Hiking Coyote Gulch

Coyote Gulch is the most famous canyon in what is fast becoming one of the world's more famous canyon systems - the Escalante drainage. However you feel about the newly designated Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, no one can deny that the Escalante Gorge and its tributaries, located at the heart of Utah's latest most controversial wilderness, contain some of the most stunning country this side of Eden. Here is a desert landscape that offers up a strange and wondrous medley of natural wonders: vast, curving, water-polished walls; seeps and springs and hanging gardens; waterfalls and azure pools; the sparkling spring-time green of cottonwood and willow; drifting dunes of pumpkin-orange sand; and the hoodoos, domes, spires and pinnacles of the uplands.

Coyote Gulch, used by the Anasazi and Fremont cultures for flood-based agriculture, has all of the above and more. Every year thousands of people travel the bumpy-dusty Hole-in-the-Rock Road to the three trailheads that lead into Coyote's inner reaches, where they shoulder their backpacks and disappear for a while. Part of the southern Escalante drainage that bleeds into Lake Powell, Coyote preserves in miniature the stunning beauty and magical ambiance of Glen Canyon, a place I would love to have seen but that was destroyed two decades before my birth. The memory of Glen lives on in Coyote, and one can catch fleeting glimpses of the former's glory in the heart of Coyote's watery stone corridors.

There are three access points to lower Coyote Gulch. The first is Red Well, located 30.7 miles down the Hole-in-the-Rock Road. A BLM sign, "Red Well 1.5 mi.," points the way. Follow the track (suitable for high-clearance vehicles) 1.3 miles to the trailhead and trail register. The Red Well route drops you into upper Coyote Gulch near its confluence with Big Hollow Wash, takes you past Dry Fork Coyote, and in three to four hours reaches the Hurricane Wash and Coyote confluence.

Hurricane Wash is the second, and perhaps most popular, access route into lower Coyote. The signed trailhead is located 33.8 miles down Hole-in-the-Rock at a large pull-off on the right. Cross the road and walk east along the wash to a trail register. It is 2.5 to 3.5 hours from the trailhead to Coyote Gulch.

The last trailhead, which accesses Coyote immediately above its confluence with the Escalante River, is Fortymile Ridge. The Fortymile Ridge Road begins 36.1 miles down Hole-in-the-Rock at a BLM "40 Mile Bench" sign. For the first four miles, the track is suitable for high-clearance vehicles, but beyond that long and deep sand traps make four-wheel drive a necessity. Fortymile Ridge breaks on incredible views of lower Coyote Gulch and Stevens Canyon, the Waterpocket Fold, Navajo Mountain and the Straight Cliffs (the easternmost escarpment of the Kaiparowits Plateau). Drop off the ridge and head northeast, trudging a well-established, sandy trail to an area of slickrock. Here a series of cairns leads to an escarpment overlooking the Escalante River. The cairns are slightly illogical and in some places hard to locate. If you lose the route, just forge ahead northeast to the rim (bring a compass), then locate an impossible-to-miss Navajo Sandstone fin with a U-shaped gap in its middle that extends from the rim and points northeast toward the spectacular Stevens Arch. The Crack-in-the-Wall, a break in the Navajo, is 100 yards west of the fin. Squeeze through the crack, pushing your packs in front of you, or lower them with a rope down the 25-foot wall. An incredible, you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it mountain of a sand dune slopes down from the rim and spills you into Coyote Gulch.

Red Well accesses upper, Hurricane middle, and Fortymile lowest Coyote Gulch. Combine the trailheads to form loop hikes or use them as out-and-backs to explore single sections of the canyon. From Red Well to the Escalante River is approximately 14 miles one way. From Hurricane to the Escalante is 13.7 miles, and from Fortymile Ridge to Coyote just above its confluence with the Escalante is two miles.

For a surgical dissection of the hike consult the multiple guidebooks on the subject. Suffice it to say that Coyote contains several arches and a natural bridge, multiple cascades and waterfalls, deep overhangs, a rincon, and a beautifully sculpted streambed. Lobo Arch, the first of the arches encountered south of Hurricane Wash (also called Jacob Hamblin Arch), was named for an old gray wolf that migrated from Arizona, swimming the Colorado and making a home in the lower Escalante drainage. Coyote Natural Bridge is eponymous with the canyon over which it spans, and the name of Jughandle Arch reflects its shape.

What brings me back to Coyote again and again are its numerous springs, seeps and hanging gardens. Lower Coyote is remarkably wet and lush, and the contrast between the pink and orange hues of the Navajo and Kayenta and the neon greens of the mosses and hanging gardens, between baking sandstone under the desert sun and fragrant, dripping springs and seeps, is always enchanting.

Coyote Gulch is a perfect introduction to the whimsical magic of Escalante Country. It is also a bittersweet reflection of what once was and is now lost.

A word of caution: In planning a trip to Coyote Gulch, you're committing yourself to more than you know. The Escalante Canyons are addictive. Hike Coyote once in the spring and you'll be cursing yourself to a lifetime of violent and undeniable springtime "desert cravings." Coyote will awaken appetites, emotional and spiritual, you didn't even know you had.

Rules and Regulations/How to get there:

Coyote Gulch is located in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Group size is limited to twelve. Dogs are not allowed in Coyote Gulch. Practice minimum impact camping. No fires are allowed. Stay on the main trail. Camp only in established campsites. Carry out more garbage than you brought in. You must carry out both toilet paper and left over food.

Be sure to sign in at the trail registers. This is for your own safety.

The Hole-in-the-Rock Road starts at mile 64.8 on Highway 12 just east of the town of Escalante. The road is suitable for high-clearance vehicles through to all three Coyote Gulch trailheads. Beyond mile 50.8 the road is suitable for four-wheel drives only.

Maps: Big Hollow Wash, Sooner Bench, Kings Mesa, Stevens Canyon South.

Guidebooks: "Canyoneering 3: Loop Hikes In Utah's Escalante," by Steve Allen; "Hiking the Escalante," by Rudi Lambrechtse.