Grand Staircase Loop

  • Distance

    160 Mi.

    (257 KM)
  • Days


  • % Unpaved


  • % Singletrack


  • Difficulty (1-10)


  • % Rideable (time)


  • Total Ascent


    (3,636 M)
  • High Point


    (2,295 M)

Contributed By

Jamie Mefford

Jamie Mefford

Guest Contributor

When not touring the world with bands as a front of house engineer or hiding out in the recording studio making records. Jamie tries to find the time to get out on a bike and ride quiet dirt roads and trails. Trips have included The Baja Divide, Colorado trail and various excursions around the Colorado Plateau, Peru, Mexico and Guatemala. Follow Jamie on Instagram @jamiemefford.

Wending its way through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, the Grand Staircase Loop is a three or four day bikepacking route following quiet and remote dirt roads over spectacular plateaus and canyons. With abundant scenery and wide open camping, the route was designed to bring awareness of to this beautiful and threatened area.
Share Facebook 0 Twitter Pinterest Google+

To showcase some of the most iconic and beautiful canyon country in southern Utah, the route passes through Grand Staircase-Escalante National monument and dips into Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. A small section on BLM land completes the southern part of the loop. Gently climbing to 7,600 feet and dropping to 3,600 feet, the route travels from the top of Smokey Mountain Road (BLM 300) down to Lake Powell — twisting its way through sandstone cliffs and awe inspiring views of the towering rock monuments below. Through its many climbs and descents, the route passes through several of the sandstone layers that comprise the Colorado Plateau. Each layer tells the story of the its Precambrian and Paleozoic history — a geologic story that spans almost 2 billion years.

The loop can be started from the North or South depending on which direction you are coming from. But, regardless of your origin, it is highly recommended that the route be travelled clockwise. Thanks to a small section of road that isn’t accessible by car or truck, this loop can only be completed on two wheels. Backcountry camping is possible on almost any section of the route and the roads are mostly free of traffic. The 40 mile section of Cottonwood Canyon Road contains the most vehicular traffic at a rate of a few cars per hour.

  • Grand Staircase Loop, Bikepacking Grand Staircase - Escalante, Utah
  • Grand Staircase Loop, Bikepacking Grand Staircase - Escalante, Utah
Route Development: This route was developed after learning of the current administration’s plans to reassess the boundaries of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and potentially rescind its status as a monument. After a recent deadline, the Secretary if the Interior recommended reducing the size of the Monument. As of December 1, 2017, Trump also plans to nearly halve the 1.9-million-acre Monument, according to documents which were first reported by the Washington Post. Further actions could open up this area to mining, in turn threatening its preservation. The 1.9 million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante is the largest of all U.S. National Monuments and harbors 75 million year old dinosaur fossils and almost two billion years of geological history. Bringing even the smallest amount of awareness to its beauty might be useful in preserving its status. The Grand Staircase Loop took 3rd place in our 2017 ROUT3 contest.

Difficulty: The route travels almost entirely on dirt roads and is 98% ridable with generally mellow and sustained climbs, containing just a few steep spots that might necessitate a push. Some stretches can be a bit sandy, so plus size tires are preferred but not necessary. Be forewarned that sections of the road are composed of gray bentonite clay which is IMPASSABLE when wet. In rainy conditions it will stick and cling to anything it comes in contact with, forming giant clumps of concrete like mud that gather on your shoes, tires and drivetrain. Riding a bike becomes impossible and even walking can prove extremely difficult.

