Distance: 3 miles (one way)
Best time of year: Fall, Spring
Last hiked: 2016 May
The Upper Escalante River Alcove is a great alternative to the increasingly popular Hole-in-the-Rock Road. The out-of-the-way trail brings you into a landscape like something right out of Zion National Park. You follow a healthy desert river through an enormous sandstone canyon with massive golden cliffs. Though you could theoretically follow the Escalante River for dozens of miles all the way down to the destructive waters of Lake Powell, a great half-day hike brings you down the wild river to a giant eroded alcove, larger than a mansion, complete with ancient art that’s unfortunately been damaged by simpler minded people. Regardless, it’s still well worth the trip.
The trail begins at the marked sign where you sign in and begin heading down the old dirt road. Pass through a fence, then over and around some small hills. At about 0.5 miles, you’ll connect with the Escalante River where you’ll cross it a couple of times, and then head up to pass through another fence.
The Navajo sandstone canyon walls naturally start off fairly small. A bit of progressing down the canyon with several river crossings though reveals a giant growth spurt. The walls are now sandstone cliffs rising hundreds of feet above after constricting to a tight bend in the river. The golden-white cliffs are even decorated with an occasional ponderosa pine both high and low while many cottonwood trees line the river’s banks.
More bends and river crossings reveal more staggering sandstone cliffs. Huge fractured and cracked walls shoot up from the ground in a sandstone fortress wrapping around a tight bend in the river. On the other side, at roughly 3 miles in, the Escalante River Alcove can be made out at the bottom of that bend’s walls. It’s only upon closer inspection, however, that the size and extent of that alcove is understood.
From just on the other side of the river, it appears large, but not huge. Find a way across the river and then climb up to ground level, and the alcove immediately multiplies in size. The roof appears 100 feet high and the width of the opening easily three or four times that. The depth is potentially another 100 feet with cottonwood trees at the entrance dwarfed by the magnitude of the opening. Fire rings where previous people have camped appear minuscule on the other side of the alcove, and low on the back wall are four figures, partially defiled, and partially repaired. It’s a shame that people who would commit such thoughtless and idiotic acts like that have the same access to these sites that people who want to appreciate them do. Nevertheless, they are there, hopefully still in decent shape when you arrive to see them.
The alcove makes for a great place to rest and take a break either before turning around and heading back, or continuing downstream to see what other surprises await.
From downtown Escalante, Utah, follow Highway 12 east past the Escalante High School, and at the Escalante Cemetery, turn left onto a dirt road. At about 0.25 miles, make another left turn and follow that a short distance to a parking area with the sign-in box.