Reflection Canyon is that photo you’ve seen all over Instagram and Facebook the past few years. Despite being a popular site, it still is somewhat of a secluded spot due to the difficulty of getting there. It takes some navigational skills in the desert and 4WD to get to this spot, but it is definitely worth the adventure. You get views of slots canyons, lakes, and mountains alike while hiking through what seems to be a desolate place.
You don’t have to backpack it if you only have a day. Plenty of people just hike it, but it gave a great opportunity to see the sunrise and sunset and get awesome views of the night sky. If decide to just hike it, arrive early so you have a full day.
Know Before You Go
Location: Glen Canyon National Recreation Area/ Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Distance: 16-20 miles
Elevation Gain: 347 Feet
Permit: Yes, if backpacking in. It is free and can be picked up from the visitor’s center in Escalante.
Season: Spring and Fall. It can get cold in the winter and it is hot with no shade in the summer.
How to Get to the Reflection Canyon Trailhead
Backpacking to Reflection Canyon is only half the trip, the other half is getting there. The trailhead to Reflection canyon is far from civilization. The nearest town is Escalante. Be sure to fill up on gas here. From Escalante Visitor’s Center, drive east on UT-12/Main St. This is the main road. Drive 5.8 miles until you come for a sign for the Hole in the Rock Road. Turn right onto the Hole in the Rock road. You will be on this road for 50.6 miles.
The Hole in the Rock Road is dirt the entire way. If there is a storm, the road can become impassable. If you get stuck, the tow truck can cost up to $1,000.00 to pull you out. Once you’ve gone 45 miles or so, you will start needing a higher clearance vehicle and 4WD. You can pull over on either side of the road in an obvious parking area. The trail will be on the right.
Leave some emergency food and water in the car. If something happens, you are over 50 miles away from civilization.
Backpacking to Reflection Canyon
I backpacked this trail in 2019 with my friend, Olivia, before doing some canyoneering in the area. We weren’t sure if we would make it back to the trail, due to heavy rains a couple days before. We checked with the visitor’s center and decided to chance it. The road was clear, the entire way, but we saw two cars completely stuck from the few days before.
It took us a couple hours to drive the Hole in the Rock Road to the trailhead. Once there, we grabbed our backpacking stuff and started off into the desert. I carried a couple copies of topo maps with me. The visitor’s center had some when I was there, but I used CalTopo to print off maps.
We headed southwest up the trail and immediately lost it as we hiked up some slickrock. The trail picks up here and there, but it meanders a lot through the desert. We lost it several times throughout the trip only for it to pick up a hundred feet away again. Don’t worry about losing the trail. It will happen a lot. When you lose it, just make sure to avoid the biological soil crust, or crypto. We noticed quite a bit of it.
We continued southwest with the large line of cliffs in front of us and slot canyons to our left. The slot canyons apparently get pretty deep so you’ll want to avoid descending into them. I didn’t get the chance to explore any of them on this trip, but definitely want to make it back to the area another time to.
You will want to keep these cliffs to your right for most the hike, and you will want to stay close to them. We hiked next to the base of the cliffs for about 6 miles. There is not a lot of direction here. Basically just avoid crypto, try to stay on areas that have seen more hikers, and stay close to the cliff.
You will wander up and down little hills for what will seem much longer than it actually is. Eventually, you will reach a section of the cliffs that are squared off.
From there, we headed towards the high point on the slick rock. It took us about 2.5 miles to reach reflection canyon from here, but it depends on the person and the route you take.
We hiked up and down the slickrock for a while. If it feels like the slickrock is too steep, go another way. At no point did either of us feel unstable on the rock.
After a while, it looked like we were close to the water, so we started to scout out a good place to sleep.
Once we arrived at a place on the slickrock that looked safe to spend the night, we set down our backpacks and continued to explore the area. You can’t go down to the water here, but we saw some great views from above. We scoped out a couple places that would get great photos of the sun rising in the morning. After planning it out, we wandered around until nighttime, then went to sleep relatively early so we could get up to get great views of the sunrise.
