Escalante’s Majestic Neon Canyon and Golden Cathedral

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.

Hiking near the mouth of Neon Canyon
Hiking near the mouth of Neon Canyon

 

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 the Egypt trailhead lies 17.2 miles down Hole-in-the-Rock road, less than a half mile from where we were camped. The approximately nine-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 vast slickrock approach to the Escalante River
The vast slickrock approach to the Escalante River

 

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. Somebody thought it would be a good idea to make multiple sets of cairns in addition to the ones already there, so it sometimes got a little unclear of what the “right” path was. But don’t worry, they will all lead you to the edge of Fence Canyon.

The dome in the distance marks the entrance of Neon Canyon and is a good landmark to keep you heading in the right direction.
The dome in the distance marks the entrance of Neon Canyon and is a good landmark to keep you heading in the right direction.




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.

Overlook above the canyon with three caves in rock visible far in the distance
Overlook above the canyon with three caves in rock visible far in the distance

 

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.

The Escalante River gently winds through the canyon
The Escalante River gently winds through the canyon

 

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.

Wading through the water with our shoes in hand
Wading through the water with our shoes in hand

 

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.

The deepest river crossing we encountered on the hike
The deepest river crossing we encountered on the hike

 

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.

Matt crossing a small stream running through Neon Canyon
Matt crossing a small stream running through Neon Canyon

 

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.

Breathtaking views from the back of the Golden Cathedral
Breathtaking views from the back of the Golden Cathedral

 

We ate our lunch, basking in the sun on a boulder at the edge of the Cathedral. When we saw some 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 Egypt 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.

Looking up the neon walls in the canyon
Looking up the neon walls in the canyon

 

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.

Storm clouds gather in the distance
Storm clouds gather in the distance




Final Thoughts on Neon Canyon and the Golden Cathedral

The hike to the Golden Cathedral is incredibly fun and beautiful, but is best enjoyed if 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 in the canyon, and bring plenty of snacks. We suggest also bringing some lunch because there are some perfect spots to enjoy a bite along this trail.

Glad the sun showed itself for our time spent in Neon Canyon
Glad the sun showed itself for our time spent in Neon Canyon

 

Because the weather is unpredictable, throw a rain jacket and an extra layer in the bag, and don’t forget sunscreen. For more information on preparing for hiking and camping in Escalante, check out our guide. 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 may change.

Have you hiked to the Golden Cathedral? Tell us what you thought in the comments below!

 

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Neon Canyon and the Golden Cathedral

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