Lower Coyote Gulch
Distance: 11.8 miles (plus 2.6 miles by bicycle)
day 1: 4 hours
day 2: 4 hours
Elevations: 1,015 ft. loss, 1,110 ft. gain
• Forty Mile Ridge Trailhead (start): 4,675 ft.
• Jacob Hamblin Arch Trailhead: 4,770 ft.
• Escalante River: 3,660 ft.
Trail: The most challenging part of this hike is the climb out of Coyote Gulch near Jacob Hamblin Arch. The climb involves scrambling up a 100-foot pitch of slickrock that ascends from the canyon floor at an angle close to 45 degrees. A 100-foot length of rope is useful here for raising backpacks. A compass is also useful for the last part of the hike, which involves a 2-mile cross-country walk from the canyon rim back to Jacob Hamblin Trailhead. Sneakers or other wettable shoes are the most practical footwear inside the canyon, as you will frequently be required to cross the stream bed.
Season: Spring, summer, fall, winter. This area is very hot in the summertime and receives some snow in the winter. The best seasons for the hike are spring and fall. For current conditions call the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center at (801) 826-5499.
Vicinity: Near the town of Escalante
The Escalante River and its tributaries provide many of the most interesting hikes into the desert canyonlands of southern Utah. Unfortunately the last 30 miles of the Escalante was flooded by Lake Powell after the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam in 1964, but enough attractions still remain to make the Escalante drainage a very special place for outdoor enthusiasts. Coyote Gulch, a side canyon of the lower Escalante, is one of the most popular hikes in the vicinity. With its impressive natural bridge, two arches, and Anasazi artifacts, it is a particularly good place to sample the wonders of the Escalante drainage.
There are at least five ways to get in and out of Coyote Gulch; hence a number of variations of this hike are possible. Most people begin and end their hike at either Hurricane Wash Trailhead or Red Well Trailhead. The hike down Coyote Gulch to the Escalante River and back from either one of these trailheads makes a very pleasant, if somewhat long, backpacking trip for the whole family. If you are the adventurous type, however, you will probably prefer the route described here. It does require a modicum of rock climbing ability, so if that makes you uncomfortable I suggest you end your hike at Hurricane Wash Trailhead rather than Jacob Hamblin Arch Trailhead.
The Forty Mile Ridge Trailhead is located on the top of a small knoll in the middle of a large sandy mesa. From there a broad, well-used trail leads across the desert in a northwesterly direction towards the Escalante River. For the first half mile the sandy trail is easy to follow, but soon the sand is gone and you will find yourself walking on slickrock. There are no footprints, of course, on the slickrock, so you will be following rock cairns until you reach the canyon rim. There are occasionally spaces of several hundred feet between cairns, but the route to the rim of Escalante Canyon is nearly a straight line, so you shouldn’t have any difficulty finding the way. Nevertheless, pay close attention to the cairns. If you don’t arrive at precisely the right point on the canyon rim you won’t be able to find your way down the Navajo Sandstone.
Your access into Escalante Canyon is through a narrow crack in a boulder just below the last cairn on the Forty Mile Ridge trail. The crack is about 18 inches wide and fifty feet long. If you walk sideways down through this crack you will emerge at the top of an enormous pile of sand that extends nearly all the way from Coyote Gulch to the top of the Navajo Sandstone. Look down to the west and you can see the confluence of Coyote Gulch and the Escalante River about 0.6 mile away. The trail is obvious and easy to follow now. It winds downward over the sand for nearly a mile until it intersects Coyote Gulch, about a half mile west of the Escalante. As you descend a huge natural arch will soon come into view above the confluence. This is Stevens Arch.
After you reach the bottom of Coyote Gulch you will probably want to drop your backpack and take a side trip to see the Escalante River. It is only a 15-minute walk down the canyon. If you have the time and the inclination for more exploring it is also usually possible to wade or walk along the banks of the Escalante. The water is seldom more than two feet deep (although if the level of Lake Powell is higher than normal the water here may be much deeper). Five hundred yards upstream from the Coyote Gulch confluence there is another fine view of Stevens Arch. The mouth of Stevens Canyon is 1.4 miles above Coyote Gulch.
Continuing up Coyote Gulch you will pass two or three small waterfalls, and then as the streambed enters the Kayenta Formation the valley becomes wider and ascends more gently. Occasionally the trail will climb out of the streambed to circumvent a waterfall, but it never strays far up the side. After about an hour you will see Cliff Arch coming into view high on the north side of the canyon. As the name suggests, the arch juts straight out from the sandstone cliff, like a giant teacup handle. Slightly upstream from Cliff Arch is a gorgeous waterfall. The drop is only about fifteen feet, but the setting is magnificent.
From Cliff Arch to Jacob Hamblin Arch Coyote Gulch is at its best, with plenty of scenery and nice camp sites. This is about the halfway point in the hike, so you may want to start thinking about a camp site as you continue on.
Forty-five minutes or so after leaving Cliff Arch you should start watching for a particularly fine Anasazi pictograph panel on the north side of the canyon. It is located 1.6 miles beyond the Arch, about 100 feet above the trail near the bottom of the Navajo Sandstone. You will come to a small side canyon with a stream entering Coyote Gulch on the right just before you reach the site. Unfortunately, it is easier to spot the panel if you are walking in the opposite direction, so stop occasionally and look back. When you reach it you will see an obvious spur trail branching off to the right and climbing up to the panel. There is also a small Indian ruin near the pictographs. If you have sharp eyes you may see a few pottery shards and small corn cobs in the area. Please do not remove them, though. These treasures belong to the canyon, and are there for all to enjoy.
0.7 mile past the pictographs the trail passes under Coyote Natural Bridge, and 1.7 miles beyond that Jacob Hamblin Arch will come into view. Jacob Hamblin is an immense arch, cut through a fin of sandstone created by a meander in the streambed. It probably would not look so big were it on top of the mesa, but being confronted with this enormous geological sculpture in the narrow confines of the canyon makes one feel as insignificant as an ant. There are several nice camp sites near the arch, and a good spring about a hundred yards downstream on the north side of the canyon.
The route out of Coyote Gulch is also near Jacob Hamblin Arch. Walking downstream from the arch you will notice that the streambed makes a long, sweeping turn to the north as it curves around a sloping fin of sandstone that comes down from the south rim. The fin reaches the canyon floor about 150 yards below the arch, and from there it is possible to scramble up and out of the canyon. The difficult part of the climb lasts for only 100 feet, and if you can get up the first 20 feet you will have no difficulty with the rest. Look carefully at the stone face near the bottom and you will notice depressions in the stone which you can use for toe holds. You can thank the prehistoric Indians for these toe holds. They were chipped out of the stone at least a thousand years ago by canyon dwellers who used this same route in and out of the canyon. A hundred-foot length of rope will come in very handy at this point for pulling up backpacks and, perhaps, some of the less agile members of your party. If you don’t feel comfortable with this route you can also exit the canyon through Hurricane Wash which crosses the road 7.8 miles further upcanyon.
Once you reach the rim of the canyon walk due south for two miles to intersect the road along Forty Mile Ridge. The trailhead where you left your shuttle car is on the top of a small knoll, and it should come into view after about a mile.
Content provided by David Day of utahtrails.com. Click here to order his book Utah’s Favorite Hiking Trails.