A drive on the Hole-in-the-Rock road in the Escalante Area that we wouldn’t repeat.
The Hole-in-the-Rock road is a popular unpaved recreation road in the Utah’s Escalante Area. It’s an access road to many popular hiking destinations such as the Coyote Gulch, Peekaboo and Spooky Slot Canyons, Zebra Slot Canyon. The Devil’s Garden and the Dance Hall Rock in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument can be accessed from this road. The road is also full of the history of Mormon pioneers who in 1879, on their mission to colonize the San Juan River Area in the Four Corners Region, used the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail to get to a crevice, the Hole-in-the-Rock, in the Colorado River’s canyon rim and made the improbable wagon path down to the river. Nevertheless, after having driven on this road, we are not sure if we would ever want to do it again. Follow along our journey on the Hole-in-the-Rock road. But first, a little history of the Hole-in-the-Rock.
The Hole-in-the-Rock Trail
The Hole-in-the-Rock Trail is the 250-mile long, historic wagon road that the Mormon pioneers traveled to establish a settlement in the Four Corners region. The trail runs from Parowan in southwestern Utah to Bluff and Montezuma Fort in southeastern Utah. It was named after a crevice in the canyon rim the pioneers spent the winter of 1879-80 worked on the crack, enlarged the opening, and made the path for wagons to reach the Colorado River, about 2,000 ft (610 m) below (prior to the creation of Lake Powell).
Although a scouting party had determined the settlement site, a viable route was uncertain. The first 85 miles of the route from Parowan to Escalante was over established wagon roads. From Escalante, the trail passed through the Colorado River gorge, crossed deep ravines, and inhospitable terrain, even many of their own scouts deemed impassable. Any route used by the scouts involved a trip of nearly 500 miles. A short-cut, which was thought to be a simpler route, was chosen and an expedition was set. The expedition, consisting of 250 men, women, and children, 83 wagons, and over 1000 head of livestock, gathered at Forty-Mile Spring, south of the town of Escalante in November 1879.
Well. As you might have guessed, the short-cut turned out to be problematic. While a majority of the party spent the winter at Forty-Mile Spring, a small group camped about 15 miles away at the top of the Hole-in-the-Rock. The party wanted to make a path down to the river through this notch at the canyon rim. So they worked on widening the crack. It’s clear that they misjudged the efforts required to make the short-cut. Work was slow with only pick axes, shovels, and limited amount of blasting powder available. The drop to the river below was very steep, an average grade of 25 degrees with some places were as steep as 45 degrees.
“It is about a mile from the top down to the river and it is almost straight down, the cliffs on each side are five hundred feet high and there is just enough room for a wagon to go down. It nearly scared me to death.The first wagon I saw go down they put the brake on and rough locked the hind wheels and had a big rope fastened to the wagon and about ten men holding back on it and then they went down like they would smash everything. I’ll never forget that day. When we was walking down Willie looked back and cried and asked me how we would get back home.” — Elizabeth Decker, February 22, 1880
On January 26, 1880, the expedition successfully made its way down the Hole-in-the-Rock. Once across the river, the party continued through yet a rough wilderness, which Elizabeth Decker described as “nothing in the world but rocks and holes, hills and hollows.” The exhausted party finally reached the San Juan River after 6 months from the start, a journey that was supposed to take 6 weeks.
After you have read about the hardship the pioneers encountered and the efforts they put into blazing the trail through this tough terrain, now it’s time for me to complain about little inconvenience we experienced driving in a modern truck with air-conditioning on the Hole-in-the-Rock road. Cue the eye rolls.
The Hole-in-the-Rock road
David and I drove a portion of the Hole-in-the-Rock road which runs from Escalante to the Hole-in-the-Rock on the western shore of Lake Powell in one afternoon. We started from a junction of Hole-in-the-Rock road (BLM Road 200) and Utah Highway 12, where we were boondocking. Our final destination was the Hole-in-the-Rock, about 55 miles away.
According to the National Park Service website, the Hole-in-the-Rock road follows the general route of the original Hole-in-the-Rock Expedition. Most of the road used to be in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (BLM-managed land) with the last 5 miles or so within the boundaries of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. However, after the recent reduction of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by the Trump administration, it appears that the road is no longer inside the national monument boundary. Most of the Hole-in-the-Rock road on BLM land is passable to high-clearance, two-wheel drive vehicles in dry weather. The last few miles within Glen Canyon National Recreation Area require high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicles. There are numerous side roads that leave this main road. Nearly all of these are only recommended for four-wheel drive vehicles.
