Day hike to a charming, 126-foot waterfall in the midst of southern Utah along Route 12
Lower Calf Creek Falls Trail Guide
MAP: Trails Illustrated
ENTRANCE FEE: The entrance fee is $5.00 per vehicle for parking at the trailhead, payable at a self-registration station.
DESIGNATION: Calf Creek Recreation Area, Bureau of Land Management, Garfield County
BEST SEASONS: year-round, though summer is hot
DISTANCE: 6 miles round trip
WATER: potable water is available at the trailhead
ELEVATION: 5,350ft at the parking area – 5,520ft at the falls
ACCESS: paved roads to trailhead
DRIVING DIRECTIONS: Lower Calf Creek Falls Trailhead is located on the west side of Utah’s Highway 12. It’s 16 miles east of the town of Escalante, and 13 miles south of Boulder. The location is well-signed. Turn down the steep, paved hill to find the parking lot.
ROUTE: sandy, busy trail
GUIDEBOOK: Best Easy Day Hikes: Grand Staircase-Escalante
INTERPRETIVE TRAIL GUIDE: Lower Calf Creek Falls PDF
This is a 6-mile hike over level terrain, but its difficulty can end feeling much more strenuous because of deep sand on the trail.
The day-hiking trail and falls are technically open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In the spring of 2020, local officials closed this and other area trails for a short time due to Covid 19 concerns, but the trail is currently open.
Fishing is allowed in Calf Creek. Wild brown trout can readily be seen in the clear water.
Drones are allowed at Lower Calf Creek Falls, but think twice about bringing and/or using one on a busy day. Many hikers don’t like to see them in such a sublime natural setting. Besides, there’s already a surplus of drone footage on youtube anyway. 😉
Dogs on the Calf Creek Trail
Yes, dogs are allowed at Lower Calf Creek Falls! As always, just be sure to pick up after your dog and keep it on a leash. For real – this is usually a crowded trail.
Also please note that the trail is very sandy, and extremely hot for your dog in summer weather. Six sandy miles is a long way to “walk” most dogs in the heat. I know you don’t like to see your dog suffering, but your fellow hikers don’t want to see it either!
Swimming under the Waterfall
Lower Calf Creek Falls tends to form a nice pool at its base, which makes for a lovely swimming hole. In the summer months it’s worth it to have your swim suit, or at least some quick-drying clothes.
The water temperature tends to stay somewhat chilly, even through the summer, but it feels great on a hot day. May through September is the best time for swimming. The water will likely seem uninviting throughout the rest of the year.
Rather than dwelling on the water temperature, swimming here mostly depends on the air temperature and how rapidly it can warm you up afterward.
The creek has a high enough flow to mitigate the risk, but just be aware that it drains the open range country that lies above (aka cow poop). A busy day may not also breed the most sanitary environment with your fellow humans – the creek certainly isn’t chlorinated!
Also, be aware of the potential for flash floods in the stormy weather of July and August. If you’re swimming beneath the falls and the water suddenly turns brown, get out and find some high ground!
Otherwise, just have fun at this magical oasis in the desert. In the video below (taken in early May) you can see it’s sometimes possible to wade all the way up to the cliff. The pool to the left, though, gets a bit deeper. 🙂
Best Time to Go
If swimming isn’t very important to you, the best time to hike this trail is late in the fall, or even in winter.
The cooler weather in March may give the impression that it it would be ideal, but this is when everyone is on spring break!
If you’re otherwise looking forward to a dip in the water, late May and early September are ideal. June, July, and August are good too – just watch your hydration and electrolytes in the extreme desert heat, and keep an eye out for flash flooding.
Camping at Lower Calf Creek
A campground is located immediately at the trailhead, designated as Calf Creek Recreation within Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument. It has 13 sites, and the fee is $15.00 per site, per night. Sites are first-come, first served.
Here’s the thing – I would not want to camp here… at least not in summer. There’s simply too many people constantly going up and down the trail, immediately adjacent to most campsites. I imagine that most folks can’t help but turn and look into your site, sort of like the allure of a well-lit, open window at night.
The campground is also quite popular, so the notion of first-come first-serve means that you have to get there early and immerse yourself in the crowds during the busiest, hottest part of the day.
The towns of Escalante (16 miles away) and Boulder, UT (13 miles) have the nearest hotels, but there’s only a few of them. A wider selection of rooms with better rates can be found closer to the nearby national parks, namely Bryce Canyon National Park (65 miles away) and Capitol Reef.
Here’s a map that shows the trail to Lower Calf Creek Falls. You can right-click on the image to view a larger version, or download it.
The map shows how Route 12 parallels the canyon, but the trail is tucked away and feels adequately remote.
Calf Creek Falls Trail Description
Beside being mindful of the summer heat the main thing to keep in mind before you tackle this trail is that its surface is composed of deep sand. Sure, the hike’s distance is “only” 6 miles round trip, but trudging through the sand significantly increases the difficulty factor.
Otherwise, it’s a fairly level and pleasant trail with insignificant elevation change. Most people will take 4 hours to complete the hike, though quick and experienced hikers can certainly do it in less time.
On most days, you’ll see vehicles parked along highway 12 near the turn for the trailhead. Sometimes the parking is actually that full, but it’s more likely that some folks are parking up here to try and avoid the nominal fee ($5 per vehicle) for parking at the trailhead.
