Beautiful views over the Utah desert

5 Best Utah Backpacking Trips

In the world of backpacking, few places offer the level of scenery and remoteness as the deserts of Utah. Whether you’re hiking on high ridges and plateaus or deep within canyons, these backpacking destinations are sure to provide an experience that you won’t forget.

Trip Difficulty Days Miles
Coyote Gulch Moderate 4 days 26 miles
Boulder Mail Trail Strenuous 4-5 days ~24 miles
Buckskin Gulch to Paria Canyon Strenuous 5 days ~45 miles
West Rim Trail Moderate 1-2 days 15-16 miles
Capitol Reef Backpacking Moderate 6 days 32 miles

 

1. Coyote Gulch

The Hike

Backpacking Coyote Gulch brings you into the heart of Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument. Coyote Gulch is a tributary of the Escalante River, which in turn feeds into the Colorado River. These rivers have carved deep down into layers of Navajo and Entrada sandstone, forming massive buttes and buttresses that offer mind-boggling vistas. If there were one hike in Grand-Staircase Escalante that would provide you with an overall sample and taste of the area, this would be it. From plateau and river-bed to deep canyons and steep sandstone cliffs, Coyote Gulch has it all.

Getting There

To get there, first follow google maps directions to the town of Escalante, Utah. This will be your last chance to get supplies for the trek so make sure to fill up on gas and water here! From Escalante, drive east out of town for five miles to the start of Hole in the Rock Road. Drive approximately 30 miles on Hole in the Rock Road to get to BLM Road 254 and the Red Well Trailhead. This trailhead can also be found on google maps here.

Recommended Day by Day Itinerary

Day 1:

Hiking Distance: 3.5 miles
Elevation: 300ft loss

Beginning at the Red Well trailhead, this hike meanders through a dry wash, gradually pulling you deeper into the upper portion of Coyote Gulch. As you continue down the river bed, the sandstone walls slowly rise on either side of you as you navigate a few pour-offs and small waterfalls. Camp on night one is inside a large grove of cottonwood trees as the canyon really starts to deepen.

Day 2:

Hiking Distance: 6 miles
Elevation: 200ft loss

After waking up and making breakfast, soak in the views through the beautiful cottonwood grove. Then, continue making your way downstream through more cottonwoods and willows. This is the portion of the trip in which the river has a more continuous presence. This is a great day to break out the water shoes! After numerous river crossing and canyon bends, you will eventually come across Jacob Hamblin Arch and after another half-mile, Coyote Natural bridge. There are several good places around Coyote Natural Bridge that make for a good day two camp. Note that Jacob Hamblin Arch is another access point to descend into the canyon. However, many parties use ropes to descend as the rock here is quite steep.

Day 3:

Hiking Distance: 5.5 miles
Elevation: 200ft loss

The goal for today is to hike from Coyote Natural Bridge to the confluence of Coyote Gulch and the Escalante River. After Coyote Natural Bridge, the canyon changes character a bit in that it widens significantly for a while and substantially increases in vegetation. There are several rock ledges and terrace-like formations that can make travel through this section a bit easier, but the ultimate goal is to simply continue downstream. There are several opportunities for camp at the confluence of Coyote Gulch and the Escalante River depending on water levels. Look upstream to catch views of the amazing Steven’s Arch and kick back to watch the light soften and settle on the massive sandstone walls.

Day 4:

Hiking Distance: 4.5 miles
Elevation: 800ft gain

This is the final day of this itinerary and the escape from the canyon floor. From the confluence, hike one mile back upstream into Coyote Gulch to find access to a large, sandy hill that ascends to “crack in the wall” near the canyon rim. After a steep slog up the large sandy slope, follow the rock cairns to the base of “crack in the wall.” Ascend this crack (a small chimney bringing you to the canyon rim) and top out to gorgeous views of the Escalante River corridor.