Our first stop was Devil’s Garden. It was a perfect case of having low expectation exceeded. This place was full of surprises. When we arrived there were too many noisy teenagers who hogged the place at one of the arches, but the left soon after. So the devil’s garden turned into a paradise.
There are so much to explore at the Devil’s Garden. If you go, plan extra time to spend here.
Dance Hall Rock
Dance Hall Rock is located at about the Mile 36 on the Hole-in-the-Rock Road. This is a giant sandstone formation that resembles an amphitheater. The weary Mormon pioneers used it as a dance hall for recreation and morale boosting.
The road condition got worse the further we went in, especially the last 10 miles or so. Wherever two-wheel drive vehicles are adequate, the road was very bumpy from merciless washboards. In many roads we have driven, washboarding either isn’t too severe or doesn’t affect a long stretch of roads. But not here. Most sections of the Hole-in-the-Rock road are either washboarded or bumpy from the rocks and potholes. Since the road is about 55 miles in length and we had to drive back, that’s 110 miles of a jouncy ride. Most of the time we drove about 30-35 mph. On the rocky sections, the speed was slowed way down to 5 mph. In the last few miles, we occasionally had to stop to pick our route to avoid scraping the bottom. It was very slow going.
Not only it’s a long way to drive slowly, there wasn’t much to see from the road until the last 15 miles or so. Hiking destinations along the Hole-in-the-Rock road are about gulches and slot canyons, which aren’t visible from the road or trailheads. This 110-mi trip took us almost 8 hours. We stopped at the Devil’s Garden to explore for about an hour, but the rest were quick stops including at the Hole-in-the-Rock.
With all the hard driving for 55 miles, it was exciting when we finally saw the famous Hole-in-the-Rock. Actually, it’s more of a relief for knowing that we didn’t have to drive further in.
The drive back was particularly bad. It was in a general northwest direction in the late afternoon, so the Sun was in front of us most of the time. The number of vehicles on the road kicking up dust, lots of dust, plus the glare from the Sun resulted in poor visibility and a nasty driving condition. Overall, not a nice drive.
Tips for planning the Hole-in-the-Rock drive
Our cautious advice for planning a drive on the Hole-in-the-Rock road:
- Don’t (for those who want a one-word advice)
- Don’t if you just want to do a road trip. There are better drives to do nearby, e.g., Burr Trail Road, Hells Backbone Road.
- Actually, it’s worthwhile to drive the first 12 miles to the Devil’s Garden. Spend time explore every nook and cranny of this place. It’s a fun place. Beyond visiting the Devil’s Garden, you should only drive the Hole-in-the-Rock road if you want to hike the area’s popular trails and slot canyons.
- If you want to visit the Hole-in-the-Rock, i.e. driving an entire 55 miles of the road, consider spending a night (or two) camping along the last few miles of the road. The last 10 miles, in particular, have beautiful scenery. Check with the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center in the town of Escalante whether a free overnight camping permit is required. It was required when the area was in the national monument. Bonus: The Escalante Interagency Visitor Center has free wifi for visitors and we took the advantage of it a few times while in the area.
- If you don’t have appropriate vehicles or don’t want to put your vehicle through the rough Hole-in-the-Rock road, the town of Escalante has outfitters that you can hire a shuttle to trailheads. This may be a wise option if you aren’t equipped to deal with mishaps on the road. We saw two incidents of flat tires on the Hole-in-the-Rock road. One of them happened to a huge and tough-looking 4×4 vehicle.
- Hole-in-the-Rock Foundation Website: http://www.hirf.org/index.asp
- Hole-in-the-Rock Trek Remains an Epic Experience in Pioneering: https://heritage.utah.gov/history/uhg-hole-rock-trek
- Driving the Hole-in-the-Rock Road: https://www.nps.gov/glca/planyourvisit/driving-the-hole-in-the-rock-road.htm
- Hole-in-the-Rock: https://www.nps.gov/glca/learn/historyculture/holeintherock.htm