Before my hike to Coyote Gulch in the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument area in Utah, I had read many trail descriptions, viewed several YouTube videos, and studied maps, preparing myself mentally for the trip. Although I was eager for the challenge, I had some trepidations about leading members of my hiking club on a trail that was new to me.
First Challenge: How to get in and out of Coyote Gulch
Coyote Gulch is a wondrous, steep-walled canyon of red sandstone sculpted over thousands of years by Coyote Creek, resulting in giant arches and cavernous rock amphitheaters whose glowing colors are amplified and altered by the light and shadow that continually change as the sun arcs overhead. This makes it magnificent to hike and explore.
There is a limited number of ways to get in and out of this canyon, making it one of our bigger challenges. An exhilarating way to start this hike is to enter through the Crack in the Wall, a 3-stage squeeze through a narrow rock opening that allows a twenty-five foot steep descent requiring the use of a rope to lower your pack. Our group maneuvered this task with help from a local hiker experienced in this region.
From the descent in the Crack in the Wall, it almost felt like skiing down a steep sand dune to the canyon floor. It is much easier to enter than exit via Crack in the Wall as walking the long distance up the loose sand would be difficult.
The exit from the canyon proved more difficult. I knew our hiking group, which included people over 50 and several with little backpacking experience, would not be able not be able to make the to climb at the Jacob Hamblin Arch. This exit is rated as a Class 3 access point, meaning a fall from the rocks here would most likely not result in death, but in serious injury. Honestly, it looked much worse than that. This challenge is for the more agile and adventurous hiker, requiring more or less a climb up a rock face with a rope.
We planned to use a little known exit, described in Steve Allen’s Canyonlands 3, that is possibly a Class 2 access point, a steep terrain requiring some scrambling and boulder hopping. We found the route, omitted in many guidebooks and unknown to most people, just past a border gate to the left, about 2 miles northwest of Jacob Hamblin Arch. Not all members of our group felt safe doing this exit because it was steep and we couldn’t get a clear view of the trail out. We chose the safer route by continuing up Hurricane Wash another 2 1/2 miles.
Unfortunately, this meant we were not returning to our vehicle. Thankfully our youngest member still had enough energy to run/hitchhike the long way back to retrieve our Jeep at the Crack in the Wall parking area.
Recommendation for “mature” hikers: Take the Crack in the Wall entrance and the Hurricane Wash exit. Plan at least two nights in the gulch and hike out early on your final day, therefore avoiding the scorching afternoon sun. Fill up your water bottle at the confluence of Hurricane Wash and Coyote Gulch. This the last reliable place for water. Of coure, we learned this the hard way.
The guidebooks didn’t mention a bit of rock climbing
Once we had descended the sand dune from Crack in the Wall, everything was verdant and serene for a while. The canyon walls towered above us as we meandered our way up the gulch, wading in and out of the creek with an even stride. Next came the waterfalls. They were lovely for sure, providing a chance to splash and cool off, but they also required some challenging rock climbing to continue. It wasn’t always easy to find a way up, requiring us to hunt around for trails and slip around on some steep rock faces, at one point pulling each other up on a tall ledge. More difficult than expected, I feared it would dampen the enthusiasm of our group. Luckily, it didn’t.
Recommendation: Be mentally prepared that at least part of the trail won’t be the easy-going meander that is described in the books. Had I known this, I could have approached the difficulties with a more positive frame of mind.
Many camping areas, but hard to follow trail etiquette
The articles and books I read to prepare for this trip implied the canyon would be crowded and therefore finding a campsite might be a challenge. Fortunately this wasn’t the case on a Thursday night in mid-May, a high season for the area. There were other hikers in the gulch, but it never felt crowded.
Because of the narrowness of the canyon, it is difficult to locate camp away from the trail, a requirement for most wilderness areas. Whereas others pitched their tents by the creek, we set up our camp a respectable distance away, being mindful of conservation issues and increasing our odds against the event of a possible flash flood.
We stayed just south of the Coyote Natural Bridge. The deep sandy spot was a treat for our bare feet after a challenging day of hiking. Who needs camp shoes?
We saw several other suitable spots to camp as we hiked out the next morning. Next time I’ll know not to worry as much about finding a campsite.
Recommendation: Find a high spot away from water and off the trail if possible. Set up a base camp, then explore the area the next day or two.
Your feet will be wet, but you won’t care
We hiked over slickrock (concrete-like weathered sandstone) as well as through sand and water. Because Coyote Creek snakes along, you go in and out of water throughout the hike. It is impractical to take your shoes off each time you cross. This makes boots unsuitable as they will become heavy and water logged. It’s best to wear trail runner shoes like Brooks Cascadia or a similar shoe. Look for a breathable mesh upper that will keep sand out and avoid abrasion of your feet. When your feet are happy, it is actually refreshing to wade in the ankle to calf deep water.
It’s a remarkable hike. Don’t be scared off by its popularity
Compared to the National Parks, Coyote Gulch seems practically deserted. It is described as the most popular hike in the Escalante area, and though it was busier than several other back-county hikes that our group took during our week in Utah, we weren’t disturbed by other people. We hiked during the week and, even in the busy season, experienced relative seclusion. Week-ends can be crowded.
After my first experience in Coyote Gulch, I’m even more enthused to further explore the myriad features of this beautiful hike. I’m wiser from my initial experience, so the next trip will be potentially even grander, and that is saying something.
Photos courtesy of Lisa Forester, except as noted
For more information visit https://www.nps.gov/glca/planyourvisit/coyote-gulch.htm