Camping in the Vastness of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is an absolute wonderland of desert beauty, slot canyons, arches, wildlife, and complete and total nothing-ness. And I barely even scratched the surface here. This place is beyond beautiful, from the drive in on Highway 12 to driving through the monument on rough dirt roads. Through cow pastures and unparalleled Southern Utah beauty.

Looking north over the southern Utah desert.
There’s cows everywhere in certain parts of Escalante!

I had heard of this place for the first time some years ago, I’m sure, but had forgotten all about it until my trip to Southern Utah in October of 2020 with my sister. We were visiting three National Parks in Utah, two of which are near the vastness of the monument, which I’ll shorten to Escalante or GSENM for the remainder of the blog (don’t get it confused with the town of the same name!).

She and I were planning some activities in Bryce after abandoning Zion, and came upon the National Monument. Long story short, we realized this was a massive area covering thousands and thousands of miles. We quickly decided that this area was worth visiting another time, and we should stick to our plan of doing some National Park hikes. Well, the time to visit came at the end of May, and me, Mercedes, and two other friends, Abby and Liam, packed up a 4WD, high-clearance vehicle, and headed four hours south to GSENM.

Our rig for the trip!

Day 1 in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

We had a couple potential routes planned out for this trip, figuring we would decide once we got on the road. We popped into Bryce Canyon quickly because it had come to our attention that Liam had never been, Mercedes had only been once for a partial day with me in September 2020, and Abby had last been there a number of years ago. It was fun to see their reactions, since Bryce has been my most visited park since moving to Utah (it’s tied with Grand Teton – three times each so far). I got to be tour guide here! Woohoo!

Liam taking his first real view in at Bryce Canyon National Park. Abby stands next to him!
Happy to be here in a beautiful place. Bryce Canyon is awesome!

We toured around on the Rim Trail for a little (find that trail guide right here!) before Liam dipped out for a run. Abby, Mercedes and I did part of one of the cool hikes here. We started down the Navajo Loop be way of Wall Street, and it was pretty stunning. I hadn’t actually been down this part of Bryce before, so it was a first for everyone.

The glorious, majestic tall canyon walls within Bryce Canyon. Beauty in all forms!

After we hiked, Abby, Mercedes and I ate lunch in the park at one of the picnic areas. We regrouped and headed down to our destination, which was near Cannonville and Kodachrome Basin State Park. Driving down from Bryce is quite beautiful – the views are pretty darn unbeatable. We located Kodachrome, and continued on Cottonwood Canyon Road, into Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The dirt road has some bumps and rises in it, but with a Rav4, all was good to cruise at a comfortable speed.

Escalante, at last.

We pulled off the main road onto a side road a little ways into the park, and started foraging for camping spots. For the most part, if you’re going to be bike-packing, car camping, RV camping, or another form of dispersed camping, you’re supposed to camp in “designated sites”. These sites are pretty clearly marked, and usually have a stone or rock fire ring. There are plenty of little roads to turn out on and in theory, you could park wherever you wanted.

However, to minimize your impact and follow the “Leave No Trace” policy, it’s best to use an already established campsite. They’re free, and as we found out, some of them can have a pretty spectacular view.

The view from our campsite for 3 nights. How spectacular is this?

Lucky for us, we found an absolutely incredible spot to camp. I seriously could not have planned it any better if I tried! It was well off the beaten path, and had an incredible view overlooking the outskirts of Escalante and Kodachrome way off into the distance. We were completely secluded, and probably about 500ft from the next possible habitable campsite. It was a darn good find. Our night consisted of setting up camp and planning out our first full day for the next morning.

Oh, and s’mores. Lot’s of s’mores!

The absolute beauty of the setting sun and a warm fire in a cold desert.

Day 2 in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

The next day, we hopped in the car and drove over to Kodachrome State Park and did some of the hikes there. Kodachrome sits right on the edge of GSENM, and it’s a state park for a reason! The rock formations were unbelievable, and I am still mind boggled at this place. It is so gorgeous! We did the Grand Parade Trail and the Panorama Trail while we were here, and both are definitely worth checking out. Form box canyons to panoramic desert views, it’s quite unbeatable. Check those out if you want, and if not, enjoy these photos and view them another time!

Later in the day, we drove down Cottonwood Canyon Road and eventually found ourselves getting in and out of the car multiple times. There are just so many places to stop and stare off into the distance, and at every turn, there is new beauty to take in. We eventually ended our day up at Grosvenor Arch, one of the few marked stops along the Cottonwood Canyon Road. I must say, it is quite impressive! It sits probably 100 feet tall, and you look straight up at it after a short walk on a concrete pathway. There’s also a few picnic tables here, but I must say: this is the only place along the Cottonwood Canyon road that actually had concrete and picnic tables. Everything else is dispersed!

