Calf Creek Falls - Part five in our Hiking the Escalante Series

Calf Creek Falls, an awe-inspiring hike filled with lush vegetation, Navajo sandstone, and life-sized pictographs is the focus of today’s post and rounds out our Hiking the Escalante series.

In our first article, we spotlighted the magnificent “cathedrals” of Coyote Gulch. We then turned our attention to perhaps the single most impressive natural feature in the Southwest, Steven’s Arch. From there, we journeyed through the spectacular solitude of Peek a Boo Slot Canyon and Spooky Gulch, then shifted our reader’s attention to the surreal and scenic experience that only the Toadstools can provide.

Which brings us to Calf Creek falls and the awe-inspiring landscape rivaling that of the Grand Canyon itself.

Calf Creek Falls – It’s all about the journey
Edward Abbey said it best when he wrote:

“That’s the best thing about walking, the journey itself. It doesn’t matter much whether you get where you’re going or not. You’ll get there anyway. Every good hike brings you eventually back home, right where you started.”

As Edward Abbey’s quote implies, it’s all about the journey.

The hike to Calf Creek Falls, a delightful 6.2-mile romp which leads to a breathtaking waterfall, has it all. Lush green vegetation, including birch trees rarely seen in canyon settings, check. A clear, bubbling stream with beaver dams and trout easily viewed, check. Towering, desert varnish-stained Navajo Sandstone, check. Prehistoric granaries tucked into ledges on high canyon walls, check. Life-sized pictographs, check. And a stunning 126-foot waterfall with a large plunge pool shaded by tall trees, check!

The scenery while en route to Calf Creek Falls astounded and amazed us. We walked slowly and took it all in. To access this hike, our group of 8 intrepid explorers drove east on Utah 12 at Bryce Canyon, which led to the tiny settlement of Escalante. We continued another 15 miles to the Calf Creek Falls trailhead. UT 12 has been called the most scenic road in America; it was not difficult to see why.

While millions of people are familiar with the Grand Canyon, few realize that surrounding the canyon lies a landscape equally awe-inspiring. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument protects a magnificent land of deep canyons and abrupt mountains, a place where rivers continually deepen canyons and 500-million-year-old rocks are slowly eroded by the elements of the ages.

Calf Creek is a tributary of the Escalante River, the last river discovered and mapped in the lower 48 states. Situated in the heart of the Colorado Plateau, the Escalante River flows through the remote and rugged country and the land surrounding Calf Creek is no exception. Even though the trailhead is off a paved road and developed campground, the trail plunges into a bonafide wilderness of canyon, rock, and plateaus. The geologic, scenic and cultural values of this area make it one of the most special places in the southwest.

The first thing we observed at Calf Creek Falls was the rock composing the canyon. Characterized by horizontal sedimentary layers, the landscape here was thrust up and sliced into deep canyons, such as the one we were trekking in. We gazed in the direction of a west facing wall; in the distance appeared to be small figures painted on the cliff face. To afford a closer look, we forded the vigorously flowing creek and walked to the base of the cliff. About ten minutes later, after a scramble up slick-rock, we stood underneath and peered up at three huge, life-sized pictographs. The spectacle was simply stunning, a dramatic example of ancient Fremont rock art at its finest.

We inspected adjoining cliffs and discovered more sets of pictographs, not as well preserved but fascinating nevertheless. One image resembled Bighorn sheep gliding across the landscape. Unfortunately, the sad act of vandals resulted in defaced rock and pictographs. It is our hope that those who visit petroglyphs, pictographs and cliff dwellings will help protect these places and take steps to conserve them. If you visit rock art and ruins, please be careful not to enter or touch them. Doing so hastens their deterioration and can even cause walls to collapse. If you see any suspicious activity, report it immediately!

Further up the canyon, we observed a Fremont ruin tucked into a recess high up on a cliff face, a small tributary of Calf Creek. A brief walk revealed the ruin from below, in full view. Finds such as these are what make hiking the Escalante such an extraordinary experience.

Resuming our walk, the landscape and panoramas became even more stunning, the awesomeness factor now off the charts. As the canyon narrowed, sheer sandstone walls were decorated in some of the most elaborate desert varnish I’ve ever witnessed. Desert varnish is a red to black coating on exposed rock surfaces in arid regions, primarily composed of oxides of iron and manganese which causes the coloration. The sources for desert varnish come from outside the rock, most likely from atmospheric dust and surface runoff. Science notwithstanding, the desert varnish decorated sandstone walls at Calf Creek were brilliant.

Shortly afterward, the main attraction of Calf Creek Falls was visible in all its splendor. It is hard to imagine that in a region with less than 12 inches of annual precipitation, why there are such copious amounts of surface water present. The answer to this mystery? Because the sandstone in the canyons and mountains has been soaking up and storing rainfall and snowfall over the eons and it is continuously being released as seeps, springs, and hanging gardens. This stored water coming straight out of the rocks in addition to runoff from snowfall in the mountains contributes to the flowing creeks and waterfalls in the Canyons of the Escalante.

Calf Creek Falls is one of the most beautiful places in the southwest, or in America for that matter. While not as famous as Havasu Falls in the Grand Canyon, the falls are breathtaking, mesmerizing, spellbinding; another great reason to hike the canyons of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument! Explore, enjoy and protect this beautiful land of ours.

For more information and ideas regarding hiking the canyon country and the national parks of Utah, visit (A great hiking blog!).