The Grand Staircase Loop bikepacking route is a 160ish mile adventure through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, in gorgeous southern Utah. My husband and I rode it in May 2021 and were blown away by the variety, scenery, and wide open spaces (and also, sometimes, the wind!).
From scrubby high desert to classic red-rock escarpments to geologically fascinating canyons and even a bit of pine forest, tracing your wheels over this incredible landscape will leave you feeling intimately connected to a special place.
The Grand Staircase Loop was established by Jamie Mefford, and bikepacking.com provides the official route guide. Be sure to check it out for the official map, latest updates, and comments from recent riders. My intent with this post is to share our experience on the route and unearth some additional information I found buried deep in the route page’s comments section while planning our trip.
I think this route is spot-on and provides a ton of value. Much of southern Utah is crisscrossed by incredibly scenic public land, but if you’re not a local it can be hard to know where to start. Terrain varies widely and water sources can be scarce, so established routes have obvious benefits. More technical routes like the Kokopelli Trail will appeal to mountain bikers but not gravel riders, and the famous White Rim Loop requires a hard-to-get permit.
For those in search of a non-technical dirt and gravel ride through canyon country without permit challenges, the Grand Staircase Loop is a real treat! (Stone House Lands Loop is another one in the area to consider, but we wanted something farther south.) Thanks Jamie and bikepacking.com for establishing this gem. We rode it shortly after finishing our Arizona Trail thru hike, as one last hurrah before heading home, and it was the perfect sampler of southern Utah’s fascinating geology.
Shape: Loop! Logistically as easy as it gets.
Distance: 160ish miles, with a few variations available
Typical Time: 3-4 days for most folks (or 2 if you’re crazy fast, or 5 if you want to be leisurely)
Direction: clockwise is highly recommended by the route designers, presumably because it lets you descend some of the steepest and most scenic sections while climbing the more gradual and rideable parts.
Start and Finish: lots of options, see below
Here’s the route on RideWithGPS, embedded from the bikepacking.com route page:
Our Itinerary and Notes
As I’ll explain more below, the Grand Staircase Loop is quite flexible and there are many possible itineraries. This section gives our day-by-day schedule and highlights of each section, but this is just one way to ride to the route.
Day 1, 43 miles
Junction of Alvey Wash Road and Death Ridge Road, to dispersed camping at mile 43
The route starts as good hardpacked dirt, but eventually grows rockier and a bit chunky in places. Though the elevation profile for this section looks “mostly downhill” there felt like plenty of uphill to us, especially loaded down with 8 liters of water each. Not gonna lie, we walked up some of those climbs.
Once you reach the flat-ish area around mile 43 the going gets easier and the views start getting better! We started the day around noon and used most of the daylight hours. We camped just off a secondary dirt road and enjoyed a great sunset and moderate overnight temperatures.
Day 2, 42 miles
Mile 43 to dispersed camping around mile 98, shortly after Cottonwood Canyon turnoff (skipped ~13 miles)
This day started with a gorgeous and memorable descent down Kelly Grade, definitely a highlight of the route. Once down in the fascinating wasteland we fought a hot headwind that dried us out and slowed us down, making this section tougher than expected. We skipped the out-and-back to Lake Powell since we had carried tons of water and felt like maintaining forward momentum.
In Big Water we gladly rode the 1.5 miles down the highway for microwave lunch and snacks from the small convenience store, which rejuvenated us. Then, tired from the heat and headwind and not in the mood for a sandy slog, we made the questionable decision to shortcut to Cottonwood Canyon on Highway 89. See the Alternates section below for more info.
Relieved to be done with the highway and headwind, we camped shortly after turning onto Cottonwood Canyon Road. We turned right at a small secondary road, passed a friendly couple in an RV, and found a nice overlook with a view of the basin we had just traversed. In the morning we found two sodas and a note saying “Bikers: happy trails” where the RV had been – thanks for the trail magic, you lovely people!
Day 3, 39 miles
Mile 98 in Cottonwood Canyon to dispersed camping around mile 137 before Death Ridge
The miles in Cottonwood Canyon were some of the mildest on the whole route. The long gradual climb was mostly rideable, if a bit washboarded in places, and the change in terrain was exciting.
