Updated 08.23.2019: Waterfall hikes are a treat while on an American Southwest adventure in the rugged high desert. Nothing’s better than feeling the spray from a waterfall after a traveling along a hot, sunny trail.
During a visit to Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Alan and I discovered one of the best Utah hiking trails. The Lower Calf Creek Falls hike is our favorite memory from a road trip along Scenic Byway 12, a designated All American Road at National Scenic Byways.
On our first day in Grand Staircase-Escalante, we stop for breakfast at Circle D Eatery in the town of Escalante. “What are the area’s must-sees? Alan asks our server. He replies, “I always send first-timers to Lower Calf Creek Falls trail. It’s spectacular.”
Check out our Utah Travel Planner before your trip to Grand Staircase-Escalante.
Directions to Lower Calf Creek Falls trailhead
Back at the truck, Alan and I consult the Falcon Guide we brought along, Hiking Grand Staircase-Escalante & the Glen Canyon Region, for the hike’s particulars and directions to the trail. The Lower Calf Creek Falls trailhead is a 15-mile-drive east from Escalante on scenic Byway 12 to Cave Creek Recreation area. If you’re coming from the Boulder Mountain area, the trailhead is about 8 miles west on Highway 12.
At the turn off to Cave Creek Recreation area, Alan negotiates a fairly steep road down into a parking area and campground—RV’ers should check for length requirements before attempting this road.
Arrive early to find a parking space and to escape the crowds. This trail is very popular.
Gearing up for the hike
In the parking lot, Alan and I put on hiking shoes and hats. Of course we need to protect ourselves from the sun (we’re prone to skin cancer) by slathering on waterproof sunscreen. A waterproof variety also minimizes water contamination, protecting the fragile aquatic ecosystem, just in case we take advantage of swimming at Lower Calf Creek Falls. We’re also carrying plenty of water and a small snack to enjoy once reaching the falls.
After visiting the restroom facilities—there are none on the trail—we pick up a trail guide and deposit the small day-use fee in a metal box near the campground. I grab my hiking poles—which I really didn’t need for this trail, after all—and we’re ready to go.
Hiking to Lower Calf Creek Falls
The six-mile-round-trip trail alternates between undulating slickrock and lush creek bottom as the journey, with only minor elevation gains, travels in and out of the canyon floor. The hike takes about 3 to 4 hours depending on how fast you hike and how much time you spend at the waterfall. But why hustle down the trail when there’s so much to see along the way?
The trail brochure designates the hike to the falls as moderately strenuous due to the thick sand on many portions of the trail, but we find it to be easily doable for most boomer hikers.
Lower Calf Creek Trail Highlights
The entire trail to Lower Calf Creek Falls is a pleasant, scenic hike but some features are worth stopping for a closer look. At the trailhead, be sure to pick up a trail brochure that includes numbered viewpoints. Here are some of the highlights:
If you peer closely at the canyon ledges across the canyon from Stop #5, you’ll find several granaries built by the Fremont Culture (AD 700 to AD 1300.)
At Stop #7 pause to view the dramatic vertical striping visible on walls on the far side of the canyon. Known as desert varnish, the stripes are actually caused by living microbes that oxidize iron and manganese found in clay minerals. The manganese rich black stripes are the result of humid conditions while orange stripes indicate arid conditions with low manganese content.
You’ll see Freemont-style petroglyphs at Stop #8, although Alan and I wish we had brought a pair of binoculars because we cannot find the drawings on the canyon wall. Painted with red pigment, the three large trapezoidal shape figures are located on the smooth wall near the bottom of the canyon across the canyon from the trail.
As the trail winds beside Calf Creek, look for trout or the evidence of busy beavers. Alan and I stop several times to photograph spring wildflowers or listen to bird calls. Birdwatchers will find an abundance of birds including hummingbirds, ravens, robins, peregrine falcons and spotted towhees.
According to the trail brochure, wildlife watchers should look for “lizards, mule deer, ground squirrels, coyote, porcupine and mountain lion.” But all was quiet on the wildlife front during our hike.
Arriving at Lower Calf Creek Falls
The premier reason for all of this effort, and the prize at the end of the trail, is located at Stop #14. Here, Lower Calf Creek Falls tumbles 126 ft. down the canyon walls creating a pool of water that makes a fun summer swimming hole in warm weather. Although it’s too cool on our hike to go swimming, the mist from the waterfall provides a welcome refresher.
Don’t hurry once you’ve arrived at this idyllic spot. Do like we did, take a seat on a fallen log near the sandy beach, enjoy a snack and take a bazillion photos.
It’s also possible to hike to Upper Calf Creek Falls. You’ll find directions to the trailhead here. Be aware, especially if you have a fear of heights; the trail starts out steeply over slickrock before leveling off. The 2-mile hike is mostly on slickrock with little sun protection and is very hot in the summer.
Where to stay in Escalante National Monument
Lodging choices are sparse in southern Utah. And they book up quickly, especially on holidays like Memorial Day. Alan and I stayed in Escalante. But next time, we’ll book early enough to stay close to Boulder (about 8 miles east from the Lower Calf Creek Falls trailhead) at Boulder Mountain Lodge or Boulder Mountain Guest Ranch
More things to do in Grand Staircase-Escalante
You could spend weeks hiking the trails or exploring on off-road adventures in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Unfortunately, our time was short, but we made the most of it by:
- Driving portions of the Burr Trail
- Exploring the Devils Garden
- Road tripping the Highway 12 Scenic Byway
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