Hiking the Cottonwood Narrows — The challenge of hiking with little trail information

A wonderful canyon hike in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The trail is full of beauty, twists and turns that took us by surprise including not finding the exit point.

We made our westward travel from the Escalante Area on Utah Highway 12 to Kodachrome Basin State Park. If you haven’t driven Highway 12 in Utah, you need to add it to your list of road trips. It’s an extremely scenic road. It runs from the junction of Utah Highway 24 in Torrey in the north to the junction of US Highway 89 in the Red Canyon Area, next to Bryce Canyon National Park. While in the Torrey Area, be sure to visit Capitol Reef National Park. It’s my new favorite national park.

Staying in Kodachrome Basin State Park means we were in striking distance of the Cottonwood Canyon in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. So we wanted to go back to the area to hike the Cottonwood Narrows Trail. I saw the trailheads when we did a road trip on the Cottonwood Canyon Road (if you haven’t read that post, check it out here). From the road the Cottonwood Narrows looked like an interesting trail to hike. I could see an entrance to the narrow canyon with steep walls from the road. However, as far as trail research I did pretty much nothing except for studying the trail map on Gaia GPS App. I didn’t read any trail review like I normally do.

The beginning of the Cottonwood Narrows hike from the South Trailhead

The BLM map, which we got from the BLM visitor center last time we visited the area, indicates two trailheads for the Cottonwood Narrows Trail, the Cottonwood Narrows North and the Cottonwood Narrows South. However, the map isn’t detailed enough to show the trail. Our Gaia GPS App does have the trail on the map. You could start the hike from the North Trailhead or the South Trailhead. The hike could be done as an out-and-back hike or a loop hike. For a loop hike, you simply return to where you parked your vehicle by walking on the Cottonwood Canyon Road. One critical point I failed to notice was that the location where the north end of the trail begins on Gaia GPS is not at the exact location where the actual sign for the North Trailhead locates on the Cottonwood Canyon Road. This slightly different information on the North Trailhead proved to be a problem at the end of our hike. Follow along to see what happened on this beautiful narrows hike.


Shortly into the hike we came to fallen boulders. Hmm, is this going to be an obstacle course?
The first part of the trail it was walking up the dry canyon wash with soft sands.
When did the hike during mid day, so it was quite hot in the sun.
About 40 minutes into the hike, the canyon got narrower.
And the trail got more interesting and more photogenic.
The trail was abundant of fascinating rock formations such as this one.
And colorful canyon walls
Even wildflowers
The Cottonwood Narrows is a beautiful hike. For every turns and bends on the trail, a different view is awaiting you.
And remember to look behind you occasionally.

When we got to the part where the trail is closest to the Cottonwood Canyon Road, we could see the road just above the trail. However, on the Gaia GPS map we still had another a quarter of a mile or so to go. So we continued up the wash.

This section has lots of brilliant red color rocks.
This bend and the overhanging canyon wall create a cave-like formation. This was where we stopped for lunch.
After lunch, we continued up the trail.
There were more rock scramblings to get over fallen boulders.

There were more obstacles on the trails from fallen rocks. At some point I looked at the Gaia GPS map and saw that we had passed the exit point on the map for quite a way. How could that happen? We didn’t notice anything that looked like a trail that might be a return trail to the North Trailhead. We immediately turned around and hiked back. When we got to the point where the Gaia GPS map marked the exit point, we couldn’t see any trails. It’s apparent now that the map is wrong. This wasn’t the exit point to the North Trailhead. It must be where we saw the road earlier. Recognizing what happened, we continued retracing our steps to the North Trailhead.

A screenshot of Gaia GPS map indicating the incorrect exit point to the North Trailhead. The blue line is the Cottonwood Canyon Road. The black dashed line is the trail.
Returning to the actual exit point
The Cottonwood Canyon Road. Picture taken from the Cottonwood Narrows North Trailhead. A small sign on the left edge of the picture is where the trail from the North Trailhead enters the Narrows.
Hiking back to the South Trailhead on the Cottonwood Canyon Road. The view from the road is beautiful as well.
  • Date hiked: June 4, 2018
  • Hiking time: Approx. 3h
  • Distance: Approx. 2.5 mi round-trip (returning to the vehicle by walking on the road). We missed our exit and ended up hiking for about 3.5 mi.
  • Elevation change: Approx. 200 ft gain

Note: When we hiked from the South Trailhead to the North Trailhead, there was no sign on the trail that marked the junction for the North Trailhead. The length of the trail from the South Trailhead through the Narrows to the North Trailhead is about 1.5 miles. To spot the trail back to the North Trailhead, pay attention to an outline of the road above you on the right side of the trail. When you could see the road, look for trails leaving the wash. It looked like there are a couple, one of them was a bit steep but we found another one nearby. It’s not really difficult to find after you know to look for it. Alternatively, you could hike from north to south. If you have extra time, try exploring further north of the North Trailhead.

Note to self: Don’t skip homework.

13 thoughts on “Hiking the Cottonwood Narrows — The challenge of hiking with little trail information

  1. Very frustrating… and potentially dangerous! Good that you were paying attention and were cautious. My wife and I got off the trail in Arches years ago, and luckily I had taken a bearing with my compass when we began, and by using the back bearing, we got back on the trail again… scary! Getting lost is always a possibility… a slim one, but it does happen.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Looks like a beautiful hike with stunning scenery. I wanted desperately to hike this trail when we were in the are but time did not allow. We’ve noticed a lot of trails and maps in these remote parts aren’t clearly or correctly marked. Always good to be observant. Thanks for taking me on the hike and sharing your notes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cottonwood Narrows is not as tall or as dramatic as the famous Zion Narrows. What it had going for is we didn’t have to deal with wading the water either. Big bonus is the lack of crowd. The entire hike we ran into only two hikers that’s all. Looking forward to reading about the hiking tips.

      Liked by 1 person

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