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Hole in the Rock Road: Discover Canyons and Rock Gardens in the Grand Staircase-Escalante

February 1, 2021 /
hole in the rock road utah

Warning: Due to COVID 19 some information in this article (e.g. operating hours) may not be up-to-date.

In the state of Utah, there are scenic roads that you must travel at least once in your lifetime, and the infamous Hole in the Rock Road is no exception. I’ve already talked about this adventurous dirt road that leads into the most remote area of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in the article on the much better known and busier SR-12, because it is from this road that you can access Hole in the Rock Road.

In this article, I want to give some more information about the feasibility of this road, the challenges and characteristics of the route and the natural attractions that I recommend you visit.

A Brief History: The San Juan Expedition

san juan expedition

This road provides great historical evidence of a glorious Mormon expedition to explore and colonize the wild southeastern territories of Utah along the San Juan River, east of Colorado (Lake Powell had not been created yet). The trip was carefully studied and prepared for a couple of years and a group of settlers began the journey in late 1879 from Escalante. The group, called the San Juan Expedition, was made up of 236 people. Men, women and children set out on their caravans, building the road that we can travel today with our comfortable off-road vehicles.

One of the most challenging moments of the venture happened immediately before crossing the Colorado River. At the point that now marks the end of the road, there was a chasm, the so-called Hole in the Rock. Under the cliff, there was a steep and uneven crack, which was the only way down from the plateau to the Colorado River. The excavation work to open a passage took 6 weeks, but astoundingly, the entire expedition managed to overcome the obstacle, traveling along the gully with caravans and horses.

The expedition continued north of the San Juan River and ended in October 1880 at Bluff,  and this section proved to be even more complicated due to the presence of canyons, throats and gorges along the way. In the same town, at the Bluff Fort Historic Site (550 East Black Locust Ave), you will find more information and evidence of the incredible feat.

Location and Directions

hole in the rock road grand staircase escalante

As mentioned earlier, the Hole in the Rock Road (BLM-200) is located in southern Utah, in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and a shorter section runs through the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The road begins 5 miles southeast from the center of Escalante, just after the airport on the right and it is well-marked. To get there, you must make a turn off of Scenic Byway 12 at this point.

In its entirety, the road is 56 miles long one way. Halfway between Wahweap and Bullfrog, the two main lake ports of Lake Powell, you will find the Hole in the Rock Trailhead, which overlooks a remote section of Lake Powell.

The Visitor Center

Before you venture out on the road, stop by the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center to get information about the road and the various slot canyons you’re interested in exploring – the risk of a flash flood is just around the corner! The Visitor Center’s address is 755 West Main Street, Escalante. Here are the schedules:

  • Mid-April to October: Every day from 7:30 am to 5:30 pm
  • October to Thanksgiving: Every day from 8:00 am to 4:30 pm
  • Mid-November to mid-April: Monday to Friday from 8:00 am to 4:30 pm
  • Closed: Thanksgiving, December 24, 25 and January 1
Hole in the rock... which one?
If you’re looking for the unique petting zoo in a rock in Moab, you’ve got the wrong article! This is the link where to find information about Hole N” the Rock in Moab.

Best Things to See and Hikes

devils garden grand staircase escalante national monument
Devil’s Garden, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument

Along Hole in the Rock Road, there are endless possibilities of exploration and hikes, many of which are not within the reach of the average traveler, both for their difficulty and because the trails are not marked. Another possible obstacle is the accessibility of the dirt road. Although it is in good condition, it is not safe to drive sedans or other vehicles smaller than SUVs on this road. The final part of the route (the last 8 miles from Soda Spring to Hole in the Rock) requires a 4×4. If it has rained, it is possible that the road is impassable even with 4x4s, so inform yourself first!

The main point of interest is the so-called Escalante Canyons Unit Area, where there are several slot canyons and rock formations shaped by the Escalante River, which then flow into Lake Powell-Colorado River.

Devils Garden, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

hole in the rock road escalant eutah
Metate Arch

This small natural area is perhaps one of the most visited places along Hole in the Rock Road, and one of the best known in the entire Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Devil’s Garden (not to be confused with the section of Arches National Park) is very easy to reach, since it is right next to the main road. From the junction with SR-12, you need to drive just under 12.5 miles to this point and turn right. At the end of the road, after a few feet, there is a clearing where you can leave your car.

Devil’s Garden is very close to the parking lot. There is no path to follow, like in the Valley of the Goblins. Rather, the beauty lies in wandering full of awe among the hoodoos and rocks of incredible shapes painted in red and creamy white. Don’t miss the Metate Arch, a fantastic arch with sinuous and curvilinear shapes that will remind you of a drawing by Dali.

