Looking for a hidden gem to backpack around Utah? Coyote Gulch in the Grand Staircase-Escalante desert is the perfect destination, with wide extending arches and massive canyon walls on all sides, this quiet cove is a place filled with more beauty around each corner.
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The Coyote Gulch canyon is in southern Utah, near the Escalante National Monument. The canyon follows the Escalante River all the way into Lake Powell, and it is specifically located in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Center. Given its drastic beauty, it is a shock more people don’t come here. Escalante is the closest town to the trailhead, being about an hour away. If you’re looking for pristine nature and to get away from the crowds of the Zion Traverse, Coyote Gulch is the perfect place.
Planning Your Trip
Ahhh yes, the logistical side of backpacking. Some people love it, some people hate it, but either way, we must respect the rules of the lands we are entering.
If you are planning on camping in the canyon, or anywhere else in the Grand Staircase, you must acquire a permit. These are free and easy to obtain, located at each of the trailheads in the Recreation Area. Dogs are not allowed in the canyon, however we didn’t realize this until we got to the trailhead, but we didn’t encounter any problems bringing Kilby along.
Hiking the Trail
Backpacking Coyote Gulch felt like a “choose your own adventure” path. There are multiple trailheads to choose from, and you can make the trail as short or long as you please. Hurricane Wash trailhead is 33 miles down Hole-in-the-Rock Road, and it is the easiest approach into the canyon. My friends and I took this trailhead, but be warned, there is no water for the first five miles of this hike. The most direct trailhead into the canyon is Water Tank, but is by far the most difficult and dangerous. It requires a class five downclimb on slab, and many recommend bringing a rope to get into the canyon this way.
Crack-in-the-Wall is another technical entrance into the canyon, where you will squirm through an 18-inch crack, and you will also need a rope to carry in and out your gear. Finally, another easier option would be the Red Well Trailhead, similar to the Hurricane Wash trailhead. I highly recommend Hurricane Wash because it is the flattest of all four trailheads, easiest to find off of Hole-in-the-Rock Road, and you don’t need to carry any additional ropes or climbing gear.
As I previously said, this is a choose your own adventure trail. I recommend backpacking at LEAST until the Jacob Hamlin Arch, but there is so much magic that is yet to come after this first glorious arch. This is an out-and-back trail, and I clocked in my mileage to just over thirty miles in three days. The trail simply gets more beautiful as you keep hiking, and I could’ve seen myself staying there for a week if I had the time to do so.
Mileage also depends on which trailhead you choose, with Hurricane Wash adding the most miles to the front and backsides of your journey. Many people make this a three to four day long trip, typically around thirty miles, however I recommend exploring for longer if you have the time, legs, and energy. More miles means more food to carry, as well.
One of the reasons I chose to backpack Coyote Gulch was because of the easy access to water almost the entire trail, which is a gift in the Utah backcountry. Coyote Gulch is very convenient because it follows the Escalante River the entire way, you just have to make sure you bring a water filter and enough to get you to and from the trailheads. Additionally, following a river through a backpacking trail means lots of river crossings, so beware of your shoe choices. You
must be weary of the possible flash floods in the canyon, but they are most likely from July to September. If thunderstorms are likely during your planned trip, it is unsafe to be in the canyon.
Enough of the logistics, let’s talk about the backpacking itself. Here is a detailed day-to-day rundown of my experience on the glorious trail. Nearly everything went wrong for us, but I can still say it was the best trip I’ve ever been on.
One of my favorite things about camping is the early mornings that come so naturally, which was nice because we knew we had to put in a decent amount of miles before we reached the canyon itself. The rainbow sky guiding us for the first hour of the trail set the tone for the beautiful journey ahead of us. As we continued down the trail, the canyon walls began to grow on all the sides around. Around mile seven or so, we encountered the massive and picturesque Jacob Hamlin Arch, where we saw a few other parties.
