Few roads invoke awe and frustration in nearly the same breath as Hole in the Rock Road near Escalante, Utah. Named for the historic Mormon wagon route connecting Escalante and Bluff, UT via a crossing of the Colorado River, Hole in the Rock Road is now a fraction of the original distance- 62 miles (100km).
Don’t let the relatively short distance deceive you, Hole in the Rock Road is known for the toll that it’s “aggressive” grading can have on vehicles and the final ten miles is described by the National Park Service as requiring high-clearance and four wheel drive. The terminus of Hole in the Rock Road is expectedly, the hole in the rock cut by Mormon trail builders to all them to reach the river crossing below. Although a trip down to now Lake Powell is fun and full of amazing scenery, the true beauty of Hole in the Rock Road lies in the web of trails that branch off the main road like a network of spindly fingers. The fingers lead to breathtaking views, world-class hiking and backpacking, and some of the most remote landscapes accessible in the lower forty-eight.
Hole in the Rock Road begins in Escalante, UT, a quiet town that exists today primarily because of the tourism and agriculture industries. The town has struggled to balance its long history of extraction and farming with the ever-increasing popularity of tourism and outdoor recreation. Despite the challenges, Escalante is a quirky and fun town that offers everything that you will need before disappearing into the nearby Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.
If you need to replace a piece of gear while exploring this area, Utah Canyon Outdoors is located on Highway 12 and has a staff of experienced outdoor enthusiasts to get you set up and on your way. A few hundred feet to the northeast is Griffin’s Grocery, the only true grocery store in Escalante. The selection is limited and expensive, but it is a good idea to top off your supplies if you are planning an extended stay.
A stop in the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center is necessary for anyone planning to dispersed camp in the National Monument as a free permit is required from the National Park Service. It is always good practice to check in with local rangers before exploring public lands and it is even more vital in a place like Hole in the Rock Road where the Bureau of Land Management manages the majority of the road and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is managed by the National Park Service.
Between mile eight and twelve is a variety of hiking opportunities that allow for in-depth exploration of slot canyons, fantastically beautiful scenery, as well as many opportunities for camping. Zebra slot canyon is a great introduction to hiking in canyon country and can be completed in a few hours. The Utah State Highway 12 corridor is known for having some of the most outrageous slot canyons in the United States and many are easily accessible without climbing equipment. Nearby Harris Wash provides an excellent introduction to backpacking in the region and the short overnighter allows backpackers to camp on the Escalante River and return on the following day.
Devil’s Garden, near mile twelve, is a fantastic day-hiking location as the slick rock feature provides many nooks and crannies to explore as well as breathtaking views of nearby hoodoos and scenery. Similarly, Dance Hall Rock (mile 36) was the site of many square dances under the amphitheater shaped rock formation as Mormon wagon trains traversed the area on the way to the river. Today it provides a fun scramble hike and there are no signs posted prohibiting dancing, so you should give that a whirl if you are so inclined.
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At the end of the road, is the final and likely most gratifying hike on the route, the hike down to Lake Powell through the slit in the rock carved by Mormon trail builders in the late 1800’s. The hike down to the lake is challenging and only experienced hikers in good shape should attempt it. Hiking the narrow canyon down to the lake makes it apparent that the pioneers who forged this trail were tougher, stronger, and heartier than we are today.
It is challenging to provide much of a guide to the actual driving near this area as you can truly make your own adventure. The area south of Hole in the Rock Road provides seemingly endless miles of dirt track and off-road trails that include access to geologic features like Peek-a-boo Canyon, Jacob Hamlin Arch, and so much more. Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument is paradise for someone looking to get off the grid and truly explore a wild place.
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Many of the side roads that meander away from Hole in the Rock Road are not what we would consider difficult, but many are susceptible to wash-outs and flash floods and therefore can change in a matter of minutes. When traveling in canyon country, always pay attention to the rain forecast and walk any water crossings before driving them. Water moves violently in the desert and can sweep your vehicle away quickly.
The temperature of the Utah desert is another consideration, especially if you are traveling in the summer. Afternoon temperatures can exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) and water is often nearly impossible to find from natural sources that haven’t been contaminated by agriculture operations as most of the BLM land in this area is shared with cattle ranchers.
WHAT TO KNOW:
Time: 2-5 days
Distance: 62 miles one way
Fuel: Fuel is available in Escalante and can be expensive relative to bigger towns nearby. As with most of rural Utah, it is best to top off your fuel when it is available and don’t worry so much about price.
Water: Plan on bringing one gallon of water per person per day, minimum. Water can be found from natural sources, but do not count on it. Always treat water from natural sources as a large portion of Utah public lands are shared by adventurers and farmers. Water is available at the Visitor Center in Escalante.
Permits: A free overnight camping permit is required if you wish to boondock in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and a backpacking permit is required if you wish to backpack in the national monument or within the National Recreation Area boundaries.
Extreme heat makes traveling this route in the summer very uncomfortable. The best time to visit is in the spring and fall.
Cell service is non-existent along this route and medical services could be several hours away at best in some locations. Always carry a satellite location device when traveling into remote areas.
Header image: National Park Service