Non-technical Canyon Backpacking in Utah – a how to guide for getting started

Desert canyons are some of the most stunning places on earth. And contrary to the hype of high adventure and disaster in technical slot canyons, with flash floods & amputating arms—many beautiful canyons are low risk and perfect for backpacking and hiking. No rock climbing or rope needed. As such, you should seriously consider non-technical canyon backpacking in Utah.

Canyon travel or canyoneering is mountain climbing in reverse. Rather than striving for the highest point to look down, you are in the bottom of a canyon with the world above you. It is a more intimate and enfolding way of viewing your surroundings.

Utah Canyons offer some of the best hiking & backpacking in the world

These canyons are stunningly beautiful and except for a few, lightly traveled. I can think of few places that offer as much solitude. Alison and I find the sparse beauty and solitude of desert canyons a deeply spiritual place. One that draws us back year after year for their peace and serenity.

Gems like Paria Canyon, Buckskin Gulch, the Zion Narrows, Coyote Gulch or Grand Gulch are just few of the big name canyons that are easily accessible to anyone with basic hiking skills. But the list of equally superb but lesser known canyons that await you in the Southwest US goes on and on. The Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument may alone have a lifetime’s worth of superb canyons and side-canyons to explore. Many may have only a few visitors every 10 years.

Non-technical Canyon Backpacking in Utah

High above the Escalante River: Dawn reflection in a slickrock pool in a remote side canyon. This canyon sees fewer than 10 people per year.


Tips for Non-technical Canyon Backpacking in Utah

The good news is that many of your backpacking skills will work for canyoneering. But there are some things that will be new and different. Here are a few to consider:

  1. Canyon travel can be technical and non-technicalThis article is only about “Non-technical Canyon Backpacking in Utah.” This non-technical canyon travel, or what I call “canyon backpacking” is low risk and similar in difficulty to regular backpacking. You don’t need a climbing rope. In some canyons you might need to do occasional calf-deep wading, a fun but safe scramble, or some bushwhacking. But nothing to get excited about. Technical canyoneering with ropes and rock climbing will not be discussed in this article.But at the end of this post I have included a section on tips for the more adventurous canyon traveler.

    What this guide is NOT ABOUT. Many, many specatcular canyons in Uhah are walk in and walk out. No climbing or ropes needed!

    What this guide is NOT ABOUT. There’s no need to do this to see many spectacular canyons!

  2. When to go – Most of the year it is too cold or too hot to backpack in the canyons. Most canyons in Utah have a short season, the middle of spring (mid-March to mid-May) and middle of fall (October-November).
  3. Gear for Non-technical Canyon Backpacking in Utah – Having the right gear makes canyon travel easier and more fun. Here’s a link to the Gear List that we use. It’s excellent for non-technical Canyon Backpacking or hiking in Utah.

    A section dedicated to clothing is below.

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    Paria Canyon

  4. Don’t stress too much about drinking water – Water, or lack of it, is not the big a deal most “knowledgeable professionals” make it out to be. See: “The Best Hydration – Drink When Thirsty.” Many of the better known canyons have well documented water sources so you’ll know how far it will be to your next good water. As such, you won’t be humping a ton of water or in dire risk of dehydration. My wife and I over the last 15 years have routinely carried far, far less than the recommended gallon of water. We have yet to go dry or thirsty. Note: Most canyon river/stream water, if it’s running at all, is too silty and hard with minerals to make good drinking. You’ll get most of your water from springs and from the few clear-drinkable sources of canyon river/streams. For treatment, I prefer the Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter System.

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    Neon Canyon, Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument

  5. There is a low risk of flash floods in most “backpacking” canyons – most of the better known “backpacking” canyons are not slot canyons. As such, they are less prone (but not immune) to sudden and devastating flash floods. A slight risk of a flash flood (or far more likely, just high water) still exists in almost any canyon. So you still need to be aware of the weather. During the rare big storm, water levels may rise considerably but not so fast or so high that you won’t have time to find suitable high ground. They will also recede quickly. (Buckskin Gulch is the exception big name canyon with a significant flash flood risk, but the Ranger’s won’t give you a permit for Buckskin if there is the slightest chance of a flash flood. And many hundreds of people hike it safely every year.)
  6. Start small and build – Take some canyon day-trips and expand your skills—locating canyon entrances and exits, finding and managing drinking water, walking through sand, river wading, bushwhacking—generally learning how to make intelligent and efficient progress in a desert environment. Even two or three canyon day-trips will give you great insight to prepare for and execute your first multi-day canyoneering trip. Oh, and day-tripping in canyons is great fun!
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    Grand Gulch, an open air cultural museum of Anasazi pictographs/petroglyphs and ancient dwellings. Note: If you find any artifacts; pottery fragments, arrowheads, etc. please leave them where you find them. The same goes with structures and dwellings. Do not enter them, walk on walls, etc. General rule is don’t touch, don’t move. Leave it as you found it.

