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Hiking to Upper Calf Creek Falls
Spanning more than 1.87 million acres in Southern Utah’s canyon country, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is the ultimate desert adventurer’s paradise. There are a wide variety of hiking opportunities in Grand Staircase-Escalante ranging from short, family-friendly strolls, to multi-day backpacking expeditions.
While Lower Calf Creek Falls is one of the most popular hikes in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Upper Calf Creek Falls is often overlooked, making it the perfect trail if you’re looking to avoid the crowds. The trail is also relatively short, at only 2.2 miles roundtrip, so it’s a great option if you’re short on time.
Hiking in the desert comes with some unique considerations, so if you’re new to hiking in the desert be sure to check out this post before hitting the trail!
Leave It Better
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has seen a large increase in the number of visitors in recent years, and with more people enjoying public lands comes greater impacts to the places that we love. This is why we all have a personal responsibility to follow the seven Leave No Trace principles and recreate responsibly when enjoying public lands, including while hiking to Upper Calf Creek Falls. Here are some quick tips for responsible desert recreation:
- Stay on trail and don’t bust the crust. Large areas of the desert are covered in biological soil crust, aka cryptobiotic soil, which helps prevent erosion. Cryptobiotic soil is extremely fragile and can take years to recover once damaged, making it incredibly important to stay on trail or a durable surface like slickrock while hiking in the desert.
- Respect archaeological sites. Never sit, touch, lean, or stand on walls of archaeological sites. Don’t touch petroglyphs and pictographs (the oils from your fingers can break them down faster). Leave all artifacts where you find them. Don’t allow pets or small children in archaeological sites.
- Pack out all waste, including human and pet waste. We all know to pack out our trash when hiking, but if nature calls while you’re on the trail the best practice is to pack out solid human waste using a WAG bag. While burying human waste may be an acceptable practice in other environments, the soil in the desert is incredibly arid and doesn’t break down human waste easily.
Getting to the Trailhead
The trailhead is located at the end of a short side road off the left of Highway 12, 22 miles Northeast of Escalante, Utah. The turnoff for the trailhead isn’t marked, but there are a series of large boulders lining the entrance to the road, which aren’t hard to miss.
You’ll drive about ¼ mile down a dirt road before reaching the sign & parking area for Upper Calf Creek Falls. There are no facilities or trash service at the trailhead, so use the restroom before leaving town and please remember to pack out your waste!
Hiking to Upper Calf Creek Falls
After signing in at the trailhead (important so the BLM can keep accurate tabs on how many people are using the trail!) begin making your way down the trail, which quickly turns from dirt to slickrock. The initial descent into the canyon is steep and I highly recommend bringing along hiking poles during this hike to help take pressure off of your knees. This also means that the most challenging part of hiking to Upper Calf Creek Falls is the final ascent out of the canyon, so be sure to save some energy for the end!
There are plenty of cairns marking the slickrock trail and route-finding is very straightforward. While the initial stretch of the trail is steep, the slickrock is very grippy so hiking is easy as long as you wear shoes with good traction. The trail takes you past volcanic rock as you make your way down the slickrock trail, which eventually turns to sand as the grade mellows out.
Eventually you’ll come to a not-so-obvious fork in the trail, which will take you to either the top or bottom of Upper Calf Creek Falls. If you miss the turn you’ll naturally continue hiking towards the top of the falls, which I recommend visiting first.
After continuing along a well-defined trail for another tenth of a mile or so, you’ll reach the top of Upper Calf Creek Falls where you’ll find several pools of water. These pools are perfect for swimming on a hot day, but be mindful of staying away from the edge of the falls!
Once you’ve finished exploring the top of Upper Calf Creek Falls, it’s time to hike to the bottom. Head back on the trail in the direction you came, keeping a keen eye out for the split in the trail that will lead you to the base of Upper Calf Creek Falls. Once you find the right place to turn off, the remainder of the trail to the base is easy to follow. You don’t have to hike far before the entirety of the 88 ft. tall waterfall comes into view.
There’s a grassy area at the base of Upper Calf Creek Falls, but as of April 2022 there is a restoration area sign posted advising visitors to stay off. Due to that closure, the best place to sit and view Upper Calf Creek Falls is to the right of the waterfall under a rocky alcove.
Once you’ve finished enjoying Upper Calf Creek Falls, hike back out along the same trail that you hiked in on. Remember the hike back out is challenging so be sure to fuel up with some snacks before hiking out!
Trailhead Location: Google maps
Trailhead Elevation: 6,520 ft.
Distance: 2.2 miles out-and-back
Elevation Gain: 600 ft.
Estimated Hike Time: 90 minutes
Best Time of Year to Hike: Spring (March-May) & Fall (September-November). While the hike takes you to a water source, the trail itself is very exposed so I wouldn’t recommend it on a hot summer day. Winters in Escalante are cold and trails may be snowy and icy, so packing microspikes or yaktrax is recommended.
Permits & fees: No fees. Self-issued permit required for overnight trips.