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Big Horn Canyon Loop - Grand Staircase Escalante

Summary: A nice canyon loop hike through shallow narrows in a tributary of Harris Wash. On the way out you will be faced with a few climbing and route finding challenges.
Directions: From the small town of Escalante, drive east on Utah State Highway 12 towards the town of Boulder. Between mile posts 70 and 71 turn right (just before a sharp left turn and series of yellow and black arrow signs) onto the unsigned Old Sheffield Road. Drive exactly 2.8 miles to a small, one car pull out on the right hand side. Along the way to this parking area you will pass a small conical butte off to your left. The car park lies in a low point in the road near a small, squarish butte which lies off on the right hand side. GPS coordinates for this spot are: 12S 462662mE, 4174459mN
Road Conditions: Passenger Car
Navigation: Moderately Difficult - route finding is required
Length: 6 hours
Date Hiked: November, 2002
Weather Conditions: Cold and sunny
Required Skills:
Hike Description: From the car park look for the use trail that heads down into the drainage of the east fork of Big Horn Canyon. The trail skirts the squarish butte to the right then drops down into the dry wash. The wash is a mix of sand and slick rock and is wide and uninteresting at first. After about 15 minutes you will arrive at a 60' dry fall that is easily bypassed on the left. Forty minutes or so after the start of your hike, you will pass a prominent drainage which enters on the right (this is the middle fork of Big Horn Canyon), you will continue down the wash. A bit below the confluence, the canyon begins to slot up. The narrows aren't terribly deep, but the swirling colors of the sandstone make for a pretty walk. There are no real obstacles as you go. At one point, you have to perform a short climb down followed by a slide or jump of 3 ft, but nothing difficult. The canyon soon widens and you will reach another dry fall of 60' which leads into a short set of narrows, but there is a well established trail on the right that allows you to bypass this drop (there is a bit of a climb down at the end of this bypass in order to get back into the canyon bottom). Continue down canyon into another, much longer stretch of narrows. You may be forced to take off your pack and walk sideways at a few points. All too soon, the canyon widens and you will reach the confluence with the west fork of Big Horn. The west fork is your exit route; however, if you continue down canyon a short distance, you will arrive at the confluence with the very wide Harris Wash, where an old hanging fence crosses the drainage. Head up the west fork of Big Horn which slots up right away. The canyon quickly becomes relatively deep, twisty and photogenic and contains a few narrow up climbs. On the other side of the narrows you will find yourself stopped by a 30' circular dry fall. What now? How about climb out of the canyon up the steep slick rock slope on canyon left (remember canyon left means you are facing down canyon; it helps to have at least one fairly decent climber in your party to ensure your escape). Once out, climb over the low ridge to your left and back into the drainage and continue upstream in the now wide and sandy wash. The drainage has a few forks through this section, stay in the main one as you head up canyon (if you have a GPS head towards 12S 460286mE 4171580mN). The canyon soon slots up once again, and again you'll come to a 30' dry fall that blocks your progress. What now? How about climbing out on canyon left again. Climb around and drop back into the drainage. Continuing on, there are no more narrows, but 4 more dry falls to negotiate. The first one can be bypassed on canyon left by backing up 20-30'. The second dry fall is more of a box canyon and once you realize your path is blocked, you will likely be well past any easy route up. Backtrack as far as needed to route find your way to the rim, then follow the rim to the top of the falls. The author found a difficult route out a short ways back on canyon left, my wife went down stream another 100 yards to find an easier route out on canyon right. The third dry fall is only 20', and can be climbed without much difficulty. The final fall (are we done yet?) is only about 15', but it consists of an overhanging shelf. The author used a log to assist a climb directly up the falls, my wife went around and found a sketchy route up on canyon right. The drainage is now just a shallow wash. Continue north for a while then begin to route find your way to the northeast (do your best to choose a path that does not damage the fragile cryptobiotic soil). It's a long dull sandy slog through this section and if you head too far to the east (like I did) you will run into the cliff that forms the walls of the middle fork of Big Horn. Continue northeast around the head of middle fork and you will run into Old Sheffield Rd. Turn right and follow the road back to your car.
Rating (1-5 stars):
A fun canyon with enough pretty narrows and climbs to make it interesting. I'd give this one 4 stars, but the cross country trek at the end knocked it down half a star. The author and his wife completed this hike in 5.5 hours.
Maps: Trails Illustrated - Canyons of the Escalante
Books:  Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau - Michael Kelsey
Photos: Click picture for larger view, click your browser's 'Back' button to return to this page.
The small drop in the
east fork.
Typical narrows in the
east fork
The nice deep narrows
in the west fork.