Note: it can be extremely useful to bring a slender piece of rope for the crack in the wall. Many parties leave their packs on the ground attached to this cord and ascend crack in the wall without their packs. You can then pull the packs up after you using the rope or cord. This is simply because it can be difficult to fit inside the chimney with your pack on.

Permits and Reservations

Permits are required for all overnight trips in Grand-Staircase Escalante and in Glen Canyon Recreation Area. Though, permits are easy to get and can be acquired at the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center in Escalante. Try and plan your trip so that you pass through town when the visitor center is still open! You can find more info on the NPS website here.

When to do this Trip

This trip is best in the spring and the fall. Summer months get excruciatingly hot in Grand-Staircase Escalante. Winters can be nice as well but are much less predictable. In winter, the trail could be very cold, especially in shady sections of the canyon. Though, wintertime would offer a much higher degree of solitude than other time of the year.

Water

There are several seeps and springs found along the hike. You are also following a flowing stream for a majority of the trek. Make sure to filter your water!

Campsites

There are no camping restrictions down in Coyote Gulch, but camp far away from water sources and remember, no fires down in Coyote Gulch! Also, note that you must carry out all human waste from Coyote Gulch. It is a very fragile ecosystem and cannot handle the volume of human waste that it would see otherwise. You can pick up some waste disposal bags at the Escalante Outfitters in town before beginning your trek.

Hike Coyote Gulch with a Guide

Guided Coyote Gulch trips are available, and are a stress-free, exciting way to do this trip. The tour company handles permits, gear, transportation, meals, and provides a professional guide so you can focus 100% on enjoying your adventure. Read more…

2. Boulder Mail Trail

The Hike

The Boulder Mail Trail is a unique and wonderful backpacking trail that follows the old mail route from the town of Boulder to Escalante. For much of this trail, you follow a telegraph line used to communicate between the two towns. In modern times, this route is characterized by its sprawling vistas and deep, beautiful canyons full of color and texture. It’s important to note that this backpacking itinerary is a thru-hike! This means you will either have to arrange a shuttle to drop you off at the trailhead or coordinate with a group member to leave a vehicle in Escalante before you begin the trip. You can then drive back to the trailhead when you are finished to pick up your first vehicle.

Getting There

This trailhead lays between the towns of Escalante and Boulder, but much closer to Boulder. From Escalante, drive 24 miles east out of town to Hell’s Backbone Road. Once on Hell’s Backbone Road, take an immediate left onto a dirt road leading to the old Boulder airstrip. The trailhead is just beyond the old landing strip. Find the google coordinates for the trailhead are here.

Recommended Day by Day Itinerary

Day 1:

Hiking Distance: 5.4 miles
Elevation: 300ft of gain

Beginning from the old airstrip, today’s hike takes you over a vast landscape of slick rock domes and valleys. This stretch of land paints vivid textures and formations as far as the eye can see. You will cross a stream mid-day that can be great for refilling water to lighten your pack weight for the first stretch of the hike. The ultimate destination for the day is a large rock amphitheater at the top of Death Hollow. This is a great spot to soak in the views of tomorrow’s hike and to reflect on the first day in the wilderness under the wild night stars.

Day 2:

Hiking Distance: 6 miles
Elevation: 1400ft gain/loss

Day two of this trek brings you down and through Death Hollow. Death Hollow is a large, vast canyon that holds much water at the bottom so you can always expect this to be a reliable water source. Hiking through this canyon is definitely one of the highlights of the trip so take your time and soak in the scenery while you hike. Bring the water shoes for this section as hiking directly in the stream is often the most efficient way of travel. The river banks tend to hold a lot of poison ivy so brush up on your plant ID and be cautious down there. This night’s camp is at Maime Creek, a tributary to Death Hallow. There is a massive rock outcrop that provides a great space to settle in for the evening, views and all!

