Overland Destinations: Utah's Kaiparowits Plateau

Overland Destinations: Utah's Kaiparowits Plateau

by Patrick Rich

Utah's “Mighty 5” National Parks and Moab get the most attention from an overlander's perspective, but there is a place off the beaten path that is perfectly primed to become the next Moab. However, this place chooses to lay low and keep the desert vibe, all while hosting some of the best overland terrain around and it's one of my favorite destinations.

The Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument (GSENM for short) is pretty well known if in name only for its controversy. Starting with its formation in the 1990’s under President Clinton and continuing today, it has fluctuated in terms of its size and scope. There one minute, gone the next, then there again. Whatever its current status, it's amazing, worth protecting, and certainly worth visiting.

Of the many trips I’ve taken in the Utah backcountry, this is remains one of my favorites. It doesn’t require the same kind of technical skills as The Maze but feels every bit as remote. The views change and the terrain is spectacular. The area is massive, and opportunities for exploration should satiate even the most seasoned overland traveler.   

What Is The Kaiporowits Plateau?

Kaiparowits Plateau in Green

The Kaiparowits P
lateau is a geologic uplift in the south central part of the state of Utah, and is part of the larger “Canyon Country”. Its most prominent feature is the “50 Mile Bench” stretching from the town of Escalante, Utah (Pronounced Es-kuh-lant locally) down to the Colorado River and Lake Powell. The Plateau slopes gradually off heading west and hosts some amazing geology.

50 mile bench

How To Get There

The towns of Escalante, Tropic, Cannonville, and Henrieville are access points on the north, and the towns of Big Water and Kanab from the south. US Highway 12 is designated a Scenic Byway, and if you do nothing more than drive this two-lane highway from Bryce Canyon National Park in the west, to Torrey and Capitol Reef National Park to the northeast, you won’t be disappointed. It’s one of the most amazing roads I’ve ever driven. Like a good overland route, access to the area is not close to any major highway or airport. There will be driving involved, but there are great locations along the way through Zion National Park from the west.


From Highway 12 there are four major routes into the area - Skutumpah (Scoot- Um-Pah) road heading southwest towards Kanab from Cannonville, Cottonwood Canyon Road heading due south to Highway 89 from Cannonville, Smokey Mountain Road headed southwest towards Big Water from Escalante, and Hole In The Rock Road headed southeast from Escalante.  

The eastern part of the area consists of 50 Mile Bench, Hole In The Rock Road (and associated canyons), Left Hand Collet Canyon (taking you up from Hole In The Rock Road to the top of 50 Mile Bench and joining with Smokey Mountain Road). Hole In The Rock Road and Smokey Mountain Road are suitable for high clearance vehicles, but are washboard city and having good tires is a must.  Also, travel with a spare tire and inflator as flats are common. Left Hand Collet Canyon is more challenging but is suitable for most high clearance vehicles and typically won’t require low range gearing. All the roads are long roads and are 100% self-sustained routes with no cell service.  

To the west, Skutumpah Road and Cottonwood Canyon Road are suitable for high clearance vehicles and two-wheel-drive and are frequented by both.  


What To See 

Think skinny thoughts

The slot canyons off of Hole In The Rock Road are legendary and you will be able to find something amazing to hike for nearly all skill levels, from kids to professional canyoneers. Smokey Mountain Road is generally uneventful, but its namesake feature is worth a visit - if you can find it. The mountain is rich in low grade coal and there are several naturally occurring coal fires underground that cause the mountain to literally spew smoke from these fires in certain locations.

Alstrom Point


At the end of Smokey Mountain Road is the Instagram-famous Alstrom Point overlooking Gunsight Bay on Lake Powell. This is a very popular spot to camp, so be advised when planning your trip that you may have to consider alternate locations.

Cocks Comb

Cottonwood Canyon is home to the Cocks Comb uplift as well as Grosvenor Arch. While not the most spectacular arch, it is noteworthy for its namesake, William Hovey Grosvenor who was a major part of the formation of the National Parks system, the father of photojournalism, and the first editor of National Geographic magazine. There are also hikes off the road worth seeing, like Cottonwood Narrows.

Willis Creek

Skutumpah Road features one of the best non-technical slot canyon hikes for families: Willis Creek, and it shouldn’t be missed. Be sure to stop at Bull Valley Gorge as well and take note of the “bridge” you drive over, it’s got an interesting, if macabre, surprise. There are also old ghost towns and movie sets in the area, as well as much more.  

When To Go

As with most things desert, this area is accessible year round, save for inclement weather. During the summer months the temperatures are very hot and it won’t be easy to enjoy the hiking the area has to offer.  

Camping And Special Considerations

Within the Monument you are required to sign in at backcountry offices to camp in the backcountry. There is no fee; Registration is mostly to keep track of visitors and facilitate search and rescue if needed. There are offices in Escalante, Cannonville, and on Highway 89 near Big Water. Stay on trails and follow Tread Lightly! principles while camping. Check with fire hazard conditions before planning on having a fire and keep fires to existing fire rings.  

Campsites are relatively limited on this route, but you can find some great ones with careful searching.

The area is large and you will be required to be self-sufficient. Some roads, like Cottonwood Canyon, have frequent travelers but many will not. Fuel is available in all towns mentioned.

If you have the time, the Kaiparowits plateau is definitely a place you wont regret spending it. 

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