Coyote Gulch Backpacking Guide

 

For hikers seeking an adventure in the remote red rock beauty of Utah, Coyote Gulch is a hard-won, bucket-list destination. Access to this magnificent canyon, gained via a remote unpaved byway called Hole-in-the-Rock Road, is out on the Grand Staircase-Escalante plateau. It can be washboard rattling rough or tire-sucking slick, depending on the weather and road maintenance. But once you gain foothold on the canyon, you’ll forget about all the time and patience it takes to get there. 

This 25-mile hiking route winds around soaring sandstone walls, dipping in and out of a usually shallow stream interlaced with a debris-wracked riparian zone that reveals the  flash-flooding that can occur in the area. Along the way, you’ll pass green ferns growing out of fissures in sandstone, alcoves and hallways, soaring arches, and a stunning natural bridge — all on your way to the Escalante River. This guide takes you from Red Well Trailhead to the river, out and back. 

Quick Facts

  • Distance: 45.7 km (28.4 miles)
  • Days Needed: 2-4 days
  • Peak Elevation: 4,514 feet
  • Low Elevation: 3,785 feet
  • Elevation Gain/Loss:  1633’ ascent and -1632’ descent 
  • Best Travel Time: March to May and October to mid-November
  • Permits: Required (see below)
  • Difficulty: Moderate

Highlights

  • Near vertical walls, waterfalls, stunning arches, natural bridges, and desert varnished alcoves
  • Deer, jackrabbits, lizards, mice, rats, ravens, sparrows and nighthawks (less seen coyote, cougar, and bobcats).
  • The 4th largest arch in the world, Stevens Arch at 160-feet tall and spanning 225 feet.
  • Perennial springs provide reliable drinking water
  • Pictographs, petroglyphs
  • Hanging gardens clinging to seeps in the canyon wall
  • Amphitheaters striped with desert varnish

Lowlights

  • Very remote location on a rough, sometimes slick gravel and sand road. 
  • Unreliable cellphone coverage
  • Flash floods; susceptible to quickly changing weather
  • Campfires and dogs prohibited
  • Must carry human waste out
  • Some seasons, mostly wet hot ones, the bugs are vicious.
  • Stream fording and quick mud
  • Tamarisk and Russian olive thickets slow travel in several places enroute

Best Time to Travel

In general, March through the end of May, and October through mid-November offer the best weather. Mid-June through the end of September are a bit sketchy due to oppressive heat with little wind to provide relief and the creek recedes in mid-summer. Flash-floods are a risk until early October. 

As always, be prepared and diligent in monitoring current conditions as weather can change quickly in this area and cause flash floods in the canyon. Before heading out, check the National Weather Service for up-to-date conditions.

Difficulty

  • Total Distance: 45.7 km (28.4 miles)
  • Total Elevation Gain/Loss:  1,633 ft. average 2% grade (1 degree), 9% max (3 degree)
  • Overall Difficulty: Moderate

We rate this hike as moderate due to sand, water and route impediments. But it really depends on which trailhead you take. From the Red Well Trailhead, you follow the wash downstream, and find paths that cut directly between the curves of the stream to avoid extensive detours as well as bushwhacking. 

No matter which trailhead you take, route finding isn’t as easy as any of the routes look  on a map. Also, quick mud (think of quick sand made of mud) is a real hazard that will require experiencing it, and then being able to recognize it and avoid it as you proceed. At certain places, you’ll have to route-find around the aggressive shrubs tamarisk and Russian olive. There are two semi-technical ascents and descents on alternative routes (more info below).

As always, difficulty ratings depend on your experience, physical fitness, pack weight, and weather conditions. Like any backpacking trip, you should plan accordingly, train properly, know your limitations, brush up on your skills, and dial in your gear. Doing so will make for a safe and enjoyable adventure.

Permits

Free overnight permits are required for entry in Coyote Gulch, as well as all camping outside of developed campgrounds in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and the Glen Canyon Recreational Area. Pick up your permit and maps at the Escalante Interagency Visitor’s Center just outside of Escalante, Utah. 

Solitude 

During peak spring and fall hiking season, Coyote Gulch can feel crowded, though other campers can be avoided by camping at least a mile west or east of Jacob’s Arch. Summer is definitely less busy, but the trade-off is high temperatures and deer flies.

