Cottonwood Canyon Road – The Grand Staircase Escalante

In Adventure, Guides, National Monuments, Photography, RV, Travel, Utah

Candy Land

Visualizing 1.9 Million acres of land is something akin to trying to conceptualize infinity.  There is a point when something is so large that we really can’t conceive of it in our minds.  The size registers, but it registers something not conceivable until you’re standing in the middle of nowhere looking out.

The Grand Staircase Escalante is home to countless slot canyons, well over 1,000 miles of roads, contains vast mineral deposits, and fits into 1.9 million square acres.  It’s the kind of place that defies immediate description, and is best seen in person.  It’s also the kind of place that takes a lot of time to document and share with adventurous visitors.  And with that in mind, a series of articles better serves covering this place.  Welcome to Part I, Cottonwood Canyon Road.

Tips for a successful trip

This National Monument is home to some amazing places to hike, canyoneer, photograph, and much more.  The memories you can make here if you choose to visit will be ones that last a lifetime.  With that said, we do have some cautionary advice that we feel should be put up front.

The Grand Staircase involves areas that are extremely remote and not hospitable to many types of RV’s.  Fortunately there are camping opportunities along the edge of the monument on both the north and south sides.  Many of the dirt roads into the monument are “washboard” at minimum, and washed out sometimes in the worst case.  Quite honestly, you wouldn’t catch me towing my Airstream onto Cottonwood Canyon Road, it would rattle my rivets right out!

Into Hackberry Canyon
Inside Hackberry Canyon, one of the many canyons you can hike along Cottonwood Canyon Road.

With that said, this monument still has a lot to offer.  If you’re pulling a trailer with a 4×4 you’re set.  Class A RV’ers?  Hey, I’ve seen you guys running around with Jeeps in tow….now is the time to really make use of that 4 wheel wonder!  Park and camp at one of the spots we recommend and use your RV as base camp.

When venturing into the Grand Staircase be sure to have plenty of water along with you no matter what time of year it is.  Your exploration vehicle should have a medical kit along with it, and if you’re hiking off to a slot canyon or to explore some of the amazing hikes your pack should have a basic first aid kit as well.

Finally, given the size of this monument and its remote areas, DO NOT expect your cell phone to work in most areas (there are exceptions of course).  Personally we carry a satellite messenger with us in the Grand Staircase and a HAM radio as well.  There are several Amateur Radio repeaters that reach into the area, adding a measure of safety when you visit.  If you get stranded you may not see anyone who can help all day, so it pays to plan ahead.

Cottonwood Canyon Road

Running from Route 89 to Route 12 the Cockscomb is a 50-mile long fault, and Cottonwood Canyon Road runs along it.  The road is not suited for most RVs, however 4 wheel drive truck campers and “adventure trailers” will have little issue following the road.  If you’re traveling with one of these you’ll have some “choice spots” to camp, and you will garner this author’s envy.

At the southern terminus of the road (on Route 89) travelers will find themselves extremely close to the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument and Page, AZ.  At the northern terminus of Cottonwood Canyon road you’ll find yourself at Kodachrome Basin State Park.  So opportunities for camping can be found, and day tripping in with a tow vehicle (preferably a 4wd high clearance vehicle) is not only possible, but highly recommended.

For easy access to the road we’d recommend staying at Kodachrome Basin for trailers, 5th wheels, and larger rigs.  That will put you in a wonderful area full of recreational opportunities when you’re not exploring along Cottonwood Canyon Road.  Additionally, you’re not that far from Bryce National Park.  You can also base out of the Lake Powell area as well and run the road from South to North.

Looking north toward Kodachrome Basin from Cottonwood Canyon Road.
Kodachrome Basin from Cottonwood Canyon Road (parked to the south of Kodachrome looking North).

From North to South on Cottonwood Canyon Road

Starting from Kodachrome Basin and heading south into the Grand Staircase is a great way to go.  The starting point is already an amazing area, and you could spend days exploring all the park has to offer.

