Monday, October 9, 2017

Boulder Mail Trail to Death Hollow and on to Escalante, Utah

Essence: The Boulder Mail Trail (BMT) is spectacular and exhilarating whether you are doing the out-and-back to Death Hollow or the thru-hike to Escalante, Utah. The BMT traverses a vast plateau south of Boulder Mountain incised with three major canyon systems. Walk through a symmetrical mix of gardens with old growth ponderosa and Navajo Sandstone expanses under canyon rims. Be prepared to follow the undulating landscape up and down throughout the hike. After the thrilling descent into Death Hollow the short river passage is gorgeous. Take an optional side-trip to Mamie Creek Natural Bridge. Carry a detailed map and double check the cairned route. Located within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the BMT is time-honored and representative of the monument's premier slickrock landscapes.
Travel: The thru-hike requires a shuttle. First, leave a vehicle at the Escalante River Trailhead. From town, drive east on Utah State Route 12 a quarter mile past the high school. Turn north on Cemetery Road which turns east to skirt the cemetery on a dirt road. In 0.4 mile watch for a small trailhead sign and turn north. After another quarter mile, trailhead parking is on the left. The Boulder Mail Trail upper trailhead is located about 23 miles east of the town of Escalante. At mile marker 83.1 on Highway 12, turn west on Hells Backbone Road. Go just 0.1 mile and turn left/south on an unsigned fair dirt road. Cross the Boulder Landing Strip just before generous trailhead parking at 0.5 mile. 2WD with good clearance should suffice for both trailheads.
Distance and Elevation Gain: BMT Trailhead to Death Hollow and back is 12.2 miles with 2,100 feet of climbing. The thru-hike to the Escalante River Trailhead is 16.2 miles with 2,900 feet of climbing and 3,800 feet of descent. Mamie Creek Natural Bridge adds 1.6 miles for a total of 17.8 miles.
Time: 5:00 to 6:30 roundtrip to Death Hollow. 8:30 to 11:30 for the thru-hike (carry a headlamp). To explore the region more thoroughly, consider a two to three day backpack.
Permits: Permits are not required for day hikers. Overnight permits are available at the Interagency Visitor Center in Escalante or either trailhead.
Difficulty: Trail with stretches of deep sand; navigation challenging--must be able to follow cairns and read the maps; roll-off exposure on a narrow trail platform and steep friction slab descent into Death Hollow; perennial water in Sand Creek and Death Hollow. 
Maps: Boulder Town, Calf Creek, Escalante, UT 7.5 USGS Quads; or, Trails Illustrated, Canyons of the Escalante #710
Latest Date Hiked: October 9, 2017
Historical Note: This circuitous and unlikely trail was originally an Indian route. It was purposefully cleaved in 1902 to link Boulder Town with Escalante. Initially, mules hauled mail on the BMT. In 1911 a telephone line was strung along the route coupling Boulder with the greater world via a switchboard in Escalante. The phone line was functional until 1955. The trail was in use until 1935 when the Hells Backbone road was completed. Highway 12, constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, was finished in 1940, connecting the towns year-round. Historical vestiges remain. Remnants of the telephone line are strung from tree to tree and hand-chiseled stone paths are integral to today's route.
Reference: Utah's Canyon Country Place Names, by Steve Allen
Quote: When you put your hand in a flowing stream, you touch the last that has gone before and the first of what is still to come. Leonardo da Vinci

The BMT tracks a precipitous edge as it plunges into Death Hollow. A mazeway of massive earth fins defines this grand earthscape. (THW, photo)

Route: I'm providing two maps for greater detail. The first map shows the segment hike from the upper trailhead, elevation 6,800 feet, to Death Hollow and back. This is suitable for hikers who do not have a shuttle arrangement or don't want to tackle the entire distance. The route includes an option to detour over "Four Tower Ridge" on the return, indicated with the blue line.

The thru-hike goes almost a mile down Death Hollow before climbing out of the canyon and proceeding southwest to the terminus at the Escalante River Trailhead. The optional spur to Mamie Creek Natural Bridge is one highlight of the trek.

To Sand Creek and Death Hollow
After registering, walk west on the well-defined trail; black spherical boulders are scattered about. During the Pleistocene, glacial ice broke up the volcanic Andesite caprock on Boulder Mountain and rolled chunks into the lowlands, rounding them along the way.

Follow the clear track through a piñon-juniper woodland, passing through the first of many large aromatic sage flats at 0.7 mile. A region-wide panorama opens at 1.5 miles. The vista extends from the Straight Cliffs to Boulder Mountain, the forcing fulcrum of this canyon system. Stone walking and cairn hopping begins here.

Cross another forested and sandy platform to the second overlook, 6,400 feet, at 2.1 miles. Make a shallow sandstone descent into the dry swale of the northeast tributary of Sand Creek.