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  7. Guidebooks to get you startedSteve Allen has the best and most respected series of guidebooks on canyoneering in Utah. While some of his trips are technical, there are plenty of non-technical trips. And his general advice about canyoneering is among the best for both the non-technical and technical traveler. I have used the Falcon Guide “Hiking Grand Staircase-Escalante & the Glen Canyon Region” for canyons that Steve Allen doesn’t cover like Buckskin Gulch, Paria Canyon, and Grand Gulch. The guide’s specific information on the canyons is adequate but I would defer to Allen for general information on Utah and canyoneering.

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    Hiking in shorts, short sleeves and hatless is a terrible idea! Complete clothing coverage is better.

  8. Clothing for Non-technical Canyon Backpacking in Utah – The desert can be a hot, scratchy, prickly place with intense sun. Wear long desert/travel pants like these , long-sleeve desert/travel shirts like these or a Rail Riders Adventure (or EccoMesh) Top, and a hat with complete sun coverage including neck and ears (e.g. Outdoor Research Sun Runner Hat). Light smooth fabrics (like thin nylon) slide easily through brush, absorb little sweat/water and dry quickly. Apply strong sunscreen to unprotected areas like hands or wear sun gloves like these OR ones. For more info See a detailed list of clothing we normally wear.
    Footwear – Boots are not needed or even desirable. Take light trail running shoe like Altra Lone Peaks or Altra Superiors. Fine mesh outer fabric is best (our favorite shoes are the Altra Superior Trail Running Shoes which have a very fine mesh that slows sand entry but lets water drain quickly after wading. And beware, the large-weave mesh popular on many trail runners lets too much sand in. Gore-Tex shoes do poorly. They are too hot, do not breathe well and don’t drain water after wading. (But they do have the advantage of being sand-proof!)
  9. Navigation in Canyons is different than other backpacking areas
    Navigating Canyon Bottoms takes a bit of getting used to. (Don’t worry, you’ll get better at it over time.) There are no signs, no blazes and almost no trails. One might think it’s simply a matter of following the canyon bottom like a train on its tracks. But for those new to it, walking in the bottom of a many branched canyon system can seem more like navigating a hedge maze. At the bottom of a canyon you have limited visibility and to the uninitiated the main canyon can be almost indistinguishable from its many side canyons. It’s much easier than you think to walk by and completely miss your exit ramp or exit side canyon. Over time you’ll get more observant, and pay better attention to small details. Travel in many canyon bottoms is a combination of river walking/wading, bushwhacking through willows (easier) and tamarisk (harder), and sandy bench walking. There is no “right” route: you just figure out what works for you.Navigating Benches Above the Canyon should likely wait until you are a more seasoned canyon traveler. It is usually more challenging than traveling the canyon bottom—with more difficult route-finding, hard to find entrances and exits, potentially technical sections and a likelihood of impassible side canyons and slots blocking forward travel.Note: Contrary to common belief GPS can work in canyons! So with some caveats, the section below explains how to best use your GPS in many canyons — just don’t rely on it!!

    Paria Canyon

    Paria Canyon

  10. Emergency contact. Much of Utah is remote like few other place in the lower 48. Hikers are hard to see or locate in the canyons, and there may be few or no other hikers to happen by if you are in trouble. Make sure you have your trip itinerary filed with an emergency contact monitoring your trip. I strongly recommend you consider a device like a Garmin inReach (preferred) or a SPOT Satellite Messenger. And here’s a link to a good template for your “Trip Plan” (a trip-tracking/emergency info document). It’s a great idea to have some version of one, even for a day hike!

Tips for those feeling more adventurous

Non-technical Canyon Backpacking in Utah

Author on a dawn climb out of the Escalante Canyon. Andrew Skurka waits to go next. photo: Don Wilson

  • Proceed with caution! Make sure you can reverse your route. Even small, seemingly insignificant up-climbs or down-climbs of just 8-10 feet might be irreversible, forcing you to move on without a retreat.
  • If you do decide to do more adventurous scrambling, a 40-50’, 6-7 mm rope can be a huge help to raise or lower backpacks. Without a backpack on, members of your party can more easily balance and safely climb short sections that would be otherwise impassible. This can greatly expand where you can go in canyons. [Again, use caution and always err on the side of safety when “climbing” in the canyons.]