Grosvenor Arch in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. It is quite the show!

It was also a pretty good location for a photo-op, so, here ya go!

This was a last stop of the day. We headed back to camp for dinner and a wrap-up of the days events. There was something so refreshing about barely seeing anyone all day except for these three people I was traveling with. It didn’t feel lonely at all, and sure, we passed people here and there on the road, but besides that, this place is remote. And vast. I couldn’t comprehend how we had driven down this road for an hour or two and barely even scratched the surface of this road. After a long drive into the nearest town to refuel the car, dinner on the camp grill, and late night drinks with the sunset, it was time to hit the hay and prepare for our long day the next morning.

Day 3 in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Day 3 consisted of driving the entirety of the Cottonwood Canyon Road so we could see as many cool features and land formations as possible. It began with a good breakfast and coffee, as every good morning should have. Sunrise over the beautiful rock formations from our view was absolutely spectacular. I didn’t snap any pictures, but here’s some photos from the rest of the morning! Make sure you start off every camp morning with a nice hot cup of pour over coffee. We even grinded the coffee beans ourselves this morning!

After packing up the car, topping off our water bottles and reservoirs, it was time to hit the open road of Cottonwood Canyon Road once again. We drove down with little stopping along the way, as we needed to get past our previous stop of Grosvenor Arch, but we did make sure to stop at any spot we thought was interesting. We pulled off on a Forest Service road and walked down a wash for about a mile or so, and I definitely recommend doing this! I can’t tell you where it is (mainly because I don’t remember!), but I also want to keep this area pristine. Find your own adventures and take a walk down a wash or slot canyon if you find them! Those are the beautiful parts – the parts that may or may not have been previously explored. I actually didn’t take any pictures of these areas. Both the small stream and wash we walked down were off side roads, and I brought only a water bottle with me.

But, what I did take pictures of…was this incredible view at the top of a giant hill…

As you drive over the top of a steep hill, this is the view in front of you….

I mean, it’s just…unbeatable…

Look at this! It was time for photo-op pt. II. How could this even exist in this vast desert expanse!? It was absolutely gorgeous!

Wow.

Well, it would happen that our next objective was just at the bottom of this hill! One of the other marked trails along the Cottonwood Canyon road lay here, and we were greeted with an absolutely fantastic slot canyon. This was definitely one of the many high points for me, and collectively, was probably our favorite spot of the whole trip.

But first, take a look at these rock formations. It’s just incredible!

See how many different colors of rock you can see here. It’s insane!
The trailhead at the Cottonwood Narrows. Yeah, we’re the only car here…so…

We grabbed our packs, put on our shoes and sandals and headed down the Cottonwood Narrows. We’re not sure exactly what we did, but after some post-hike studying, we were certain we actually missed most of the Cottonwood Narrows…but, we ended up seeing a super rad slot canyon! It was absolutely stunning. We walked down it for a long ways, through washes and scrambling up rocks to keep going forward. It was really cool with the high canyon walls, that were well over 100 feet in height, and were taller in some spots!

As you may be able to tell from the photos, the sky was dark with clouds, and the looming threat of rain hung in my mind. We decided that if one person didn’t feel comfortable in the group, we would turn around and get out of the slot canyon. That ended up happening after we felt some raindrops, and we decided to bail. None of us were particularly happy about it, but I’ve learned that it’s best to be safe in the desert!

It did end up raining once we got back to the car, but was done within the next half hour. Perhaps we bailed for nothing, but we felt good about our decision. It didn’t make sense to keep going anymore, so we decided to play it safe! Those choices are hard, and it’s even harder to turn around. From there, we packed up our lunch we ate in the car and continued down the canyon road.

We eventually came upon our objective: seeing some water in the desert! We happened upon a flowing river near the southern portion of the road, and hopped out for a closer look. A small trail led to the river, and it was refreshing to rinse off our feet in the shallow river. We walked through it, up and down each way, finding small fish as we went! The sun peeked out between clouds, showering us in some early evening light. It was a great way to end our day down on this road.

It’s funny, I was hoping to drive the entirety of the road, end-to-end, and we didn’t even complete that! We were so close, but we figured, at our speed, and how many miles we had left, it would be another 45 minutes to an hour until we got back to our turnoff for this river. And, we likely would have gotten out to see some stuff along the way, too! There was so much more each of us wanted to see. I think that’s the beauty of this place. I felt like we saw so much, but at the same time, so, so very little. It’s just an absolutely massive area!

And now, for our river photoshoot!

A little group selfie. This was a fun day!

On the way back, we explored the Cottonwood Canyon Narrows once more, this time starting from the southern approach. We found some pretty cool features along the way, including a box canyon and some extremely high canyon walls. It was cool in the afternoon sun, and the canyon walls provided cover, along with tall trees along the wash. We decided not go terribly far since we needed to return to camp in relatively good time, so once we felt like we’d seen enough, we turned around and headed back to the car.

