and avoid them.
Upon reaching the main canyon of the Escalante, you have entered a world where the music of running water and the echoing cries of black ravens are just about the only sounds you'll hear; we met no one else on the eight days it took us to hike the main canyon itself. There are beautiful, towering sandstone cliffs carved by every bend in the river: deep pools of translucent water, monster forests of fallen rocks to be hiked through. At dawn and dusk this massive Navajo sandstone world glows with coyote-trickster light. Side canyons wait to be explored.
For all its size, the main Escalante canyon is an easy place to be. There are always soft sand benches to camp on; all that driftwood makes for great campfires. Canyon walls can at times stand a sculptured thousand feet high. There's always room enough to get out of the way of a seasonal flash flood. Of course there's always drinking water, though bring along an extra pot to prefilter it by allowing the sand particles to settle out. Otherwise you'll be cleaning your water filter every five or ten strokes.
On the eighth day we reached huge Stevens Arch, which is the unmistakable natural signpost for the unmaintained trail, which leads out to Coyote Gulch. This means hiking out onto the benchlands, from which one gets a fine view of the general area. The ten miles though Coyote Gulch are filled with waterfalls and two fine stone arches. The high point for me was the "whispering gallery," a huge sandstone amphitheater whose acoustics "teleport" sounds hundreds of feet from their origins. As we hiked the last miles to our car, the canyon walls began to recede until the terrain was much as it had been back at the trailhead. Like Alice in Wonderland, our adventure was over.
A few more pointers on this backpack. Take good, dependable gear with you. You're a long way from help if complications arise. You'll need two complete sets of clothing, one set for walking the river each day, the other for camp at night. Wear shorts and good boots for the river; long pants and sneakers will be fine at night. Store a few extra gallons of water in your car. To save weight, we carried mostly freeze dried food and two very dependable stoves. Once again, you're a long way from home!
Other than that, enjoy! You'll become part of a timeless canyon world on this trip of a life time!
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication