The Escalante River has dozens of tributaries that empty into it, and Coyote Gulch may be one of the most spectacular of them all. On this hike, you will spend the majority of your time in and around the clear water in Coyote Gulch. While it is not deep, you will prefer to have water shoes instead of having to wear wet sneakers for the entire hike. There are a variety of ways to enter and exit Coyote Gulch, many of which have long approach routes, while others are very direct. The one discussed in the most detail in this post will be the quickest approach route to Coyote Gulch, however, it does require a Class 3 scramble up and down a 100+ foot cliff. A Class 3 scramble means that you’ll use your hands and feet for balance, and that the path is steep, and the exposure to heights can be substantial. A fall from a Class 3 will most likely not result in death, but could result in serious injury. If this sounds too adventurous for your taste, other alternatives will be included in this article.
Coyote Gulch Hike Details
Distance – 17.0 miles roundtrip
Approximate hiking time – 8-10 hours, or you can choose to spend the night down in the Gulch.
Elevation at Trailhead – 4770 feet
Elevation in Coyote Gulch at Jacob Hamblin Arch – 3995 feet
Elevation at the confluence of Coyote Gulch and the Escalante River – 3700 feet
Elevation Loss of 1070 feet on the way there, a gain of 1070 feet on the way back
Difficulty – Initial descent from canyon wall down into Coyote Gulch – Difficult.
Difficulty – Hike through Coyote Gulch – Easy
Trail – Sandstone, sand, creek bed. No shade on cross-country hike to Coyote Gulch
Amount of water recommended – 3 liters
Bathrooms – None
Season to hike – March to November
Prone to flash floods? – Yes, can be prone to flash floods. Luckily the gulch is wide enough to find high ground, but watch and respect the weather report.
Permits – N/A
What to bring: Packing checklist
(See my Google Map of this hike at the end of this post)
What to Bring:
How to get there:
From Escalante, Utah, take the main road, Highway 12, east through Escalante. The road will head in a southeastern direction. Follow Hwy 12 for five miles, and as the highway makes a left curve, the unpaved Hole in the Rock Road will be on the right side of the road. There should be a sign near the curve that says Hole in the Rock Road. Turn right off of Hwy 12 here. From the turnoff onto Hole in the Rock Road would be a good spot to reset your trip odometer to 0, because you will be on this road for a long time. If you’re coming from the north on Hwy 12 from Torrey and Boulder, the turn off for Hole in the Rock Road is 21 miles south of Boulder. As you head south on Hwy 12 you’ll want to reset your odometer as you go over the bridge that crosses the Escalante River. You will continue to head south for 9.5 miles. The turn off for Hole in the Rock Road will be on the left during a big curve to the right. Once again, from the turnoff onto Hole in the Rock Road would be a good spot to reset your trip odometer to 0, because you will be on this road for a long time.
The farther down you go on Hole in the Rock Road, the more washboard, rough, and sandy it gets. From here you will head southeast on the unpaved Hole in the Rock Road for 36.2 miles. Plan for about 90 minutes of driving on the road. After the 36.2 miles, turn left onto Forty Mile Ridge Road and follow it for 4.3 miles. You’ll see a little corral and a water tank. There is room for about 12 cars. Here is where the Coyote Gulch sneaker route starts. Some hikers do a loop hike by parking a car here, and taking another one to the end of Forty Mile Ridge Road, which is another 2.6 miles, and starting the hike there and finishing at the water tank. Be cautioned that the last 2.6 miles of Forty Mile Ridge Road can have deep sand, which can be difficult with many vehicles. The trail route discussed here will be up and back from the sneaker route, and the turnaround point will be at the Coyote Gulch confluence with the Escalante River.
Hitting the Trail!
The sneaker route across the desert and sandstone can be difficult to follow at times leading from the water tank to the rim edge where you will scramble down. Look for cairns, but if you don’t see any, don’t panic. Using your compass or GPS head due north and you’ll reach the canyon rim. The first mile or so will be a little sandy until you reach the sandstone, then its smooth sailing to the rim. The opposite rim of Coyote Gulch will soon come into view. When it does, it is vital that you look for a specific marking on the opposite canyon wall, because the steep route down is directly across from it. It looks like a white bird flapping its wings, or a white letter “U”. Either way, this mark on the canyon will lead you to cairns that will guide you down to Coyote Gulch.
