The Best Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Hikes

Want to hike something new? How about the "Cosmic Ashtray"? This is one of the hikes in the new guidebook from Colorado Mountain Club Press's "The Best Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Hikes".
Mountaineers Books Mountaineers Books
November 01, 2019

The desert Southwest can be cold in the peak winter months but awesome by April and May. So now is a good time to start planning a trip to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Southern Utah. Following is a hike excerpted from The Best Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Hikes, the new guidebook by co-authors Morgan Sjogren and Michael Versteeg. We chose this adventure to share because, well, how often do you have a chance to do a hike called the "Cosmic Ashtray?"

hike 7: Red Breaks and the Cosmic Ashtray

DISTRICT: Canyons of the Escalante/Hole-In-The-Rock Road
RATING: Strenuous
DISTANCE: 13 miles
ELEVATION GAIN: 2,500 Feet
ROUND-TRIP TIME: 1-2 days
MAP: Trails illustrated #710, Canyons of the Escalante
NEAREST LANDMARK: Escalante River

COMMENT: Take a magical mystery tour of Grand Staircase! Red Breaks is a long, narrow, deep red, and winding slot canyon that will guide you to a cross-country traverse of col-orful sandstone ridge lines and valleys with sweeping views of the Escalante canyons. Those who take on the quest (with successful route finding) will be rewarded with a trip to the Cosmic Ashtray—a giant sinkhole in the earth filled with fine orange sand that is wildly more exciting in person than this mundane description, the photos in this book, or even its colorful name can offer.

Now that we have your attention, take note that this is an extremely challenging hike only suited for extremely fit, experienced, and knowledgeable desert hikers. The reasons for the degree of difficulty are numerous: Red Breaks is pencil thin at its narrowest space some larger folks simply will not fit; the obstacles within the canyon require strength (and for most, a team of at least two to help hoist and pull one another up and over boulder and log jams). The cross-coun-try jaunt is completely unmarked, exposed, and over difficult terrain requiring careful route selection. Both Red Breaks and the traverse are slow moving, making the distance of this hike deceptive. There are no reliable water sources anywhere on this hike (plan to carry the full supply you will need).

There is an unsettling trend in our current social media–driven culture of well-meaning people attempting hikes far beyond their ability levels in order to get a photo. The Cosmic Ashtray certainly has this appeal and for this reason we hesi-tated including it in the guidebook. Do yourself a favor and be honest with yourself about your true abilities and fitness on this hike (and all others)—no photo is worth your safety. There are plenty of amazing picturesque attractions that are much easier to get to.

GETTING THERE: From Escalante, head east on Highway 12 for 5.0 miles. Turn right on Hole-In-The-Rock Road. Continue for 10.5 miles and turn left at the signed road for Harris Wash. Stay left at the fork after about 2.5 miles continuing toward Harris Wash, and another 3.5 miles will put you at the signed parking area and trailhead for Harris Wash.

THE ROUTE: From the trailhead, continue down the road for 100 yards or so into Harris Wash. Cross the wash on the jeep road and follow it for a few hundred more yards until you come upon a second dry wash. This is the mouth to a series of canyons collectively referred to as Red Breaks. Head up this wash staying on the canyon floor. You will shortly come upon a split in the canyon where you will want to stay right. After about 3.0 miles the route to the slot canyon leaves the canyon floor you have been in, and climbs the ridge to the left. This trail is usually heavily cairned and easy to locate. This trail puts you above a large dryfall and into a side canyon that contains the notorious slot. If you miss this turn, and you see a large interesting dryfall on your left, you have gone too far and you should turn back and look for the correct route. Once in the side canyon, head up through the narrows bat-tling the many chockstone boulders and extremely narrow and high walls.

For many, some of the scrambling required in Red Breaks will prove to be too difficult. There is no shame in turn-ing back at any point in the slot and returning to your vehicle after an out-and-back hike. For those that do make it through, you can either return the way you came, or attempt to find your way over to the Cosmic Ashtray.

There is no official route to the Ashtray from here. Some people head north and then east to avoid going up and down the head canyons of Red Breaks. Others choose a more direct line going up and down the canyon walls until they get lucky and stumble upon the Ashtray. Either way, this route is only recommended for those comfortable with routefinding and reading topographical features.

 If you are lucky enough to find the Ashtray, it is possible to enter into the pothole via a series of modern Moki steps cut into the rock. Descend into the pit, run around, get sand blasted, smoke a cigarette, and make an offering. From the Ashtray, head southwest until you intercept the jeep road that will lead you all the way back to your car.

For those looking to only get your slot on, there is a cross-country route accessed via Spencer Flat Road, which is shorter and only accesses the slot, but that route is not described here.

(Photos by Micheal Versteeg)