Backpacking Guides

Reflection Canyon Backpacking Guide

Reflection Canyon at sunrise

Overview

Description

Reflection Canyon is a tributary of Lake Powell found in southeastern Utah. From the water, you can reach it by boat, jet ski, or kayak. However, the most spectacular viewpoint is found on the cliff ledges above.

To get there, you’ll need to drive 50 miles on the unpaved Hole-in-the-Rock Road, then hike 8-9 miles one way.

I only recommend this trip for experienced backpackers for three reasons:

  1. There are no designated trails. You’ll walk over petrified dunes with no cairns for miles. Top notch route finding skills are necessary.
  2. The mileage might not seem very high but remember, these are desert miles. There is no shade and temperatures can soar, especially during summer months.
  3. There is no water, so you have to carry enough to last your entire visit. Kim and I shared 9 L for our overnighter and that was barely enough.
Reflection Canyon
Reflection Canyon in the morning. April 2019

Permits

Backcountry permits are required for this hike if you plan to stay overnight. In my opinion, this is the best way to do it.

Our spot above the cliff edge of Reflection Canyon is one of the coolest places we’ve ever camped. This gave us the opportunity to witness sunset and sunrise there. Both were phenomenal.

You can obtain permits the day of your trip at the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center in Escalante.

What to Expect

Best Time to Visit

The best time to visit Reflection Canyon is during Spring or Fall, when highs range from 60-85° F and lows 35-55° F.

During winter, a warm spell could be a great time to have the canyon to yourself. Generally, highs are mild but lows are below freezing. Snowfall is infrequent but it does occur.

Summer temps routinely top 100° F. Since there is no shade or water on this hike, I’d discourage doing it then. If you are planning to anyway, hike during the early morning and rest during the heat of the day.

Get the Weather Forecast

The Trailhead

The trailhead is unofficial, so you’ll need to know exactly where it is to find it. Reset your trip odometer when you turn off Highway 12 onto the Hole-in-the-Rock Road. Once it has recorded 50.7 miles, park off the road on the left side. The GPS coordinates are 37.252384, -110.973548.

Indian paintbrush near the trailhead for Reflection Canyon
Indian paintbrush near the trailhead for Reflection Canyon

Hiking to Reflection Canyon

From the trailhead, head southwest on the sand footpath. At 0.2 miles, the footpath turns to slickrock, a type of smooth sandstone polished by the elements.

In Southern Utah, hiking on slickrock is the norm but routes are often marked by cairns, which are stacked rocks. These are meant to aid route finding and keep people from getting lost. You won’t see these here, so be cautious and check your GPS frequently. Bring a map and compass as a backup and make sure you know how to use them.

Kim atop some slick rock on the way to Reflection Canyon
Kim stands on slickrock near Reflection Canyon

After 0.2 miles of hiking uphill on the slickrock, you’ll reach another sand footpath. You can follow this and others like it for 5.5 miles as they hug the bottom of the cliffs to the west.

We stopped for lunch next to this small cottonwood tree

This impressive cliff band is the southernmost end of Fiftymile Bench, though the fifty mile portion ends at Fiftymile Point, which sits atop the bluff you see from the trailhead.

Smallflower fishhook cactus in bloom
A smallflower fishhook cactus in bloom

Once you’ve hiked 6 miles total, bear left and descend into the sea of petrified dunes to the east. From this point, you’ll be hiking on slickrock until you reach Reflection Canyon.

Fiftymile Mountain
Look for this formation (top left). This landmark is where you turn

These final 2-3 miles are the most challenging because it’s difficult to stay on course. Continue in a southeasterly direction and look for Navajo Mountain, an unmistakable lone peak to the south. When it becomes hidden, you’re within a mile. Once it comes back into view, bear left and continue eastward down to the overlook.

Navajo Mountain
Wildflowers and Navajo Mountain (top left)

At first glance, there won’t seem to be anywhere to camp. However, if you nose around a bit you’ll find plenty of flat areas on the slickrock near the cliff edge to make camp.

Kim and I cowboy camped, meaning we didn’t set up a shelter. By chance, we got to see the April Lyrids meteor shower that night. It kicked off with a fireball, one of the brightest meteors we’ve seen.

Our cowboy camp at Reflection Canyon
Our cowboy camp at Reflection Canyon

What to Bring

The biggest mistake beginner backpackers make is bringing too much stuff and hauling too heavy of a pack.

I guarantee your trip will be much more enjoyable if you pack light. Identify what you need to bring and leave behind what you don’t.