    Tarps are perfect for the desert with its low chance of rain. They are a great way to save weight. I only set mine up when there is a chance of rain, otherwise it stays in my pack. See: Recommended Tents, Tarps and other Shelters

  • Flash Flood risk for less well traveled canyons: some moderately narrow “backpacking” canyons off the beaten path, may be more at risk for serious flash floods. These are not usually the big name canyons with lots of travelers. Choprock Canyon in the Escalante Grand Staircase is an example of moderately narrow “backpacking” canyon more at risk for flash floods.
  • GPS use – See: How to use the iPhone as the Best Backpacking GPS. Contrary to the common statement “GPS doesn’t work in canyons,” I’ve had good success using my iPhone as a GPS when canyoneering. Obviously the deeper and narrower the canyon, the harder it is to get a position fix. But with a little smarts one can use it with reasonable success by opportunistically getting fixes in wider canyon sections or other areas with a better sky view. [And, do not rely on your GPS to navigate the canyons. It’s a convenience, not a substitute for navigation by map an compass and/or a crutch for poor navigation skills. This may be truer in canyons (with their iffy GPS reception) than almost anywhere.]
  • Be safe out there!

Parting Photos

Perfect light: Brilliant oranges and reds from sunlight filtering into a slot canyon. For narrow slot canyons the “magic hour” for photography is not early morning or late evening. Usually it’s close to high noon with the sun directly over the canyon. Only then does the light penetrate, causing the sandstone to come alive and glow.

Perfect light: Brilliant oranges and reds from sunlight filtering into a canyon. For narrower canyons the “magic hour” for photography is not early morning or late evening. Usually it’s close to high noon with the sun directly over the canyon. Only then does the light penetrate, causing the sandstone to come alive and glow.

Buckskin Gulch. One of the longest, deepest and most spectacular slot canyons in the world. Many hundreds of hikers and backpacker safely walk through this canyon every year.

Buckskin Gulch. One of the longest, deepest and most spectacular slot canyons in the world. Hundreds of backpackers safely hike through this canyon every year.

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This post contains affilate links. If you make a purchase after clicking on the these links, a portion of the sale helps support this site at no additional cost to you. I do not receive compensation from the companies whose products are listed. For product reviews: unless otherwise noted, products are purchased with my own funds. I am never under an obligation to write a review about any product. Finally, this post expresses my own independent opinion.

A Very Different High Route – Escalante Overland Route

The Escalante Overland Route is arguably the most exciting high route in the lower-48! It is certainly the most beautiful and challenging trip we’ve done. The beauty of its remote desert canyons and mesas are equal to the best the planet has to offer, Grand Canyon included. Breathtaking views of red rock and the southwestern desert appear around every bend of the Escalante River. 

The Escalante Overland Route (OLR) traverses the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, arguably the best, true wilderness in the lower 48. Compared to the millions who visit the Grand Canyon each year, the vast expanse of the Monument below Highway 12 has no trails and few people. Many of the canyons only see a few visitors a year, if any. You are unlikely to see another person on the route. It is the perfect setting for a bona fide adventure filled with jaw dropping beauty.

Just to be clear, this is Steve Allen’s route. He describes an “Overland Route” in a few terse paragraphs at the end of a 1997 guide book. He presents it more of a challenge than a guide. In the ensuing 20 years it’s remained off the radar, with almost no known completions. In this sense, the OLR is closer to a “revived” route than a new one. Don Wilson, Andrew Skurka and I hope that this trip report will inspire more people to experience the wonders of the Escalante.

Lead photo: Author on dawn climb to Scorpion Bench. Andrew Skurka is next up. (Photo Don Wilson)

Alan’s photos: Sony a6000 with various Sony lenses (more on my camera setup here)
Don’s photos: Canon 5d with Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM lens


What is the Escalante Overland Route?

Escalante Overland Route

While millions gawk a the Grand Canyon each year, only a fortunate few will see this dawn view from a remote side canyon on the Escalante Overland Route.

The Escalante Overland Route is a stunning,  “desert canyon high route.” In many ways, it is better or equal to the Grand Canyon and it certainly has fewer people. For about 100 miles, the OLR stays high above the Escalante River Canyon, holding close to the rim. And counterintuitively, following the rim above the canyon is far more challenging than walking down the canyon bottom. The upside is the amazing view when perched on the edge of the rim a thousand feet above the canyon.