Day 3:

Hiking Distance: 6.5 miles
Elevation: 400ft gain/loss

This itinerary allows for a few options on this day. One option is to hike a few miles to Antone Flat and set up camp here and allow yourself a mellow day to recover a bit. Additionally, one could use the morning to explore Maime Creek. This option allows access to view Maime Creek Natural Bridge, one of the main features of the Boulder Mail Trail. If you’ve got some extra gas in the tank, this is an incredible opportunity for exploration without lugging around all of your gear. After returning to camp, pack up in the afternoon and hike the few miles out to Antone Flat to set up camp for the evening.

Day 4:

Hiking Distance: 6 miles
Elevation: 1400ft gain 2000ft loss

The final day of the hike brings you across Antone Flat to the edge of the plateau that you’ve been traversing throughout the trek. The edge of the plateau offers incredible views all the way down to the Escalante River and the town of Escalante. Trudge down this large hill to the Escalante River and then into the town of Escalante. Congratulations!! You’ve just finished one of the most scenic backpacking trips in Utah!

Day 5 Variation:

For those that have extra time in their schedule and a thirst for adventure that is not easily quenched, consider altering the itinerary to allow for a trek down the Escalante River corridor. This adds 14 miles of unbelievable scenic travel through the Escalante River. Through this section, you are almost entirely hiking through the river but the views are worth the effort!

Permits

Make sure to call ahead to the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center to check on permits before your visit!

When to do this Trip

This trip is best done in the fall or spring. In the summer, the exposed plateaus on the trek will leave you baking in the sun. The winter will leave the descents into the canyons potentially slippery and very cold hiking in the shade.

Water

Depending on the season and the most recent rain, this backpacking trail can either have a ton of water or very little. Water can build up in potholes along the way and allow for an ample source if you hit it right. Check in with the Escalante Visitor Center before your trip to inquire about water levels.

Campsites

There are no camping restrictions on this hike but some spaces are more suitable than others. See the day-to-day itinerary to get a more solid idea of good camping spots. Wherever you camp, just make sure it is away from water sources. We want to keep these sources as clean as possible for the animal life in the area, as well as for other visitors. Note that you must bring in portable toilet systems and carry out all human waste! You can pick up some wag-bags at the Escalante Outfitters in town before you begin your trek.

Hike The Boulder Mail Trail with a Guide

Guided Boulder Mail Trail treks are available, and are a stress-free, exciting way to do this trip. The tour company handles permits, gear, transportation, meals, and provides a professional guide so you can focus 100% on enjoying your adventure. Read more…

3. Buckskin Gulch to Paria Canyon

The Hike

Buckskin Gulch to Paria Canyon should be on the bucket list for any avid backpacker or adventure-seeker. Buckskin Gulch is measured as the longest slot canyon in the world! It consists of about 15 miles of continuous slot canyon hiking. There is usually quite a bit of water in Buckskin Gulch, so depending on the time of year, consider renting a wet suit or other water gear in Kanab. Paria Canyon is a very large tributary of the Colorado River and this section of the trek takes you underneath sweeping sandstone walls and a beautiful riverbed. Ultimately, you will hike all the way to the Colorado River at Lee’s Ferry, the notorious starting point for Grand Canyon rafting trips. You must carry out all human waste from Buckskin and Paria. You can get portable waste bags from the visitor center in Kanab before beginning your trip.

Getting There

This trek begins from the Wire Pass trailhead southeast of Kanab, Utah. To get there from Kanab, travel about 38 miles on Highway 89 east out of Kanab. Take a right on House Rock Road. Follow this dirt road for 8.4 miles to arrive at the Wire Pass Trailhead. Google maps directions can be found here. It’s important to note that this itinerary is a one-way hike and requires a shuttle. There are shuttle service options out of Kanab Utah, or you can plan accordingly and leave cars at both Lee’s Ferry and the Wire Pass Trailhead.