Heading south from Kodachrome Basin along Cottonwood Canyon Rd the view spots start coming at you almost immediately.  Take your time, pull off often, and make sure not to miss a single view.  Also, when you reach the height of land look back to where you came from, as the view toward Kodachrome Basin is awe inspiring.

The awe inspiring Grosvenor Arch.  I've visited several times and only met one other visitor in all of my trips!

Grosvenor Arch

In under 10 miles of travel one of the first major points to stop and look around is Grosvenor Arch.  The Arch itself is actually a double arch, and it’s only a short walk from the parking area (which has primitive restroom facilities).  The view from the parking area is fantastic, but to enjoy this area to it’s full potential you should take a short walk up to the arch and around it.

From Candyland you can take a short or long walk into one of the many canyons along the road.
A short hike in from Candyland!

Candyland

Leaving the arch and heading south once again the scenery continues to astound.  And in under 4 miles you’ll come over a crest and down into an area fondly referred to by photographers as “Candyland.”  There’s a pull off at the height of land before you drop down into the area, and if you don’t mind a walk down it’s a good spot to get your vehicle out of the way for photos and to ensure you’re not in the way of any other travelers.  The first image in this article is from Candyland, and our vehicle is safely out of the main road.

Inside the narrows
Inside the narrows

Depending on the time of day certain features will be lit up while others will be in the shadows.  Fortunately if you follow the road back to your campsite in Kodachrome you’ll get to see this area under different lighting conditions, changing the entire way you see the landscape.

Near some well defined parking areas in the little “valley” of Candyland adventurers will also find a great canyon hike.  The Cottonwood Narrows entrance is easy to find, on the west side of the road, and getting into the narrows is very quick.  You can take a short hike into the Narrows, or you can actually hike south to another car parking area (about a mile south by car a signed parking area is easy to find).  The Narrows aren’t the most spectacular canyons in the Grand Staircase, but a walk into them is a fun break from driving along the road straight through!

*Note:  If you hike into the Narrows be sure to have plenty of water and a small first aid kit along with you.  Additionally, if you’re using a satellite messenger in the canyon you’re likely to not be able to send or receive messages due to the canyon walls blocking your southern visibility.

Into Hackberry Canyon
Into Hackberry Canyon

Great camping along cottonwood canyon road

If you are working North to South, prior to entering Candyland you’ll find a great pull off and flat area above Candyland that is a perfect dispersed camping site.  Right before you drop from the height of land look to your right (west) for the pull off and campsite.  Truck campers, Jeeps with Adventure Trailers, and tent camping are all possible at this site.

Continuing south from the Narrows parking lot (about 1 mile south of Candyland), drive almost 5 miles to another great dispersed camping area.  There is actually room for several campers in the area, and this author has seen several 4×4 truck campers in for overnights.  For RV’ers, this isn’t the place for you.  As noted earlier, we suggest Kodachrome Basin as a great launching point.

Hackberry Canyon

Approximately 15 miles south of the cutoff for Grosvenor Arch travelers will find a parking area for Hackberry Canyon.  This is a favorite hiking location for this author, and visitors can spend a day, or can even overnight and enjoy the canyon for a few days.  Fortunately if you’re not interested in a super long hike, getting into Hackberry Canyon is relatively quick.  In fact, in under 10 minutes of hiking you can be well into the canyon with massive walls rising up on both sides of you.

Leaving the parking area you’ll cross into a small river (dry sometimes but plan on getting your feet wet) and turn right and follow the riverbed (you can’t miss the canyon walls either).  In a few minutes you’ll find yourself walking right into the canyon, walls rising up on both sides quickly.  As you enter the canyon you’ll see hints of “Yellow Rock”, an amazing formation above Hackberry Canyon to your South.  Continuing into the canyon the walls change color and texture, and the inner canyon is much cooler than being out in the open (if it’s a hot day this is a great place to cool off).