Here’s some photos from the narrows walk and the box canyon!

See, the huge factor I kept running into when traveling through Escalante is how truly massive it is. When we drove back, we saw completely different scenery than we did before, and we got out and took photos at various spots. Who knew when we would be back to see this unmatched beauty again? It seriously is a paradise unlike any other I’ve encountered in Utah. The landscape seemed painted, with brilliant reds and blues lighting up both land and sky in a colorful display. It’s so hard to capture on a camera. And, to think that very few people may travel through this gorgeous expanse makes it all the more special in the end.

Completely picture perfect. Photos cannot do this wonderland justice at all!
Painted colors in the sky and on the desert floor.
Yeah, this was the view driving through this road. How spectacular is this!?

Nearing the end of our journey in Escalante, we decided to stop at our overlook spot one more time for some photos. I’ll let those do the storytelling!

From there, we raced back to our campsite, made some food, and capped off the night with a couple more photos.

The rest I left undocumented.

I wanted to be in the moment as much as I could, and I think you should do the same if you decide to travel here, or anywhere for that matter! Immerse yourself fully with your friends and family while you’re in the wilderness. Here, with no cell reception, and only a couple buddies around 24/7, you get a lot of immersion real fast!

We took one good photo…and then, craziness ensued!
Strike a funny pose!
One last lift in the air!
Andddd run towards the camera! GO!!
Perhaps the best place to have a beer in the history of places (for me, at least).
This was actually a really solid beer and I would definitely recommend it!

Day 4 in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Day four marked the end of our trip to Escalante. It was a little sad, since we had done so much over the past few days! It was hard to realize that it was all over, but fun to remember there was so much more we didn’t see – just on this one road! With that in mind, we ate a quick breakfast, packed up our tents, loaded the car, and embarked on our way.

A couple last shots of our glorious view from this stunning campground,
One last look at the towering cliffs of Bryce Canyon and Kodachrome from afar!
Walking through our campsite just one last time. Why does it have to end?

One last note – the photo directly above was the view from our “bathroom” spot we made at camp. That’s seriously a loo with a view, isn’t it!? I mean….show me a better location, I’ll wait for it…

From here, we made one final stop at Kodachrome Basin to do the Angel’s Palace trail, which was quite stunning! You can find that trail and all its beauty, beta, and photos right here on my blog!

The Palace of Angels in Kodachrome Basin State Park, Utah.

Well, that about wraps it up for me here. I’m writing this in the month that followed my trip, and reflecting back on this adventure has me yearning for my next one already! The next trip I take is already booked and ready to go, but it won’t be to the Utah desert. It’s to another new location, so I’m excited to check it out and explore the beauty of this new place!

For now, it’s back to hiking in the nearby Wasatch Mountains and Uinta Mountains of northern Utah. Summer is in full swing, and the temperatures are getting warmer and warmer! Time to find some water hikes I reckon, yeah?

I hope you had a great time reading along! If you did, leave me a comment on it all! I would love to hear your thoughts. If you’ve visited Grand Staircase-Escalante before, tell me about it! I would love to share stories and hear about your experience in this place. It’s so magical!!

For now, farewell. See you on the next blog! I promise it will be shorter!

~ Justin

Parting shot:

The last shot in Escalante.

Next blog: We’re going to keep it shorter…much, much shorter!

6 thoughts on “Camping in the Vastness of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

  1. WOW look at this!! What an amazing place Utah is! The desert is one of my favorite places. Thanks for sharing all these photos – seems like you all had a fantastic time exploring!

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  2. I am so amazed by this! This seems like such a wonderful trip. I want to get to GSENM this summer but I think it may be too hot now. When would you recommend visiting? This seems like such a hefty blog, I was engaged the entire time, if only for the photos! 🙂

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    1. It was a fantastic trip!! It’s one of the best and most scenic places I have ever been. It may be too hot in July now. My recommendation for here, and basically anywhere in Southern Utah is to visit in early spring, from March to May, and then again from mid-September to November. You get better temperatures for the daytime and night-time. It will get cold during the mornings and evenings, so bring layers. You’re at elevation for certain parts of Southern Utah!

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  3. Looks like you had a fabulous trip and sure picked a great place to camp. That picture of the sunset and campfire is gorgeous. Making s’mores while camping is always a must. I can’t get over how scenic this landscape is with all the red rocks, arches, and interesting rock formations.

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    1. Isn’t that such a sick spot!? We really lucked out!! We had contemplated moving before we got here, and we slowly realized this was probably the best spot we could ever find! That sunset + campfire shot is one of my favorites for sure! Southern Utah is seriously incredible – I still can’t believe how VAST it all is, from the arches to striated coloring in rocks and more. It’s so cool!!

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