Recommended Day by Day Itinerary

Day 1:

Hiking Distance: ~13 miles
Elevation: Negligible 

This is by far the largest day of the trek but in many ways, the most spectacular as well. This day brings you through the entire Buckskin Gulch slot canyon! Depending on the season, there can be water as deep as chest level. Call the Visitor Center in Kanab to get the most recent conditions. These slot canyons display a vast array of shapes and textures that you can only find in the deepest corridors in the Southwest. After making your way through the epic adventure that is Buckskin Gulch, reward yourself with a beautiful evening at camp near the confluence of Buckskin Gulch and Paria Canyon. While in the canyon, you will be in the shade most of the day. Plan accordingly with warm layers and water gear!

Day 2:

Hiking Distance: ~6 miles
Elevation: Negligible 

The second day of this journey brings you deeper into Paria Canyon. Enjoy the transitioning hues and shades of the canyon walls as you immerse yourself in the landscape. Meander your way through box elder and cottonwood groves for a few miles until you reach a spring and a great place to set up camp and watch the stars move between the canyon walls above.

Day 3:

Hiking Distance: 6-10 miles
Elevation: Negligible

This is the last day of travel in which the canyon remains so deep and sheer. This hike also brings you past the infamous ‘Keyhole’ feature, indicating that you are a bit over halfway through the excursion. There are several springs that make for good camping options depending on how tired you are and how far you’d like to hike this day. Additionally, there are a few day hiking options to cap the day off. Consider hiking out to Wrather Arch up Wrather Canyon. This makes for a great side adventure to one of the more remote arches in the world.

Day 4:

Hiking Distance: 8-10 miles
Elevation: Negligible 

This day ups the difficulty; it is quite the hike to get to the next proposed camp. Several distinct changes occur on this day. You enter a new rock formation called the Chinle layer. This rock is much softer than the sandstone you’ve previously hiked in and thus, has eroded much quicker. This causes the canyon to widen quite a bit. You also leave the riverbed on this day and hike along the ‘high water route’.

Day 5:

Hiking Distance: 3-5 miles
Elevation: Negligible 

All great adventures must eventually come to a close. Fortunately, on this journey, you will wrap up by hiking through some truly beautiful scenery along with some neat historical sites. The end of the trek brings you to the Lonely Dell Ranch. If you plan your trek in the right season, you can kick off the shoes and pick fresh fruit from the orchard to enjoy while reminiscing on the adventure of a lifetime.

Permits and Reservations

Backcountry permits are required for all trips into Buckskin Gulch or Paria Canyon. Permits can be obtained through the BLM online permitting system. Definitely plan ahead for this trip as availability can fill months in advance!

When to do this Trip

Given the reality that most of this hike will be done under the shade of canyon walls, it is best attempted in slightly warmer months. May-June and September are likely the best times of year to plan this epic backpacking trip. July and August are bad times to plan this trip because of the increased risk of flash flooding. This area is especially susceptible to flash flooding and should not be entered if there is a chance of rain in the forecast.

Hike Buckskin and Paria with a Guide

Guided Buckskin Gulch/Paria Canyon Treks are available, and are a stress-free, exciting way to do this trip. The tour company handles permits, gear, transportation, meals, and provides a professional guide so you can focus 100% on enjoying your adventure. Read more…

4. West Rim Trail

The Hike

The West Rim Trail backpacking trip offers one of the most intimate and secluded ways to experience Zion National Park. For those that like to experience a bit of solitude and serenity while visiting your National Parks, this hike is for you. It is also a great option for those that are looking for a bit of a shorter backpacking itinerary. While one of the more popular backpacking trips in the park, you are sure to find stillness and silence among the sheer sandstone cliffs and unimaginable vistas of Zion National Park. It is important to note that this trail is a through-hike and thus, requires a shuttle.

Getting There

The West Rim Trail begins at either Lava Point or the West Rim Trailhead. Beginning from Lava Point just adds another overlook to kick off the trek. It is well worth your time and extra energy! From La Verkin, UT, drive east towards Zion to the Kolob Terrace Road. Drive up the Kolob Terrace Road for 19.4 miles to Lava Point Road. Take this for 1.6 miles to your trailhead. The google pin can be found here. Depending on current conditions, the West Rim Trailhead may require a 4WD vehicle for access.