Looking down from the canyon rim, it appears impossible to make it to the canyon floor safely, however, cairns help lead the way to the best route down. Some use ropes to pass their backpacks down, especially if they have bigger backpacks and plan on camping in Coyote Gulch for the night. In the picture on the left, you may see some hikers nearing the top. It was a group of six young adults scaling the rock with 50 lbs packs and without the aid of ropes. They seemed to have no problem, but I would have some rope handy just in case. The two girls that came with me, didn’t have much trouble either. When I go this route I normally just take a day pack. However, when I’ve gone with my backpacking pack, I haven’t had problems making it down or back up.This route may not be for the faint of heart. I would not recommend this route for children or adults with a mild fear of heights. I do recommend taking your time. There’s no hurry to get down, Coyote Gulch will still be there if it takes an extra twenty minutes to descend. Survey the best way down, and don’t be afraid to scoot down on your backside like the girls I was with did. It worked for them. I like this route because it’s the fastest and most direct route in and out of Coyote Gulch, and when you reach the bottom you’ll find that you’re in the best part of Coyote Gulch. There were restrooms located down in Coyote Gulch right where one would come down from the sneaker route. Unfortunately, in the spring of 2012 they were mysteriously burned down. They helped serve as a marker for where you needed to ascend out of the gulch, but there are still some remnants to help guide you. There have been rumors of newer bathrooms being installed, but the estimated total cost is around $100,000, so I wouldn’t get your hopes up.
If after reading this, you may find that the sneaker route down into Coyote Gulch described above is a little too much to attempt. I would recommend entering Coyote Gulch by either Hurricane Wash, Red Well, or Crack in the Wall. Hurricane Wash and Red Well trailheads begin west of the heart of Coyote Gulch, and require longer, hotter, and dryer approaches, but they eliminate any scrambling, and are the best routes for groups of younger individuals. Entry via these trailheads will require at least two days and camping equipment, as the routes are several miles longer than the sneaker route or Crack in the Wall.
Crack in the Wall is accessed by continuing to drive down Forty Mile Ridge Road. As stated the conditions of this dirt/sand road vary and the last couple of miles may have deep sand. Park either at the end or shortly before depending on the road conditions, and then start your trek from there.
The trail is normally marked, and will go in an east/northeast direction until it reaches the Escalante River. The “crack” in the wall is exactly that, a crack. It’s about 18 inches wide, so one will likely have to remove their backpack to squeeze through. You’ll then descend a huge sand dune to reach the canyon bottom. I would highly recommend getting the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map – Canyons of the Escalante before going. It’s a great reference and also covers all the area along Hole in the Rock Road. It is waterproof and tear-resistent. I never go anywhere down there without it. While a GPS may not work inside the canyon, it’s a good tool to have with you when you’re hiking through the desert to get to Coyote Gulch.
Once you’re on the canyon floor of Coyote Gulch, you will be impressed by just how small you feel and how tall the canyon walls are. While the canyon winds back and forth, the stream in Coyote Gulch flows from west to east, down to the Escalante River. You may find yourself taking a picture every couple of steps. The amazing part of Coyote Gulch is that there is a surprising number of trees down in the gulch. The green makes for an outstanding contrast with the canyon walls. The first major point of interest in Coyote Gulch is Jacob Hamblin Arch. It will be less than a half mile upstream from where you descended. You’ll also find that Coyote Gulch winds back and forth, clearly carved out by the meanders of the water that flows through the gulch.
The nice thing about dropping down through the sneaker route is that it cuts out long approach hikes that take hikers through dry sandy washes that offer little or no shade. Hikers who enter Coyote Gulch from Hurricane Wash or Red Well usually hike for the majority of the day before they even arrive at Jacob Hamblin Arch. A hike to and from the Hurricane Wash trailhead to the Escalante River will be 28 miles roundtrip, and to and from the Red Well trailhead is even farther. The other way to enter Coyote Gulch is to drive past the water tank on Forty Mile Ridge Road and take it to the very end, where you then walk 1.9 miles in a northeast direction and squeeze through Crack-in-the-Wall and then another mile down a huge sand dune which takes you nearly to the confluence of Coyote Gulch and Escalante River. From this direction, you’ll hike upstream to see all the arches, waterfalls, and the natural bridge.
