Travel: The Hole-In-The-Rock Road bears southeast from UT-12 at mile marker 64.4 east of Escalante. 4WD with high clearance is required. The road is impassible when wet with keeper mud holes. Pass the turnoff for Dry Fork Coyote, Dance Hall Rock, Sooner Rocks, and Cave Point. Northeast of Fiftymile Point the road descends a 150-foot hill and crosses a sheet of Navajo Sandstone just west of BM 4,315'. This is Davis Gulch, 51.4 miles from UT-12. (Your mileage may vary.) There are several excellent primitive campsites nearby east of Davis. The track degenerates. In another 1.2 miles, Hole-In-The-Rock Well will be on the right with its green pump and stock tank. At about 54.4 miles (3.0 miles past Davis), just over the top of a hill, park on the left in front of an orange flexible post preventing vehicle access. This is about 0.3 mile east of BM 4,422'. Allow two and a half hours from UT-12. The bottom of Hole-In-The-Rock Road is another 2.6 slow miles. Come supplied with plenty of fuel, water, and food in case you get stuck on the road.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 11.5 miles; 1,400 feet of climbing
Total Time: 5:00 to 7:00
Difficulty: Off-trail; navigation moderate; mild exposure; carry all the water you will need.
Map: Davis Gulch, AZ 7.5' USGS Quad
Reference: Canyoneering 3: Loop Hikes in Utah's Escalante, by Steve Allen.
Date Hiked: October 29, 2018
Quote: It should not be denied... that being footloose has always exhilarated us. It is associated in our minds with escape from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations, with absolute freedom, and the road has always led West. Wallace Stegner
From the rim of Clear Creek, overlook its submerged confluence with the Escalante River. Deep blue shimmering Lake Powell contrasts with tawny Navajo Sandstone and the porcelain-colored high-water mark. A buoy lends perspective. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)
Route: From Hole-In-The-Rock Road walk northeast down the fall line into the dry headwater basin of Clear Creek. When the arroyo trenches, walk on the west rim passing above Cathedral in the Desert and the Escalante River confluence. Continue northeast to Point 3,814'. Double back roughly as you came.
From the small parking pullout, elevation 4,400 feet, the Straight Cliffs are behind you to the west and Navajo Mountain is southwest. Start out on the abandoned road crossing a blackbrush flat. We saw rabbit tracks and very old footprints.
Near the top of a shallow rise at 0.2 mile, leave the track keeping a northeast bearing. Very soon you will be looking out over Clear Creek canyon and the three blocks of the Henry Mountains. Descend the sandy hill stabilized with ephedra, grasses, yucca, and feathery sage. (THW, photo)
Transition to sandstone at 0.4 mile. The canyon gathers water from a broad region and it's not immediately clear where the main channel lies. A stone funnel is a good indicator we are enroute.
While still in a broad basin at 1.0 mile, waterpockets are plentiful and rim-full after autumn rains. In this image I have turned around to mentally register Point 7,567' on the Straight Cliffs as my landscape marker for the return trip.
Sand captured by shallow depressions lie in ephemeral wave patterns.
At 2.0 miles a substantial side canyon must be bypassed.
Walk 0.3 mile northwest, head it at a ruble field, and return toward the rim.
This area was especially appealing with irresistible sandstone billows and rolling ridges to walk upon. In this image notice the pink dunestone covered in white liesegang. We went to its left only to discover we could have walked over the top.
Walking is dreamlike, tranquil and unimpeded by obstacles or navigation conundrums. In just one-and-a-half hours, at 3.0 miles, we were standing above the lake and Cathedral in the Desert. NASA's Earth Observatory scientists commented on the prolonged drought in the American Southwest. "Combined with water withdrawals that many believe are not sustainable, the drought has caused a dramatic drop in Lake Powell’s water level." On October 29, 2018, the lake level was elevation 3,590 feet, 110 feet below full pool. The lake is down 38 feet from one year ago. Clear Creek's grand alcoves are emerging. (THW, photo)
The Cathedral in the Desert cannot be glimpsed from the west rim. Boats access Clear Creek canyon by traveling about four miles up the Escalante River from its submerged confluence with the Colorado River. It's not quite two miles up Clear Creek to the Cathedral.