Recommended Day by Day Itinerary

Day 1:

Hiking Distance: 6-12 miles
Elevation: ~1800ft of loss, 400ft of gain

From the Lava Point trailhead, it is just over a mile to get down to the West Rim Trailhead. The first few miles of this trail consist of mellow hiking downhill through higher elevations forested and shrub regions. Don’t worry, the dramatic views of Zion are coming! Hike a few more miles with amazing viewpoints along the way to a descent into Potato Hollow. There are several good camping options around Potato Hollow. Visit the NPS website ahead of time to learn about which campsite you should seek. Depending on the season, some of these sites have springs in which you can fill water.

Day 2:

Hiking Distance: 6-12 miles
Elevation: ~1800ft of loss, 300ft of gain

After exiting Potato Hollow, you arrive at one of the few uphill sections of this trail. At the top of this section, you are rewarded with an amazing viewpoint called Hammerhead Viewpoint. After another short uphill, the views into the canyon get exponentially better as the entire canyon opens up in front of you. It’s hard to imagine more majestic scenery. Soon after the junction in which the Telephone Canyon Trail regains the West Rim Trail, there is a little social trail that leads to Cabin Spring (a fairly dependable source of water). The last four miles of the trail leave the upper plateau and bring you into the canyon, traversing the high canyon walls. Just before the final descent into Refrigerator Canyon—and then ultimately to the canyon floor—you will reach Scouts Lookout, the branching point for the famous Angel’s Landing trail.

From Scouts lookout, hike down through ‘Walter’s Wiggles’, into Refrigerator Canyon, and then down to the trail’s terminus at the Grotto. From here, you can take the park shuttle back to the Visitor Center. Well done on completing a truly amazing trip in one of the most spectacular desert landscapes around.

Angel’s Landing Variation:

For those that have some energy left over, this trail is one of the most spectacular trails in the United States. It is a mile out-and-back that takes you on a narrow ridge out to the center of the canyon, allowing a 360-degree perspective of the most dramatic parts of Zion National Park.

Permits, Fees, and Reservations

A permit is required for all overnight trips on the West Rim. You can find out more about permits on the Zion National Park backcountry page. Given that this trail is within the National Park, you are required to pay the entrance fee for hiking within the park as well.

When to do this Trip

Like most Utah backpacking trips, it is best to plan this journey for the spring or fall after the dead of winter but before the heat of summer. April-May and September-November make for great times to hike this trail!

5. Capitol Reef Backpacking

The Hike

This backpacking trip traverses one of the most wild spaces in the Utah deserts. Capitol Reef National Park was the last-mapped region in the lower 48. Hiking within its maze-like canyons and caverns will give you a clear idea why. The landscape of Capitol Reef was created by the same tectonic forces that shaped the mighty Rocky Mountains. This trek takes you across a feature called the Waterpocket Fold. An adventure of this magnitude brings with it a level of solitude and remoteness that is so rare to encounter in contemporary life. After this incredible backpacking journey, you’ll know what it means to truly experience the deserts of the American West.

Given the remote nature of this backpacking trip, it is recommended for expert backpackers only. If you don’t have a ton of experience backpacking but can’t get this trip off your mind, consider hiring a professional guide to aid you in your adventure!

Getting There

This trailhead is located at the Burr Trail Switchbacks. Take the Burr Trail Road out of Boulder, UT for about 32 miles to arrive at the trailhead. A google maps pin can be found here.

Recommended Day by Day Itinerary

Day 1:

Hiking Distance: 4 miles
Elevation: 400ft of loss

Day one consists of a mellow descent into the labyrinth that is Lower Muley Canyon. Wind your way through the steep, water-shapen walls as far as you feel like on this day. There are several good camping options but this itinerary sets this up to be a bit of a shorter day. This canyon gets its name for having enough twists to turn a mule! As there are no completely reliable water sources on this portion of the trip, make sure to bring enough water to sustain you for the entire day.