  • Highlights


  • Must Know


  • Camping


  • Food/H2O


  • Resources


  • The section of Smokey Mountain Road that drops from the top of the mesa down to Lake Powell is truly stunning. The view is top notch as the road snakes its way down the sandstone cliffs into the valley of monuments below.
  • Camping on Lake Powell for the night is a short side trip; the shore is wide open and you can camp anywhere you find a spot.  Aside from being a nice place to spend the night, it’s a great place to take a swim on a hot day.
  • The route passes the Grosvenors Arch, which is a unique double sandstone arch
  • The section from Grosvenors Arch to Smokey Mountain Road follows very lightly traveled roads and a section that gets a bit rougher and is only accessible on two wheels.
  • As a side trip, Cottonwood Narrows is half way up the Cottrronwood Canyon RoadD in an area known as Candyland.  It’s a short hike into some gorgeous sandstone slot canyons.
  • There is a small resupply 1/2 mile off route in the town of Big Water, UT.  It is a quick ride down the main highway to the boatyard/gas station just off the RD.
  • Spring and Fall are the best times to ride the route.  Upper elevations are extremely cold in the Winter and the lower elevations are very hot in the summer.
  • Free permits are required for the Monument; They can be obtained at any Visitor Center (Escalante, Cannonville, Kanab, Big Water).  Self register boxes are also available throughout the monument at “developed” trailheads.  They are indicated on our visitor use map available at VCs. These permits serve an important function: they give the park service data about patterns of use and volume of use; they also provide emergency contact information in case family/friends call about missing hikers/cyclists; Leave No Trace guidelines are printed on the back of the permit as well.
  • The route crosses sections of gray bentonite clay. With enough rain, it becomes extremely sticky, making it impossible to ride and very difficult to even walk the bike.  Riding into these sections under the threat of rain is NOT RECOMMENDED.  If this happens, be prepared for a muddy night of camping.
  • The loop can be started and finished at any point along its length. If coming in from the North it’s recommended to access the loop from Cannonville and park near Grosvenors Arch, as these dirt roads are the most drivable. If coming in from the South, it’s recommended to start around Big Water, UT where the route is accessible from paved roads.
  • It is highly recommended that the route be travelled clockwise.
  • This route travels through the high desert and, as such, there is the possibility of extreme weather conditions. The temperatures can dip below freezing on the lower end and reach well over 100°F on a hot day.  Water can be scarce and flash flooding in the washes is possible.
  • Parts of this route are rarely traveled and extremely remote. Be prepared!
  • Camping along the route is wide open backcountry camping.
  • Aside from a few undeveloped drive-in sites along Cottonwood Rd, next to the creek, all of the camping is primitive.
  • You may camp anywhere you’d like along the route, as long as it’s not an environmentally sensitive zone. Be sure to follow leave no trace guidelines and keep an eye out for Cryptobiotic soil.
  • There are a few very small sections of private land but they are well marked along the Cottonwood Rd section of the route.
  • There is also a small motel available on route in the town of Big Water, UT.
  • Water is available in a few sections of the route and shouldn’t pose a problem, as long as the proper planning is undertaken.
  • Be sure to carry enough water on the bike to accommodate the occasional dried up desert stream.
  • Depending on the water level in Last Chance Creek, there may be little or no water for up to 100 miles between Grosvenor Arch and Lake Powell.  For this section, you should be prepared and carry all that you will need.
  • There is a well and a reservoir near Grosvenors Arch; seasonal water flows in Last Chance Canyon; Lake Powell is 3 miles off route and there is tap water available at the National Monument visitors center in Big Water, UT.
  • Cottonwood Canyon Creek usually flows year round but it is best to ask about the current water conditions before leaving the visitors center in Cannonville or the town of Big Water.
  • A small selection of food and drinks is available 1/2 mile off route, in the town of Big Water, UT, at the Gas Stations and Boat Yard.

Terms of Use: As with each bikepacking route guide published on, should you choose to cycle this route, do so at your own risk. Prior to setting out check current local weather, conditions, and land/road closures. While riding, obey all public and private land use restrictions and rules, carry proper safety and navigational equipment, and of course, follow the #leavenotrace guidelines. The information found herein is simply a planning resource to be used as a point of inspiration in conjunction with your own due-diligence. In spite of the fact that this route, associated GPS track (GPX and maps), and all route guidelines were prepared under diligent research by the specified contributor and/or contributors, the accuracy of such and judgement of the author is not guaranteed. LLC, its partners, associates, and contributors are in no way liable for personal injury, damage to personal property, or any other such situation that might happen to individual riders cycling or following this route.

