Hiking to Lower Calf Creek Falls should be your first stop when visiting Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument for the first time. This classic desert hike follows a scenic creek before ending abruptly at a stunning 126 ft. waterfall. It’s truly an oasis in the desert and a hike that should be on every adventurer’s bucket list!
Hiking to Lower Calf Creek Falls is a great little detour to stretch your legs if you’re driving between Boulder and Escalante on Highway 12. It can also serve as a good introduction to hiking in the Grand Staircase-Escalante area before you tackle more difficult or remote hikes.
This post covers everything you need to know before hiking to Lower Calf Creek Falls!
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Quick Stats: Lower Calf Creek Falls
Distance: 6 miles out-and-back
Elevation Gain: 530 ft.
Starting Elevation: 5,336 ft.
Difficulty (1-10): 4-5, moderate
Dog Friendly: Yes, dogs should be kept on-leash.
How Long Does it Take to Hike to Lower Calf Creek Falls: 2-3 hours
Permits & Fees: Hiking to Lower Calf Creek Falls does not require a permit, but there is a day use fee for the Calf Creek Falls Recreation Area. The fee is $5 per vehicle. America the Beautiful and other federal recreation passes are also accepted here.
What You Need to Know Before Hiking to Lower Calf Creek Falls
Recreate responsibly. The trail to Lower Calf Creek Falls is heavily trafficked, so it’s important that everyone who visits does what they can to minimize their impact on the trail. You’ll see evidence of some of the heavy use along the way, including trail braiding and social trails. Stay on the main trail to minimize your impacts.
Lower Calf Creek Falls is an important hydrologic piece of the larger Escalante River system puzzle. If you plan on going in the water please avoid wearing sunscreen, bug spray, or other body products to help keep the creek free from contaminants.
Respect. Connect. Protect. Always remember to practice the 7 Leave No Trace principles to be a good steward to the land and the trail. Here are the 7 principles:
- Plan ahead and prepare.
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces.
- Properly dispose of waste. This includes packing out all of your trash as well as pet waste if you’re hiking with your pup!
- Leave what you find.
- Minimize campfire impacts (you shouldn’t be having a campfire along this trail- save that for back at camp!).
- Respect wildlife.
- Be considerate of other visitors.
The member-driven Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics teaches people how to enjoy the outdoors responsibly. This copyrighted information has been reprinted with permission from the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics: www.LNT.org.
Calf Creek has served as a vital water source for people living in the region for thousands of years. While the trail to Lower Calf Creek Falls doesn’t directly pass any archaeological sites, there are some in the area. Always treat archaeological sites with respect, which includes not touching or disturbing petroglyphs or dwelling sites, and keeping dogs and children away from sites.
Remember that hiking in the desert comes with unique challenges. While the trail seems relatively easy in terms of distance and elevation gain, it can be challenging in hot weather or if you’re unfamiliar with hiking in the desert. Here’s a post with 20 of my top tips for hiking in the desert so that you can be prepared for the trail and have the best hiking experience possible!
When to Hike Lower Calf Creek Falls
The hike to Lower Calf Creek Falls is accessible year-round, but the best times to hike it are during the spring and fall. Temperatures will be warm, but not too hot to make the exposed hike in unbearable.
During the summer temps can soar to over 100° during the day. If you’re hiking during this time of year make sure to get an early start on the trail. This is also when the trail is most buggy.
Winters in the Escalante area are snowy and icy. It’s also when there are the fewest number of people on the trail. I always recommend packing microspikes on winter hikes in the desert just in case you need extra traction.
Lower Calf Creek Falls is arguably one of the most scenic hikes in Southern Utah, so you can always expect to see other hikers on the trail. The two times that I have hiked to Lower Calf Creek Falls (in June 2020 and April 2023) the trail wasn’t overly crowded, but I’ve driven past the trailhead when it’s been overflowing, so traffic can get heavy.
Is Lower Calf Creek Falls or Upper Calf Creek Falls better?
The hikes to Lower Calf Creek Falls and Upper Calf Creek Falls are both beautiful and relatively short day hikes in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. While both hikes are worthy of a spot on your Escalante hiking itinerary, they each have unique features that may make one more desirable than the other for you.
The hike to Lower Calf Creek Falls is much easier than the hike to Upper Calf Creek Falls because of the minimal elevation gain. The easy terrain and the fact that there’s a huge sign for the Calf Creek Recreation Area advertising the hike along the highway makes it a MUCH more popular hike. You can also see (and hear) Highway 12 for a good portion of the hike, which takes away from the feelings of wilderness.
The hike to Upper Calf Creek Falls is shorter, but more primitive with steeper elevation gain. Hiking to Upper Calf Creek Falls also allows you to visit the top and bottom of the waterfall, which you can’t do at Lower Calf Creek Falls.
Both waterfalls are stunning, but Lower Calf Creek Falls is significantly larger and, in my opinion, more captivating. But if solitude is your top priority, Upper Calf Creek Falls is going to be a better opportunity to find it.
Getting to Lower Calf Creek Falls
Lower Calf Creek Falls is one of the most accessible hikes in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Any vehicle can get to the trailhead since it’s right off the highway.
The drive to Lower Calf Creek Falls along Highway 12 feels as if you’re driving through an ethereal moonscape regardless of whether you come in from Boulder or Escalante. It’s so breathtaking that it can be difficult to keep your eyes on the road, but there are lots of twists, turns, and drop offs along the way, so be sure to stay alert if you’re driving!
The trailhead for Lower Calf Creek Falls is located in the Calf Creek Falls Recreation Area. There’s a huge sign on the highway marking the entrance that you can’t miss!