Trailhead Options

To reach any of the trailheads for Coyote Gulch, drive on State Highway 12 until you reach the Hole-in-the-Rock Road (officially the Glen Canyon Recreation Area Road) and the “40 Mile Bench turnoff sign where the road carves a large U curve. This is about 5 miles southeast of the City of Escalante, your last stop for food and water. As you head east out of Escalante, the road makes a big U turn. At the bottom of the U, exit the highway to the south onto a maintained dirt road. Keep in mind that this road is typically like a washboard and can be quite rough. Depending on the weather, it's also sometimes washed out. Be especially mindful to avoid the shoulders as the soft sand frequently diverts vehicles into the ditch.

A 4-wheel drive vehicle is recommended after storms or during wet season. Higher clearance cars and SUVs can make it out to the trailheads during dry weather with careful driving. You should still build an extra day into your schedule should it rain as the road can quickly turn to a slick, muddy mess that will leave you stranded until it dries out. The Red Well Trailhead can have deep large (up to 2 feet deep) ruts as that road is not graded. Again, take your time and expect to drive 3 to 4 times as long time-wise from what it would take you for the same mileage on a paved road. 

RED WELL TRAILHEAD

Go 30 miles south on Hole-in-the-Rock to a not-so-obviously signed junction with a dirt road heading east. Follow that road, BLM 254, northeast for 1.5 miles (ruts start about a half mile in) to the trailhead. There’s a big sign indicting you have arrived at Red Well Trailhead. Park, load up and head east over the hill to the south of the sign, following the trail down into upper Coyote Gulch. Google Maps directions to Red Well Trailhead here

HURRICANE WASH TRAILHEAD

Go 33 miles south on Hole-in-the-Rock Road. Directly off the road to the left, there’s a turnout for a livestock corral. Immediately after that point is another turnout to the right. This is the trailhead for Hurricane Wash. Begin hiking east in the dry wash toward Coyote Gulch. About 0.2 mile down the wash, you’ll find a hiker registration. Google Maps directions to Hurricane Wash Trailhead here

JACOB HAMBLIN ARCH TRAILHEAD

Go 36.25 miles south on Hole-in-the-Rock Road. On the left (northeast) is the signed turnoff for FortyMile Ridge. Take it and go 4.3 miles northeast until you reach another very small, short side road on the left leading to a water tank, corral and the Jacob Hamblin Arch Trailhead. Start hiking north from the sign toward Coyote Gulch. This route, commonly referred to as the Sneaker Route, can be difficult to follow and requires a very steep descent/ascent into the canyon. Google Maps directions to Jacob Hamblin Arch Trailhead here

FORTYMILE RIDGE TRAILHEAD; CRACK IN THE WALL

Go 36.25 miles south on Hole-in-the-Rock Road. (You’ll reach this trailhead around 43 miles on your odometer from the start of HITR road.) On the left (northeast) is the signed turnoff for FortyMile Ridge. Travel 6.8 miles northeast (or 2.5 miles past the Jacob Hamblin Arch Trailhead) to reach Fortymile Ridge Trailhead. Stay right of the water tanks, (don’t take the spur road that leads up to a parking area). Go left at the next junction and keep heading east. Drive around the cattle guard, and keep your momentum up in sandy stretches, especially the last 2 miles of this road. The trail is on the north side of the parking lot and splits left and right. Continue northeast and follow the well worn and cairned trail for about 2 miles until you reach the rim of the Coyote Gulch and a sandstone platform overlooking a huge desert bowl. Be on the lookout for an 18 to 24-inch wide fissure in the sandstone fin directly below you. Retrace your steps a bit to the east and use a rope to lower your pack to the secondary bench below the long crack passage. Google Maps directions to the Fortymile Ridge Trailhead here

Getting to Trailheads

Most people complete Coyote Gulch in 2-4 days via an out-and-back route with one car. It’s possible to leave a car at one of the first two trailheads and arrange a shuttle to one of the other trailheads. To leave a car at FortyMile Ridge Trailhead and return via one of the other two trailheads will require a tough hitch or a paid shuttle. It’s too far to plan on walking after a long sandy slog out of Coyote Gulch via Crack in the Wall or Hurricane Wash.

You can also arrange to have your vehicle left at a trailhead for you to pick up after your hike. Instead of hiring someone to drive you, you drive yourself to your trailhead and they come out and move your car to your exit trailhead. For example, to exit the Crack in the Wall Trailhead, you get dropped off at the Hurricane Wash Trailhead or vice versa. This is not an inexpensive option:  

    OUTFITTERS PROVIDING THIS SERVICE

    CURRENT PRICES 

    • Hurricane Wash to 40 mile Ridge/The Crack: $300
    • Red Well to 40 Mile Ridge/The Crack: $325 

    Campsites

    Although you can camp anywhere in the canyon, the most reliable sites can be found in the middle section of Coyote Gulch (flash flooding sometimes wipes them out). Between Jacob Hamblin Arch and the Natural Bridge are the most popular. To protect soil crust, vegetation, and other resources, GSENM/GCRA interagency requests that you re-use existing campsites in Coyote Gulch. 