The Escalante was the last river of its size to be discovered in the lower 48 states and the area was the last to be mapped in the lower 48. (So recent that the maps have a 1000 meter grid and UTM coordinates!) Today, only a few canyons such as Coyote Gulch and Neon Canyon see regular use. And some of the side canyons are so remote and inaccessible, that people only go there about once every 5 to 10 years.

Escalante Overland Route

What’s our next move? Don checking out maps high above the Escalante. Navigation is critical & at times beyond challenging.

Stats and Route Info

Escalante Overland Route

CLICK ON MAP TO ENLARGE: The 100 mile Escalante Overland Route Follows above the Escalante River all the way from the town of Escalante to where it enters Lake Powell. (The traditional OLR is in blue. The new addition is in Red.)

Location:Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, in Utah
Season:Spring (April to mid-May) and Fall (mid-Sept thru mid-Nov)
Duration 7 to 12 days.
Distance:100 miles (including the new addition)

  • 80 miles Steve Allen’s traditional route (6 to 10 days)
  • +20 additional miles from town of Escalante to Allen’s route start (1.5 to 2 days)
Navigation:About as hard as it gets. It will confuse the heck out of you unless you are an expert navigating canyon country.  And even then…
Physical:Strenuous. No trails. Long walking on sand, uneven/broken terrain of all sorts, bushwhacking, unavoidable poison ivy, and a lot of scrambling/climbing. Expect low mileage days.
Technical:Semi-technical: For experienced canyoneers that are also rock climbers. Somebody needs to be capable of leading a few of the climbing sections without protection.
Gear:Sand-resistant shoes with tons of grip on rock. Lots of capacity to carry water. Climbing rope, harness, hardware and webbing to form anchors. (Depending on the time of year temperatures can vary from below freezing to 90s °F with intense sun.)
A light pack is key to moving quickly and safely: Here’s a list of the 9 lbs of gear I took
Reference:Steve Allen’s Canyoneering 3: Loop Hikes in Utah’s Escalante. The Overland Route description starts on page 306.

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The Escalante Overland Route has risk. Some climbing is un-protectable on the smooth slick-rock. Author, free climbing in wet shoes over a pour-off (an overhanging cliff that blocks a canyon). A light pack is critical here! [photo Don Wilson]

Why is this a Trip Report and not a Comprehensive Guide?

While it’s exciting and beautiful, the Escalante Overland Route (OLR) may also be the most demanding high route in the lower-48.  You have to earn the views and the solitude. This challenging terrain demands 100% of your attention. It also requires your absolute best physical, navigational, and scrambling/climbing abilities. It is not a route to be taken lightly.

The original intent was to publish a Guide and Mapset for the Escalante Overland Route. In 2015, Don Wilson, Andrew Skurka and I did the first half of the OLR. In 2016, Don Wilson and I went back and completed the route (Andrew had a schedule conflict). Don and I also scouted the last difficult sections of the new addition—crossing Sandy Creek and Calf Creek.

But in the end Don, Andrew and I agree with Steve Allen. The route is too challenging and dangerous for us, in clear conscience, to publish a comprehensive guide. In fact, a guide would ruin the intent of the OLR—a challenging and complex route to be relished and puzzled out on your own. So we opted for this Trip Report and Photo Essay.

That being said, we certainly don’t want to deter competent canyoneers from doing all or part of the route. People who are interested should read through the Challenges and Cautions for the Route section to assess whether this is something they want to undertake. If not, consider the easier, Non-technical Canyon Backpacking option below. But by all means get out into the canyons!

An Easy Introduction to the Wonders of Canyoneering

Many beautiful canyons are low risk – One can simply walk in and walk out. So, if you are interested in canyoneering but don’t know how, you might want to read my Non-technical Canyon Backpacking in Utah – a how to guide for getting started. There are a number of spectacular, but not difficult canyon systems waiting for you to explore.


Dawn near scorpion Gulch.

Dawn near scorpion Gulch.

History of the Escalante Overland Route

The original “Overland Route” was proposed in 1997 by Steve Allen in a few terse paragraphs in the very back of his Canyoneering 3: Loop Hikes in Utah’s Escalante. He does not say that he’s done the route in any intentional way, although he certainly could have. And it’s almost 100% certain that Steve has done all portions of the OLR at one time or another on various trips.

