Travel: Old Sheffield Road is off Highway 12 between Escalante and Boulder, UT. At mile marker 70 (where a cattle guard crosses the highway), turn south on a dirt road. Start measuring from here. At 5.8 miles in Big Spencer Flat, the main road goes right/south. Take the left fork trending east. The parking area was moved back a quarter mile in 2017 and is now 6.65 miles from Highway 12. It is a good road when dry, suitable for 2WD with good clearance. Check road conditions by calling the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center: (435) 826-5499.
Distance and Elevation Gain: Ladder Canyon, 9.2 miles; 1,500 feet of climbing
Spencer Canyon Grid adds 1.6 miles
Milagro Passage adds 2 miles and 600 feet of vertical
Time: 6:00 to 8:00
Difficulty: Off-trail; navigation challenging; mild exposure on the two ladders
Map: Red Breaks, UT 7.5 USGS Quad
Reference: Canyoneering 3: Loop hikes in Utah's Escalante, Steve Allen, 1997.
Latest Date Hiked: May 20, 2017
History of the ladders: Steve Allen noted that the ladders were installed by a youth group several years before his book was published in 1997. They were sturdy and reliable in May, 2017 but decide for yourself whether they are safe. A bypass route is described.
Route: This hike offers three options, all of which can be done in a day. The hike to the Escalante River via Ladder Canyon is the black-line route. Spencer Canyon Grid is the red-line route, and Milagro Passage is represented in blue.
Spencer Canyon Grid
The optional Grid tour meets back up with the standard Ladder Canyon route east of Ponderosa Pine Valley. Not only is this a rare opportunity to study a right-angled world but you will bypass a mile of sand slogging. From the parking area, elevation 5,760 feet, walk east on the road. Within 0.4 mile, leave the road and head northeast crossing Big Spencer Flat. At once, the landscape is dreamy and sureal with iron concretions covering Navajo Sandstone painted in garnet and cream-colored stripes. In just 1.4 miles, stand at the mazeway of Spencer Canyon and Fork 1. In this image, Spencer Canyon is a narrow, dark crack running west to east. (THW, photo)
The scene looks like a whole-earth tic-tac-toe board. To best view the Grid, stay close to the south head of the tributary canyons while moving generally east. The massive west wall of Fork 1 appears as a tapestry woven into a fin.
Curious, my hiking partner dropped into Fork 1. After a bit of brush thrashing and boulder dodging he arrived at a 60 foot barrier fall with a fixed rope at the rappel point. This was followed by another pouroff and pool. (THW, photo)
A thin, delicate hoodoo balances on the western precipice of Fork 2. (THW, photo)
Gashes run in four directions and there is a strong sense of cliff suck in this exceedingly dramatic slice and dice earthscape. Pictured is the north crack of Fork 2 piercing the opposing mesa. (THW, photo)
Pass a wall alcove above Spencer Canyon that is moments away from transitioning into an arch. (THW, photo)
According to Michael Kelsey (Non-technical Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau, 2011), there is a route into Spencer Canyon through the Fork 3 slot. The dark slit has a series of downclimbs at dropoffs. Once in Spencer Canyon, hike west to the bottom of Fork 1 before returning on the incoming route.
Just north of Fork 3, a minor highpoint at elevation 5,520 feet affords a view toward the collection of wild protuberances west of Ladder Canyon. Head Fork 3 and walk south to intersect the standard black-line route east of Ponderosa Pine Valley at about 2.8 miles. (THW, photo)
Continuing east, cross "Super Tanker Canyon" on a stone rib. In spring, large potholes are flush with clear water.
A tenth of a mile further east cross the South Fork. It emanates from the northern escarpment of Red Breaks near Point 6,015'. A softly rounded watercourse plunges over a 200 foot drop into Spencer Canyon.
Skirt a small sandstone dome to its south on a two-foot wide sidewalk.
