Backpacking Loop in Death Hollow and Escalante River canyons

[This is the recap of a 3-day backpacking trip out of Escalante in Utah in October 2020. For regular blog readers, this is the last 4 days’ posts combined into one.]

Day 1 – the drive adventure

It was about a 9.5 hour drive from Winter Park, Colorado to Escalante, Utah where we would begin our 3-day backpacking trip. We were not concerned about making it all the way because we thought the first day hiking would be easy, so we remained flexible on timing. We also didn’t plan on where to stay that night, deciding to pick a location based on the progress we made.

It is odd going on a road trip during Covid. On one hand, you are in your car isolated from people. On the other hand, every stop means new opportunities for infection.

One rest area had a system set up so that everyone went in one door, they had all door open so that the only door you had to touch was to your stall, and then we all exited the other door. It felt good to see such innovation.

We still didn’t stop anywhere we didn’t have to, and made decent time.

As we approached Utah, towns were few and far between. We planned to camp that first night, and mid-day I began looking into camping spots around where I thought we would be.

Capital Reef National Park Campground in Torrey, Utah? That sounds fantastic – and was right on our way! The website said it was booked. But that couldn’t be true, right? It had 72 spots and was open year-round. This was October, in Utah, during Covid. Surely it was going to be empty, right? I thought maybe they were closed due to the pandemic, but called with no luck. I discovered that I could book about 4 weeks out, so maybe it was booked?

I looked into other campgrounds in the area. These were all closed for the season. Hmmm. What to do? We started to think we might need to find a hotel somewhere. But where? The towns we would pass between our current location and our destination all looked very small. But Torrey had a number, so we decided to look around.

On our way, as we got into Capital Reef National Park, we passed the campground. It was packed! Then we passed a trailhead – there were cars lined up and down the road. People everywhere. Oh no…what was going on? We are not fans of crowded areas, especially not with a pandemic.

As we arrived into town, we stopped at the first hotel – one I had found online and thought looked okay. I got out of the car and asked about a room. Booked.

What? Again we were dumbfounded. It was late enough that we didn’t want to leave town without knowing we could find a place to stay down the road. So we started checking at other local hotels.

We found one with two rooms. We took one! Paying a little more for a larger bed and a view of the red rocks.

The clerk didn’t have a mask on. At first I didn’t think anything of it…whole faces used to be normal after all. Then I started to wonder. Tired and desperate, I just kept my distance, handed over my credit card and signed where told.

Later, when we walked to a nearby restaurant and market, signs alerted us to the fact that we were in a ‘mask-optional’ location. Servers weren’t wearing masks, and neither was the market clerk. I suppose these are things one should consider looking into before traveling during a pandemic.

We drove into town and found a burger food truck. I had wanted a burger anyway, and despite a very long wait, our meal was fantastic! And we could stay outside and keep distance. Most tourists were masked, while locals less so.

As for all these people, the hotel clerk told me that September and October are their busiest times of year and they are regularly sold out during these months. This year, the international travelers all cancelled, but then Americans started booking in July and August as they planned closer-to-home vacations – just as we had done.

We had just about a 90 minute drive, and then it was time for hiking! Hopefully away from people, though we were worried given the crowds on the National Park trails. Hopefully they would not be travelling on the less-known, longer trails. It was also a Sunday and I thought…just maybe the crowds would calm down on Monday.

Day 2- hot and dry

We woke early, packed our backpacks, failed to find breakfast, and set out on the last 90 minutes of driving before we started to hike. We planned to hike about 6 miles, so we figured we could start at noon and still be okay.

As we approached Escalante, the road traverses a knife edge section with steep drops on either side. It is amazing! We stopped at a pull out so we could take pictures and gaze into the canyons below – knowing that we would be hiking somewhere in the vicinity. As we started driving again, despite my thrill of the road, I also suggested that my husband could go just a little bit slower than he might feel necessary.

We passed our trailhead as we drove into town. I wanted a cup of coffee and breakfast, my husband wanted to talk to someone about the trail in case there was any local knowledge we should have before setting out. We stopped in an outdoor gear store and coffee shop, however it was basically closed due to the pandemic. They did not have coffee, though one local woman told us a bit about the trail, though it was not recent knowledge and she had never done it herself. Mostly she just intimidated us – telling us that the water would be really cold and would be to our waist at times, the poison ivy was so bad that sometimes we would avoid the trail and walk in the water to avoid it, and a reminder that when we were on the steep descent into death hollow canyon, to remember that mules can travel it and not to worry. Sometimes, she said, people get vertigo on that section. She didn’t tell us news we would learn hours later that would have been useful to hear.

