Grand Staircase-Escalante Nat'l Monument High Plateaus Loop

This 170-mile loop follows the most seldom-traveled and arguably most scenic backcountry roads through Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument through beautiful and remote Colorado Plateau country. Best ridden in late spring or autumn, this loop offers 3+ days of 4x4 riding and solitude.

escalante, UT

southern paiute, Pueblos, and ute lands



late spring/fall

riding season


days out


PHYSICAL challenge (1-10*)


recommended tire size




TECHNICAL challenge (1-10*)

General route description

This wonderous loop through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is on nearly 100% dirt, nearly 100% public lands, and
through stunning Colorado Plateau canyon and plateau country (colorful smaller plateaus on the bigger Plateau!). The roads on this loop tend to be the quietest in the Monument and arguably are the most scenic. This route might be entirely on “roads,” but most are unimproved 4×4 roads that can be rocky, ledgy, soft, and rutted, so a mountain bike with 2.4-2.8″ tires is highly recommended. ATV use and vehicle traffic in general is minimal, so expect a quiet experience except on the short stretch on the busier and somewhat sandy Hole-In-the-Rock Road. This loop is best ridden in 3- to 5-days starting from either Big Water, AZ or Escalante, UT (parking is available at the BLM Visitors Centers in both communities), and the loop can be ridden in either direction. It’s described below in the clockwise direction. Before heading out, look carefully at the weather forecast – long stretches of these roads become absolutely impassible when wet. Finally, a free BLM backcountry permit is required for camping, and those can obtained in both Big Water and Escalante at the BLM Visitors Centers.

Starting from Big Water, this loop follows the sequence of Smoky Mountain Road, Highway 12, Hole-in-the-Rock Road, Left Hand Collet Canyon Road, Croton Road, and back again on the southern end of Smoky Mountain Road to Big Water. The first miles of the lollipop out to the loop are through gray shale badlands before the route climbs up the impressive Kelly Grade switchbacks to an incredibly scenic plateau surface above. At mile 33, “Drip Tank” is a generally reliable water source down a canyon (a 1/4-mile hike to a bedrock pool). The next 30 miles trend uphill toward the high point on the loop. The riding is demanding as the road is rocky, ledgy, and steep in places. Another generally reliable water source is at mile 46, an earthen stock pond near a ranch cabin (the stock pond is on public land, but please make sure to leave gates as found).

After the high point, the road descends toward Escalante, leaving the big views of the plateau tops behind and descending a canyon that can be sandy in places. The small community of Escalante sits at the mouth of the canyon, and riders can find restaurants, a small market, lodging options, and a BLM Visitors Center here. The route continues out of Escalante for a few miles on Highway 12 before turning south on Hole-in-the-Rock Road. This road sees more traffic as it provides access to the Monuments many popular slot canyon adventures above the Escalante River to the East. Hole-in-the-Rock Road tends to be sandy and washboarded, but the grasslands through which it passes are beautiful. After 16 miles, riders turn west into Left Hand Collet Canyon, one of the only drainages carved into the imposing eastern face of Fiftymile Mountain. The road up this canyon mostly follows the stream bed. Water often runs through the canyon in places, the road bed is sandy in places, and the canyon gets steeper and steeper before the road cuts steeply up to the plateau top above at Collet Top and the intersection with the Croton Road. Near the high point at Collet Top, riders have the option of returning to the earthen stock tank they passed miles earlier to fill up on water if needed – to the south along the Croton Road, it’s a long way to the next water source!

The Croton Road is arguably the most scenic and quietest road in the Monument as it snakes its way along the crest of the Burning Hills and then down to Sit Down Bench above Lake Powell. The burning hills are named for their smoldering coal veins. On still mornings, little smoke plumes can be seen rising from these veins, and there’s a fascinating one to explore just off route around mile 125 (but be careful – these burning veins give off hazardous hydrogen sulfide gas, and the ground can be quite unstable!). Past these burning coal veins, the route plunges toward Glen Canyon, with Navajo Mountain and seemingly endless canyon country looming in the distance to the south. Once on Sit Down Bench, the terrain becomes mellower, and the road condition gradually improves as it winds west toward the intersection with Smoky Mountain Road.

Water sources included in this route information are generally reliable in spring and after a decent late-summer monsoon season, but they may be dry after particularly dry periods. Carry far more water than is needed.

Feedback from riders who have been out on this loop consistently includes, “those roads were far more demanding than I was expecting!” These roads are rough, the terrain is demanding, and the miles take longer than most expect . . . but it’s so worth the effort.

Photos by Kurt Refsnider

route maps & GPS data

Click on the orange route title in the upper left of the map to see the route and download options on RWGPS  

Disclaimer: This route and associated information is just a starting point for your preparation, and your safety is your own responsibility. Although this route, its GPS track and waypoints, route data, and the route guide were prepared after extensive research, their accuracy and reliability are not guaranteed. Check for current conditions, route updates, detours, use common sense, obey local laws and regulations, and travel with alternative means of navigation. We are in no way be responsible for personal injury or damage to personal property arising in conjunction with following this route or utilizing any of the route resources provided on this website or via RWGPS.

additional route information

  • This is the desert, albeit high desert. Water is scarce, and it is wise to never rely 100% on any of the “generally reliable” water sources included here.
  • Carry far more than you’ll need!
  • A water capacity of at least 5-6 liters per person is strongly recommended.
  • All water sources should be treated.
  • The only services along this route are in Escalante (restaurants, a small market, and lodging). A gas station is available off route just east of Big Water.
  • Virtually the entirety of this route is on public lands within Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (the southeasternmost part of the loop is in the latter)
  • Camping is permitted virtually anywhere in the Monument with a backcountry permit (see rules/regs/permits below) other than within 1/4 mile of water sources. Bikes must remain on roads (or within 100′ of them if camping, but some sections of the route are Wilderness on both sides of the road, so do not camp with your bike behind “Wilderness” marker posts! No permit is required in the Recreation Area, but the same camping rules apply.
  • A free backcountry permit is required for camping in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. One can be obtained immediately before your trip at the visitors centers in Big Water or Escalante
  • This route can be quite hot during the summer months at the lower elevations, and the high elevation plateaus can hold snow later into spring than many expect. Plan your trips carefully.
  • Riding the route in May-June and September-November are generally the most ideal times. Lower-snow winters may allow riding in additional months.
  • This is a remote route. Help is not going to arrive quickly if anything goes wrong.
  • Long sections of the route can become absolutely impassible when wet!
  • Again, this is the desert. Water is scarce. Carry far more than you’ll need, and never count on the next water source being 100% reliable. A water capacity of at least 5 L per person is strongly recommended.
  • This route was initially ridden by Kurt Refsnider in 2011 (and presumably many others in the preceding decades), and he’s been back several times since it’s so good.