One of the highlights from this trip was scrambling to the top of the arch and coming back down the other side, rather than taking the original trail around the arch. It was evident that many people camped in this area, and if you’re looking for a one night trip, this would be a perfect place to stop. My friends and I didn’t want to see that many people, so we tried to crank out some mean miles to put a distance between us and a large family not far behind.
A few miles later, we found a small group of people taking a rest at a junction in the trail. They told us that if we went left, there was a steep pitch up to a “black lagoon,” or we could stay right and follow the original trail down the river. If we hadn’t seen this group, we would’ve had no idea about this black lagoon. It truly felt like something from a video game, where you are forming your own path.
The lagoon was magical, and freezing cold. Obviously, though, we couldn’t NOT jump in the water after hiking over ten miles in the Utah desert. We dropped our packs and free soloed up some slab to overlook the lagoon. I stopped to meditate here for a while as my friends scrambled around up top. Coming down the slab was quite a challenge, though. Slab is an interesting type of climbing because there are essentially no holds, it is all friction climbing. I was trying to crab crawl down but my hand slipped and I slid on my butt the whole way down. This made the rest of the trail even more difficult, as my entire butt was an open wound. It was definitely worth it, though.
We hiked about 16 miles total on the first day, and found a gorgeous flat open grassy site away from people to camp at. The day ended with tossing around the frisbee and playing some cribbage, a perfect unwind to the perfect day.
Hands down the best day of my life. We had a slow morning, making coffee with my aeropress, enjoying peanut butter tortillas, and staying in our sleeping bags until the sun hit our skin. We decided not to backpack this day, and instead go exploring further into the canyon without our packs. We knew we wanted to see more of the gulch, but that would mean intense miles on day three back to the car.
The three of us enjoyed the simplicity of the desert, no phone service, and the feeling of the Earth underneath our naked feet. It was a day of running around barefoot, finding hidden waterfalls, and being with good company. It was a day of laughter, love, and lust. It was a day where I didn’t go on my phone once, not even to take a picture. The memories of this day will stay with me forever, and the realizations I had in this canyon shaped the way I viewed the world going forward.
It was crazy how day two felt like heaven, and day three felt like Hell. We knew we had a decent amount of miles to go to get back to the car, so we hiked with a purpose we didn’t have on the
previous days. We were dreaming of the pizza to come when we got to town, and of the dingy motel we were going to sleep in that night.
We kept taking the wrong fork in the trail and got lost a series of times, adding unnecessary miles upon miles to the trek. I had forgotten my hiking boots on the trip so I was using my Target rain boots and Chacos, but my rainboots kept creating trench foot through the river crossings. I switched to my Chacos, but the straps were rubbing my feet in terrible ways, and gave me four gnarly infected blisters and swollen feet by the end of the trip.
We could tell the river was drying up so we filtered a little bit and were excited to get back to the car. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize we had about seven miles from the end of the river to the trailhead, which meant seven miles of no water or shade in the hot afternoon Utah desert. Kilby, Sawyer’s dog, was really struggling here. We didn’t have any water to give her and we were still so far from the car, we were scared she was going to get a heat stroke.
Sawyer went off by himself to get his gallon of water from the car as Leah and I stayed with Kilby, but after a while we saw him come back empty handed. He went down the wrong fork in the trail and ended up at the top of a cliff, overlooking a possible fatality. Luckily, he made it to us safely, so Leah and I went on. She ended up passing out on the side of the trail, but I had enough energy to get to the trail. I walked as fast as I could to get the gallons of water, but it felt like I was walking forever. I kept thinking I was off trail because there were many other trails in sight, clearly social trails created by animals in the area. Finally, I found the cars and ventured back to find the homies. I encountered Sawyer on my hike back, and apparently he had gotten lost again. We got Leah and Kilby their water and eventually made it back to the car, with my day three coming in at over 25 miles.
Although this was one of the most stressful days of my life, and the trip was filled with a myriad of challenges, it is hands down my favorite backpacking trip of all time. I can’t recommend Coyote Gulch enough, but remember, pack it in and pack it out. And lastly, a tip to not get lost, simply pay attention to the trail you follow on the way in and the way out.