But I’ve done a bunch of Google Searching and can find only a few mentions of using short sections of the OLR to connect-up a bit of terrain for another trip. As for the the complete OLR, I’ve found no records or trip reports or mentions, let alone a record or mention of someone successfully completing it. The only person I know who has done the complete OLR is Bill Wolverton and that was a number of years back. Bill recently retired, but he worked for the BLM in Escalante for many years. He is something of a local canyoneering expert and legend. According to Bill, he knows a few people who attempted the OLR, but is not aware of anybody completing it. They could have, but never reported back one way or the other.

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Water is scarce above the Escalante but sunlight and heat are plentiful. Don taking a break in the shade at a welcome opportunity to resupply our diminished water supply.

Brief Description

Allen’s Traditional Overland Route

The traditional 80 mile OLR (Steve Allen’s) starts on Route 12 near Calf Creek Falls and finally leaves the Escalante River Canyon just before Lake Powell. In between, it aggressively navigates across/around 10 major side canyons (and numerous smaller side canyons) as quickly as possible—many times with difficult-to-locate and challenging technical entrances and exits. It’s certainly the most difficult navigation that we’ve done.

New Extension – Start in the Town of Escalante

I’ve added a 20 mile extension to the traditional OLR. The extension starts on the historic Boulder Mail Trail (BMT) on the outskirts of the town of Escalante, Utah. This trail delivered mail by mule to Boulder, Utah until 1935—one of the last mule mail delivery routes in the US. The extension crosses the famous Box Death Hollow, before leaving the BMT to cross the major canyons of Sandy Creek, and Calf Creek. It joins Allen’s traditional OLR on Rt 12 about 2 miles south of the Calf Creek Falls Viewpoint. (Note: there are some more elegant and challenging ways to cross Box Death Hollow vs. the Boulder Mail Trail!)

Challenges and Cautions for the Route

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Andrew Skurka down climbs a 5th class section of the route. (We had lowered packs using our rope.) [photo Don Wilson]

Steve Allen, the originator of the Overland Route, may have ratings that some consider a bit conservative, but they still bear serious consideration for people contemplating the route. Allen describes the challenges of the “Overland Route” (OLR) as follows:

“It is not intended to be done in one push, although that would be an incredible accomplishment. [The Overland Route is] meant for those looking for remote and seldom-explored country… Most sections of the OLR are appropriate only for hardcore canyoneers that are also experienced rock climbers. Difficult climbing on steep walls, demanding route-finding problems, long distances between known water sources, and other assorted perils await the bold explorer…

The leader must be experienced with belay techniques and capable of leading the climbing sections without protection. Often the route descriptions are brief [or terse and vague to the point confusing and/or downright misleading]. You must be well versed in map reading and not be intimidated by long stretches of complex and convoluted terrain. You will not find the OLR marked on maps in this guide. The dedicated and adventurous will be forced to assemble the puzzle on their own… Warning: Do not take the OLR lightly. It is intricate, at times trying, and without a doubt dangerous.

What We Did

All that being said, we managed the route without a belay. We only used our rope once, and that that was to lower packs so we could do a 5th class down climb without them (photo above). Others might have a very different take on risk and what to do. But Allen is exactly right on on two points:

  1. There are sections where somebody is going to need to climb class 4+ or low 5th class slick-rock without protection. This is usually down climbing which is less pleasant.
  2. The navigation is exceptionally hard.

A Few Parting Photos from the Route

Here are a few more photos to give you an impression of the Escalante Overland Route

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What the world looks like from the rim of the canyon. To give you a sense of scale, those tiny green dots in the canyon bottom are full sized cottonwood trees.

A typical slick rock camp. This is an extermely remote canyon. (We just put quilts down on the slcikrock to sleep.)

Dinner at typical camp in an extremely remote canyon. Practicing leave not trace, we just put down quilts down on the slick rock to sleep. Nobody will ever know if we were there.

Even in the desert getting wet is sometimes unavoidable. Don in our final exit canyon from the Escalante River.

Even in the desert getting wet is sometimes unavoidable.

Tarps are perfect for the desert with its low chance of rain. They are a great way to save weight. Don and I only set ours up when there was a chance of rain, otherwise it stayed in the pack. See: Recommended Tents, Tarps and other Shelters

Dawn silhouette above the Escalante

Dawn silhouette above the Escalante.

Thanks

And of course many thanks and gratitude to Don Wilson, Andrew Skurka for being great partners in this adventure. -alan