October is an ideal time to explore canyon country.
The Boulder Mail Trail (BMT) traverses a vast plateau south of Boulder Mountain, Utah, incised with three major canyon systems. Walk through a symmetrical mix of gardens with old growth ponderosa and Navajo Sandstone expanses. After the thrilling descent into Death Hollow, a short river passage is gorgeous. Take an optional side-trip to Mamie Creek Natural Bridge. Located within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the BMT is time-honored and representative of the monument’s premier slickrock landscapes.
This circuitous and unlikely trail was originally an indigenous route. According to Durango’s Steve Allen in “Utah’s Canyon Country Place Names”, the BMT was purposefully cleaved in 1902 for mules hauling mail between the towns of Boulder and Escalante. In 1911, a telephone line was strung along the route coupling Boulder with the greater world via a switchboard in Escalante. The trail was in use until 1935 when the Hells Backbone Road was completed. Historical vestiges remain. Remnants of the telephone line are strung from tree to tree and hand-chiseled stone paths are integral to today’s route.
To Sand Creek and Death Hollow The BMT is spectacular and exhilarating, whether you are doing the shorter out-and-back to Death Hollow (12 miles) or the 16-mile thru-hike to Escalante.
After registering at the upper trailhead, elevation 6,800 feet, walk southwest on the well-defined trail; black spherical boulders are scattered about. During the Pleistocene, glacial ice broke up the volcanic Andesite caprock on Boulder Mountain and rolled chunks into the lowlands, rounding them along the way.
A piñon-juniper woodland is followed by the first of many large aromatic sage flats. A region-wide panorama opens at 1.5 miles. The vista extends from the Straight Cliffs to Boulder Mountain, the forcing fulcrum of this canyon system. Stone walking and cairn hopping begins here.
Make a shallow sandstone descent to perennial Sand Creek at 2.7 miles. Jump across the clear stream on boulder balls. Above the waterway, Navajo Sandstone looks like a package of globular biscuits.
Ascend sandstone to top out on Slickrock Saddle Bench. The deep sand track goes south on top of the plateau, rolling gently until it reaches the rim overlooking Death Hollow. The 700 foot drop into the gorge is the most invigorating and breathtaking feature of this hike. Follow cairns mindfully. There is only one place from which to initiate the northwestward descent and one very specific route down the chiseled slope.
Be wary of cliff suck while standing enraptured on the roll-off slab, the enthralling vista encompassing the deep chasm, soaring cliffs, jutting fins and white domes. This vantage point is unparalleled in the monument.
Walk on a three-foot-wide exposed ledge for 0.1 mile. The platform is carved into the steeply inclined sandstone pitch. The treadway was roughed up by hand-chiseling to provide passage and increase grip for pack animals.
Reach Death Hollow at 6.1 miles. Defying its name, it is a pretty place. A wall rises abruptly on the opposing side of the perennial waterway. Streamside is cool and lovely with sprawling mahogany trees and box elders. This is the turnaround for those doing the upper section hike.
Thru-hike to Escalante River TrailheadFor hikers continuing on to Escalante, head downstream. The next 0.7 mile is extraordinarily beautiful. Ferns grow in green cracks in soaring walls. Ponderosas are old, broad and tall. Colors are brilliant and western wild. Cattail and horsetail bound the trail which plows through thick stands of poison ivy. Long pants are recommended.
There are eight river fords. The first is a boots-off, knee-deep wade. I was able to boulder hop across subsequent crossings without getting wet. Your water level may well be more challenging.
After half a mile, begin watching for the trail out of the canyon. It is located at the apex of a right-hand bend, the location of the first break in the armored walls that conceivably allows passage. The exit is marked with plentiful cairns. Chiseled divots on the slickrock reassure that you are on the old-timers’ route.
Reach the top of the next rise – with several more to come – and travel yet again through a piñon-juniper forest on a sandy trail. Cross an extensive sagebrush steppe and top out on an upland terrace. From here, the descent into Mamie Creek is, thankfully, on stone.
Optional Spur to Mamie Creek Natural BridgeThe walk to the bridge is pleasant and fast, adding 1.6 miles total. Portions of the bed have a fine layer of iron concretions. Upon reaching the startling bridge, go through the oval-shaped opening and enter a circular amphitheater. Search the ceiling of this astounding room for the underside of ancient ripple marks.
Back on the trail, rollers keep coming. Climb out of Mamie Creek on a stony dunefield. Descend into an unnamed tributary of Mamie’s extensive canyon complex. Downstream, she actually swallows Death Hollow to become a major tributary of the Escalante River.
Antone Flat is the largest summit plain of the hike. The sage flat is over half a mile wide and more than a mile long. The trail transitions onto stone, the most pleasing desert pavement of the entire route. There are wide shallow bowls and a clean stone draw with deep tanks. Keeping cairns in sight, walk freestyle and admire the cross bedding, knobs and exhumed sand dunes.
Cross a sandy plateau one last time and then, somewhat abruptly, the town of Escalante and the irrigated fields of the Pine Creek and Escalante River valleys appear. Dig deep. There are 3.5 more exquisitely beautiful miles, so stay psyched for this final segment. Slabs of stone pitch off in earnest westward.
Upon reaching the valley floor, cross Pine Creek and then recross it right away to the east side. The streamway is especially beautiful in autumn when massive Fremont cottonwoods pump out cheerful light.
The BMT crosses Pine Creek once more upon reaching the Escalante flood plain. The walls of the region’s biggest river are radiant in evening twilight. There are no directional signs in this confusing area. You will join forces with the Escalante River Trail, perhaps without realizing it. The trail crosses the river at the low point of the hike. When the Escalante makes a sharp bend to the right, the trail goes south up a draw. Climb a hill comprised of river cobble deposits.
Pass through a fence via a hiker’s maze and walk on the road a short distance to your shuttle vehicle. My hiking buddies were dog tired at the end of this very long day but pleased having completed this truly classic trek.
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