The Big West Fork of Red Breaks, located off of Harris Wash, can be accessed from Hole in the Rock Road, east of Escalante, Utah, in Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument. While this area is known for dozens of slot canyons, this one in particular, with all the long sections of narrows, numerous chockstones that require basic climbing skills, and overall length, rates as one of my favorite slot canyons I’ve ever done.
Red Breaks – Big West Fork Hike Details
Distance – 15 miles roundtrip, completed as a loop hike
Approximate hiking time – 8 to 10 hours, depending on how far in the slot you go
Elevation at Harris Wash Trailhead – 4970 feet
Elevation at mouth of Red Breaks Big West Fork – 5302 feet
Highest point of elevation on hike – 5906 feet at Panorama Point
Elevation Gain – approximately 1500 feet due to climbing in and out of deep washes
Difficulty – Moderate. Basic “chimney” climbing skills recommended
Trail – Sandstone, sand, wash route. No shade on cross-country hike to Big West Fork nor to Cosmic Ashtray
Amount of water recommended – 3 liters
Bathrooms – None
Season to hike – March to November
Prone to flash floods? – Yes, prone to flash floods. However, the slot is narrow enough in several spots to chimney up and out of slot if necessary. With that being said, watch and respect the weather report.
Permits – N/A
What to bring? – packing checklist
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. If you were to go straight instead of take the curve that would turn into Hole in the Rock Road. Take Hole in the Rock Road southeast for 11 miles until you see the Harris Wash trailhead sign on the left. Follow this side road for six miles to its end near Harris Wash. This side road is usually passable by passenger car. I made it the trailhead in Dodge Charger, I just made sure to drive a little slower. (See the Google Map for this hike at the end of this post)
What to Bring
(Click on an item for more information)
For this hike, you should wear close-toed shoes with good traction. Here are a few recommendations:
Hitting the Trail!
Since there is no official parking area at the trailhead, just pull into an open area amongst the willow trees before getting to the wash. As you were driving along Hole in the Rock Road, you may have noticed that your destination of Red Breaks takes you to an elevated plateau, wherein lies Red Breaks slot canyon. Compared to the landscape everywhere else along the road, one can spot this elevated area of Red Breaks from several miles away.
Besides hiking this alone, which one should never do, there are two other mistakes that some hikers make within the first ten minutes of the hike. First of all, you need to cross Harris Wash, and not follow Harris Wash. Secondly, shortly after heading north and crossing Harris Wash, which is normally dry, you’ll see where the road that you took to reach the trailhead continues on the other side of the wash. You can follow this road for about 250 meters, and then you’ll see a wide sandy wash coming in from the left. Leave the road and take this wash north. This is Red Breaks wash. Several people miss this and follow the road (which heads northeast) for a mile or so before they realize they’ve missed the wash. The good news is, that this road will be the road that can take you back to trailhead after hiking through Red Breaks and possibly visiting a place called the Cosmic Ashtray, a formation which I’ll explain about later.
As you leave the sandy road and take Red Breaks wash, it’s amazing how unassuming it looks now, and how in just about two miles, you’ll find yourself in slot canyon heaven. There is no marked trail, so just follow the wash, and you won’t get lost. Follow this wash for about 1.75 miles. Along the way, the walls will rise 10-15 feet, and near this point, you’ll come across a dry fall, that you will can bypass by backtracking and going up the left (west) side of the narrowing wash, and then drop back into the wash. At this point, the walls begin to narrow, and the start of an easy and photographic section of slot canyon starts. In this part of the slot you’ll have only one or two chockstones to clear. Deeper in Red Breaks however, you’ll come across several chockstones which can be navigated more safely and efficiently with two people, but can be cleared by a solo hiker. A chockstone is a large rock that has gotten wedged into the slot canyon, blocking (or choking) off one’s progress in the slot. Since you are hiking up the Red Breaks slot, all of the chockstones you encounter will requiring scrambling up and over them, which I find more exciting and difficult than down climbing a chockstone. You will need to navigate around at least ten chockstones in the Red Breaks slot. I found that I could clear each chockstone by myself, but I remember two or three of the chockstones requiring a 12 to 15 foot climb. The best strategy to clear the obstacles is to use the “chimney” technique.
The chimney climbing technique is used when you have rock walls with vertical sides mostly parallel, large enough to fit the climber’s body. (Usually between 3-5 feet wide.) To climb over a chockstone, the climber often uses his head, back and feet to apply opposite pressure on the vertical walls. The picture to the left is an example of how to chimney. This is an easy way for anyone, from beginner to expert, to climb over and clear obstacles. I have found that by the end of the hike, we had become very proficient chimneying, and we could clear all obstacles pretty quickly. I would recommend not rushing the first couple of chockstones. This would not be a great place to rush things, fall, and sprain an ankle. We found that clearing the chockstones were some of the most fun and gratifying parts of the hike.
After hiking through the initial set of narrows in the Red Breaks main slot it opens up. We found this to be a good time to drink some water and take a short break. Here is a picture of this opening as it proves to be an important reference point.