Cottonwood Narrows was well worth a short side trip from the northern end, where you can wander a little ways (even a half mile is enough) into the narrow canyon for a different perspective. You’ll see two signs marking the north and south trailheads around mile 119; start from the northern one for almost-instant access to the slot canyon.
The Cottonwood Canyon section ends at famous Grosvenor Arch, worth the short walk from the parking area for a closer look (bathrooms too). From there the riding gets hillier again, and rockier, with some fun sections of smooth flat dirt mixed in.
The scenery here returns to scrubby desert reminiscent of the first day. We camped in the scrubby forest at no particular destination and enjoyed a peaceful last night on the route, though definitely colder than the others.
Day 4, 23 miles
Mile 137 to the end of the loop
On our last day we tackled intimidatingly named Death Ridge, the hardest part of the route in my opinion. The narrow road has a lovely remote feeling but is often rocky and filled with short and steep rollers. Ruts at the low points prevent you from leveraging momentum, meaning many riders will hike-a-bike the climbs and struggle to find any rhythm.
I thought this section was a bit tedious but we got through it, and were rewarded by several miles of smooth downhill cruising once back to the maintained gravel roads at the end.
What to Expect
If you’re wondering whether this route is right for you, here are my thoughts. For context, I am not the fastest or the strongest, but I’m comfortable in the wilderness and have spent many months touring on my bike in the US and abroad. Dirt roads are my happy place, technical singletrack is my nemesis, and busy roads are my biggest fear.
Obviously this will depend on your strengths and weaknesses, but this route seemed on the difficult side of moderate, like a 6 or 6.5 out of 10 for me.
There is plenty of well-graded gravel road, but also some steep, loose, and/or rocky sections that are not passable by most vehicles. Mountain bikers will probably find the terrain fairly straightforward, while gravel riders might find some sections challenging. There are some steep climbs that beg to be walked, and most riders should prepare for at least some hike-a-bike. If you leave yourself plenty of time and don’t mind pushing through the tricky spots, I think most riders will manage fine.
Regardless of terrain and surface, factors like heat and headwind can turn otherwise easy-rolling roads into mentally challenging slogs. And of course, managing (and carrying) your water supply is paramount in the dry desert environment.
Most of the route is on low-traffic dirt and gravel roads, and some parts (particularly along Death Ridge) see almost no traffic at all. Traffic patterns are typical of a recreation area, so weekends are busiest and most folks are out to go hiking, boating, jeeping, or ATV riding.
On a few sections – north of Big Water on a Friday and Cottonwood Canyon Road on Saturday – there were a few too many vehicles for our liking. Still, I would say traffic-related risk is very low on this route since most vehicles travel slowly on the gravel roads and sight lines are good. If you have flexibility and want especially quiet roads, ride during the week.
There is one major exception, which is the unofficial alternate on Highway 89 from Big Water to Cottonwood Canyon. The official route traverses BLM land south of the highway that’s said to be sandy and a bit arduous. We rode the highway for 11 miles to save time and while there is a nice shoulder, traffic moves fast. See the alternate section below for more info.
We rode rigid steel Salsa Fargo’s with 2.25” (mine) and 2.4” (my husband’s) tubeless tires. Both were fine, though I envied his wider tires a bit during the rocky sections of Death Ridge and occasional washboarded gravel in Cottonwood Canyon.
Looking through the comments on the route page, mountain bikes (rigid or hardtail) with 2.5″ or wider tires seem to be the most common choice. Several people mentioned riding gravel bikes with 40mm-ish tires and managing alright, but it’s not ideal for this route if you have the choice.
As mentioned above, be sure to check out the official route page for the most up-to-date information on Grand Staircase Loop. Here are some notes from our ride and my research that may be helpful to future riders.
Where to Start
As far as I can tell, where to start depends on a) whether you’re coming from the north or the south, b) how you want to break up your water carries, and c) how you want to sequence the scenery and easy / hard sections of riding.