The main canyon can be explored in a few hours.  But if you’re feeling adventurous you can continue on several miles and find “Watson Cabin.”  If you’re camping in the area you can easily make a day trip out of this hike, or if you’re feeling really adventurous you could actually follow the river bend back to Round Valley Draw which exits north of Grosvenor Arch.  For detailed trip information on this hike (which you may want to make an overnight out of) we suggest Michael Kelsey’s book “Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau.”

Yellow Rock

Sitting above Hackberry Canyon, Yellow Rock is one of those rarely seen places that most visitors will still bypass.  From the parking area for Hackberry Canyon, hike south along the riverbed for less than a half mile.  To your right you will see a V formation in the rock walls, and if you’re lucky you’ll see a well worn path that climbs Northwest.  This is a very short hike up that places you above Hackberry Canyon.  However, this is a steep trail that is wide enough for 1 person, with a daunting drop off as you make your way up to Yellow Rock.

Several attempts to see Yellow Rock by this author have been cut short as hiking partners developed vertigo as we made our way up the path from the river bed.  The climb is not for the faint of heart, and if you have any issues with heights it isn’t recommended.  We want you to have fun on your trip, and to return safely home at the end of the day.  If you decide to undertake this adventure we’d recommend Michael Kelsey’s book once again. Non-Technical Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau, 6th Edition

20090527-_MG_9427_8_9
Near the southern terminus of Cottonwood Canyon Road

On to route 89

From Hackberry south there’s plenty to see.  The landscape changes quickly and you get out onto more “open” road as you make your way to Route 89.  While there aren’t officially signed areas along Cottonwood Canyon Road from Hackberry, pull offs are still found here and there.  And looking back where you’ve been will show you some of the crazy terrain you’ve just driven through!

Prior to reaching Route 89 there are dispersed campsites that can easily be found.  Near Route 89 itself we’ve found Travel Trailers parked just off Cottonwood Canyon Road for an overnight.  We wouldn’t recommend any of these spots, as the road is pretty rough coming in and you could do damage to your rig.  But we have seen folks time and again camping in the area.

Reaching Route 89 you have a few options.  Turning left (east) you can make your way back to Page, AZ.  Turning right (west) you can travel a few miles to the Paria River Ranger station.  There you can learn about the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Buckskin Gulch, Wire Pass, the Paria Canyon, Coyote Buttes, and more.

The Route

The map below shows you the length of the journey along Cottonwood Canyon Road.  Grosvenor Arch, Candyland, and Hackberry Canyon are noted, but keep in mind the entire route is amazing and it’s up to you how much exploring you want to do!

Camping for RV’ers

Cottonwood Canyon Road is worth the visit.  And for almost all RV’ers, your rig won’t be able to access the road.  For 4WD vehicles with truck campers or Adventure Trailers, you have many options along the road.  Dispersed sites are present along the road, and you can indeed overnight (be sure to check in with a ranger station before setting out for any advisories they might have).

For the rest of us, there are camping options on both sides of the road.  Our “choice” pick would be Kodachrome Basin State park.  Not only because it has direct access to Cottonwood Canyon Road, but also because it is an amazing place on its own!

We’ve included a few other locations to camp.  Lone Rock Beach in Utah is a great location. It’s also dry camping and only $10 per night.  Wahweap located a short distance from Lone Rock is another amazing location to camp and have hookups for your rig.  The price is a little higher in comparison to Lone Rock.

Desperate for some boondocking sites?

Ah yes, Cottonwood Canyon Road doesn’t offer great boondocking opportunities for your standard RV.  Fortunately you’re in luck, if you’re willing to add a little drive time.  Head over to Escalante, Utah and make your way to Hole in the Rock Road.  Right at the junction of Route 12 and Hole in the Rock road is a great BLM dispersed camping area.  And if you’re willing to drive a little further along Hole in the Rock Road you will find several dispersed sites as well.  The easiest is of course right at the junction with Route 12, and we’d recommend that for the moment.  Another upcoming article will look at this section of the Grand Staircase in depth, including additional camping sites, so stay tuned!