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Death Hollow - Grand Staircase Escalante

Summary: A strenuous 3-6 day backpacking trip through the deep and remote drainage of Death Hollow featuring hiking, climbing, wading, canyoneering and swimming. The hike is described entering at the top of Death Hollow from the Hell's Backbone Road and exiting at Highway 12 at the bridge that crosses the Escalante River. This is a rugged trip suitable for experienced canyoneers. In order to enjoy this hike, it helps to be well prepared. To that end here are a few tips:
1. Keep all your critical gear in waterproof containers. This includes food, dry clothes and sleeping bag. Another option is to carry an inflatable boat or inner tube to float your pack (which is what I did). Make sure you bring one that is durable and can easily be blown up and deflated.
2. Do the hike when temperatures are warm. Swimming is unavoidable. A wet suit may be desirable during cooler weather or for skinny people.
3. You'll be walking in water much of the time on this hike. Wear shoes that have good traction even when they are wet. A walking stick may be useful for balance.
4. Make sure the forecast is for sunny weather. Death Hollow is a very large drainage - flash floods pose a very real danger.
5. Plan your camping about an hour in advance. Campsites are interspersed throughout the canyon, but they may not be located exactly where you'd like them to be. Be flexible as to where you stop and be ready to settle for a site that isn't ideal.
6. Carry 40 feet of webbing or rope. There is one section where it may be needed.
7. The canyon is notorious for its dense thickets of poison ivy. Long pants are recommended.
Note: Conditions are described as I experienced them. The weather had been dry and hot prior to this trip and little water was encountered in the upper sections. Keep in mind that conditions can vary with each rainstorm and that your experience may differ.
Directions: A car shuttle is required to complete this hike. There are several businesses located in the town of Escalante that are available for this service (call ahead for prices):
       Escalante Outback Adventures
       Escape Goat
       Excursions of Escalante

Car Spot: From the town of Escalante, head east on Highway 12 for approximately 15 miles to a concrete bridge that crosses the Escalante River. A popular parking lot and trailhead are on the left (west).
Trailhead: From the town of Escalante, head north on the Hell's Backbone Road for approximately 24 miles as it eventually ascends into pine forests to the signed Upper Death Hollow Trailhead.
Road Conditions: Passenger Car (when roads are dry)
Navigation: Easy
Length: 3-6 days
Date Hiked: July, 2007
Weather Conditions: Hot and sunny
Required Skills:
Hike Description:

From the Upper Death Hollow Trailhead, pick up a use trail on the south side of the road that descends steeply through the pine forest to soon reach a trail register. After signing in, continue the steep descent until the path levels out somewhat at the Death Hollow drainage, which is little more than a rocky, dry wash in this area. Head downstream through the wide, forested canyon consisting of pine, juniper and manzanita beside or in the dry creek bed, taking advantage of use trails along benches where they exist. After approximately 2.5 hours of hiking, the canyon walls recede into the distance and you'll walk up to the left onto an extremely wide bench. Choose a route of least resistance down the scrubby, pine-dotted slope. After about an hour of hiking, you'll be forced down into the drainage once again. It's more of the same below where you'll be walking either in the wash or on benches until you eventually enter some low narrows (which will feel like a brick oven in the summer as the canyon walls radiate heat from all sides). Where the canyon widens, look for a rusty streak on the canyon wall on the left. There is a spring and small pool at the base of this streak - the first available water of the trip. (Hike Time = 5-8 hours)

About 20 minutes below the spring, the canyon begins to slot up once again. You can either go through the narrows (this section was entirely dry when I was here - but may require wading or swimming after recent rains) or look for a use trail marked with a cairn that climbs up on the right and bypasses a section before entering the drainage once again. There is another indistinct detour below the point where the above bypass returns to the canyon that climbs up to the rim on the left, but I do not recommend it since it has to detour around several side canyons of Death Hollow and requires some route finding and scrambling in order to locate a route back down into the canyon again (which becomes quite deep in this section). It's more of the same in the narrows below as walking alternates between hot, sandy slogging, rock hopping and down climbing to negotiate multiple chockstone obstacles. Just before reaching the Right Fork of Death Hollow you'll be faced with a 2-stage drop off that will require webbing or rope to safely descend (a rope may be fixed at this spot, but don't count on it). There are pinch points at the top of both drops to use as anchors. Just below these obstacles, the Right Fork enters from the left. The canyon then enters a deep section of very nice narrows that features a few moderately challenging downclimbs before opening up once again at a dropoff and pool about 45 minutes later. This is the start of perennial water in the canyon. There is a well worn bypass around the pool on the left that leads to a veritable oasis in the desert. (Hike Time = 5-8 hours).