Note: On our first exploratory trip to Ladder Canyon, we probed two access points just west of Point 5,756'. The most promising and beautiful was via a spectacular, small side canyon where a vertical wall meets a sheeted floor at a crack. A Class 3 downclimb accessed the floor of upper Ladder Canyon. Very soon we encountered a 30 foot drop in the defile and retreated.
The proven route continues east along the base of a second dome. Enter a small, north-trending drainage on a sand dune. It directs into a broad, shimmering, wide open basin, shown below. On our first trip we were so enthralled we walked down to a high, dramatic pouroff, worth the extra steps. However, for this route stay fairly high and cross the north ridge of an unmarked promontory on sheets of sandstone. Enter a large slickrock basin with three notable features: a wide gap, the Milagro Passage; a crack tributary of Ladder Canyon; and a gentle tributary of Ladder Canyon at the base. Head the crack canyon and walk beside its east rim to the floor, elevation 5,180 feet.
Walk down the soft, sandy tributary for 0.2 mile, cross a small side canyon, and arrive at the rim of the main fork of Ladder Canyon. This route proceeds counterclockwise, taking the Ladders Bypass to the Escalante and then proceeding back upcanyon and climbing the ladders. The ladders may be difficult to locate going the opposite direction. To follow this bypass route, stay rather high above Ladder Canyon and aim for a prominent red hill southwest of the Escalante. The image below was taken from the bypass route. Click on the image and find the ladders braced against the sandstone wall below the barrier fall.
Once atop the red hill, probe the area and find a cairned route down a mild friction pitch mixed with rubble. Cairns lead into a short, low Class 3 gully, access to the river. The image below shows the fin marking the gully. (THW, photo)
The Escalante River, elevation 4,940 feet, is a riparian habitat with massive cottonwoods, big sage, and brushy entanglements. To get into Ladder Canyon walk upstream for about 200 feet. The river was raging, milky, cold, and waist deep in places. Exit upriver-left. Follow the small channel coming out of Ladder Canyon hugging the wall. Walk 0.4 mile up the brushy drainageway. The ladders are located upcanyon-right, just before a massive pouroff. They are securely bolted to the sandstone wall. Most people will enjoy the ladder climb but there is a hard point drilled into stone at the top should anyone need a rope. (THW, photo)
From the ladders, climb a hill and then drop back into the canyon. If you descend too soon, you will encounter a pouroff and pool, easily bypassed. Go upcanyon and intersect the incoming route.
Note: We had read that it was possible to follow the main fork of Ladder Canyon to its upper end. So we explored two forks, got squeezed in narrow defiles, and climbed the sandstone rib between them. We could see into the upper section of Ladder Canyon from our overview. Point 5,756' is image-right. A convoluted, trashy jumble of rubble and bedrock led to the 30 feet drop we'd encountered from the top. A good climber might be able to get up the left side of the exposed obstacle. (THW, photo)
This remarkable and optional trek, the blue-line route, is well worth the additional effort. The image below shows the pass-through gap. The in-coming route tracks along the crack in this image and exits right. Climb the gentle sandstone slope to the northwest entrance and enter a 50-foot wide corridor.
Framing the passage are towering, sheer, carmine walls. (THW, photo)
This image looks back through the gap. (THW, photo)
We never dreamed the passage would exit the other side of the ridge but it did. Descend a short rubble-filled slope and emerge onto a sweet stone floor bearing southeast. Join up with the Upper Sand Slide route coming from the Escalante River, right of the two domes, shown below.
Hold elevation while swinging right/southwest. Note the distinctive liesegang rings, red and white concentric circles. Pass in front of Points 5,932' and 5,821'.
Keep circling, now to the northwest, passing a heavily cross-bedded butte. To avoid dune fields, stay on the stone skirts at the base of the prominences.
Rejoin the standard route. To return to the Old Sheffield Road parking area head due west and enter Ponderosa Pine Valley. Walk beside a dozen venerable, old growth trees. (THW, photo)
Locate the road emerging from the northwest corner of the slickrock, marked with a cairn. The last 1.3 miles is a deep sand slog, a small price for a glorious day.