Of all the hikes we have done in the U.S., the hike to the Golden Cathedral is one of the top on the list. Trust us when we say it’s a must see if you happen to be in the Escalante area. It’s hard to find the words to describe the vibrant beauty of Neon Canyon and unique formation of the Golden Cathedral, so you have to go see it for yourself. The hike is about 11 miles and can be done for a complete day hike. You can also camp in the canyon near the river to spend more time exploring the area.
Getting to the Trailhead
Gloomy skies greeted us in the morning as we prepared to head out for the Egypt trailhead. We were a bit bummed because we had heard a lot about the Neon Canyon views being optimal in sunny conditions. But nevertheless, we left camp excited for the hike ahead.
The turnoff for Egypt Road to reach the trailhead lies 17.2 miles down Hole-in-the-Rock road. The approximately ten-mile road to the trailhead is bumpy and a bit rocky. It is best done in a car with higher clearance, though we saw a few smaller cars that made the drive without issue.
The Hike to the Golden Cathedral
We parked and began the hike with a steep slickrock descent. Boy, did we feel that on the knees! There is no defined path for much of the trail, but we saw many cairns and the occasional set of footprints in the sand that served as a guide to the edge of a canyon. There were multiple sets of cairns when we visited though, so it sometimes got a little unclear of what the “right” path was. But don’t worry, they all seemed to lead to the edge of Fence Canyon.
The slickrock plateaued, and we reached the edge of a cliff that overlooked a confluence of two canyons. The desert landscape is suddenly splashed with green vegetation, and in the distance, three caves can be seen carved into the rock. We stopped to drink some water and take in the views.
The sun came out and the flannels came off as we made the short descent to the canyon bottom. Upon reaching the canyon floor, a more defined path appeared, leading us through the trees to the Escalante River. We reached a small camping area where some tents were pitched and followed the path to the left. The path abruptly ended at a 15- to 20-foot drop into the river. We are all for cliff jumping, but we weren’t about to leap off an eroding dirt ledge into a river of an unknown depth.
Slightly confused, we turned back toward the campsite. A friendly guy who leads rafting and backpacking tours in the canyon pointed us in the right direction. At the end of the campsite, we encountered our first river crossing, and we were happy that it didn’t involve leaping into the river. We took off our shoes and headed to the right through the calf-deep water along a rocky wall. This lead us to a sandy shore still on the same side of the river.
Various paths lead through the vegetation, and we followed these downstream towards the entrance to Neon Canyon, crossing the river four times. After about one and a quarter miles of walking through the lush grass and sandy river beds, we reached Neon Canyon on the left. The mouth of the canyon is marked by an old deciduous tree, whose branches sprawl and bend to the ground.
Just when we thought the views couldn’t get any better, we stepped into Neon Canyon. Large trees stretch up the towering walls that become a vibrant orange color in the sun, giving the canyon its appropriate name. We took our time, walking in the cool shade, taking pictures, and scrambling amongst the large boulders that line the canyon and the small creek that runs through it.
A mile into Neon Canyon, the trail hits a dead end into the Golden Cathedral. All of the pictures that we had seen didn’t do it justice. Mother Nature does some crazy stuff, and we sat in awe of this stunning rock feature while resting our feet. We were happy that the sun was out to light up the enclave, and we had the entire canyon to ourselves.
We ate our lunch, basking in the sun on a boulder at the edge of the Cathedral. When we saw some dark clouds rolling over the canyon, we decided to pack up and conquer the hike back. It is possible to take a beeline route that brings you back to the trailhead, but we didn’t know this before beginning the hike until we were told by the guide we met at the campsite. We weren’t very confident on the exact direction, so we just backtracked.
The end of the hike became a race against the intimidating storms that approached on the horizon. The wind picked up, which wasn’t very pleasant due to the large amounts of sand blowing around. We tackled the final steep ascent that we had come down several hours earlier as the raindrops began to sprinkle from the dark clouds overhead.
Final Thoughts on Neon Canyon and the Golden Cathedral
The hike to the Golden Cathedral is incredibly fun and beautiful, but make sure you prepare properly! This hike is fairly long, the weather can change fast, and there’s little shade and water before entering the canyons. Make sure you carry plenty of water and water treatments if needed, and bring some snacks. We suggest packing a lunch because there are some perfect spots to enjoy a bite along this trail.
Because the weather here can vary widely in a day, throw a rain jacket and an extra layer in the bag, and don’t forget sunscreen. Due to the variable amounts of rain throughout the year, use your best judgement when crossing the rivers. After large rains and during certain times of year, the river current may be stronger and the water level deeper. We went in spring and the deepest crossing was waist deep, but this does change. Flash floods do happen in this area as well.
For more information on preparing for hiking and camping in Escalante, check out our guide.