  • Medium Rick


  • mikeetheviking

    super awesome

  • Kristen Campbell

    hi- can you tell me what your seat pack setup is? this route looks amazing!

  • Mark Atwell

    It would be nice if some of us went out and rode this loop and put the word out how wonderful it is to our (voting) friends. Before the mines and oil platforms and big trucks take it over. The locals will sell it all off for a short term profit. As Ed Abbey said, they… “can hear a dollar bill drop on a shag carpet”.

  • Fitting place for an Abbey quote. And yes, now is the time to go ride it, connect with it, and tell your friends. Another (more well known) one from Desert Solitaire: “A man on […] a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles.”

  • Peter Pascale

    Wow, the vistas! This goes to the top of my utah vacation list! Nice work!

  • Jamie Mefford

    Hey Kristen, the seat pack is a Caradice Super C. I’m using one of their bagman supports as well. I just modified it with some long Nitto rails and rack nuts from Surly for more support.

  • Christophe Noel

    That’s a gorgeous area not far from where I live. I’ve ridden up there quite a bit. A word of caution to newcomers. Many of those roads have signs which read, “Impassible when wet.” They’re not kidding. A little moisture is a mess, but just a brief rain or snow storm can create mud like you’ve never experienced in your life. I have seen it get so bad you truly can’t walk ten feet in it. It accumulates like layers of concrete on shoes and tires. It also doesn’t rinse off. Crazy stuff.

  • Kristen Campbell

    thanks! and what month did you ride this/are the pics from? wondering if nov would be too late if i were prepared to sleep cold?

  • Wow… if this route took 3rd, I have some impossibly high standards for 2nd and 1st. Well done Jamie – this one may have to go on my bucket list.

  • Kat Hardt-Holoch

    great photos, very nice!

  • Seth

    Similarly wondering if early March is too early, depending on winter snow pack, etc. I know that riding in Moab / Canyonlands at that time of year is usually clear at the lower elevations and mixed at higher elevations. Looks like a gorgeous route and hope to ride it in the spring!

  • Will K

    Rode all of Cottonwood Canyon Road in July 2016. One of my most memorable days on a bike. Me and the partner were on 700x38mm slicks – really enjoyable riding with no flats – though we had to walk at least a dozens times through sandy parts. Hot but not killer. Three cars passed and asked if we needed water. If I remember correctly, Cottonwood Creek was running at a trickle. Kodachrome Basin State Park was a great campsite with nice rangers and sites.

  • Good to know. It’s highly likely someone will ask if they can do it on a cross bike, so there’s the answer! Thanks

  • longride

    Amazing route and I’m starting to plan for it now!

    Two questions:

    1) assuming you walk some sandy sections, is this entire loop rideable on 650bx42mm slicks or does it require MTB tires?

    2) looking at the RWGPS map, it appears there is water at reasonable intervals — however are the water supplies noted reliable?


  • Good to hear! You’ll find answers to your water questions above in the Food/H2O tab (or drop icon if you are on mobile). Regarding tires, I am guessing it’s doable with a few pushes here and there, but perhaps Jamie someone else will chime in…

  • longride


    Thanks so much for the response. I completely missed the Food/H20 tab — I was too absorbed in the rout text and photos!.

    I’ve followed you all on Insta, but have only just started reading the site and it’s fantastic! Thanks to all involved for putting this great resource together.

    Jamie or anyone, if you happen to read this and have any insight into the tires question, I would certainly be grateful.

  • Sue Butler

    We are considering doing this mid-October. The rain warning makes me nervous. Plan this ride, pay and travel to get there, only to be stopped (literally) in your tracks by rain. I’ve looked at the almanacs. Unfortunately October is the month they seem to get most ran. Not a lot, but it only takes one day I guess. Anyone more familiar with the weather in this part of Utah?

