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Lower Calf Creek Falls

Image: Shutterstock

Nestled among Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks, and Dixie National Forest is the almost 2 million–acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. It was there—in a serene, almost surreal landscape rich with hoodoos, slot canyons, arches, and mesas—that I was introduced to the proverbial American home away from home: our public lands. For a week, we spent days route-finding and nights sleeping in the sand, reveling in a sweet cell phone-, email-, and social media-free existence. In other words, freedom. But experiencing this special place need not require roughing it. Following are two ways to experience Escalante: on your own or with a guide service.

The first step in embarking on a do-it-yourself week in Escalante is setting up a base camp. Two primitive camp spots I recommend are at Harris Wash and Egypt Road, both located just inside the monument off the Hole in the Rock Road. Campers at both destinations are responsible for all their own essentials, so be sure to bring at least two gallons of water per person, per day and a shovel to take care of toileting needs.

On the first day of our sojourn, we hiked to the iconic Lower Calf Creek Falls, an area brimming with artifacts of ancient life. This moderate 5.4-mile, out-and-back trail winds through a gorgeous canyon ending at the 130-foot-tall falls and deep swimming hole. Another, more advanced trek in this area is the stunning, approximately 8-mile-loop Red Breaks Slot Canyon hike, which offers an unparalleled taste of the desert as you saunter between towering, wavy sandstone walls. During my maiden trip to Escalante, we were the only souls in Red Breaks, except for a mountain lion, detectable only by the tracks she left in the sand.

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Passing through one of Escalante’s many slot canyons.

Image: Eric Ricks

One of Escalante’s premier destinations is, without a doubt, the Golden Cathedral, an awe-inspiring sandstone alcove requiring excellent navigation skills to reach. The 9.2-mile, out-and-back hike to the Golden Cathedral begins with a steep descent down a slickrock trail that’s difficult to navigate at times. Be prepared to cross the Escalante River at the bottom of the descent (or turn around if the river is running too high). Cowboy graffiti marks the entrance to the Golden Cathedral. The scene when we first entered—sunlight streaming through the keyhole atop the giant sandstone dome upon a glimmering pond—literally brought all of us to our knees.

For those who prefer to visit Escalante sans the week of sleeping on the ground—or mastering the tricks of desert navigation—the Park City–based Elevated Adventure Company (802.779.2464) offers guests a streamlined way to embark on a desert escapade in a single adventure- and luxury-packed day.

The journey begins at the Heber City airport where clients board a bush plane to travel as the crow flies to southern Utah. Once in the desert, each adventure is custom-tailored; the length, difficulty, and type of expedition depend completely on what the group is after. Anyone who can walk a given distance on their own is welcome, including children age five and older.

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The Golden Cathedral

Image: Shutterstock

The luxury doesn’t stop with transportation, however. Every expedition features gourmet meals and snacks made with food sourced from Park City–area purveyors like Heber Valley Cheese and Ritual Chocolate. After a day soaking up the desert, day-adventurers are returned to Heber (and transferred back to Park City, if necessary) well in time for a late dinner and slumber in their own bed at home or hotel room. Guests who prefer to spend longer than a day are lodged at the renowned Boulder Mountain Lodge or Boulder Mountain Guest Ranch. 

Whether you choose to sleep on the dirt for a week or fly in for just the day, Escalante provides a unique refuge among the rocks and brush where you can reset your soul free from the confines of daily life.

Under Siege

Many of the efforts to shrink Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument and rescind the new Bears Ears National Monument are centered within Utah’s political leadership. But Utah is also home to many organizations working to protect these wild and sacred places. Contact one of the following groups to join the fight to save Utah’s public lands.

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