At 2.7 miles, reach perennial Sand Creek flowing with clear water. Jump across the stream on boulder balls, the track hemmed in by willows. Above the fray Navajo Sandstone looks like a package of globular biscuits.

At 3.0 miles, leave Sand Creek and climb toward a ridge with four pinnacles, shown. Exploring "Four Tower Ridge" is a delightful option on the return for those turning back at Death Hollow.

The trail skirts the spire-topped ridge on its north. Still ascending, the path crosses under the historic telephone line at 3.3 miles. Lengthy wire remnants may be found (and followed) consistently throughout the journey.

Bearing southwest, encounter a wooded sandy stretch before climbing on sandstone to top out on Slickrock Saddle Bench at 6,600 feet, a 400 foot climb from Sand Creek. The deep sand track goes south on top of the plateau, rolling gently until it reaches the rim overlooking Death Hollow at 5.3 miles. The 700 foot drop into the gorge is the most invigorating and breathtaking feature of this hike. For those doing the upper section hike, allow an hour to reach the canyon floor and return to the rim. Follow cairns mindfully. There is only one place from which to initiate the northwestward descent and one very specific route.

This shot looks up at hikers walking down to the chiseled slope plunge. (THW, photo)

Be wary of cliff suck while standing enraptured on the roll-off slab with the enthralling vista encompassing the deep chasm, soaring cliffs, jutting fins, and white domes. This vantage point is unparalleled in the monument. (THW, photo)

Walk on a three-foot-wide exposed ledge for 0.1 mile. The platform is carved into the steeply inclined sandstone pitch and free of debris. Stay on course.

The treadway was roughed up by hand-chiseling to provide passage and increase the grip for pack animals.

Pass by a large alcove and reach Death Hollow at 6.1 miles, 5,800 feet. Defying its name, it is a pretty place. A wall rises abruptly on the opposing side of the perennial waterway. Streamside is cool and lovely with sprawling mahogany trees and box elders. If you move about at all poison ivy is impossible to avoid. (THW, photo)

Segment Hike: Return to the BMT Trailhead
Most section hikers will simply retrace their steps to the trailhead. For adventurers who want some playful exploring off-trail, at 8.4 miles leave the trail and turn east at Four Tower Ridge, the blue-line route on the map above. The ridge is pocked with potholes. Skirt north of the highest tower, a Class 3 scramble.

To return to the trail, do a steep friction descent off the east point of the ridge. Foot platforms make this comfortable.

At the base, walk a short distance directly east until you intersect the trail. Avoid stepping on cryptobiotic soil. This image looks back at Four Tower Ridge and the descent route.

Driving from the trailhead back to Highway 12, be sure to have a look at the Boulder Landing Strip and UFO Landing Site. Don't park on the airstrip! Who knows what may be coming in for a landing.

Thru-hike to Escalante River Trailhead
For hikers continuing on to Escalante, Utah, head downstream. The next 0.7 mile is extraordinarily beautiful. Ferns grow in green cracks in soaring walls. Ponderosa are old, broad, and tall. Colors are brilliant and western wild. Cattail and horsetail bound the trail which plows through thick stands of poison ivy. I wore long pants until I was clear of Death Hollow.

There are eight river crossings. The first is a boots-off, knee-deep wade. I was able to boulder hop across subsequent crossings without getting wet. Your water level may well be more challenging. There is a backpacker's camp on a rise down-canyon right after the initial crossing.

After half a mile, begin watching for the route out of the canyon at 6.8 miles. It is located at the apex of a right-hand bend, the location of the first break in the armored walls that conceivably allows passage. The exit route is marked with plentiful cairns. If you reach a side canyon, down-canyon left, you've gone too far. The route climbs steeply up the east-facing nose, shown. (THW, photo)

Once again there are chiseled divots on the slickrock ascent reassuring that you are on the old-timers' route. While climbing out of Death Hollow, a hiker contemplates the technical route that continues down-canyon to the Escalante River. (Chris Blackshear, photo)

Reach the top of the next rise (with several more to come) at 7.9 miles, 6,500 feet. Travel through a piñon-juniper forest on a sandy trail. Cross an extensive sagebrush steppe and top out on the upland terrace at 8.7 miles. From here, the 0.4 mile descent into Mamie Creek is on stone as we have come to gratefully anticipate. I have friends who have camped at Mamie Creek and found good water. On this day there was water in tanks but not flowing in the bed. According to Steve Allen, the origin of "Mamie" is a mystery. "The name is not known locally and has never been used except on the USGS Map of 1886."

