Hole-In-The-Rock Road is a 56-mile dirt road that cuts across the uninhabited Utah desert, from Utah Route 12 southeast to Lake Powell (the Colorado River). There are several worthwhile attractions to see along the way, such as Dance Hall Rock and Devil’s Garden. The road ends at its namesake, the “Hole In The Rock”, a natural crack in the cliff, which Mormon settlers blasted and chiseled to form a rough road to the river.
The road has a reputation for being rough, and requiring 4-wheel drive, high-clearance vehicles, especially during the final 5-10 miles to Hole-In-The-Rock. However, recent road improvements allow any type of vehicle to drive the entire road. Of course, you should check locally for an update on road conditions before you give it a try.[tmt_location]
Hole-In-The-Rock Road is one of just a few access routes into the heart of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. It starts at Utah 12, five miles east of Escalante, Utah.
The road runs approximately 56 miles, for most of the way on a shelf below Fifty Mile Mountain, the edge of the Kaiparowits Plateau. The final few miles are inside the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, while most of the route lies within the GSENM.[tmt_myvisit]
At the start of Hole-In-The-Rock Road, I pulled over and took a moment to think about what awaited. I was getting ready to head into an area so remote, so empty, it truly defines the phrase “middle of nowhere”.
Yes, much of the road looks like this.
I would be trusting a rental car to take me 56 miles from the nearest paved surface, across dirt and rocks and sand that had been roughly graded into some sort of a “road”. There would be no gas station, no water, almost no people, and only the faintest, fleeting cell-phone signals.
There was a sign there, listing the distances to various attractions along the road: Devil’s Garden, Spooky Canyon, Dance Hall Rock. I’ll talk more about those in a moment. They were all worthwhile, but the ultimate goal awaited at the very end.
Hole-In-The-Rock. 56 miles.
On a freeway, it would be an hour away. On dirt, it would be twice that, probably more. Signs warned that a 4-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicle would be necessary to get there, but the locals had told me that the road was passable in my Subaru — I had 4-wheel-drive, but it was still just a regular car, certainly not a Jeep.
I had a full tank of gas, bottles of water, and a cooler full of food. My tires were pumped up, and there was a spare in the trunk. I was as ready as I could be.
Tackling this road would be the crowning achievement of my week-long trip to southern Utah.
Most of the road, I must admit, was uneventful. For most of its 56 miles, Hole-In-The-Rock Road cuts across a shelf — a wide slab of gently sloping land, that climbs up to the bottom of Fifty Mile Mountain. You can see it there, on the left (this photo looks north).
Just as the name suggests, this cliff seemed endless, stretching out as far as I could see. On the other side of the road, somewhere over there, was the Escalante River, a tributary of the Colorado River. The Escalante carved out an impressive landscape of its own, but much of it was hidden. I could have chosen to take one of several side-roads towards it, but they looked to be maintained less than the main road, and I didn’t want to chance it.
Every so often, after a few miles of mostly flat driving, the road would suddenly dip into a dry wash. With no warning, I’d find myself speeding towards a series of switchbacks that took the road down to the bottom, and back up again. I’d slam on the brakes, kicking up even more dust than usual, then crawl into and out of the wash. The road always seemed to get much rougher in places like this.
One particular wash was especially worrisome. It’s known as Carcass Wash — a name that doesn’t refer to the tragedy that unfolded here, but somehow adds to the horror. The plaque explains how in 1963, a group of Boy Scouts were headed to Hole-In-The-Rock to go rafting down the (at that time un-dammed) Colorado River. They were riding in the back of an open-bed truck that stalled on its way out of the wash. The truck rolled backwards and flipped. Seven scouts and six adults were killed. The plaque explains that this was the third worst highway accident in Utah’s history.
The road continues this pattern of long, straight segments, followed by a wash, then another monotonous stretch, until you reach this sign.
I stopped here and rejoiced. After a couple of hours, give or take, traveling this road, I had finally made it somewhere. The only problem was, this meant the easy part was over. The notoriously rough, formerly 4-wheel-drive-only section began here. I had made it somewhere, but I wasn’t there yet.
Once inside the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, the superlatives started flowing through my mind. Most incredible. Strangest. Most awe-inspiring. Most other-worldly.
No picture properly captures what this section of the road looks like. Hole-In-The-Rock Road turned away from its shelf below Fifty Mile Mountain, and cut a path towards the Colorado River (Lake Powell). In places, the road was merely a scraping of dirt, laid out across boulders. It twisted around and dipped between slickrock and sand, through an area that wouldn’t stop boggling my mind.
I knew I was getting close to the end of the road, but at the time, I didn’t know that my destination was directly in front of me. Notice the notch in that ridge, in the upper-right corner of the photo. That’s Hole-In-The-Rock.
Moments later, the road simply ended. With nowhere else to go, it simply loops back on itself. There’s a sign-in log in the middle of the loop.
Probably everyone within ten miles (which I think was just two guys) could hear me cheer. I thought getting here might be impossible. But I had made it — without a flat tire or a breakdown or some other emergency. Of course, half the challenge (getting back) was still ahead of me, but that didn’t matter at the moment. I was ecstatic to be here.