We started from the north at Alvey Wash Road as mapped, and thought it worked great. Big Water was a great resupply and water stop roughly halfway through, and the less scenic scrubby terrain at the start and end was broken up nicely by the more interesting sections in the middle.
It’s also common to start from the south near Big Water or Cottonwood Canyon turnoff, which gets more of the climbing done earlier rather than later. Starting here might make for a very long water carry between Grosvenor Arch and the next source, depending on what’s flowing.
Wherever you start, the route designer highly recommends you ride clockwise. I assume this is to maximize the amount of gradual, rideable climbing along Cottonwood Canyon Road while allowing for a blissful and scenic descent down Kelly Grade.
There are plenty of places along the route where you could leave a vehicle, especially if you drive a 4×4 or high clearance. Here are a few of the most common, accessible in any vehicle as long as roads are dry. Mileages are based on the route as mapped, but obviously will be different for you if you start in a different place.
From the north:
Alvey Wash Road (mile 0). As mapped, the route starts at the junction of Alvey Wash Road / BLM 300 and Death Ridge Road, about 10 miles south of Escalante. There is room for a couple cars to park on the side of the road near this junction. There are also several pullouts in the couple miles north of the junction. The road is unpaved and a bit bumpy in places but should be passable for most cars as long as no recent storm has flooded the wash. For those who don’t want to make the drive in from Escalante, you can park in town and ride the extra 10 miles each way.
Grosvenor Arch (mile 124): Another common starting point toward the north side with parking accessible by gravel road, about 18 miles southeast of Cannonville.
From the South:
Big Water (mile 79): Right on highway 89. There are probably many places you could park here, but one option is the large empty lot across the highway from the Visitor’s Center. The Visitor’s Center itself apparently has no overnight parking.
Cottonwood Canyon turnoff (mile 94): Also on Highway 89. Plenty of space to leave a car, though you may feel more comfortable leaving it a bit further up the gravel road so it’s not visible from the highway.
The only permit needed to ride Grand Staircase Loop is a free backcountry camping permit, available at any of the Grand Staircase-Escalante visitors centers (Esclante, Cannonville, Big Water, Kanab).
If you pass through when they’re closed, as we did, you can self-issue a permit at one of the trailheads in the area. These trailheads are mainly for hikers and I didn’t see any on the actual route, so we drove to the Escalante River Trailhead (just northeast of Escalante) and self-issued one there before starting. Not totally sure if this is legitimate – be sure to note your itinerary clearly since it’s an unexpected location to be getting a permit for this route – but at least we tried.
Drinking water is perhaps the biggest consideration on this route, since water sources are seasonal and somewhat far apart. Be sure to check the most recent comments (sort by newest) at the bottom of the route page before you ride. After you ride, if you have a water report to share, please post it there for future riders to benefit from.
The main water sources to check on are:
- Last Chance Creek: was barely flowing in early May but didn’t look appealing
- Lake Powell: 10 mile out-and-back from the main loop, may not be worth it when water levels are low (shore gets muddy and less scenic)
- Big Water: visitor’s center has heated water in bathrooms but no drinking water. Instead, fill up at the blue-handled spigot just before you get to Highway 89. Look to the right as you cross the little frontage road just before the highway; it’s next to a fire hydrant in a currently empty lot. The gas station 1.5 miles off-route down the highway also has cold water, but limited hours.
- Paria River near southern end of Cottonwood Canyon (road goes very close to river in a couple places)
- Cottonwood Creek where marked on the RideWithGPS map
- Cattle tanks just south of Grosvenor Arch (look for solar panels on the right)
There may or may not be a few other cattle tanks along the route, depending on season and grazing patterns.
We were unsure if Last Chance would be flowing in early May, and read that Lake Powell was unappealing due to low water levels, so we carried all our water for the first 70 miles to Big Water. We had 8 liters each and it was just barely enough! The heat and warm wind really dried us out in that first section. We filled up in Big Water, and then again in smaller amounts at Paria River in Cottonwood Canyon, then Cottonwood Creek where it’s marked on the route map, then at the cattle tanks just south of Grosvenor Arch.