    Below are well-established campsites:

    • Riparian and alcove area about 5.5 miles in on the Red Well route
    • Hurricane Wash confluence with Coyote Creek (about 7 miles in on the Red Well route) and 5.5 miles on Hurricane Wash route. It’s about 1.5 miles to Jacob Hamblin Arch from this spot. 
    • Under the alcoves or land above the bend before Jacob Hamblin Arch, 7 miles in.
    • Between Jacob Hamblin Arch and Coyote Bridge.  
    • Near the waterfalls area also called Big Springs.
    • There are sites along the Escalante River as well.
    • All sites are first-come, first-serve.

    Possible Itineraries

    ONE NIGHT OPTION
    Starting and Ending Trailhead: Red Well Trail

    • Camp 1 – Hurricane Wash confluence with Coyote Creek (about 7.5 miles to Stevens Arch from this point. 

    TWO NIGHT OPTION

    Starting Trailhead: Red Well Trail
    Ending Trailhead: Hurricane Wash

    • Camp 1 – Jacob Hamblin Arch 
    • Camp 2 – Hurricane Wash Confluence with Coyote Creek

    THREE NIGHT OPTION

    Starting trailhead: Forty Mile Ridge, Crack in the Wall
    Ending trailhead: Red Well or Hurricane Wash

    • Camp 1 - Coyote Bridge
    • Camp 2 – Jacob Hamblin Arch alcove area
    • Camp 3 – Hurricane Wash Confluence 

    Maps & Guidebooks

    You won’t find a specific topo map for Coyote Gulch, but there are several resources that will help you plan a safe and enjoyable trip. 

    Water

    There are two natural springs in the canyon, which should provide adequate water throughout this hike. You probably don’t need to filter this water, but we recommend always being on the safe side. This is a good place to use the SteriPen because other than purification, this water doesn’t need filtering. You’ll find the first spring is east of Jacob Hamblin Arch on the north wall of the canyon in the hanging gardens. Although it’s perennial, you’ll still need patience. It’s a trickle. The second spring is on the north wall of the canyon. Check the map and when you’re just under one mile from the Escalante River look for the cascade up on the left side when you’re heading east. 

    We carried the SteriPEN Ultra and we were happy with its performance. A lightweight water filter or chlorine dioxide drops or pills would work as well. Check out our best water purifiers’ list for our top recommendations.

    Food Storage: Ravens & Squirrels

    First, do not feed either. It may be tempting, but it has led to the existing problem in Coyote Gulch. The primary area you need to worry about ravens is near Jacob Hamblin Arch. They’ve become extremely habituated to robbing unattended packs. They will peck through most pack material and can even unzip backpacks. So even if you seal your food in critter-proof storage, they’ll still attempt to get to it.  Squirrels are less of a problem, but still likely to plunder unsecured food stashes in other frequently used campsites throughout the gulch. Consider suspending your food bag from some paracord where you can.

    Waste Disposal

    The pit toilet by Jacob Hamblin Arch is closed after being torched. The composting toilet by Big Spring Alcove is currently open, according to the EGSM but at last look it was full. Don’t count on it.  

    No matter how tempting, do not leave human waste in Coyote Gulch. It's a very sensitive riparian area and with the increased use, the National Park Service now requires human waste disposal system be used in the Escalante River corridor and its tributaries within Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Policy states that: All human body waste solids shall be contained and carried out using a portable toilet or a specifically engineered bag waste containment system in Coyote Gulch. 

    You also cannot use a plastic or paper bag as a receptacle for solid human waste and/or for disposal unless it’s part of a specifically engineered bag waste containment system containing enzymes and polymers to break the waste down. It also must be securely sealable to be state approved for disposal in ordinary trash receptacles.  When you pick up your permit at the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center, just west of the city of Escalante, you’ll be asked if you have a “portable” toilet in your possession. These bags can and should be purchased ahead of time from major outfitters. They’re called Wag Bags, Restop II, or Biffy Bags. If you don’t have one, they may provide you with one (depending on their supplies). Considering how underfunded this agency is, do your part and purchase one in advance. 