Steve Allen visited the Cathedral in 1968 as Lake Powell was filling. He climbed a row of Moqui steps up a vertical wall into the upper grotto. He writes, "And what a wonderful place it was! The tan Navajo walls, streaked with a thick patina of brown-and-black desert varnish, curved skyward in Gothic arcs that nearly met at the top, leaving just a thin slit of sunlight to illuminate the small stream that ran down from the chancel, through the nave, and disappeared under a wall beyond the narthex." David Brower once said, “Cathedral in the Desert was the ultimate magical place in Glen Canyon."
A small lateral canyon crosses our path. It is a fluted sculptural affair with interlocking potholes. Cross it effortlessly on a bridge of stone.
At the next lake overview we can make out the junction of Clear Creek with the Escalante River. A free-flowing confluence is both obvious in its location and a place of power. Under the stilled waters of the lake, not so much.
At the mouth of Clear Creek we stand upon the vertiginous brink at 4.6 miles. Given the sheer drop to the water dark and deep, the exposure seems extreme and the primal self urges caution.
The image below was taken approaching Point 3,814', the slickrock dome, image-center-right. The landscape is a little chaotic and we searched around for access to the lake as documented in Steve Allen's book. First we searched the rim on the left (off-image) but got cliffed out. We were repelled by the right side as well. We found passage between the domes.
We descended on sandstone bedding planes.
At 5.8 miles, elevation 3,780 feet, we were as close to the lake as we dared go, still 190 feet above the water. This was a gorgeous location and I recommend you venture here. (THW, photo)
Steve's book was published in 1997 and he reached the lake at Point 3,814' via a "steep slickrock descent." Presumably the lake level has dropped considerably since his book was published. I'm not convinced his route is still viable, but I know him to be much braver and more skilled than me. It gave me the heebie-jeebies just capturing this image.
We backed out and climbed easily to the top of Point 3,814', a worthy destination for its vista of unadulterated elements: sky, water, rock, and color.
If you prefer loops, consult Steve's book for directions on locating the abandoned Clear Creek Trail. The path has long been erased but any land that once held a trail will accommodate the navigation savvy. Steve describes a second route to the lake west of this location near the slickrock ramp, shown. (THW, photo)
Point 3,814' looks out over exquisite bare stone islands. The Escalante River thalweg does a sweeping hook in front of them. We intentionally varied our return course to see new terrain but essentially we walked southwest back to the start. Next time we will extend our "footloose" probe. A lifetime of exploration awaits in this whorling landscape imbued with peaceful pandemonium.
It is 2.6 miles from the parking pullout to the end of the road at Hole-In-The-Rock.
Called by Brigham Young in October, 1879 to colonize the Utah Territory and the Intermountain West, 230 people volunteered for the San Juan Mission. Stretching for two miles, the wagon train set out from Escalante and made for the southeastern corner of Utah. The Hole-In-The-Rock Expedition was the last wagon train in America and the only one to go from west to east.
On December 16, work began at the Hole-In-The-Rock Crossing while the pioneers were encamped at Fiftymile Spring. The drop down the crevice to the Colorado River is 1,200 feet with several 45 percent pitches. On January 26, 1880, after eight weeks of hard labor, the first of eighty-three wagons rolled down the chute and was ferried across the river where a dugway had been constructed up a 250-foot sandstone wall.
East of the river, the country was unscouted before the mission rolled out. The territory was wild, conditions harsh. Progress on the promised "shortcut route" was slow. The pioneers had been instructed to carry six weeks of provisions and yet the journey consumed six months. Remarkably, everyone survived to settle in their new home in Bluff City on April 6, 1880.
According to Kumen Jones, a member of the San Juan Mission, "In making the 125 miles from Escalante the company had traveled 260 miles and had made 210 miles of new road through the most difficult country wagons were ever taken through in all America."
Stewart Aitchison chronicles the perilous journey in, A Guide to Southern Utah's Hole-In-The-Rock Trail (University of Utah Press, 2005). In this slim volume, Aitchison documents historic accounts and details how to follow the trail by vehicle and on foot.
Steps were carved at the entry into the Hole. At the bottom of the stairway the scramble becomes serious with an initial ten-foot drop. Bring a rope if you want to make it to the lake. Most of the pioneer fill material has washed away and large boulders have exfoliated from the cliffs into the crack.