Our packs weighed about 25 lbs fully loaded

Gear List

Tent: Just in case the weather turned, I brought a Paria Outdoor Products Sanctuary SilTarp. The forecast was for clear skies and that’s what we encountered, so Kim and I slept without a shelter.

Backpack: Kim and I both used our Zpacks Arc Haul-Zips on this trip. If your base weight is under 20 lb, this is a comfortable, lightweight option. It’s included in my best lightweight backpacking packs list.

Sleeping Bag: I stayed warm and cozy under my EE Revelation 20 quilt and Kim slept in her Montbell sleeping bag. Both are included in my best lightweight sleeping bags list.

Sleeping Pad: I used the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite, a lightweight air mattress. Kim used the ProLite Plus, which weighs a few more ounces but self inflates and is more comfortable. See my best lightweight sleeping pads list for more info.

Cooking System: We shared a trusty MSR Pocket Rocket (included in my best backpacking stoves list), TOAKS Titanium 1000ml Pot, and a couple titanium long handle spoons on this trip.

Water: We carried seven 1L Smart Water Bottles and one Platypus 2 L reservoir. 9 L was barely enough water. I wouldn’t count on finding any water on this hike.

Footwear: I hiked in Hoka One One Speedgoat 3s. This is my second pair of Hoka trail runners. I put 400 miles on my first pair and wrote a review.

Kim wore Ahnu Montara hiking boots.

Headlamp: Kim and I both used Black Diamond Spot Headlamps.

Food: We brought homemade meals with ingredients that we dehydrated at home. If you’re feeling lazy, here are my favorite freeze dried and dehydrated food options.

Max’s Clothing: 

Kim’s Clothing: 

Map: We used the Gaia GPS app. For a paper topographic map, get Canyons of the Escalante by Nat Geo.

First Aid Kit: Before every trip, Kim (my ICU nurse wife) assembles a kit for me. Check out her articles here. If you don’t have the time or knowledge to make your own, I recommend buying this one.

Sunscreen: Bring high SPF sunscreen and wear it. The Utah sun is not something to be trifled with.

Other Stuff: 

Quick Facts

  • Distance: 16-18 miles
  • Hike Time: 2 days
  • Elevation Gain: 1,243 feet
  • Fee: Free
  • Dogs: Yes
  • Difficulty: Hard

Map

Location

From Escalante, head east on Highway 12. Continue for 5 miles, then turn right onto unpaved Hole-in-the-Rock Road. Continue for 50.7 miles. High clearance and 4WD are advisable for the last few miles.

Get Directions

Trip Reports

April 2019

In April 2019, Kim and I hiked to Reflection Canyon to celebrate four years of marriage. It was Kim’s first backpacking trip since having baby Maia. The last time she went was Wedgemount Lake at five months pregnant.

Weather conditions were clear and sunny. Highs were in the mid 70s with lows in the 50s.

Day 1

  • Distance: 8.5 miles

Made it to the trailhead and started hiking at 2:10 p.m. We got off route within the first 10 minutes. Got back on track, then proceeded to get off route 4-5 more times before reaching Reflection Canyon. We arrived at 6:30 p.m. To our surprise, there were a few other people camping there.

Our first view of Reflection Canyon
Our first view of Reflection Canyon

Day 2

  • Distance: 8 miles

Woke up before sunrise to photograph the sun breaking over the cliffs. It was a magical morning, but some guy was flying a drone around 10 feet over the heads of people who were still sleeping in their tents. Not only was this incredibly rude, drones aren’t allowed in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

Started hiking back at 8 a.m. On the way back, we only got off route once or twice. We got back to the trailhead at 11:30 a.m.

The sun casts its first rays onto Navajo Sandstone cliffs
The sun casts its first rays onto Navajo Sandstone cliffs

Resources

Topographic Maps

Photos

Kim Karren checks out the view of Reflection Canyon
Kim checks out the view at Reflection Canyon
Max Karren at the overlook of Reflection Canyon
Me (the author) at the overlook of Reflection Canyon
Kim poses with Navajo Mountain in the background
Kim poses with Navajo Mountain in the background
Kim (bottom right) watches the sun rise behind Reflection Canyon
Kim (bottom right) watches the sun rise behind Reflection Canyon
Desert primrose greets the early morning sun
Cryptobiotic soil is crucial to the desert ecosystem. Please DO NOT step on it!

 

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2 comments

  1. Wow, that canyon is stunning! Thanks for sharing the pics and all your gear. That is really helpful!

    1. You’re welcome! Reflection Canyon is a sight to behold.

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