We got up early the next morning to get our tripods set up. We took some photos of the sun rising over Reflection Canyon before packing up. Even though it was the middle of March when we went, it still got hot in the afternoon so we wanted to get back to the car before then. We headed back over the slickrock and ended up going a completely different way through it, which made the return trip a little more interesting.
The way back was slightly more grueling, since we already did it the previous day. How miserable it is depends on the person though. I personally did not mind it too much; Olivia did, and so did multiples of other people online.
We slept out underneath the stars, which was really pretty, at least until it decided to rain on us in the middle of the night. Thankfully it only lasted a couple minutes and was only a few drops here and there.
We went when the moon was closer to being full, which made it easier to see at night without a headlamp. If you can control it though, I would definitely recommend visiting during around a new moon. Stars in the desert sky this far out look incredible.
It was also kind of neat to see the lights from boats on Lake Powell. There weren’t a ton, but you could make a houseboat or two on the lake throughout the night.
What Should you Bring?
Water: Bring water, water, and more water. There are no water sources along the trail so come prepared to carry enough water for 2 days if you are backpacking. This includes meals if you are cooking.
Ten Essentials: Always bring these and this trail is no exception. While it gets hot in the desert during the day, it can get chilly at night. You will also need the navigational portion of the ten essentials to find your way here.
Free Standing Tent: If you plan on sleeping in a tent, you need to bring a freestanding one (one with tent poles). The last couple miles are all slickrock so you won’t be able to set up a tent. Sleeping out under the stars is an experience I would definitely recommend. There is not a lot of light pollution out there, so you can see some amazing night skies.
Wag Bag: This is a poop bag for humans. It may be gross the first time or two, but everyone in the desert does it and protects the environment. Unlike other backpacking trips, you are required to pack out your poop. The desert, while harsh, is also extremely fragile, and it takes buried poop much longer to decompose than in the forest, if you can even find a place to dig a proper cat hole. Wag Bags are resistant to punctures and contain powder to contain any smells within the bag.
Waterproof shoes: Your feet may not breathe as well, but if you hike in trail runners (like I did) you may be finding sand in your shoes for weeks after. Waterproof shoes that are ankle high help keep the sand out. A gaiter will help this problem some, depending how porous the shoes are. Also, you should wear (not cotton!) socks you don’t care about. You will never get the sand out of them no matter how many times you wash them.
Looking for more to do around the area? Escalante offers amazing hiking, canyoneering, kayaking, driving, and camping. It is also close to Bryce Canyon National Park and Capitol Reef National Park.
For those looking to drive, rent an ATV or 4WD vehicle and drive Hole in the Rock Road and some of the other trails connected to it. You can drive to the end of the road which leads to the Hole in the Rock Trailhead. If you feel like stretching your legs, you can do the short hike down to get a great view Lake Powell. Coyote Gulch is another popular and beautiful backpacking trail hike that leads a large arch. It is well worth the trip. Buckskin Gulch is another popular backpacking trail through a slot canyon.
There are also some amazing slot canyons in the area. Peek-a-Boo, Spooky, Tunnel, Bighorn, and Zebra are all non-technical and do not require ropes, though you will need to scramble some. If you are looking to do some technical canyoneering, Neon Canyon through the Golden Cathedral is an amazing adventure. The Egypt canyons are also out here along with some heavy canyons like Choprock.
If you want to do technical canyoneering, but do not have the skills and equipment, there are some fantastic guides in the area. Check out Excursions of Escalante if you want to do a technical route.
Besides a lot of desert backpacking, there is also a lot of camping. A lot of Hole in Rock Road is BLM land, which typically allows free dispersed camping. There are some restrictions though, usually close to popular trailheads, so pay attentions to signs. There are no amenities and you must pack everything in and out. When choosing a spot, pick a place that’s been established to help preserve the area.
Escalante sees a lot of tourism so there are a few hotels to choose from in town if you desire. The typical one will run you $100+ a night, depending on the season, but Escalante Outfitters has some cheap cabins and tent spaces. A tent space will cost you $16.00 a night and a cabin starts at $55. This provides communal showers and bathrooms, but may be a great break in a two week trip out in the desert.