Backpacking Trips in Southern Utah: Discovering the Desert in Fall

Sandy washes lit by the sun make the perfect way to bask in late-fall in Capitol Reef.
Sandy washes lit by the sun make the perfect way to bask in late-fall in Capitol Reef. Rick McCharles
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Fall hiking in Northern Utah is delicious when the aspen leaves are in their full finery. But come this time of year, most of the golden leaves have dropped and given way to muddy trails with the occasional slush patch. There are some persistent places to hike when the weather chills, but overnight backpacking lacks appeal when evenings are downright icy.

But in special sunny corners of Southern Utah, the red rocks warm up and  balance the slightly cooler air. Nights are awash with stars, and a puffy jacket takes the chill right out of the equation. In short, it’s prime time for weekend backpacking trips in Southern Utah's  desert.

Watch the weather forecasts for any chance of rain (in which you’ll have to stay far from slot canyons) and pick a few days projected to be sunny and 70. Then, load up the car with delectable backpacking food, hiking shoes, and fleeces, and set out into the wild blue-sky yonder.

1. Capitol Reef: Shimmy Through Upper Muley Twist

Get your toes wet deep in Coyote Gulch. Just dry out by bedtime.
Get your toes wet deep in Coyote Gulch. Just dry out by bedtime. Davis Doherty

Muley Twist Canyon is a little-known gem in a remote swath of Capitol Reef, which is generally less crowded than most of Utah’s parks. Swoop in during the off-season, and you’re likely to have the place to yourself. Even better, you access Capitol Reef via Torrey, an amiable little town with a high number of delicious cafés per capita.

The trail is a loop of about nine miles total—a tidy little overnighter. On the way up, you’ll ascend through Upper Muley Twist canyon to the top of the rocky plateau, and then you’ll be treated to sweeping views of Capitol Reef as you descend back down and complete your circle. There are several well-suited places to camp along the way, and during the quiet autumn months, you should be able to take your pick.

The trail is accessed via the Burr Trail Road, which is a scenic adventure in itself. It’s paved for the first several miles and after that assumes a friendly well-graded dirt surface. You’ll eventually reach a turn-off onto a spur road, and low-clearance vehicles will have to stop pretty soon (sorry, you’ll walk the rest of the way—hooray for longer hikes). But high-clearance vehicles can continue another three miles to the Upper Muley Twist trailhead.

Start up canyon, noticing an intersection at 1.7 miles with the trail you’ll come back on. Continue onward up the canyon, following the wash, skipping around and over the narrowest narrows, and watching carefully for cairns that keep you on target. You’ll eventually top out on the bluff above, and head generally southward, admiring the vast expanses around you as you work your way back to the wash bottom and ultimately the trailhead.

2. Escalante: Howl at the Moon in Coyote Gulch

Otherworldly wonders lie within Coyote Gulch, ready for explorers to come admire them.
Otherworldly wonders lie within Coyote Gulch, ready for explorers to come admire them. John Fowler

Coyote Gulch is a stunning labyrinthine canyon system outside Escalante, located on the famed Hole in the Rock Road. The trail is usually clear but can get tricky at times—so bring a detailed topographic map and compass, and know how to use them. (GPS devices don’t always have the reception they need in deeper slot canyons, so it may not be worth the risk to rely 100% on a digital device.)

The hike can be anywhere from 10 to 20-plus miles out-and-back, depending on your ambition and schedule. Either way, you’ll drive to the Hole-in-the-Rock Road outside the town of Escalante, and head south on it for 30 miles to a signed junction. Another 1.5 miles farther, you’ll see the Red Well trailhead and hiker registration box.

The trail begins in a wide, sandy wash before it works its way into tall rock-walled narrows. About seven miles in, you’ll reach the confluence of Coyote Gulch and Hurricane Wash. Another 1.5 miles down the way, and you’ll reach Jacob Hamblin Arch, and another 1.7 miles will take you to Coyote Natural Bridge. Both of these rock formations are stunning, and the area between them is well suited for camp spots. You can easily spend more than two days exploring this area, but if it’s gotta be an overnighter, you’d be hard-pressed to beat this one.

3. Canyonlands: A Rocky Descent into Syncline Loop

Upheaval dome juts above the expanses of Canyonlands National Park.
Upheaval dome juts above the expanses of Canyonlands National Park. Zen Quanta

One of the most challenging day hikes in Canyonlands, the Syncline Loop trail makes a superb and not-as-challenging backpacking venture. It’s in the Island in the Sky District, an aptly named rocky promontory with an interesting ancient meteorite impact crater smack in the eroding stone crust.

As with the Coyote Gulch trail, this is an excellent time to have a good map and solid map-reading skills. The trail is usually well marked but sometimes it takes solid route-finding abilities, descending from the top of the crater down a steep rocky slope and into a low desert wash. You’ll ultimately scramble back up the slickrock to complete your loop—but hopefully after eating an excellent dinner and sleeping in a cozy tent alongside the sandy wash.

To reach the trail, enter Canyonlands National Park via Grand View Point Road outside Moab. After 13.1 miles, you’ll turn left onto Upheaval Dome Road and will stay on the road until it ends in another 4.8 miles. The start of the trail is clearly marked, although signs early on will warn you that the trail is strenuous and difficult to follow. (They’re not lying, but you’ve got this.)

Be sure to bring enough water—shade is scarce in this corner of the desert, and while the sun’s rays feel welcome on your skin in the autumn, you don’t want to risk dehydration.

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