The character of the canyon completely changes below this point with flowing water, pools and lush vegetation. Don't bother trying to keep your feet dry, you'll be walking in water much of the time. In fact there are several deep pools that will require swimming. Unfortunately, with the appearance of water, poison ivy also manifests itself along benches in areas that receive shade. Keep your eyes open, particularly if you decide to take advantage of use trails along the benches. After 45 minutes or so of hiking, you may notice a faint odor of sulfur in the air. This is due to a sulfur spring that trickles from the left. Continuing down canyon, it's more of the same as you splash along in the water or hike on benches. Eventually you will reach a prominent canyon with flowing water entering from the right. (Hike Time = 5-8 hours).

Below this side canyon, you'll be walking directly in the streambed as the banks of the creek become lined with thick vegetation. It's easy walking much of the way where the shallow stream passes over solid rock. After some hiking you'll notice a large alcove on the left side of the canyon and trails become more plentiful along benches. About 15-20 minutes later you'll encounter a nice campsite tucked into a shallow alcove on the right and just beyond, a squirting spring at stream level that shoots from the rock about 6 inches straight up into the air. About 200 feet below the spring there is a very faint track that leads up and out of the canyon to the left. This is the Boulder Mail Trail, which heads to the Boulder Mail Trailhead off of Highway 12. In case you are looking for this landmark, but missed it, there is a large bench on canyon right just below where the trail enters that is covered with some very large ponderosa pines. If you reach this point without spotting the trail, you've gone too far. Be aware that poison ivy is most prevalent in the vicinity of the Boulder Mail Trail. The safest course of action in the area is to avoid the benches and stick to the stream bed. About 30 minutes below the squirting spring you'll arrive at a junction for the other half of the Boulder Mail Trail, which enters from the right. This trail leads to the Upper Escalante Trailhead just outside of the town of Escalante. Continuing down canyon the drainage eventually widens, and you'll spend more time hiking along benches than in the water (they become safe again the further you get from the Boulder Mail Trail). Eventually the canyon becomes somewhat narrower and the side canyon of Mamie Creek enters from the right. (Hike Time = 5-8 hours).

From Mamie Creek, continue down canyon for about an hour to enter the last narrows of Death Hollow. Though short, this section is the prettiest part of the hike in my opinion. You'll have to do some fancy footwork in one spot to avoid going into the water up to your neck. About 1.5 hours later, you'll pass a huge alcove which will be on the right, and 0.5 hours later you'll reach the junction with the Escalante River, which was a mere trickle above Death Hollow when I was here (and evidently can dry up above this junction during drought conditions). Turn left and head down the Escalante. You can either hike right in the water or use trails to shortcut benches where the river bends. Though the trails are more direct, deep sand and exposure to full sunlight may make staying in the river more attractive during the summer months. The canyon walls recede as you continue downstream and the benches become larger and more attractive as a hiking option. Eventually you will pass a large natural arch, located high on the canyon wall on the right, and a short distance later you'll pass Escalante Natural Bridge, which is also on the right. Continue down canyon until you reach the trailhead at Highway 12 and the car you spotted earlier. (Hike Time = 7-10 hours).

Rating (1-5 stars):
The author and his wife did this trip as a 3-day backpacking trip. Day 1 we hiked down to the start of the perennial water in 10 hours. We did this on a day when temperatures in Escalante exceeded 100 F degrees. Though the upper, forested canyon was not too bad, temperatures in the narrows were extremely hot. Day 2 we hiked down to camp on a bench above Mamie Creek in 10.5 hours. We then hiked down to the bridge over the Escalante River on Day 3 in 7.5 hours. Total hike time was 28 hours.
Maps: Trails Illustrated - Canyons of the Escalante
Books:  A good description of this hike is found in:
       Canyoneering 3 - Loop Hikes in Utah's Escalante - Steve Allen
Other books containing this route include:
       Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau - Michael Kelsey
       Hiking the Escalante - Rudi Lambrechtse
Photos: Click picture for larger view, click your browser's 'Back' button to return to this page.

Hiking a bench early in the canyon. The upper narrows.
A few pretty pictures in the middle part of the canyon.
A few more pretty pictures in the middle part of the canyon.
Death Hollow narrows. Another view in the narrows.
A few HDR photos taken in Death Hollow.