(Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument)
Utah's Incredible Backcountry Trails
by David Day
8.2 miles (round trip to all points of interest)
Walking time: 51/2 hours
Elevations: 880 ft. loss/gain
Trail: The first mile to the upper falls is a well-marked slickrock trail. There is no trail for the 3.2 mile walk from the upper falls to the lower falls. The route is easy, but you will be wading in shallow water for almost the entire distance.
Season: Spring, summer, fall, winter. The trail is very hot in the summer, and there may occasionally be snow in the winter. Winter hikers rarely venture beyond the upper falls, since continuing on to the lower falls requires a great deal of wading.
Vicinity: Near Escalante and Boulder
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This trail is usually taken by people who have already hiked to Lower Calf Creek Falls (page 304) and want to see more of this delightful canyon. The highlight of the trail is Upper Calf Creek Falls, which is only 0.9 mile from the trailhead, and that is as far as most people go before turning around. If you have time, however, I urge you to walk downstream at least part of the way from the upper falls toward the lower falls before returning to your car. Unlike the trail through the lower half of Calf Creek Canyon there are no Indian granaries or pictographs to see along the way, but the thrill of walking through the lush, seldom-seen upper canyon will provide ample reward.
The trail begins its descent into Upper Calf Creek Canyon immediately after leaving the trailhead. As you walk downward you can gaze out across a vast sea of sandstone slickrock. What an unlikely place to find a babbling creek, in the midst of a seemingly endless desert of barren sandstone. But, oddly enough, the parched stone is really key to the existence of Calf Creek and other flowing streams in the area.
The fact is that the geologic formation surrounding Calf Creek, called Navajo Sandstone, is not as solid as it appears. When this formation was laid down some 180 million years ago the grains of sand were only loosely cemented together. Microscopic voids were left between the tiny particles. Now, because of these voids, some of the rainwater that falls onto the surface of the slickrock is able to seep ever so slowly downward and eventually reappear in the canyons below.
As you walk down into the canyon you will notice that much of the terrain is littered with black boulders of basalt. This debris came from a series of volcanic eruptions that occurred northwest of Boulder some 20 million years ago. The BLM has thoughtfully rolled most of the volcanic boulders to the side of the trail so they do not present a problem for hikers.
Most of the 600 feet of elevation loss to the canyon floor occurs in the first 0.4 mile of the trail; beyond that the trail leaves the slickrock and levels out in a more sandy area. Continuing downward at a more gradual rate, the trail next begins to turn to the right as it follows the rim of the Calf Creek gorge. Soon you will see the upper falls on the northeast side of the canyon, opposite a large alcove in the western wall. The trail splits here, with the right fork leading to the top of the waterfall and the left fork dropping on down to the bottom of the canyon.
Above the fall the stream flows through a series of small cascades and pools before suddenly plunging over the edge. It is worth spending some time here, especially if you have a camera. The contrast between the riparian streambed and the adjacent slickrock is stark. There is very little soil in the area, and the terrain changes from stark white sandstone to a lush green aquatic environment in just a few inches. The ponds are filled with tadpoles, but no fish.
Inside the gorge the trail soon ends on the south side of an 80-foot-diameter pond that defines the bottom of the waterfall. The setting is very similar to the scene below Lower Calf Creek Falls except that here the pond is lined with a carpet of thick, untrampled grass that grows right to the water’s edge. The waterfall itself is about 110 feet high with a flow rate slightly less than that of the lower falls.
The 3.1-mile walk downstream from the upper falls to the top of Lower Calf Creek Falls is a memorable wilderness experience. Few people walk the entire distance, and the canyon is wild and pristine. The dense vegetation that lines the streambed generally makes walking along the shore impractical, but if you stay in the stream you will encounter few obstacles. The water is seldom more than a foot deep, and the creek is alive with 8-inch native brown trout that dart here and there in the shallow water as they hear you coming. How these fish initially migrated into this section of the creek between the two falls is a mystery.
As Calf Creek approaches the lower waterfall the canyon narrows, the gradient steepens, and the hike becomes more exciting. The fast running water in this area has carved out a series of pools and waterslides and, although the route is still easy, some minor scrambling is necessary. Finally you will come to a small pool of relatively deep water that you can't get around without a short swim. Just beyond that pool lies the lip of the lower waterfall where the hike must end. There is no easy way to continue beyond the top of the waterfall.
If you are interested in a supplemental map of the
Calf Creek area, we recommend:
Canyons of the Escalante (Trails Illustrated, map #710)