Day 2:

Hiking Distance: 8 miles
Elevation: 700ft of loss

This day brings a descent further into Lower Muley Canyon. There are plenty of incredible things to see along the hike such as the Cowboy Cave, and later on in the day, the notable Hamburger Rocks. The Hamburger Rocks are one of the more unique geologic features hidden within this canyon. Camp is made this night near the Muley Tanks, a reliable water source and beautiful oasis within this desert landscape.

Day 3:

Hiking Distance: 10 miles
Elevation: 500 ft of loss

In mileage, this day is the longest of the trip. However, the mellow grade and quick hiking terrain allow you to soak in all of the magnificent views that pass along the way. This day brings a trek deep into the heart of Grand Gulch, tracing the edge of the Waterpocket Fold. For an added bit of history, this route retraces an old wagon route used by the pioneers of the area in 1881!

Day 4:

Hiking Distance: 4-6 miles
Elevation: 400ft of loss

Today, you will hike along the southernmost edge of the National Park. This trek continues along the old wagon trail through Halls Creek, passing features like the Red Slide. Anticipation will be building at this point in your journey as the next day brings you into one of Capitol Reef’s most famous features: The Narrows of Halls Creek. The Narrows of Capitol Reef are reminiscent of the famous feature found in Zion National Park but without the crowds of people. They receive less than 1% of the visitor found in the Zion Narrows. Camp tonight can be found at Halls Divide.

Day 5:

Hiking Distance: 5.5 miles
Elevation: 200ft of gain, 200ft of loss

Today’s adventure into the Narrows is a day hike. Leave the heavy packs at camp, bring along the essentials, and enjoy a journey that will stand out in memory for the rest of your life. This hike gives a stark glimpse into the magnitude at which water shapes the desert landscape. The water in the narrows is usually cold and you will be hiking in the shade. Consider bringing along neoprene sock to keep the feet warm. Water levels vary depending on the season. Call ahead to the ranger station to get the latest conditions in the Narrows.

Day 6:

Hiking Distance: 5 miles
Elevation: 800ft of gain

Today allows the opportunity to visit an incredibly rare geologic formation, a double arch! A double arch consists of two naturally formed arches, one perched right on top of the other. This double arch is found on an exploration through the wonderful slot canyon deep in Grand Gulch. After this hike, ascend 800 feet out of Grand Gulch and back to Burr Trail Road. This will be the finish to your backpacking trip!

Permits and Fees

A free backcountry permit is required for all overnight trips into Capitol Reef. Check on the Capitol Reef website for more permit info. You are also required to pay the National Park entrance fee for all visitation within the park.

When to do this Trip

Capitol Reef treks are best planned for more temperate months in the fall and the spring. April-May and September-November are great times to plan your trip.

Hike Capitol Reef with a Guide

Guided Capitol Reef treks are available and are a stress-free, exciting way to do this trip. The tour company handles permits, gear, transportation, meals, and provides a professional guide so you can focus 100% on enjoying your adventure. Read more…

 

Wildland Trekking Hiking Adventures

 

As the world’s premier hiking and trekking company, Wildland believes in connecting people to fantastic environments in amazing ways. Wildland Trekking Company offers an array of incredible hiking and trekking experiences in 9 states and 11 countries. Read more about our world-class destinations.

To learn more about our guided backpacking trips and all of our award-winning hiking vacations, please visit our website or connect with one of our Adventure Consultants: 800-715-HIKE.

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5 Best Utah Backpacking Trips
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5 Best Utah Backpacking Trips
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In the world of backpacking, few places offer the same level of scenery and remoteness as the deserts of Utah. Whether hiking on high ridged and plateaus or deep within canyons, these backpacking destinations are sure to provide an experience that you won't forget.
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The Wildland Trekking Company
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