  • Drew Howes

    Another Abbey quote (almost, but not quite appropriate to the question), “Rudolph the Red knows rain, dear.”

  • Sue,

    In generally, the weather in the southwest in autumn is pretty variable from year to year, but pretty predictable in the short term (1-2 weeks out). Unlike the summer, which is the opposite – relatively consistent precipitation year-to-year but you rarely know when the precipitation is going to happen, even the day of.

    Or another way of thinking about it, if there is going to be rain heavy enough to make the roads impassible, it will likely be forecasted at least a week in advance in autumn and winter. It’s not like the summer monsoon where every day can have a chance of intense rainfall.

    So far the weather looks pretty dry for this October, with no big storms in the pipeline.

  • Thanks! Glad you are enjoying it!

  • Sue Butler

    Thanks! We are going for it & forecast is favourable!!!

  • Jamie Mefford

    It’s possible to ride it on a non mountain bike with some pushing, but I wouldn’t all the way recommend it. The Cottonwood road is the most traveled and ridable on the route but some of the other roads are a bit rougher and have sections of sand. I would say that 80% of it would be just fine and the other 20% will be a little rough and you will have to walk a few spots.

  • Jamie Mefford

    I second this. The bentonite clay on this route is no joke when it gets wet. I strongly advise not trying to ride into the gray dirt/clay sections of this route when rain is possible.

  • longride

    Thanks so much for the info!

  • Shane

    So…wondering about doing this as a supported trip ( sag wagon ). Love to ride, hate to carry gear. Outside of the section from Grosveners Arch over to the smokey mountain road, is the rest passable in a subaru? I’ve driven cottonwood road before … miserable washboard, but doable ;) Figure it is easy enough to continue up and around to Escalante to skip the section connecting cottonwood road to smokey mountain if the rest is passable in a car.

  • Patrick Treacy

    Is there an alternate to the route in this are that is less than 100 miles?

  • Check out the OSM Cycle layer in the map; there are a ton of dirt roads through there so you could probably change the course a little…

  • Barbora Hroncova

    Does anyone know of a bike rental place in the area? And also is there a possible guide? A group of 10 of us is planning to do this loop in Spring 2018 :) thank you!

  • Charles Nolt


    Has anybody hit this up in late November?

    I am looking to go with a group of 3 over Thanksgiving, so I am working on figuring out typical temps and expected precipitation for that time of year across these elevations.


  • Fritz

    I rode this as an overnighter last weekend starting from Big Water and had a proper adventure. Lost a third of my water, rode an extra twenty miles to refill, GPS failed, sleeping pad valve went out in the middle of the night, Camelbak froze, ran out of food thirty miles from the end. Good times! The highlights were definitely the side trip canyon along Cottonwood and the incredible Smokey Mountain descent — one of the most beautiful dirt roads segments I’ve ever ridden.

    My 29×2.25 rear tire was a bit undergunned for a few sandy spots, but it wasn’t bad. Last Chance was just a trickle, but still serviceable. I found an extra cow spring directly on route maybe fifteen miles from the turnoff to Escalante.

    Full trip report and photos:

  • Jamie Mefford

    There is a couple ways to shorten it a little. One would be to ride the paved road from Big Water to Cottonwood canyon Rd, instead of riding up into the BLM land behind the visitors center. The other one would be a short cut down Last Chance Creek. It’s rideable with fatter tires but it’s not an official National Monument road and I can’t endorse using it. It is a lovely small canyon. It does appear on old topo maps pre National Monument. Otherwise I don’t think there’s much else to shorten the loop.

  • Jamie Mefford

    Yep that would work. It’s a little bumpy in sections of Smoky Mountian Rd but a Subaru should be able to get through if driven carefully through a few sections. Just don’t attempt to ride from the arch over to Smokey Mountain Rd.

