Utah's Incredible Backcountry Trails
by David Day
Distance: 9.5 miles (round trip)
Walking time: 6 hours
Elevations: 1,200 ft. loss/gain
Trail: The trail is generally easy to follow but can be confusing in places, especially the 0.9-mile portion along the Escalante River. Two fords of the Escalante are necessary, but the water is seldom more than a foot deep.
Season: Spring, summer, fall, winter. Spring or fall are the ideal times for this hike. The canyons are very hot in the summer and cold in the winter.
Vicinity: Near Escalante
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The slickrock country that surrounds the lower Escalante River is a hikerís paradise of redrock canyons, natural arches, hidden springs, and Indian artifacts. Most of the hiking trails in the area lead into the canyon tributaries of the Escalante. More than twenty canyons drain into the river before it reaches Lake Powell, and nearly every canyon contains something special.
This hike will take you into two of the canyons of the Escalante River drainage: Fence Canyon and Neon Canyon. Fence is a heavily vegetated canyon with permanent water that was once used by local cattle ranchers. It is a box canyon with no way out on its west side, so enterprising cattlemen once maintained a fence across its lower end to enclose their animals.
Neon Canyon is also a box canyon, but in this case the canyon ends in a large sandstone alcove with a 10-foot-diameter hole in its roof. If you are lucky enough to be in Neon after a storm you can see water pouring 80 feet down through the hole into a large pond on the floor of the alcove. This alcove is called the Golden Cathedral, and even when there is no water in the stream above it is a site to behold.
From Egypt Trailhead the trail plunges almost immediately over the upper rim of the Escalante Basin to begin its descent down the slickrock towards Egypt Bench below. Crude steps have been cut into the sandstone in a few places, and numerous scratches on the rock suggest that the trail is often used by packhorses. The route descends 450 feet over 0.5 mile before finally leveling out on the flat, sandy bench at the bottom of the Navajo Sandstone. From there you will see a hiker-made trail heading off in a northeasterly direction along the north side of Fence Canyon. Initially Fence is nothing more than a dry desert wash, but it quickly gains depth and within a mile the canyon floor steps down 200 feet over a pouroff that effectively prevents travel along the streambed.
1.9 miles after its descent to Egypt Bench the trail arrives at a point above the confluence of Fence Canyon and its northern fork. From there the path switchbacks down to the confluence and follows a small stream the last 0.2 miles to the Escalante River. A few minutes into the walk down Fence Canyon you will see a split in the trail where some hikers have climbed to a sandy ledge 15 feet above the north side of the creek. Turn left here to see a few remnants of an old cowboy camp that was once used by the cowboys tending their heard in Fence Canyon. There was still a cabin on this bench in the 1980s, but now all that is left is the foundation.
Fence Canyon meets the Escalante River just a few feet from where the old cabin used to be. At that point you must wade into the river and walk downstream about 100 feet before climbing back out on the same side of the water. You should see a well traveled trail at this point that follows the southwest side of the river. The trail stays on the riverís southwest side for about 0.3 mile, then crosses to the northeast side. There are many hiker-made trails along both banks of the Escalante, but some of them are better than others. I have found the one described here to be the most straightforward.
Within 8 minutes after the trail crosses to the northeast side of the river you will be walking through a wide, open area that has obviously been heavily grazed in the past. The river runs due east here with low cliffs about 100 yards to the north. Watch the base of the cliffs and soon you will see an interesting panel of Indian petroglyphs. Unfortunately the panel has been partially defaced by some old cowboy graffiti, but some of the graffiti is also quite interesting. There are several dates inscribed in the rock, including one from 1881.
Continue walking east along the north side of the river, and about 7 minutes after leaving the petroglyph panel the trail climbs up a small sand dune and turns left into the mouth of Neon Canyon. The river abruptly turns south at this point, so if you find yourself walking south you have gone too far.
Neon Canyon is a deep narrow gorge about 200 feet wide with sheer, 300-foot walls of Wingate Sandstone. The walk up the canyon floor is extremely pleasant, with ample shade and lots of greenery (watch out for the poison ivy). Other than a few boulders in the streambed near the end, there are no obstacles along the way and the elevation gain is minimal. After an easy walk of 0.9 mile you will arrive at your goal, the Golden Cathedral.
The Golden Cathedral is a magnificent natural alcove that has been etched into the walls of Neon Canyon by water seeping through the base of the sandstone cliffs. The cavity is roughly 150 feet in diameter by 80 feet high, and in its center a large pond of mirror smooth water reflects the reddish-orange walls. But the most notable feature of the Golden Cathedral is the opening in the ceiling. Like an enormous chandelier in the center of an opulent ballroom, the natural skylight casts a soft glow on the golden-colored room below.
The Golden Cathedral is actually a natural bridge, and after a heavy rain water can often be seen pouring through the 10-foot-diameter hole in the ceiling. It is also a popular destination for canyoneering enthusiasts, and climbers can occasionally be seen rappelling down through the hole to the pond at the bottom of the alcove.
The book includes more text, more photographs, and trail maps.
If you are interested in a supplemental map of the Coyote
Gulch area, we recommend:
Canyons of the Escalante (Trails Illustrated, map #710)