I found coffee across the street, and then we drove to our trailhead, put on our packs, and set off hiking at about 10:40am.

I didn’t know a whole lot about what was in store for us day 1. I didn’t expect any shade at all, and I was pleasantly surprised to find trees throughout most of the hike. We were definitely not hiking in the shade, but we could take a break and find shade throughout the day.

Early in the hike, we passed a family and some dogs. They said that they woke up early to get to the creek because there wasn’t water for 9 miles on the trail. We didn’t ask more questions, but I hoped that they were just wrong about the mileage. Our goal, about 6 miles in, was to get to a creek with water to spend the night. We were not carrying water for more than a day.

I also didn’t realize how much we were set to climb. We started out from an Escalante River Trailhead which went downhill, then flat. Then we took a left turn on the Boulder Mail Trail; we would come back along the Escalante River in a few days. Then we started climbing. And climbing. It got hotter, and hotter, and up we went – mostly following cairns as we traversed on slick rock. We hit the top, of the first climb, at about 1pm and stopped for lunch. We were already struggling with the heat and the climbing.

Shortly after starting again, we passed another group of hikers who confirmed that the creek we planned to camp at was dry. We would have to make it all the way to Death Hollow canyon for water – about 3 miles more than we planned, including an uphill and the steep downhill into the canyon.

We continued, excited to be going downhill and hoping we could make up some time. The first miles were extremely slow going…

I don’t think we picked up speed. The miles were simply not easy miles. I tend to forget that not all hiking is created equal.

We arrived at our intended camping spot around 4:30pm. It had been a good, challenging hike, but not too challenging. Had that been it for the day, it would have been a perfect spot to stop and rest for the night – and to load up on water and to cool off and clean up in the water.

Instead, we set off. The climb out of this spot was the hardest of the trip – using hands, with a pack on, to make it up steep slick rock. I do not have great balance and it wasn’t fun, but we both made it. We continued uphill for quite awhile. Probably not a long distance, but we were moving even slower than we were earlier. We wanted a longer rest break, and yet I was worried about our timing because I was worried about the downhill to the canyon. It didn’t sound like something we wanted to be doing at dusk, and certainly not in the dark.

One step in front of the other. We did get breeze at times throughout the day, a relief. It also started to cool slightly later in the day. The steep downhill ended up being no big deal at all – easier than downhill’s we faced earlier in the day. It was fun because it kept looking like we were going off a cliff, but then the trail – or path in between cairns – would lead us a gentle way.

Even better, when we got down into the canyon, there was no one else camping right there. We knew there was a camping spot right at the base of the trail in the canyon, but had no idea how much further we would have to travel if someone was there.

We had time to set up our tent and take a river bath as dusk settled in, and had dinner ready just as it started to get dark.

We went to sleep quickly, but not before admiring the stars from our tent. I hadn’t seen good starts like that in ages, and lined between canyons was magnificent. It was also satisfying to know that we were done with the uphill.

While the first day was a challenge for us, the country was amazing! Not always easy to enjoy because of the heat, but absolutely magnificent. Down in the canyon was easier to enjoy. We thought we might not see the sun for days because of the steep canyon walls!

Day 3 – Death Hollow Canyon

We awoke our first night in the canyon to stars. It didn’t get light in the desert until about 7am, later than a reasonable waking time given our early night. Once light, we slowly packed up and had coffee and breakfast, hitting the trail about 9:15am. We anticipated traveling about 6 miles on day two, getting at least to our turn to follow the Escalante River back to our car.

Death hollow canyon is quite narrow, with phenomenal, steep, cliffs on both sides most of the time. There was a trail, though oftentimes there were multiple trails or side trails and it was sort of a choose-your-own adventure hike. Because of the narrowness, the ‘trail’ crossed the river regularly, and sometimes we would just stay in the river because it was easier going. Sometimes the only path was through the river.

It did get to our waste at times, though the water really wasn’t cold. It was a lovely change after the heat the day before!! It was also lovely to have no worry about getting fresh water if we ran out, which of course also means we could carry less.

