Directions to the Trailhead:
There are two ways to go about the trail. The trail marked with cairns swings to the north. It’s just as easy and a mile shorter to instead head for the bald dome northeast of the parking lot (Neon canyon runs only a few hundred yards to the north of this landmark). It’s a prominent landmark which makes orienting your party with it a fairly simple job though it disappears beyond the horizon during the hike. This part of the hike is 2.5 miles long if you head straight through the desert and begins with a 500 foot drop down slick rock. Avoid stepping on the cryptobiotic soil along the way. Stick to the patches of slick rock though you’ll have to venture into the sand occasionally which really saps your strength. Reaching the ridgeline you’ll notice a large stone protrusion. Head to the southern side of this protrusion and pick up the path that heads over the ridge and down a sandy path.
There’s a marked difference in the landscape after the hill. This section of the trail deposits you upstream along the Escalante where vegetation finally provides some much needed shade. The trail remains obvious even through the greenery so wind your way through to the bank of the Escalante River. There’s an inherent risk in crossing the river so I’ll add my word of caution here to check the rivers flow rate before going.
Approach to Canyon:
Technically speaking, the approach starts in the canyon. If the bed is dry you can certainly walk there, otherwise move up to the higher ground that runs along the north of the wash. Spend some time admiring the cliffs as the canyon winds north. The canyon will bend sharply the other direction which is your cue to head north and slightly west up the rocky slope. The trail is fairly steep and brings you up onto the bench that runs alongside the canyon. Again, just follow the well marked trail along the bench. Be on the lookout for a spot a quarter mile in where the trail seems to split. The trail left ends in a dead end, instead stick to edge keeping the ridge in sight. I should mention that some skip the rest of the canyon and instead drop in right after the passing the Golden Cathedral, skipping straight to the final rappel. Others will pass the drop in point we used and instead dropped in further up the canyon. The slot portion of the canyon is a half mile from where the trail splits. The ridge that the trail follows cuts back, leaving a lower ridge significantly wider. There’s a boulder with webbing around it in the middle of this lower ridge which you can use to rappel down to the canyon floor.
Head south (the direction you came) from your rappel. A short distance away, along the left side of the canyon is a crack that’s pretty easy to miss if you aren’t looking for it. That’s your entrance.
Rappel 1/Downclimb: Dawn your wetsuit and descend through this v-shaped slot using either the chockstone to rappel or downclimb. This section of the canyon requires either swimming or wading depending on the season but the water can be absolutely frigid, fair warning.
Keeper 1: Twenty yards out the canyon veers right into a semi-keeper. You’ll have to vary your approach based on the water level. Swim across it if you can or you may have to rely on a three person pyramid or a potshot. Pick your poison. The canyon opens up a bit before narrowing again right before a down climb.
Rappel 2/Downclimb: You can rappel off of the stone that’s wedged above it if the height seems a bit daunting (especially when you can’t see the bottom of the pool).
Keeper 2: The last pothole is tricky and isn’t well adapted to a potshot. Use partner assist techniques or debris.
Rappel 3: The canyon opens up slightly before the final rappel. There’s a veritable rainbow of webbing to rappel off but it’s wise to bring along 40 feet in case the old webbing needs to be retired. This site has also been the site of a bolting war so watch where you place your hands since the hangars (the part with the loop) have been removed but the bolts are exposed and you don’t want to risk cutting yourself. Climb down to the webbing and clip in and the enjoy the final 80’ rappel. With any luck, you’ll have an audience while descending into the canyon.
Follow the trail back out of the canyon, across the Escalante River, and retrace your steps back to the trailhead.
Hot and cold. Literally. Not a judgement on the canyon itself. Neon is otherworldly but while the approach is exposed desert landscape, the descent into the canyon was one of the coldest of my life. Get an early start for this hike. Our group ended up with a later start than we originally planned and ended up hiking in the heat of the day which took its toll in the long term. As a side note, bring extra water, lugging the weight is worth it.
The trail isn’t much to look at unless the desert is in bloom. Luckily that was the case on our excursion and there was more than a few pit stops to take pictures of the local flora showing off their colors. If you aren’t so lucky, no worries, the area surrounding the river verges on neon, especially at the mouth of the canyon. The contrast with the red rock is incredible. It’s also pretty common for people to camp in this area to split up the hike and the canyon.
The canyon itself was breathtaking, in the sense that the moment that ice cold water rose reached my chest, I couldn’t breathe. I’m not exaggerating so don’t skimp on the wetsuit. We were lucky enough that the water level was high enough that we could skip the keepers but low enough to leave some blessed islands untouched and give us small reprieves in between swims. The longest swim was around 50 yds which only seems long when you considering the weight of your gear. Make sure your packs have some flotation and adjust your footwear to match the activity (i.e. boots don’t help).
That final descent makes it all worth it though. Even if the rest of the canyon rode the line between chore and adventure, that final descent into the Golden Cathedral makes you really consider the force of the water that comes pouring through that canyon. Everything you just passed through was carved over thousands of years ending it a massive open dome. Take a moment and appreciate that, maybe pose for a picture or two as gawking hikers look on in envy. You know, the usual.
The hike back is where you really pay your dues. Like it or not, your equipment will retain some water and you’ll start to feel the physical exhaustion from those swims. DRINK WATER. I can’t emphasize this enough. If you have time, it’s not a bad idea to rest a little before trekking back. It’s uphill and sand. Best of luck!
Time: 8-10 hours
Trail: 1.5-2.5 hours
Approach: 1 hour
Canyon: 1 hour
Number of Rappels: 3*
Gear: Standard Technical Gear, Wetsuit
*Varies by season and technical abilities
Trailhead: 37.5932500, -111.2184400
Approach Entrance: 37.6064042, -111.1680324
Drop-in Point: 37.6181800, -111.1625200