When you reach this part of the hike, you should easily recognize it from this picture, mainly because this is the first open part of the slot since the first narrow section of Red Breaks main fork. Head up the left side of the rock here and follow the wash from the rim that you see in the background. If you continue down in the wash, it will take you up the main fork of Red Breaks, which is cool, just not as impressive as Red Breaks Big West Fork slot. The beginning of the Big West Fork can only be reached by exiting the wash as described, so you can clear a 100 foot dry fall.
Once you’ve reached the left side of the rim from the opening in the Main Fork wash, follow the rim in a westerly direction for a couple hundred meters. We were about 100+ feet above the wash in this picture, and we could see where someone had tried to find the Big West Fork, because there was one set of footprints that had to backtrack after reaching the bottom of the impressive 100 foot dry fall. I’m sure that it makes for a spectacular waterfall during a flash flood.
After walking past the top of the dry fall, you’ll be in the Red Breaks Big West Fork wash, and after five minutes of hiking it quickly tightens up, and the real adventure begins.
This was the first of at least 10 chockstones that we had to navigate over. It was so much fun! Once again, take your time, and plan your route and your strategy first, then proceed up and over. After the first guy gets up and over the obstacle, toss any backpacks up to the first and progress that way.
For this reason, I recommend hiking with at least one other person, so that clearing these obstacles will be easier. The Big West Fork has some of the best color I’ve ever seen. The walls absolutely glow when the sun is overhead. These narrows will continue for over a mile and it is so much fun, as the lighting and glow makes you want to snap pictures every ten steps. After we had cleared all the obstacles, we found the last section of Red Breaks to be the most challenging. It was extremely tight for about 200 meters. Not even 12 inches wide. We had to remove our backpacks and chimney about a foot off the canyon floor because we were getting wedged in. It was so exciting, but so exhausting to squeeze and chimney in a one foot wide slot canyon. I’m 6’1″ and 175 lbs, and I was squished in there.
After this incredibly tight part of Red Breaks Big West Fork, it opens up a little and the walls become more shallow, and you have a couple of choices. You can take a break and return back down Red Breaks Big West Fork back to the Main Fork, and then retrace your steps back to the trailhead, or you could attempt a cross-country desert trek to try to find a geological phenomenon affectionately known as the Cosmic Ashtray, and then follow a dirt road back to the trailhead.
If you want specific directions, I’d be happy to discuss it via email, mainly because this place is such a geologic wonder, it almost feels wrong to share this, for fear that people will spoil it.I found it without the use of GPS coordinates, or from a map in my hand. It was purely from studying topographical maps and especially Google Earth before I left. I feel that anyone who wants to visit place, kinda needs to put forth their own effort, and if they have questions, I’ll be happy to answer them. That’s how special I feel about this place. While we were leaving the Cosmic Ashtray, we came upon two lost hikers who had been wandering in the desert for hours trying to locate it. Not only were they ill-prepared, but they had done no real research to find the place. They were over two miles from it. Don’t be like these jokers. They had no idea how to get back to their vehicle, and I’m certain that not only would they have never found the Cosmic Ashtray, but they would have spent a freezing night in the desert with no water.
To complete the loop hike, follow these steps. Once you scramble out of the Big West Fork, you will head in a general eastward direction and cross over one major drainage. I used my compass to maintain my eastward course. This drainage is the Upper West Fork of Red Breaks. Climb out and continue east and enter a second major drainage which is called the Northeast Fork of Red Breaks. Follow this fork upstream and round a high point to the right. We climbed this high point, and near the eastern most edge of this point, which I personally call Panorama Point, I took this picture.
From the picture it almost looks like you could just walk right down into the bottom. You can’t. It’s at least a 100+ foot sheer drop from all sides. After visiting the Cosmic Ashtray, I returned home and talked to the Dean of Geology at Brigham Young University, and even though he’d stayed at the same hotel as us, and on an expedition nearby, he’d never even heard of the Cosmic Ashtray, let alone seen pictures of it. He was fascinated and couldn’t explain how it was formed. Theories abound, but none of them seem to be able to fully explain this geological wonder. Oddly enough, after not having cell phone reception the on the whole hike, I had reception at the Cosmic Ashtray, in the middle of the desert. I called my folks, had them look up the Cosmic Ashtray online, and tell them I was standing right in front of the picture they were looking at. It was surreal.
From the Cosmic Ashtray, you can see a sandy dirt road about a mile or so south of the Cosmic Ashtray. This is the same road that crossed Harris Wash at the beginning of the hike. Scramble down the sandstone to the road and just follow the road to the right (southwest) for about 4.5 miles back to Harris Wash and once you cross it, you’ll be back to your car. The entire hike was around 15 miles in length, but it didn’t seem that long. The last 4.5 miles of along the road is flat, and you can make it back to the trailhead in less than 90 minutes. We were able to do this hike in about 9 hours, and we spent nearly two hours at the Cosmic Ashtray. Even without seeing the Cosmic Ashtray, the hike through Red Breaks slot was one of the best slot canyon hikes I’d ever been on.
Before you leave forget to pack these hiking essentials:
Enjoy the hike!
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