Hiking Coyote Gulch

Utah is well-known for its amazing scenery. National Parks like Zion, Bryce, and Arches draw millions of visitors every year.

But there are equally impressive sites to be seen that are off the beaten path.

One such place, Coyote Gulch, is a spectacular red-walled canyon that displays many of the same features as its more famous neighbors.

Sculpted and stained vermillion cliffs tower overhead, while a cool running stream turns its floor into a desert oasis.

Located along the border of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Coyote Gulch is the most popular destination in the Escalante Canyons.

But that doesn’t mean you’ll be seeing any crowds. There’s no need for shuttle buses in this desolate and undeveloped part of the state.

To get to Coyote Gulch, you follow Utah’s Highway 12 east past Bryce Canyon and the small town of Escalante.

It was here that I turned my truck camper onto Hole in the Rock Road and left the pavement behind.

This gravel roadway parallels a route used in 1879 by a group of 250 Mormon settlers intent on colonizing the southeast corner of Utah.

The “hole in the rock” was a passage for their wagons that they spent six weeks (during winter) blasting and digging into a steep cliff above the Colorado River.

The resulting “road” clung to the cliff so precariously that they had to blindfold their horses to get them down it.

Those were some hardy, resilient folks.

My trip looked be much more pleasant. Although I was traveling at night and had over 40 miles to cover, the road looked good.

The posted 35 mph speed limit sign seemed promising.

Well, so much for first impressions. That road seemed to be the work of the devil himself.

While there was the occasional flat section that allowed smooth sailing, most of the track was mile after mile of washboard, punctuated by the occasional dry wash.

It felt like I was being vibrated to death in a giant paint shaker.

It was a profanity-laced two hours before I reached my turnoff onto Fourtymile Ridge. Here the road turned to a sandy, rutted, single lane.

I slogged on another 15 minutes before I reached a pullout and parked for the night. The last couple of miles to the trailhead would wait for morning.

At sunup I got my first look at my surroundings. The Kaiparowits Plateau rose up abruptly to my west, while undulating folds of multi-colored rock spread out below me.

Hiding out down there somewhere was Coyote Gulch.

The most common way to access the Gulch is to descend one of those dry gullies that I’d passed the night before on Hole in the Rock Rd.

From there you have five to seven miles of easy but unremarkable hiking that delivers you into the upper reaches of the Gulch.

 A hiker walks under Coyote Natural Bridge

A hiker walks under Coyote Natural Bridge

Take this route and you have a 25-plus mile round-trip to the confluence with the Escalante River and back. It’s usually tackled as a two-to-three day backpacking trip.

A slightly more adventurous option exists that allows the hike to be completed in a single day.

From the road on Fourtymile Ridge you can enter the Gulch near its mid-point via the “Sneaker Route”, and then exit down near the river confluence through the “Crack in the Wall.”

Both of these paths require a bit of cross country route-finding and feature more difficult climbs into and out of the canyon.

But they shorten the trip to about 15 miles and don’t miss any of the hikes’ best features.

This was the option I chose, and after breakfast and a short drive I hit the trail.

The first mile was easy, with an obvious path snaking through the desert scrub.

Then the deep red sand gave way to undulating expanses of slickrock.

From this point on stone cairns marked the way.

Loose rock was obviously in short supply. Most of the markers were meager at best, some as small as a pair of stacked rocks that would fit in your hand.

Navigating this section of the “Sneaker” took sharp eyes and some patience.

After a mile on the sliprock the top of the Gulch became visible and the pitch downward accelerated.

In its final stage the weathered sandstone poured into the canyon at an uncomfortably steep angle.

Here a long cord had been fastened for lowering backpacks. This ten-story drop wasn’t something you’d want to attempt while top-heavy or unsteady.

With only friction and balance to save me from having a very bad day, I cautiously crab-walked my way down the mostly featureless rock-face, occasionally using my posterior to gain additional traction.

Eventually I reached the bottom and it was time to relax and enjoy the Gulch.

At this point I changed into water shoes, as the easiest way to travel through the canyon is to walk in the streambed.

Wide, shallow, and rarely over ankle deep, the cool running water makes for a pleasant stroll.

 Looking up at Jacob Hamblin Arch

Looking up at Jacob Hamblin Arch

My first stop would be just a few hundred feet upstream at one of the trek’s major landmarks, the Jacob Hamblin Arch. 

Many think this elegant monolith provides one of the best views in the state of Utah.

While its 100-foot span isn’t the biggest in the world, the way it dominates the canyon is truly awe-inspiring.

With the stream flowing under it and a huge natural amphitheater sculpted into its downstream flank, it’s a unique and spectacular place to see.

I’d only been in the Gulch a few minutes and it was already obvious why it has a reputation as one of the state’s most beloved hiking destinations.

From here I made a U-turn and began my seven-mile descent down the ever-deepening ravine.

Time passed quickly. It seemed like a postcard-worthy view appeared around every bend.

The next major landmark was Coyote Natural Bridge. Here the stream has carved a short tunnel through a sandstone fin.

Nearby, short forays up toward the steep cliffs reveal hanging gardens, native ruins, and a Fremont rock art panel.

Still farther down the Gulch you reach Cliff Arch, a jug-handle type arch that is affixed to the canyon wall high above you.

Past this point the canyon hastens its descent to the Escalante River and the stream goes over a series of small but picturesque waterfalls.

Once you reach the confluence, a short hike up the Escalante reveals the hike’s final landmark—-Stevens Arch. This monster, which spans 220 feet and is 140 feet high, is one of the world’s 10 largest arches.

By now shadows were getting long and it was time to extricate myself from the canyon.

 One of the many waterfalls in the lower reaches of the Gulch

One of the many waterfalls in the lower reaches of the Gulch

I hiked back up into Coyote Gulch a short ways, located the trail leading out, and changed back into my hiking shoes.

The first part of the climb was a sandy slog up a 700-foot-tall sage-covered dune. Climbing loose sand is never much fun, but the views back into the canyon were spectacular.

At the top of the climb you’re faced with 30 feet of vertical rim-rock. There is no apparent way to escape the canyon…until you find the “Crack in the Wall”.

Here a narrow slab of the cliff’s face has split off and created a sliver of a corridor that’s less than a body’s-width wide.

The only way to get through it is to remove your pack and wiggle through sideways.

After scrambling over the last few boulders in the upper reaches of the “crack,” all that remained was a 4.5 mile trudge back across the slickrock and sand to where I was parked.

With time to reflect on the day’s events, I realized that the horrible drive to reach this place was perhaps more a blessing than a curse.

I’d spent the entire day surrounded by jaw-dropping scenery and crossed paths with less than 20 people.

This was a place that didn’t share its beauty easily, but for those who are willing to pay their dues the reward is an amazing and unique experience.

As Published in the Napa Register.

Lauren McClure