Parking is located at the bottom of the canyon, down a short, steep drive. Parking spaces are limited and there isn’t much room to turn around, so if you’re towing a trailer or have a larger RV you’ll want to park along the highway. There’s a fairly large pull off next to the Recreation Area sign that can accommodate larger vehicles. Because the hike is so popular, parking fills up quickly. I recommend arriving in the morning to ensure you snag a spot.
There are bathrooms at the trailhead with running water and heat, as well as a developed campground. Camping in the campground is on a first-come, first-serve basis and sites fill quickly.
The hike to Lower Calf Creek Falls begins with a walk from the parking lot through the campground to the official start of the trail. There’s a trail register at the trailhead, but because the trail is so heavily trafficked there’s a good chance it will be full.
The trail follows Calf Creek through a canyon with Navajo sandstone walls streaked with desert varnish. Beaver dams control the flow of Calf Creek, creating a thriving riparian ecosystem that wildlife like fish, frogs, and birds enjoy. Speaking of wildlife, you’ll likely see lizards on the trail during warmer months (a big reason why it’s so important to keep dogs leashed). There are also a few different snake species in the area, including rattlesnakes and bull snakes, so it’s a good idea to wear close-toed shoes.
The terrain on the trail to Lower Calf Creek Falls is fairly flat with rolling hills throughout. This means that there is elevation gain going each direction, but each hill is fairly minimal. There are plenty of places to pull over and take a break along the way if you need it!
The majority of the trail traverses sand, which is the most challenging part of hiking to Lower Calf Creek Falls. I personally believe that sand is the worst type of terrain to hike on, especially when it’s soft, which you’ll find here. There are also some sections of packed down dirt and slickrock, which provide some welcomed relief!
After hiking for about 3 miles you’ll begin to hear the sound of roaring water as you make your way through a clearing towards a grove of cottonwood trees. As you peek through the trees you’ll be able to get your first glimpse of Lower Calf Creek Falls.
The base of Lower Calf Creek Falls provides ample space for hikers to spread out on the beach and take in the views. You can splash around and swim in the pool, but the water is very cold!
During the spring the sun illuminates Lower Calf Creek Falls and the surrounding pool during the morning. The entire area is in the shade by early afternoon, which is something to keep in mind if you’re coming for photography.
Once you’ve had your fill of the falls, head back to the trailhead on the trail that you hiked in on.
Is Lower Calf Creek Falls Dog-Friendly?
The hike to Lower Calf Creek Falls is dog-friendly. Dogs should be kept on-leash. While dogs will love splashing in the pool at the base of the waterfall and there are a couple of other places where dogs can take a dip in the creek along the way, the majority of the trail is exposed and doesn’t have easy access to the water.
Consider the temperature, time of day, time of year, and your dog’s breed and personal experience before bringing them with you on the hike. I have a black, fluffy dog who typically stays with his grandma when we visit the Escalante area because exposed trails are just too much for him in the spring.
If you bring your dog along to Lower Calf Creek Falls, be sure to pack out their waste!
What to Pack
Pack: Hiking pack recommendations are incredibly subjective. I personally use and love the Osprey Sirrus 24L, but you could definitely get away with a smaller pack for Lower Calf Creek Falls. A trail running vest is a great option if you want to be able to carry sufficient water while staying light on the trail.
Water: You should plan to carry at least 1L per hour of hiking that you plan to do in the desert. Depending on the time of year, temperature, and how acclimatized you are to the desert, you may need more or less. Also consider carrying electrolyte packs like Liquid IV to add to your water, especially if you’re hiking during warmer months!
Snacks: The trail isn’t that long or strenuous, so you don’t need to pack a ton of food (unless you want to have a picnic at the waterfall of course). A protein bar, trail mix, pb&j, dried fruit, and jerky are great snack options!
First-aid kit: A well stocked first-aid kit should always be in your pack as part of the 10 essentials, but while hiking in the desert make sure you have band-aids, moleskin, tylenol, and tweezers in case you come in contact with a cactus.
Appropriate layers. What clothing you specifically need to wear or carry depends on a number of factors including the forecast, time of year, and your personal preferences. Summers are brutally hot and winters are bone chillingly cold (and icy if you’re in the canyon). Helpful layers to consider wearing/bringing include a sun shirt and outer layer (how heavy of an outer layer you need to carry will depend on the month you’re hiking).
Map & compass: While the trail to Lower Calf Creek Falls is easy to navigate, you should always carry a map and compass in the event you get lost. At the very least be sure to download the trail map to your phone before heading out!
Knife: A knife can come in handy for a variety of purposes from cutting an apple to fixing your gear. While you probably won’t use it on most hikes, it’s one of the 10 essentials and helpful to have when ya need it.
Headlamp: If you’re planning on hiking later in the day it’s important to carry a headlamp to help you see the trail after it gets dark. Keep in mind that since Lower Calf Creek Falls is in a canyon, it doesn’t make for a particularly exciting sunset hike.
Emergency shelter: You never know how long an emergency rescue will take, even on a heavily trafficked trail, so it’s important to carry an emergency bivvy or space blanket to help you stay comfortable during an emergency situation.
Trekking poles: Trekking poles are optional but may be helpful to navigate some of the rocky terrain.
Emergency GPS: I always carry a Garmin in-reach mini GPS on hikes, even if I know there are going to be a lot of other people around. There is no cell reception on the trail to Lower Calf Creek Falls and an emergency GPS is going to be the fastest way to communicate with officials during a crisis.
Where to Stay in Escalante, Utah
Have any questions about hiking to Lower Calf Creek Falls? Let me know in the comments below!