Once you leave Jacob Hamblin Arch and head back downstream, you will have the option to try to avoid getting wet and staying on the banks as much as possible, or if you have water shoes, you can embrace the water, and walk right through the clear stream. Not only is it clear, but it rare rises above your calf. This is an amazing hike from late April to early October most years. Don’t be preoccupied about hiking as fast as you can through Coyote Gulch down to the Escalante River. Enjoy your surroundings, because they are some of the best around!
As you head downstream, you will pass beautiful canyon walls streaked with desert varnish. As word of Coyote Gulch has gotten out, more and more people visit it. We were lucky and went on a weekday, which resulted with us only seeing a handful of hikers the entire time. During most weekends in the summer, there may be dozens of people down in Coyote Gulch.
A little over a mile and a half downstream from Jacob Hamblin Arch, you’ll see Coyote Natural Bridge, an impressive and photogenic natural bridge. On the north side of Coyote Natural Bridge there is an alcove that contains an Indian ruins site. The ruins can be seen from the upstream side of Coyote Natural Bridge, 150 meters from the trail. About 0.5 miles after passing under Coyote Natural Bridge, look for a spur trail and a large sand dune on the north side of the gulch. Climb this sand dune, and at the base you’ll see Fremont Indian pictographs. Just west of the pictographs you may see a small ruin in the alcove.
After returning to the trail you’ll continue downstream and in less than 100 meters you’ll see a side canyon thick with vegetation on the north side of Coyote Gulch. You may see a narrow trail choked with weeds and snake grass that leads into the side canyon. A five-minute walk down this trail will take you to a spring fed swimming hole of sorts which was undoubtedly used by the Indians that frequented the gulch centuries before. Leave any pottery shards or corn cobs, or any other type of relic you may find in the gulch. Allow for all to enjoy the history of the gulch.
Around 2.0 miles past Coyote Natural Bridge, you’ll see Cliff Arch, ahead on the canyon wall, and come to a small waterfall. This is not only a great place to have lunch, but will provide you with pleasant views and relaxing sounds during your break.
Even though the part of Coyote Gulch between Cliff Arch and Jacob Hamblin Arch is considered the best and most scenic, if you have the time, I would recommend hiking down to the Escalante River. After passing Cliff Arch you will pass two or three other small waterfalls in the next mile, depending on the water flow in the gulch. You should be able to see trails that safely bypass the waterfalls, so don’t think that you have to scale any of them to get down. Just look around for a minute and you’re bound to see a route around the small waterfalls.
When you’ve hiked for an hour past Cliff Arch you’ll be nearing the confluence of Coyote Gulch and the Escalante River. You’ll likely see the huge sand dune that hikers coming from Crack-in-the-Wall, an 18 inch wide crack in the rock used to reach Coyote Gulch on the southeast side of the gulch. If you have parked a vehicle at the end of Forty Mile Ridge Road, you will climb the sand dune, exit through Crack-in-the-Wall and hike about 2.0 miles back to your vehicle. You may decide that since it is only 0.6 miles farther down to the confluence, that you go there before climbing the huge sand dune. The water depth near the confluence is generally around two feet deep or less, however, since Lake Powell backs up into the Escalante River, it may be deeper if it’s been a wet year. Less than 500 feet upstream from the confluence, up the Escalante River, you’ll get a great view of the impressive Stevens Arch.
After reaching Stevens Arch, we took a short break, and since we parked at the sneaker route trailhead, we had two options. We could have ascended the giant sand dune, squeezed through Crack-in-the-Wall, and then hiked 4.5 miles along Forty Mile Ridge Road to our car, or we could return upstream past Cliff Arch, Coyote Natural Bridge and exit out the canyon where we climbed down earlier in the day. We decided to retrace our steps back upstream, which was a little longer, but definitely more enjoyable than trekking 4.5 miles along a boring sandy road with no shade. Also, the light was different in Coyote Gulch on the back than it was on the way down just hours earlier, which made for several more great photos.
The restrooms in the gulch served as a great landmark for reminding you where you came down and you will just scramble up the way that you came down. Unfortunately, some careless hiker burned them down in 2012, but remnants still remain to help point where the route starts. Once again, it’s not too crazy, just take your time climbing out, and you’ll do just fine. Head due south from the top of the canyon rim back to the water tanks. Then you’ll retrace your steps for the 2.0 miles across the sandstone to the water tank where you parked. We spotted a lot more cairns along the sandstone on the way back to the water tank than we did in our morning trek to the canyon rim. By the time you make it back to your car you will have experienced one of the best hikes around, and hopefully you’ll have plenty of pictures to remember this amazing trip!
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