So what do you do, once you’ve reached the end of the road? Well, you can climb down into the Hole-In-The-Rock…
… and marvel at the idea that somehow, back in 1880, after months of chiseling and blasting, a group of Mormon settlers managed to “drive” their wagons down this road. Even after all their work, it was a seemingly impossible task. Using ropes, they lowered each wagon down, one at a time, then ferried them across the Colorado River. Not a single wagon, or life, was lost.
You can climb all the way down to Lake Powell. I probably would have attempted it, if I wasn’t out there, all alone. The hike would have required a great deal of rock-climbing, and if I ended up in a bad spot, I would have been stuck. There were a couple of guys back at the end of the road (the first people I had seen in at least 20 miles), but they wouldn’t have heard my calls for help.
So, I only went a short distance into the crack, then climbed back out, and scrambled up the ridge on the left-side. From the top…
… there’s an extraordinary view of Lake Powell. Back in 1880, the canyon would have been much deeper, and the Colorado River much narrower.
Climb up the ridge on the opposite side of the crack, and the best view is looking northwest. Here, you can get a good feel for the entire landscape. In the lower right, you can see the end of the road. Stretching across the top of the photo is Fifty Mile Mountain.
It’s tough to spend a lot of time at this spot. On one hand, you want to savor the accomplishment, but on the other, you realize that you’ve got a long road ahead of you. Eventually, I got back on the road, and made the journey back to Utah Route 12. In my final glances back at this area, I was just as amazed as when I first saw it.
Be sure you watch the Drivelapse videos, further down the page. In the meantime, here’s a look at some of the attractions you’ll pass along the way down Hole-In-The-Rock Road.
Along The Way…
Devil’s Garden is one of the first excuses to stop and explore, along the side of Hole-In-the-Rock Road. It’s easy to reach, even if you have no intention of driving the entire road, since it’s only about 12 miles south of U-12.
26 miles down Hole-In-The-Rock Road, you’ll come across another popular stopping point. Turn off on a side-road to the left, towards the Dry Fork of Coyote Gulch. After another mile or so on a slightly more challenging dirt side-road, you’ll reach the trailhead for the Spooky and Peek-A-Boo slot canyons.
Spooky is certainly the easier of the two canyons. You can wander up the canyon for a good distance, hiking along a sandy, flat floor, with very little climbing or rock-hopping required. Eventually it gets much narrower — so tight, you may need to suck in your stomach to get through.
Peek-A-Boo is much more challenging, right from the start. The entrance requires a scramble up a sheer rock face. Once you’re inside, you’ll have to navigate one tight spot after another. The floor is never level, so you’ll either have to hop from one obstacle to the next, or climb each one.
Despite the effort, the rewards are great, in both slot canyons. You can also explore Brimstone Gulch, another slot, further down Dry Fork, and there’s a way to make a loop out of the whole thing.
You’ll find many more details on this hike, on this page.
Willow Tank, Hurricane Wash
34 miles from the pavement, you’ll come upon Willow Tank and Hurricane Wash. There’s a small, ancient-looking corral here, and thanks to the presence of water (in the aforementioned “tank”), you’ll probably spot some cattle hanging out here.
Hurricane Wash serves as a trailhead for the long hike to the Escalante River, via Coyote Gulch. Chances are, you’ll see several cars parked here, but no people. That’s because it’s a 5.5 mile hike just to get into Coyote Gulch, and 13 miles from here to the Escalante River. I’m guessing most people who parked here are on a multi-day backpacking journey.
Beyond Hurricane Wash, I didn’t see another human, or another parked car, until the end of the road at Hole-In-The-Rock.
Dance Hall Rock
37 miles into the journey down Hole-In-The-Rock Road, you’ll want to stop here, at this important landmark in Mormon history. This is Dance Hall Rock. It’s carved-out amphitheatre with a relatively flat floor provided a concert venue, of sorts, for the LDS explorers in the area, back in 1879 and 1880. After a long day of chipping away at Hole-In-The-Rock, they’d come here to square dance, waltz, and polka, all to the music from fiddles.
From the dance floor at Dance Hall Rock, the early explorers had a striking view of Fifty Mile Mountain. As you can see, this is about as flat and smooth a floor as you could hope for.
Dance Hall Rock looks imposing from the front, but if you walk around the side, you’ll spot a more gradual slope, that you can easily climb. At the top, you’ll find a rolling sea of sandstone, with some enormous potholes. This giant hole is easily 25 feet deep, maybe more, with trees growing up from the bottom. Stay away from the edge of this hole — if you fell in, you’d need someone to rescue you. I don’t think it would be possible to climb out on your own.
Beware, the parking area at Dance Hall Rock is rougher than the road. There are some big rocks to avoid, but with caution, you’ll be okay in a regular car.[tmt_bottomline]
Spending an entire day on Hole-In-The-Rock Road was the highlight of my Utah vacation. While it’s somewhat harrowing to drive so far away from any services — or for that matter, pavement, it’s a great escape from the civilized world. The historic value of the area adds an extra dimension. And the final few miles of the road feels like you’re driving on Mars. It’s worth all the effort and the manageable risk.[tmt_drivelapse]
Check out this time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive south, from Escalante, Utah to Hole-In-The-Rock…
… and the drive back, from Hole-In-The-Rock to U-12: