Backpacking Utah’s Mind-Blowing Death Hollow Loop

By Michael Lanza

Like many desert Southwest hikes, southern Utah’s Boulder Mail Trail begins from its western trailhead with a lot of laboriously slow walking in soft sand—miles of it, up, down, over, across. When not walking in beach sand, or for brief, merciful spurts, firm sand, we’re hiking over slickrock, that most grippy of ground surfaces where we can move much more quickly—except where the slickrock tilts at severe angles, as it does much of the time. Then it begins an adventurous exercise in strenuous, calf-pumping ascents or cautious descents with backpacks, constantly zigzagging to avoid the impassable spots steep enough that a slip could result in a long slide and tumble for a possibly hurtful distance.

The potential for drama aside, the trail is reasonably well-marked with cairns across the slickrock and pocked with boot prints in the sand from recent backpackers. And with every bend in the trail and new prospect overlooking this bizarrely convoluted, twisted-like-a-pretzel-and-just-as-dry terrain in the Box-Death Hollow Wilderness of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, I have three visceral reactions.

A backpacker descending Death Hollow in southern Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Todd Arndt backpacking down Death Hollow in southern Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

First, I can’t help but wonder how daunting all of this must have looked to the first people to explore and map routes across it—and this part of southern Utah anchored by the Escalante River and Henry Mountains was the last area of the continental United States to get mapped, no doubt for the very reasons of the harsh contours, climate, and remoteness.

Second, while I have backpacked all over the Southwest, including many of this region’s best multi-day hikes, this trail and landscape repeatedly cause me to pause, look around, and catch my breath—not only for the steepness, but for the stark beauty, the myriad folds in this turbulent landscape of rock and sand, the sweeping vistas and the kid-in-a-playground quality of wandering circuitously across this navigationally almost unreadable terrain. While reminiscent of other parts of the Southwest, it’s still uniquely breathtaking.

And lastly: I know that each of our three days out here will present entirely different terrain and scenery, a sort of three-in-one wilderness adventure.

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Backpackers descending the Boulder Mail Trail into Death Hollow in southern Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Todd Arndt and David Gordon descending the Boulder Mail Trail into Death Hollow in southern Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Click photo to learn how I can help you plan this trip.

My friends Todd Arndt, David Gordon, and I are backpacking the 22-mile/35.4-kilometer Boulder Mail Trail-Death Hollow-Escalante River Loop, also known more simply as the Death Hollow Loop. Over three days, we’ll hike a bit more than half of the BMT, descend the sometimes narrow, dramatic canyon of Death Hollow, frequently walking in the creek, and then ascend the upper canyon of the Escalante River.

Coming here in the first week of October, we’re greeted with daytime temperatures in the 60s Fahrenheit and sunshine that still feels desert-hot pouring from a bluebird sky. That and the scenery unfolding before us on our first day feel like good omens.

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The Boulder Mail Trail

When established in 1902, the Boulder Mail Trail was exactly that: a route that mail carriers traveled by packhorse from the town of Escalante to isolated Boulder Town. By 1910, a telegraph line was strung across this high, slickrock plateau and the few creeks that slash canyons through it, providing Boulder with communication to the outside world (through the technology of the times, a switchboard in Escalante). When UT 12 was completed in 1940, creating one of the most scenic highways in the country, the Boulder Mail Trail probably met the fate of so many outdated technologies: It was soon forgotten. But not abandoned forever.

In recent decades, the 15-mile trail has evolved a new identity as a distinctively spectacular and rugged overnight backpacking trip or long, challenging dayhike—and I suspect it probably attracts just as much depth of appreciation as it did in its first role, although now from a much larger population of beneficiaries.

Along much of the Boulder Mail Trail from Escalante to Death Hollow, we follow the old telegraph line that still hangs from short metal poles and the occasional small tree. Reaching some of today’s easiest terrain at Antone Flats—which are “flat” only relative to much of the BMT—we stroll over gently rolling but unmoving waves of Navajo Sandstone with ripples like the wind-washed sand dunes that constituted its geological childhood.

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Backpackers in Antone Flat on the Boulder Mail Trail in southern Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
David Gordon and Todd Arndt in Antone Flat on the Boulder Mail Trail in southern Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Distinctive for its cross-bedded lines, or cross-stratification, where prehistoric layers deposited at random, crisscrossing angles, Navajo Sandstone arguably represents the most striking and captivating ground surface on Earth. It looks like the most immense, complex, and beautiful pottery you’ve ever seen.

By some estimates, this type of sandstone spans more than 150,000 square miles (400,000 square kilometers) of the western United States, spread across the Colorado Plateau in Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado. Known to geologists as one of the most extensive and most exposed aeolian, or wind-blown, systems in the geologic record, Navajo Sandstone originated in an enormous sand sea deposited in the Early Jurassic, approximately 190 million years ago, as a result of regional tectonics when the Colorado Plateau region was part of a large sedimentary basin located in a very arid climate just north of the equator. (If you want a fascinating, four-paragraph lesson in Navajo sandstone geology, read this.)