    Bugs

    This tends to be an intermittent problem after a particularly wet winter or spring. In July and August the mosquitos and deer flies are almost always vicious. October offers the least contact with bugs. Use a combination of permethrin on your clothing and a small amount of DEET on exposed skin for full protection. 

    Backpacking Gear

    We prefer lightweight backpacking because it’s more comfortable and it allows us to cover more ground with less effort. For recommendations on our favorite lightweight backpacking equipment, check out the CleverHiker Gear Guide and Top Picks page.  

    Depending on the time of year, we recommend neoprene socks paired with drainable shoes or boots for navigating Coyote Gulch. A pair of lightweight sandals for camp will allow your feet to dry/air out after and between prolonged stream-drenched hikes.

    What to Pack

    TENT: We used the ZPacks Duplex tent on this trip for its ultralight livability. This tent is one of our all-time favorites and makes our list of the best lightweight backpacking tents.

    BACKPACK: We used the HMG 2400 Southwest and ZPacks Arc Blast backpacks on this trek. Both are lightweight, convenient, comfortable, and make our list of the best lightweight backpacking packs.

    SLEEPING BAG: Nighttime temperatures in the desert vary greatly depending on the season. When evening lows dip around freezing, we use the Feathered Friends Egret UL 20 Women’s Sleeping Bag and the REI Magma 10 Men’s Sleeping Bag. When nighttime lows are 40°F or higher we prefer lightweight quilts like the Enlightened Equipment Revelation. Here’s a list of our favorite lightweight sleeping bags/quilts.

    SLEEPING PAD: We used the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite and Sea to Summit UltraLight Insulated sleeping pads on this trip. Both are light, comfortable, warm, and make our list of the best backpacking sleeping pads.

    COOKING SYSTEM: We used the BRS StoveSnow Peak Mini Solo Cookset, and Snow Peak Folding Spoon on this hike, all of which make our top picks gear list and best lightweight stove list.

    WATER PURIFIER: We used the SteriPEN Ultra as our main purification method on this trip. It's lightweight, works fast, and doesn't require any pumping/squeezing or chemicals. Check out our best water purifiers list for our other top recommendations.

    SHOES OR BOOTS: We wore Saucony Peregrine 7 trail runners (men's and women's) on this trail and they were excellent. If you prefer boots, make sure they’re lightweight and break them in really well before your trip. Here’s why we prefer hiking in trail running shoes: 5 Reasons to Ditch Your Hiking Boots. And remember, your feet are going to be wet for the majority of this trip, so we recommend choosing lightweight, quick-dry footwear. To learn more about our recommended footwear options, check out our Best Hiking Shoes and Boots list.

    HEADLAMP: A small headlamp like the Petzl Actik is an affordable, bright, and lightweight option.

    FOOD: When backpacking Coyote Gulch, carry your food in small critter/raven proof bags or storage containers. Check out the CleverHiker Backpacking Food Guide for some of our go-to recommendations. 

    CLOTHING: Here are some of our favorite hiking/backpacking clothing items from our Top Gear list.

    MAP &  COMPASS: The Red Well route through Coyote Gulch follows a well-defined and established route. Still, you should always carry a good map for route finding, water sources, mileage, and possible side trips. For good map options, read Maps & Guidebooks section above. We always hike with a quality compass, though the trails were easy to follow and we didn’t end up needing it on this trip. 

    FIRST AID KIT: Always bring a small personalized first aid kit. We use the Ultralight .7 Kit and add extras, like painkillers and personal medications.

    SUN PROTECTION: Sunglasses (polarized recommended), sunscreen, and spf lip balm are an absolute must on every backpacking trip. Our long-time favorite shades are the Ray Ban Polarized New Wayfarer.

    POCKET KNIFE: We brought along a small Swiss Army Knife, which came in handy here and there.

    OTHER ITEMS:

    • SMALL TOWEL: Nano pack towel is great.
    • CASH and ID
    • PERMITS
    • PERSONAL TOILETRIES
    • HAND SANITIZER: Always apply after using a bathroom and before eating.
    • WET WIPES: These can be useful for cleaning up after hiking.
    • INSECT REPELLANT: Treat your clothing with Permethrin prior to your trip and use a 1oz bottle of DEET on exposed skin when necessary.
    • CAMERA: The Sony RX100 is our go-to camera for lightweight backpacking.

    More Coyote Gulch Photos

    More Information

    We hope this guide helps you plan a fun adventure through Coyote Gulch. As always, please leave a comment below if you have any recommendations, questions, or suggestions. And if you found this guide helpful, please share on social media and click the little heart button below to give us a digital high five! 

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