It’s up to you, of course, whether or not to continue the short distance down to the trailhead or to pull over up by the highway – it’s less than a quarter-mile walk down to the trail.
Along the way, you’ll see numbered interpretive plaques that correspond to a beautiful trail guide (pdf) that’s was created by the folks behind Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. In case the pdf doesn’t work you, here’s a quick summary of the meaning behind the 15 numbered plaques.
1 – Introduction to Calf Creek – The first note simply states that the perennial waters of Calf Creek (such a rare thing in the desert) support a relatively lush, riparian habitat.
2 – Geology – Here you’re encouraged to contemplate the forces that carve Utah’s canyons. The main force is erosion during major flash floods, but wind is partially responsible, too.
3 – Beavers – That’s right, beavers live here! The specific species is the North American Beaver. An observant eye can easily discern the way beavers have impacted this landscape, creating ponds and boggy meadows along the floor of the canyon. See the pictures of a beaver dam and beaver lodge we found in the trip report at the end of this page.
4 – Gambel Oak – This plaque simply takes the opportunity to identify a single species of native vegetation.
5 – Granaries – High on the canyon walls above here is a series of granaries that were constructed by natives that occupied Utah from AD 700 to 1300. The granaries were storage areas for their food, predominantly corn.
As opposed to the Ancestral Puebloans (sometimes called Anasazi), central and northern Utah was inhabited by what archeologists refer to as the Fremont people. There is some debate over their separation as a completely different culture. Some of these differences include how they wore moccasins (as opposed to sandals), lived in pit houses, and had a signature style of gray pottery.
6 – Navajo Sandstone – The interpretive info here invites you to admire the tall cliffs that line the canyon. These are composed primarily of Navajo Sandstone. Scientists say this rock layer represents an ancient, sandy desert that existed in this area roughly 165 million years ago.
7 – Desert Varnish – the striping effect you see on the canyon walls is called desert varnish. It’s composed of oxidized iron and manganese, and caused by living microbes. The brochure explains how scientists use it to evaluate ancient environmental conditions, and how they think desert varnish may exist on Mars.
Desert varnish seen as the vertical stripes immediately to the right of the pictographs shown below:
8 – Lower Calf Creek Pictographs
The easiest way to find the pictographs on the hike to Lower Calf Creek Falls is to look for the interpretive plaque marked number 8. As you hike in toward the falls, the pictographs are to your right (east), across the creek on the distant canyon wall. Despite their distance from you, they’re large and relatively easy to spot as you scan the the base of the distant cliffs.
It’s worth noting that these large red paintings are technically called pictographs, not petroglyphs. Pictographs are paintings on the rock, whereas petroglyphs are carvings in the rock.
Ancient rock art is an invaluable treasure – once it is lost or damaged, it is gone forever. With this in mind, it’s important not to touch or otherwise harm or deface these rare sites.
The large images here at Lower Calf Creek are typical of Fremont-style rock art. Archaeologists will speculate on the meaning behind the images (For example, the hand-holding here could be a sign of welcome and peace), but we may never know for certain.
9 – Granaries – Another ancient storage granary is up this side canyon, on the right-hand wall. Look for a rough construction of rocks, almost like bricks, near the foot of the cliff. Natives built these structures to store their extra food after a harvest of corn, squash, or beans.
10 – Horsetail – plaque number 10 is situated where a bamboo-like plant called Horsetail is abundant. It grows in segmented stalks and develops a bushy head that pioneers used as a sort of washcloth for their pots and pans. They called the Horsetail plant Scouring Rush. The interpretive info goes on to state that the most common tree in the canyon is the Boxelder. Both of these species like wet environments, and they slow the process of erosion.
11 – Listen – The 11th stop encourages you to stop for a moment and listen to the sounds of nature… the birds, the wind, etc. Unfortunately, this trail is often so busy nowadays that you’re most likely to hear your fellow hikers above all. Hopefully nobody is blasting their music on a Bluetooth speaker!
12 – Fish – Perennial water is a rare and treasured thing in the desert. Here you’re asked to admire how the creek supports so much life in the canyon, and in particular to look for trout.
13 – Wetlands – yes, there’s a small patch of wetlands here in the midst of the desert. Riparian areas have numerous benefits to the environment.
14 – Value Water – The mist and the shade of the canyon walls create a micro-climate where maidenhair fern and monkey flower thrive. Enjoy.
My Trip Notes and Photos
Haley and I hiked to Lower Calf Creek Falls on May 17, 2020. It was a busy Sunday on the trail when things began to re-open after the initial onset of Covid 19.
We counted almost 150 people on the trail this afternoon! The waterfall itself, however, was reasonably vacant. We enjoyed the destination much more than we’d expected.
We began in the early afternoon and finished at the onset of evening. The trail was more quiet and pleasant on the return trip, with less traffic and less direct sun.
On the return hike, we happened to notice a couple of birds at ground level, a few feet off the trail. They seemed to be very irritated about something!
Lo and behold they cued us to this beautiful gopher snake, which retreated even further into the brush when we approached. We didn’t see an obvious bird’s nest in the vicinity, but it was clear mobbing behavior on behalf of the jays.
Here’s some more photos from the hike: