While it would take a lifetime to see all the extraordinary wonders of Utah’s 1.87 million acre Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument, even on a short visit you can hike to some of the strong points. Lower Calf Creek Falls is one of the most remarkable that people are eager to visit.
For many, the hike involves getting to the 126-foot waterfall, where they can swim or soak in the crystal clear water, or just sit on the natural sandy beach in the shade. But you will also find that the whole trail will interest you. Along the way, you will encounter prehistoric pictographs and granaries, geological formations such as alcoves, arches and water pockets, in a healthy riparian habitat that supports a variety of wildlife and aquatic vegetation.
The trail begins at the north end of the Calf Creek Recreation Area Campground at an elevation of 5,346 feet. At the trailhead, be sure to pick up a brochure that will help you find points of interest. Calf Creek is a perennial creek that has carved a deep canyon into the red and orange Navajo sandstone. The trail is 6 miles out and back and includes some rocky terrain, but it is a moderate hike with only 190 feet in elevation gain.
Bring your binoculars on this trail for a closer look at some of the archaeological sites. Tucked away in small alcoves are a few prehistoric granaries, built over 800 years ago by people of the Fremont culture. They grew corn, beans and squash there and picked native plants such as pine nuts and berries. The canyon also provided them with fish, deer and small mammals.
Pictograms of warriors can be seen across the canyon from the east side. Look on the smooth-faced wall at three large figures painted in red pigment. Their trapezoidal shape with legs and arms as well as headdresses are a good representation of Fremont style rock art. Like all archaeological sites, these fragile drawings should never be touched or disturbed.
In more modern times, pioneers used a few of the box canyons to fence in their weaned calves, hence the name Calf Creek. In the 1900s, settlers grew watermelons, which thrived in this rich environment.
In the last 1/2 mile or so to the waterfall, you will feel the temperature drop as the trail becomes covered in mature trees. Soon you will be able to hear the falls before you see them. Box elderberry and other water-loving trees, such as river birch, cottonwood and willow, thrive here. Listen and look for spotted towhee, hummingbirds and robins wandering around. One morning about 20 years ago, I came across newly hatched wild turkeys (poults) frolicking around their mother hen. An eye to the sky might offer you the sight of peregrine falcons and golden eagles.
Where the waterfall cascades down the cliffs, many beautiful plants thrive. Look for alcove columbines, scarlet monkeyflowers, easter flowers and maidenhair ferns, all of which thrive in the mist and seepage on the cliff faces.
The ideal times to hike this trail are from May to mid-June, then from mid-September to November. May typically sees high temperatures in the 70s and lows in the 80s, dropping to the 40s overnight. Start on the trail at dawn as it can get crowded by midday. With an early start, you can have the waterfall and pool to yourself and be back at the trailhead before noon, ready for your next adventure. Bring food and all your drinking water, and wear quick-drying clothes or a bathing suit and water shoes such as Chacos or Tevas. If you go in the water, choose only waterproof sunscreen, to minimize water contamination of this aquatic ecosystem.
The trip is well worth your time, but a five-hour drive from Las Vegas, advance planning is in order.
The Escalante Visitor Center website is particularly useful. The location of this center is also worth a visit to 755 West Main Street in Escalante. The phone is 435-826-5499.
To reach the trailhead from the town of Escalante, drive east on Utah Route 12 approximately 16 miles and turn left at the BLM Calf Creek Recreation Area and parking lot.