Harris Wash to Neon Canyon – Escalante Backpacking Trip – Trip Report

Lets talk about what it means to go on a full on adventure when backpacking. When you make the mistake within the first five minutes of your trip and end up missing the trail, that then eventually leads to a massive unplanned detour, you can say you’ve been on an adventure. More on that later. As you may already know, I am a Outdoor Recreation Management major at Utah Valley University. This trip to Escalante in the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument was part of one of my classes this semester. For the class we planned trips that were then voted on and one of them became the trip for the class to go on. My trip was what was eventually voted on. I had never been to Harris Wash before, but had been to Neon Canyon and the Golden Cathedral many years ago. 
The Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument (GSEMN) is an area of Utah that is located near Capitol Reef National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. In 1996 President Clinton designated the area (1.7 million acres) as a national monument. The canyons of the Escalante hold some of the more popular canyoneering areas in Utah, including Neon Canyon, Zebra Slot, Harris Wash, Coyote Gulch, Ringtail, and many others. In short, this area is incredibly beautiful and provides endless opportunities for exploring and getting that solitude that should come from being in the backcountry. 
I was incredibly excited to be going on this particular trip. I’ve always wanted to hike through Harris Wash, and make some kind of a loop through another canyon in the Escalante area. When I did some planning I realized that it would not be unreasonable to hike through to Neon Canyon and then backtrack a little and exit through Fence Canyon to the Egypt Trail head. 
Here is a breakdown of our trip.
Harris Wash to Neon Canyon – Escalante, Utah
Recommended Days: 3-4
Approximate Miles: 25 (I do not know exact, due to a mistake on our first day. But see our GPS maps below)
Day 1 –
We traveled from Orem, Utah to Escalante and down the Hole In The Rock road. We parked our car at the Harris Wash trail head. From the Harris Wash turn off it is 7 miles to the trailhead. A higher clearance vehicle would be recommended for this road. We shuttled our other car to the Egypt trail head. It is just over 1 hour from the Harris Wash trail head to the Egypt trail head. We slept that night at the trail head of Harris and planned to hike the entire length of Harris the next day to the confluence of the Escalante River.

Day 2 –
We woke up early to get packs together and ready for hiking down Harris Wash. Non of us had been to Harris before and was a contribution to our missing the wash. We strapped our packs on, and started hiking down the road to the left of the permit box found at the parking lot/trail head. Within 100 yards there is a stream bed. The stream bed had obviously seen some aggressively high water in the recent months. There was no trail, however there was a road the went through the stream bed, and we for some reason stayed on that road. We totally missed the wash (by a big margin), and just kept hiking on the 4×4 road. I kept thinking to myself, “this is not right, we are not in the right place. This is nothing like what I read about when planning the trip.” We kept hiking. At mile 5 we stopped and pulled out the maps and figured out our UTM. We were so totally not in the right place, obviously. We decided to keep walking down the road and see where it lead to. There wasn’t much room for error in staying on the road and we could also see the Escalante canyon in the horizon anyway. We weren’t lost, just not in the right place.

We hit mile 9 and looked at the map again. Figured out exactly where we were, and decided a point in Harris Wash that we wanted to drop into. Leaving the road and crossing the desert following a drainage we were all pretty tired. Eventually we got to the edge of Harris Wash and started looking for a place to descend into the canyon. After finally finding a place to drop in, we realized we hiked 11 miles to only get a few miles into the wash. We dropped in maybe a half mile below the narrowest point of the wash. Fighting with the Russian Olives and Tamarix we decided that it would be smart to find a place to camp for the night, as it would be getting dark and cold within an hour.

Day 3 –
Like I mentioned above, Harris Wash and the surrounding area had recently seen a very large flood come through. The amount of debris and destruction made getting through the canyon incredibly difficult and time consuming. There was debris in some areas that was over 7 feet in height. The flood had downed massive cottonwood trees and made for just a total cluster cuss for hiking. With the water being so cold, it was hard to stay in the water for more than a few minutes. Otherwise, we would have just hiked down the stream bed the entire time to get to the confluence. After a few more miles of hiking, we finally found ourselves at the confluence with the Escalante River. We took 10 and got some food and water in us.

We hiked from there a few miles down the Escalante River. The original plan was to get all the way to Fence Canyon and then find a nice place to camp near Fence Canyon. We had a really hard time making good time due to some foot problems, and again the amount of debris, lack of trail, and amount of river crossings we had to do. We found a nice place to camp about 2 miles from Fence Canyon.

Day 4 –
This is the day that I had been waiting for the entire trip. About 12 years ago I hiked from Egypt to Neon Canyon to go see the Golden Cathedral. I’ve always wanted to go back and see it again, and one of these days, i’ll actually go back and do the slot and famous rappel down through the cathedral.

We hiked to Fence Canyon, and the girls in the group stayed back as we grabbed some food and water, to then hike the roughly 2 miles to the Cathedral. We planned for 2 hours from the mouth of Fence to get to and back from Neon. Hiking really fast, with no packs, we quickly got to the mouth of Neon. Neon is one of the most beautiful desert canyons i’ve ever seen, and is something that everyone should be able to see. Pictures really do not do the canyon justice. We took lots and lots of photos while walking up Neon. Before we knew it, we turned the corner, walked through a narrow slot and there it was, the famous Golden Cathedral. We were the only ones there, and it was so peaceful and beautiful. After taking more photos and just enjoying the sight, we started back for Fence Canyon.

I remembered the last time that I was there, we walked past some Petroglyphs. I couldn’t remember exactly where they were, but we eventually found them. This panel of Petroglyphs is found maybe half a mile from the mouth of Neon Canyon. I’ve noted them on the map photos below. The panel is a very large panel, and has some amazing petroglyphs on it. Unfortunately, many people have done some serious graffiti on the wall. Most of it probably from cowboys many years ago, but there is some recent graffiti that was sad to see.

We eventually made it back to Fence and met back up with the girls. Strapped our packs back on and made the roughly 3 mile hike from Fence to the Egypt trail head. I forgot how steep and strenuous the last half mile or so of that section to the car is. It felt so nice to finally be back at the car and headed home, but it was also a sad moment to know that the trip was already over.

Overall it was a fantastic trip, and I could really careless at this point for the mistake of missing the entrance and such to Harris Wash. It may have actually made for easier, and better hiking with the amount of flooding that happened in the area. The area is beautiful, and is something that everyone should take time to go see. This is a great trip and allows you to see a lot of the Escalante in a short amount of time.

Day 2 – Shows our massive detour and where we descended into Harris

 Night 1 near the trail head

 Informally named – Moqui Balls in a large deposit area

 Harris Wash before we dropped into it

 Looking for a place to drop in

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