We both had decided to hike in Keen sandals – the kind that have cover to protect toes but lots of holes to let water and sand in and out. We really had no idea if these would work well or not. We had seen (from blogs and you tube videos before our trip) that many people wore light trail running shoes. Our sandals ended up working out beautifully and I would choose them again.

For many hours of hiking, we had yet to identify poison ivy. Given the warnings we had about poison ivy (not just from the shop in Escalante, but through our research prior to the trip as well), we started to question whether we were able to identify it. I attempted to avoid any plant I thought might be it! However, later in the day we did see tons of it, clearly identifiable. We were able to avoid it for the most part, though I walked away with a couple of minor spots.

The hiking was delightful and relatively easy, though certainly not quick. Walking in water or loose sand, which most of our hiking was, does not make for rapid miles. This worked out fine, we didn’t have that far to go and could enjoy ourselves.

We stopped for lunch at a rock and swimming hole we had seen in pictures and videos. It is one of the only really deep swimming holes, and has about a 3 foot water fall that looked fun to play in. Looked being a key word – I went for a very quick swim but the water, while not cold up to the thigh, was breathtakingly cold to swim in! I didn’t last but a quick second, and then attempted my way out, which took a bit of effort on the slick rock.

Shortly after our stop, we hit the one challenging part of Death Hollow canyon. There is a narrow bit of rock with an overhang, making for a very awkward, skirt around. Or there is a deep swimming hold. I was pretty sure that if I attempted the narrow, dry, way, I would end up falling into the water anyway, so I chose to enter the water on purpose and swam about 5 feet, with my pack on and holding both sets of our hiking poles, to the other side. It worked just fine. We had been anticipating this, so we both packed our stuff in plastic bags so that nothing that couldn’t or shouldn’t get wet would. My husband managed the dry route, though he scuffed his pack and now can’t say that he went for a swim with his pack on.

We reached our turn, where Death Hollow runs into and turns into the Escalante River, at about 3:30pm. We had considered hiking till later in the day, but the river we would be traveling up didn’t have a bunch of water in it, and we found ourselves at a lovely camping spot with a large beach on the river nearby. We decided to set up camp, and we enjoyed an afternoon reading books on that beach and bathing in the river. I’m not very good at taking hours to just relax, and it was really delightful and I’m thrilled we didn’t continue on.

Eventually, we again settled into sleep below the starts and canyon walls, settling into another nice sleep.

Day 4 – Escalante River Canyon

Our final morning of our trip was a cold one, but we thawed with coffee and layers and hit the trail about 9am. We had both over-packed warm clothing in anticipation of cold nights. However, while nights did cool, it stayed warm long enough in the evening and then warmed up quickly in the morning – and we could have gotten away with fewer layers.

The terrain changed as we turned right to follow the Escalante River upstream, which would take us back to the car over 6 or 7 miles (I think our mileage is a bit screwy. I have read that the entire 3-day hike is about 22 miles, but I’m not entirely sure how this is broken up and our map’s scale didn’t make it easy to calculate with all the turns on each leg).

While still a canyon with high cliffs on either side, the Escalante River canyon was more open – wider between the walls. It was incredibly lovely, but very different than Death Hollow canyon. It felt dryer in terms of the plant-life, maybe more desolate. There was far less water in the river itself, and most of the time I found it far easier to walk in the water than to follow the trail in deep sand and sharp branches hitting my legs. Walking in the water was incredibly firm ground, which allowed for quick miles the first time our entire trip!

We stopped to see the petroglyphs, and stopped for pictures, but otherwise powered through to nearly the end. We stopped for a final lunch on our trip, and then hiked the last section to our car.

Because it was still early afternoon, we decided to drive a different route back to Colorado, taking us near Bryce Canyon National Park, where we decided to spend the night camping. This gave us a few hours in the park to see the sites. There is a road through the park with lots of pull outs, which made for the perfect afternoon. We did short walks, never sitting for too long, but also not hiking for any long distance.

We made good time driving back to Colorado the next day, but that drive through Utah was amazing! I had been in the area before, but not for a long time, and I didn’t realize how much country has amazing features!! Yes there are the parks, but the unique beauty stretches far beyond the protected areas!

It was a lovely adventure! While it felt a bit naughty to vacation during the Coronavirus pandemic, it was also a relatively safe and great get-away, and something we would have been less likely to do if we could have traveled internationally!

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