Coyote Gulch Escalante: Discovering 4 Slot Canyon

Spooky Slot Canyon, Peekaboo Slot Canyon and Dry Fork Narrows Slot Canyon are the three most famous slot canyons in Escalante Canyons Unit. It is very likely that most people who are also traveling on Hole in the Rock Road are headed to Escalante Canyons Unit with their friends or family. Dry Fork of Coyote Gulch (the dried-up river bed from which the three canyons branch off) is popular among sporty and adventurous families, but still requires careful preparation because the hikes – especially in the first two canyons mentioned – are considered to be moderate to difficult.

The three canyons are very close to each other and can be visited in about 2 or 3 hours. To learn more about visiting these canyons, read the in-depth article written by our friend Filippo about Utah’s slot canyons, in which he gave detailed information on how to get there, where to park and what to expect from the hikes.

Brimstone Gulch: only the brave
For those who are experienced hikers and have a lot of time on their hands, there is a fourth canyon to explore in the Dry Fork area. If the three canyons that Filippo and I mention are not challenging enough for you, you can also reach Brimstone Gulch, the furthest from Dry Fork Trailhead and perhaps the most mysterious and adventurous of the four canyons. To enter this very narrow canyon, once you arrive at the Dry Fork junction, you have to continue walking east along the riverbed, leave the entrance of the Spooky Slot Canyon behind you and keep walking in Spooky Gulch until it merges with Brimstone Gulch.

Escalante Hole in the rock road

From here you will walk a little over half a mile in the sand, which can be tiring, towards the entrance of the slot canyon (you’ll realize you’re going in the right direction when you see a dune on the way) which, as soon as you enter it, you can see that it is indeed the narrowest and darkest of the 4 canyons. If you realize that it’s too complicated for you, go back, because people have gotten trapped in here before!

Dance Hall Rock

hole in the rock road trip

The pioneers of the San Juan Expedition worked hard every day to build this road and there was very little time to relax. A few weeks into their journey, some of the expedition’s men discovered Dance Hall Rock, a rock amphitheater that had excellent acoustics and, because of its shape, also offered enough space to dance. Thus, between November 1879 and January 1890, after the day’s work, the pioneers would often return to Dance Hall Rock with their wives and children to spend the evenings singing and dancing.

If you want to visit Dance Hall Rock, you will have to drive 37 miles from the beginning of the road to this parking lot, which is located just below the large sandstone cave.

Attention!
While walking on the trails in this area you must watch out for rattlesnakes. Be careful where you put your feet and hands. Avoid potholes and dense bushes.

How to get to Reflection Canyon?

how to get to Reflection Canyon

Have you ever seen this photo? Reflection Canyon is one of the most beautiful and famous scenic spots of Lake Powell and one of the hardest to reach.

Everyone would like to visit this magical place, which perfectly captures the beauty of the lake. Well, the only and very complicated way to get there by land is a long trail that starts at Hole in the Rock Road, after Soda Spring, which is only accessible by 4×4.

The point where the unmarked trail starts is here (the parking lot is a bit further on the right). From here, the trail is 15.5 miles round trip and crosses a rough terrain full of obstacles and completely exposed to the sun (canyons, rocks to climb, technically difficult passages). This complicated and adventurous hike is recommended only to very experienced and equipped hikers and requires an overnight stay at the campground (a permit is required). Finally, it is mandatory to bring a GPS in order to follow the trail and also plenty of water and food.

Hole in the Rock

hole in the rock utah
The view from the edge

As I was saying, the last 8 miles of the road are inaccessible without a 4×4. If you go all the way, you can see Hole in the Rock, the chasm that was a major obstacle for the pioneers. As you stand among the red rocks you will be astounded when you realize what the Mormons who crossed the gorge with the caravans were faced with and you will admire the blue color of Lake Powell below you. If you want you can go down to the lake (1640 ft), but you must keep in mind that the trail is steep and unmarked and in the summer, you will be exposed to heat.

Hole in the Rock Road Map

Duration of the Visit

It depends on what you want to do!

  • If you are satisfied with walking the short distance to Devil’s Garden, you can get away with 90 minutes including the trip from Escalante and the visit to the area.
  • If you want to explore the canyons of Dry Fork, you will spend at least 4-5 hours, including the time it takes to travel from Escalante and then the time you will be hiking in the various canyons.
  • If you want to travel all the way in your 4×4 and visit all or almost all the places mentioned, you will have to prepare very well your itinerary which will most likely take a whole day.

Where to Stay

peekaboo canyon
Close-up of Peekaboo Slot Canyon

Usually, people drive on part of Hole in the Rock Road while traveling on SR-12 between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef or Moab. In this case, it is best to stay overnight near the national parks or directly in Moab. Here are some articles with recommendations:

If, on the other hand, you want to explore all the beautiful places along Hole in the Rock Road and the Escalante area, you can find accommodations in the town of the same name.

Accommodations in Escalante

Bernardo Pacini
Bernardo Pacini

I am an editor and copywriter and have published some poetry. Besides traveling, my interests include literature, experimental music and good food

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