Water drops: If you’re riding in a particularly dry season or want to lighten your load, a few commentors dropped their own water caches or hired outfitters to do it for them. Common spots were Grosvenor Arch (if the cattle tanks are unreliable) and the start of the route (if you are starting elsewhere and don’t want to ride off-route into Escalante). Utah Canyon Guides was mentioned in the comments but I’m sure other outfitters can also help.
Whatever your water plan, carry more than you think you’ll need. It’s big and dry out there, and depending on the weather and your expectations of the terrain you may be moving slower than expected in some places.
This route lends itself to packing your meals and most snacks for the entire thing. Big Water is the only place you’ll find food, and even that is limited and a short distance off-route.
We thought it was totally worth the 3 mile out-and-back to visit the gas station in Big Water (Big Water Shortstop) for a mid-ride treat. It’s small but has a decent selection of snacks and microwave meals. Note that it closes seasonally and has limited hours; the day we arrived it was closing at 4pm.
The camping opportunities on the Grand Staircase Loop are amazing! In the national monument and BLM land, which make up nearly the entire route, you can camp pretty much anywhere as long as you follow Leave No Trace ethics.
You’ll find plenty of established pullouts with fire rings, as well as opportunities for stealthier camping hidden from the primary roads. Just be sure to minimize your impact. This includes not trampling on cryptobiotic soil, a fragile living organism essential to the desert ecosystem. It looks usually looks black and crusty; you’ll know it when you see it.
It’s also important to camp at least a quarter mile from isolated water sources like cattle tanks, so as not to dissuade animals from visiting their only water source in the dry desert landscape.
Weather and Season
The route designers recommend riding in early spring (March and April) or late fall (September through early November) to avoid the heat of summer and the cold and snow of winter.
We rode in early May and thought it worked well, at least in 2021 (it seems every year is different these days when it comes to climate). The water sources were still flowing, and while the lower elevation sections were pretty toasty they weren’t yet unbearably hot. However, I would be cautious about this timing and check water sources carefully; same for early September which could still be pretty hot.
Riding on the edge of winter (January – February or November – December) would be very cold at upper elevations, and potentially infeasible due to snow in some places.
Many sections of this route would be completely impassible after substantial rain or during periods of snow melt, when the clay-like soil turns to death mud. Don’t do it!
The route is great as mapped, and there’s no reason why most folks would need to change it. However, I noticed a few people discussing modifications in the comments section on bikepacking.com, and we ended up taking a few shortcuts ourselves since we were a bit behind schedule.
Here are the most common alternates:
Skip the out-and-back to Lake Powell. This cuts about 10 miles off the route, though it deprives you of a nice camping location and water source. We did this after reading reports of low water levels and lots of mud, and though we don’t know what we missed at the lake, we were happy with our decision. It’s also a busy area on weekends and thus might make a better excursion on weekdays.
Ride Highway 89 from Big Water to the Cottonwood Canyon turnoff, about 11 miles. This cuts off about 3 miles of distance but potentially saves a lot of time since the route south of Highway 89 is said to be a tough and sandy climb. The highway has a good hard shoulder but can be busy, with large vehicles traveling at 70mph in both directions. We were slowed by a stiff headwind and almost (but maybe not quite?) would have preferred a sandy slog. If you’re considering this option, feel it out once you arrive at Big Water and get a sense for your comfort level with the traffic. If you’re looking to minimize vehicle-related risk, don’t take this alternate.
Ride out to Escalante for resupply if starting from the south. This adds about 10 miles each way, though they’re mostly gentle. A couple people mentioned taking Hole in the Rock Road from Escalante instead of going back out Alvey Wash, and connecting back with the route via Left Hand Collet road.
I hope you enjoy Grand Staircase Loop! If you’re looking for a good bikepacking route in the southwest, you might also find these helpful:
- 4 Epic Non-Technical Bikepacking Routes in the American West
- Bikepacking Pace Guide: How many miles per day?
- How to Plan Your Own Bikepacking Route on Public Land
- While you’re in the area: Hike and Scramble Cathedral Wash near Page, AZ
Or, visit the bikepacking resources page for more pedal-powered adventure.
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