Optional Spur to Mamie Creek Natural Bridge
The walk to the bridge is pleasant and only adds 1.6 miles total. Fragments of social trail will get you going until you are forced into the dry creek. Portions of the bed have a fine layer of iron concretions and walking is fast. (THW, photo)

Upon reaching the startling bridge, go through the oval-shaped opening and enter a circular amphitheater. Search the ceiling of this astounding room for the underside of ancient ripple marks. (THW, photo)

Back on the trail rollers keep coming. Climb out of Mamie Creek on a stony dunefield. Descend into an unnamed tributary of Mamie's extensive canyon complex. Downstream, she actually swallows Death Hollow to become a major con-tributary of the Escalante River.

Antone Flat is the largest summit plain of the hike. The sage flat alone is over half a mile wide and more than a mile long. Notice the telephone wire beside the trail.

Pass an old cedar-post fence at 12.5 miles with barbed wire circled up. Antone Flat continues onto stone. What follows is a mile of the most pleasing desert pavement of the entire route. There are wide shallow bowls and a clean stone draw with deep tanks. Keeping cairns in sight, walk freestyle and admire the cross bedding, knobs, and exhumed sand dunes.

Cross a sandy plateau one last time and then, somewhat abruptly, Escalante town and the irrigated fields of the Pine Creek and Escalante River valleys appear at 14.3 miles. Some strong hikers in my group were ready for the hike to be over at this point. There are 3.5 more exquisitely beautiful miles so stay psyched for this final segment. Slabs of stone pitch off in earnest westward. (THW, photo)

The slope is steep and direct on a chiseled path. Pass an outcrop and then descend a rubbly path with scattered boulder balls. This image looks back at the drop off the plateau. (THW, photo)

Upon reaching the valley floor we messed up the details...which should help you avoid any extra scrounging around for the trail. At 15.9 miles, the trail crosses Pine Creek. It appears to continue for some distance right into a massive tangle of tamarisk and willow. A classic loose end. The proper route is: go ahead and cross Pine Creek. And then recross it right away. Stay on the east (and dry) side of the creek almost to the confluence with the Escalante River. The footpath follows along the base of an escarpment down-canyon left. Pine Creek is especially beautiful in autumn when massive Fremont cottonwoods pump out cheerful light.

The BMT crosses Pine Creek and goes southwest on the Escalante flood plain, shown. The walls of the region's biggest river are radiant in evening twilight. There are no directional signs in this confusing area. You will join forces with the Escalante River Trail, perhaps without realizing it. (A somewhat hidden cairn marks the juncture.) The trails cross the river at the low point of the hike, 5,660 feet, 17.0 miles. Stay on the left side of the river. When the Escalante makes a sharp bend to the right the trail leaves the river and goes south up a draw. Climb a hill comprised of river cobble deposits. (THW, photo)

Pass through a fence via a hiker's maze and walk on the road a short distance to your shuttle vehicle at the Escalante River Trailhead. This image looks back on the western escarpment upon which the rightly renowned Boulder Mail Trail makes its final descent.

An important note from author Steve Allen about protecting endangered National Monuments in Southern Utah. 


  1. Hi Debra,
    My uncle and I just finished hiking BMT; it was absolutely spectacular and your detailed instructions were incredibly helpful. I haven't hiked Utah before so I took the precaution of printing these instructions and reading them as we went (along with "the" Canyoneering book, yes, I was uncertain), and they helped us avoid several costly misses. We hiked down and camped at LDH on day one, and hiked out the other 11-ish miles on day 2, which although beautiful, was a bit of a hellish death march on a clear, hot May day. I would stress that when you are leaving the canyon at 6.8 miles to go up, stock up on water; we found no lack of other water in the tanks to come, but it was murky standing water full of algae. Yes, fine with a purifier; we have stuck with iodine for years now so more sensitive to the idea of floaties. Completely agreed that when the Escalante farmland came into view I would have been okay with it being over. If I could change anything I would go in mid-April next time. This was our first taste of Utah hiking (we did Grand Canyon trails many times and needed a change) and it was fantastic; can't wait to come back next spring! Thank you for your wonderful posts!

    1. Thank you for leaving this helpful comment, especially concerning water availability--last reliable water at Death Hollow, yes. You tackled a big hike that's for sure. Well done. Debra

  2. Are there camping sites outside of Escalante along BMT?

    1. On Debra's behalf: There are numerous (and wondrous) camping sites along the BMT and in it's many side canyons. Lot's of good water, especially in the lower areas. Most people who want to spend one night out will camp somewhere in Death Hollow, which is probably the most reliable water source. Tomas.

  3. I'm curious what the actual dates of this hike were, I am wanting to go in the next few weeks and would love to catch the cottonwoods turning yellow!

    1. My most recent hike on the BMT was on October 9, 2017. That's when the gold cottonwood shots were taken. See "Latest Date Hiked" on the first page.