Due to our travel schedule, we started our hike after lunch, expecting to finish our 8.5-mile first day with a moderate amount of vertical relief in four hours or less. But by the time we reached Antone Flats, it became clear that the sand and steep slickrock, with a bit of scrambling thrown in to spice it up, would result in our time estimate falling short by two hours (for three guys, it’s worth noting, with decades of backpacking experience and many 20- and 30-mile days under our hipbelts).

But it’s hard to imagine many closing scenes to the first act of a backcountry adventure finer than the moment we reach the rim of Death Hollow.

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A backpacker above Death Hollow on the Boulder Mail Trail in southern Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Todd Arndt above Death Hollow on the Boulder Mail Trail in southern Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

The sun has already retreated to the cliff tops high above us, leaving our overlook and the deep chasm of Death Hollow in shadow. Sheer cliffs slashed by myriad vertical cracks, steep ramps of intricately featured Navajo Sandstone, and rib-like buttresses of rock separated by deep gullies comprise the walls of this wriggling canyon, which looks impenetrable from our prospect. In its bottom, the perennial creek has created a lush, green oasis in the desert.

In the slowly dimming dusk light, we follow the BMT’s zigzagging route along narrow ledges and down steep slickrock ramps carpeted in loose pebbles and sand to the floor of this Escalante River tributary canyon. Finding a couple in a tent at the one spacious and flat, sandy camp at the bottom of the trail, we try exploring downstream for a quarter-mile, wading in the swift current but finding no remotely feasible camps. With dark fast approaching, we backtrack to that camp and apologetically explain to the couple, Jason and Hannah, that we have no choice but to join them. They graciously insist it’s no problem and we pitch our tents at the other end of the sandy shelf.

Todd busts out three cans of beer that he’s carried in to surprise us with—the hero for the day. Later, the night sky emerges so dark and ablaze with stars that one might be tempted to wonder whether it’s a secret code that holds the answers to all the great questions of the universe and our place in it.

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Death Hollow

A mild night that dipped perhaps barely below 50 degrees Fahrenheit dawns to a calm morning so quiet you might hear a sigh of deep contentment from a half-mile away. We’re in no great hurry to start hiking: We want to let the sun rise a bit higher to start warming the bottom of Death Hollow, where we don’t expect to receive much direct sunlight all day, owing to its tall walls and narrow topography, and where the cold creek creates natural refrigeration. So we linger in camp over tea and coffee and don’t roll out until just after 10 a.m.

A backpacker descending Death Hollow in southern Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Todd Arndt backpacking down Death Hollow in southern Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Just below the campsite, we cautiously step into the creek where it punches through a constriction in the canyon, the current gaining a bit of depth and speed. The water instantly feels shockingly cold with my first, thigh-deep plunge into it in the canyon’s deep morning shade, my feet and lower legs immediately stinging with numbness. But less than an hour after starting out, while this canyon still remains mostly in shade, we’ve all warmed up enough to start peeling off extra layers. My feet, in neoprene socks inside my shoes, start to slowly warm up again.

The close walls of this stretch of Death Hollow conjure mental images—waking nightmares, really—of finding oneself in here when a flash flood rips down this narrow and vertiginous canyon. Debris from past flashes litter the creek banks. This is not a hike for any days with even a trace of a chance of rain in the forecast.

We work our way downstream in the often-shallow stream, seeking out the path of least risk amid small cascades, cliffs rising out of the water, and deep, calm pools, boulders and rocks buffed slick by the current, and assorted other obstacles and hazards. At one point, we file gingerly along a long and very narrow ledge submerged a few inches below the surface of the creek on the right bank, taking care to avoid slipping and falling into the pool below the ledge, which spans 10 feet or more and appears to be several feet deep.

The first clusters of poison ivy we encounter stand so tall and abundant that it takes a few seconds to realize we’re looking at poison ivy. The plants grow in dense thickets along the creek banks, many of them taller than us. David, a longtime trails manager and experienced backpacker and backcountry traveler, says, “I’ve never seen poison ivy so big.”

Death Hollow alternately pinches down to a narrows with overhanging walls and flat, creekside ledges with deep alcoves carved out by the current, and broadens to suddenly bathe us in warm sunshine and reveal tall, sheer walls and slickrock ramps and domes.

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A backpacker descending Death Hollow in southern Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Todd Arndt backpacking down Death Hollow in southern Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

At one magical spot in the canyon, we stop just to admire a short but lovely, broad curtain of water pouring over a ledge in the creek right at the base of the cracked face of steep-walled dome that rises to a spear point high above us. The greenery of trees contract with soaring, red, gray, and tan walls on all sides. Below that tiny falls, another watery curtain plunges over another ledge, spanning the creek wall to wall.

By late afternoon, six hours after leaving last night’s camp—a pace of barely over a mile per hour in Death Hollow, although we’d also taken a deliberately leisurely pace to enjoy it—we reach its mouth and confluence with the Escalante River, a rare occurrence where a river tributary adds a much greater volume of water than exists in the river. A couple of parties of backpackers have already found camps here, but there’s far more space on the sandy shelves above the river, in the sparse shade of cottonwood trees, for us to set up our tents without anyone else within sight.

We find a natural stone pool in the Escalante’s current, shaped like a shallow bathtub and deep enough to lie down and fully immerse ourselves in the bracing water for a nice, but brief, cooling bath.

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