Escalante: Bighorn Canyon Adventures


We had a plan: pick up a slot canyon or two near Escalante off Hole-in-the-Rock Road as we would be spending Sunday through Wednesday venturing deeper on the road, without services. Bighorn Canyon was our choice after reference the excellent The Best Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Hikes book. We were in for a slightly bigger adventure than planned.

The author Morgan Sjogren’s advise is to hike down Bighorn from Spencer Flat Road, then venture up the short slot on the west fork of Bighorn. She gives two options then: backtrack up the way you came, or continue up the west fork and make your way to the rim for the return. We like variety and loop hikes so we opted for the rim return up another canyon.


Part one of the big adventure was navigating the upper end of the west fork slot. It had some steepish, narrow climbs that tested our non-technical canyoneering abilities. We made it up to almost the final bowl, with what appeared to be an exit above us that we could take. And when I say “we made it”, that was after about 30 minutes of coordination and mutual assistance. It was clearly on the edge of our abilities.

And, the exit wasn’t an option for us. The climb out was maybe doable for me with the longer legs, but I just couldn’t risk having Julie try the same route. We decided to take the safer route and double back and exit the slot the way we came. Once out of the slot, we returned up the slick rock on top to see where the slot went after our stopping point. We made the right call as there was nothing beyond and really no big payoff for exiting where we tried.


Part two of the big adventure started with a small navigational error on my part: as we climbed out of the west fork of Bighorn, we needed to stay on the easterly side of the canyon and work our way up to the rim and plateau. You can see in the map above our way down (black arrow on right side); the green arrow is the route we should have taken. I allowed us to get too far up on the west side of the west fork, forcing our hand to go around what are essentially three different tributary box canyons of Bighorn. And I allowed us to try a big no-no: maybe we cross over one of these to save some time! Wrong… even if it had been possible, the time lost descending and climbing these *deep (200-300 feet) canyons with sheer walls in most places counterbalances the savings in mileage covered. We had one false start and return trying this, costing us about 30 minutes.


In the end we followed roughly the black arrow return route, around all the canyons and back to the road for about a half mile return to the van. It turned a 9 mile hike into a 10.5 mile hike, 6 hours total with over 1500 feet of climbing.


Was it worth it? Yes, though of course on a return visit I would either backtrack or be smarter about finding the proper rim. The slots were fairly short but dry and full of warm colors and stripes.