Hole in the Rock Trail, how you changed my life. This is the first really long slickrock trail I have done and has fueled a continuing search for ever more remote Red Rock Country roads. It is 34 miles each way, through some of the most uninhabited, unspoiled land in Utah. It follows part of a much longer route blazed by Mormon missionaries driving covered wagons during the winter of 1879-80 from Escalante to what would become the town of Bluff on the San Juan River. This was a dubious shortcut never attempted before that ended up turning what should have been a 6 week journey into a 6 month ordeal. Thanks to the pneumatic rubber tire and internal combustion engine, we Jeepers can do this segment in 2~3 days.
It is an out-n-back dead end route now, starting from Highway 276 about 13 miles east of Halls Crossing Marina, coming to an end at the head of Cottonwood Canyon, 3 miles shy of Lake Powell. The actual Hole in the Rock dugway that lent this trail the name is on the opposite side of the Lake. To get to that point is a 202 mile drive, including a ferry crossing.
Hole in the Rock Trail is often confused with the Hole in the Rock Road , the 56 mile maintained dirt road leaving Scenic Highway 12 at Escalante, which follows the first portion of this same trail blazed by the San Juan Mission in 1879 to the now impassable Hole in the Rock road cut. Almost anything with tires can make the drive from Escalante to the Hole in the Rock. Thousands of hikers travel it every year to access sites such as the Devil’s Garden, Twentymile Wash Dinosaur Trackway, Peek a Boo & Spooky Gulches, Dance Hall Rock and the canyons of the Escalante River. However, that is the subject of another article.
Now, we are just looking at the Hole in the Rock Trail, the much more rugged part of the emigrants’ journey that began after they skidded their wagons down the mile long dugway created with 6 weeks of hard labor and ingenious engineering and ferried them all across what was then a languid Colorado River at winter’s ebb.
The trail is broken up into two maps, north and south. The trail used to go through Lake Canyon but the route washed out and became impassable to vehicles in March of 2009. The updated routing is shown as a solid red line on both halves of the map. The Lake Canyon routing is the dashed red line on the north map. You will not be able to drive past the washout shown on the map.
The new trail entrance on Hwy 276 is easy to find thanks to a metal “Hole in the Rock” sign. This new segment is clearly marked with colored ribbons, painted dashes on the bare slickrock sections and some occasional road signs.
There is a spur road shown on the south map that grazes the south end of the Waterpocket Fold as it descends 1000 feet to Lake Powell at the Rincon. The BLM shows it on their route inventory, unfortunately Glen Canyon National Recreation Area does not so it should be considered closed to vehicle travel. There is a possibility that it could become open if enough OHV users make their wishes heard- GCNRA is in the midst of creating a new OHV travel plan. I submitted it as a route and suggested adding the shore of Lake Powell at the Rincon as a designated primitive vehicle camping location in their initial public scoping. There will be more chances for public comment before this travel plan is finalized. Let’s get this perfectly good 60 year old 4wd road that goes to an incredibly desirable camping location added to the GCNRA route inventory! In the meantime the route to the Rincon is usually not marked with any kind of sign at all. If you stray down that road by accident and your vehicle shows up on the shore of Lake Powell you are likely to meet a Ranger in a boat.
There are several possible campsites shown on the map. Some people set up camp partway through the trail and leave it there to use the next night on the return trip. Most Jeeps will be able to do the round trip from Hall’s Crossing Marina, which is 13 miles from the trailhead, on a single tank of gas. Hall’s Crossing makes for a good rendezvous point before starting your trip. There is ample tow vehicle storage, just be sure to display your receipt for the $15 Glen Canyon National Recreation Area fee. The Marina has a small store/RV campground/gas station.
RV sites are $38.25 a night, or you can just get a hot shower from 8am-5pm for $2. For current information call the store at (435) 684-7009.
Across the road from the RV campground is a separate tent campground that has sites for $18/night which include a solar heated (cold!) shower in the price. A group site is also available for the same $18 flat rate.
The gas pumps have card readers and are available 24 hours a day. You may want to bring a little extra gas if you are inclined to go exploring. Filling up there:
Your choice of 87 or 100 octane gasoline is also available at Cal Black Airport, near the old Hole in the Rock Trailhead on Hwy 276.
On to some trail scenery…
Starting from the new trail routing that comes in from the Nokai Dome Road you will soon see this derelict halftrack. Note the road sign in the background, this new bypass is very well marked.
It is quick, easy driving until you leave the Nokai Dome Road, then things get rougher. I’m not sure if this was an existing track from uranium prospectors, there are places that seem to have been bladed at some point.
Some minor challenges along the way
There are quite a few signs marking the route
Moab-style painted dashes show the way over slick rock expanses
There were signs at the junction of the old route through Lake Canyon and this new entrance but you may not find them now.
One of the steeper hills you will find along the way
Much of the trail crosses bare sandstone and route-finding can be difficult at times
Big Alcove is one of the nicer campsites for a large group and comes before the difficult ascent of Grey Mesa.
The dugway going up to Grey Mesa- the most challenging part of the trail. This part was blasted out by prospectors in the ‘50s and takes a slightly different route than the wagon road put in by the Hole in the Rock party.
The original wagon road up Grey Mesa is better suited for hikers than vehicles:
Once you attain Grey Mesa you are rewarded with a few miles of smooth high range driving
You also get great views up here, of Navajo Mountain ahead, Iceberg Canyon to the right and the San Juan River/Lake Powell to the left. Stop at the overlook for the Great Bend
Dropping off the far end of Grey Mesa you soon reach the Chute, which has the unfair reputation as the most difficult part of this trail.
A short hike down the canyon is Old Settler Natural Bridge
Route finding is most difficult in the last 3 miles of trail as you travel up, down, over and around innumerable fins and domes of Navajo Sandstone. It gives you an appreciation for the abilities of the pioneers to find their way through this maze. You will need to look for the occasional tire tracks and rock cairns as very little road cutting was necessary to get the wagons through here.
At trail’s end you have a distant view of the actual Hole in the Rock on the opposite side of the canyon. This also makes a great place to camp.
You can hike down towards the lake past the end of the 4×4 trail. The route is marked by covered wagon emblazoned wood posts.
A short hike will let you see Cottonwood Hill, another major road building job performed by the pioneers.
Past that point the hiking trail is washed out and badly overgrown. Despite occasional posts marking the way it will feel like an off-trail bushwack.
This trail is well worth the time and effort to visit, just make sure your vehicle is in top mechanical condition before you leave.
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A Guide to Utah’s Hole-In-The-Rock Trail – Stewart Aitchison
Hole in the Rock – David E. Miller
Incredible Passage: Through the Hole-in-the-Rock – Lee Reay
Pioneer (Magazine): The Incredible Saga of the Hole-In-The-Rock – 2004 Volume 51, Number 4
The Undaunted: The Miracle of the Hole-in-the-Rock Pioneers – Gerald Lund