Backpacking Trips in Southern Utah: Discovering the Desert in Fall

By Stio Mountain on

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

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.

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.

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.

Originally written by RootsRated.

Featured image provided by Rick McCharles

Important Desert Hiking Clothing You Shouldn't Forget

Desert-Friendly Hiking Fabrics

Hiking in the desert means dealing with extremes - cold temperatures at night and hot, cloudless temperatures during the day. Thankfully, Stio’s desert hiking clothes are up for the challenge. Our base layers offer nature’s best desert clothing fabric - merino wool. Merino wool is soft to the touch, bringing the comfort you need on long, hot days, while wool naturally thermoregulates your temperature. In addition, you’ll enjoy nature’s most powerful moisture-wicking fabric that helps keep you warm as temperatures drop in the desert. If the temperatures really start to plummet, you’ll be able to grab an extra layer, thanks to our lightweight, packable rain jackets. They pack down small, cutting down on the weight of your hiking gear, perfect for those just-in-case moments. And thanks to a natural SPF factor in many of our desert hiking clothes, you’re also protected from the sun’s harsh rays as you hike on. Now that we’ve looked at the best desert hiking fabrics to help keep you cool during the day and warm at night, we’ll look at what the essentials and must-have extras are that you need to pack on your next desert hiking trip

Desert Clothing: The Essentials

When it comes to packing for your desert hiking trip, less is more. Less clothes that work against you, and more Stio desert hiking clothes. Our desert hiking clothes help you to make smarter and lighter choices when packing, thanks to our desert fabrics. Take Stio's desert hiking clothes, for example - they can be worn as a standalone layer or layered up for more warmth. To get you started on your packing list, we'll start at the bottom - your socks. Stio's hiking socks are made with a merino wool/nylon blend, giving you the durability you want. And with the added bonus of merino's natural breathability, your feet will be kept dry, no matter the temperature. Next up are our hiking pants - we recommend picking a light color fabric to help deflect the desert's harsh sun rays. You could possibly grab a style of pants that rolls up, allowing you to cool off as you're hiking in the desert. Just like our hiking pants, our lightweight, long sleeve shirts offer sun protection, thanks to an SPF factor rating in many of our fabrics. These long sleeve shirts are great at helping you stay comfortable, no matter the temperature. The best part is that should the sun set on you as you're nearing the trailhead, grab one of our packable rain jackets to help keep your body temperature perfect as you finish up. The final piece of your desert clothing list is a nice, wide brimmed hat. This hat will help keep the sun off your head and face, offering you a bit of relief from the sun as you hike through the desert. Now that you have the essentials taken care of when it comes to packing for your desert hiking trip, we’ll take a look at the extra desert hiking gear you should bring along with you.

Desert Clothing: Extra Gear

Not all desert hiking means extreme heat. Take Zion National Park as an example. During the fall months, you could even run into snowy conditions. This means we need to talk about the extra gear you may need for desert hiking. First, you’ll need desert hiking clothes that can deal with wild, varying swings in temperatures. Our packable down jackets are essential for those cold desert nights, perfect for huddling around the campfire or relaxing in your tent. And since they are so lightweight and packable, our down jackets won’t add much bulk or weight to your desert hiking trip. The next must-have for desert gear is a solid pair of sunglasses. You may be thinking about how your skin can burn in the sun, which is why you have packed so much sunscreen and much-needed chapstick. But did you know you could also burn your eyes while hiking in the desert? Damage to your eyes is usually caused by harmful UV rays, so we recommend sunglasses with a high UV rating to help protect your baby blues. Add even more protection to your eyes and head by pulling on a wide brimmed hat. It will help to offer relief from the blistering sun as you hike around in Joshua Tree National Park. Another hat you should consider bringing with you if you’re desert hiking includes an overnight trip - a cozy beanie. Because the temperature swings can cause your body temperature to change rapidly, pull on one of our comfy beanies and stay comfortable all through the night. Our final extra gear trip is to make sure you pack plenty of our Stio water bottles in your hiking backpack. The last thing you want to experience as you take in the beauty of your desert hiking trip is heat exhaustion, so make sure you have plenty of hydration with you on your trip.

Play Reverse Play Icons Cross Icon Next Icon Prev
Close