  • Jamie Mefford

    It’s doable, but I’d recommend starting the loop near Grosveners Arch so you sleep down at lower elevations near lake Powell. It’ll be cold up higher in the northern part of the loop.

  • worldsbetweenlines

    Just finished up this route with girlfriend and two pups. Note for the website admin, it would be nice to have a section to upload user photos (photos of us on this route can be found here: We skipped part of the path and took US-89 which shaved off 10 miles and gave us nice highway pavement. The route on the western side was a lot of pushing bikes up steep grades. By the end, we were happy to have all the downhill back to the start point. Would do this route again, it was pretty epic!

  • worldsbetweenlines

    We noticed your foot prints in the sand on the route!

  • worldsbetweenlines

    We did this over Thanksgiving and it was absolutely perfect weather. Couldn’t have asked for better weather.

  • Haha, right on! What part?

  • worldsbetweenlines

    At least we think. There were prints from a regular shoe, leaving me to believe it was someone without clips. We started to notice them on Cottonwood Canyon road all the way back to the start point. There was a section where the road was washed out with a huge log in between the road. Had to go down to the right and around. After heading around we noticed there was a shortcut if we would have turned left. Looked through your site and saw you took a pic of the same log. That section heading back north was brutal…lots of pushing bikes. We had dog trailers too so there was more walking than riding on our last day…

  • Yeah, that would’ve been me! Size 10 approach shoes. I remember that washed out section with the log. Props for plowing through with trailers! That section was particularly disheartening because I’d never get enough speed on the downhills to get back up the next one — totally anti-flow. Thanks for reading my trip report! Stellar photos on your IG … you really captured the desolate beauty of the area.

  • I was just thinking of how amazing this section would’ve been by sunset. Shoulda slept in a bit longer ;-) I was kind of on the fence about the route until this section … totally sealed the deal as a great time.

  • worldsbetweenlines

    Adding all photos from trip to the following collection:

  • Jules Humphreys

    hi, i noticed you have cages on the stays. are you using braze on to mount it or other means? i have a stooge and am looking to modify it to carry bottles in the same place.

  • Here is how I did it, and used them for thousands of miles off-road:

  • Joel Flowers

    I rode this beautiful route in October. Would do it again in a heartbeat. Just one word of caution. The well water tank after Cottonwood Creek was empty, along with the reservoir just past Grosvenor Arch. Not even a drop of water in it.

  • david liquori

    Will, how rideable would it be on a bike with 700×38 that’s loaded for a cross country tour? Thinking this would be a great addition to a cross country trip.

  • Will K Hey David. You should plan to ride Cottonwood Canyon Road! We did this as part of a Canada-to-Mexico tour. We were each carrying 2 panniers and other crap. You’ll push the bike some, but that will give you a chance to take picture of amazing rocks. It was in no way frustrating, though I cannot speak for other dirt roads in the area.

  • david liquori

    Great advice! Thank you! I’ll be traveling west on 12. Is there a different non-paved route back up to 12 that could make a loop? I could just ride paved roads back up.

  • Will K

    Full disclaimer: I have no first hand experience with this.
    After finishing Cottonwood and joining 89, I would ride West to the Paria Contact station (for water), and then turn North on Johnson Canyon road. This will connect to BLM and Forest Service roads along the East Fork Sevier River towards Bryce. These all seem like well traveled roads. You’ll slowly climb away from desert towards pine forest. Sounds like a great trip!

  • Jamie

    @jamie_mefford:disqus I was going to fly into SLC from Toronto (CAN) and I suppose rent a car down to Escalante and start near the G.Arch area like you mention in this awesome route. Could one leave a car for several days in one area or how would you suggest that part of the logistics? I haven’t noticed any Greyhound buses doing the trip from SLC.

    I would be arriving mid march (9th or 10th)…

    Thoughts anyone?


  • Roger Beck

    My fiancé saw this route and was so pumped about it, she showed me. Now, we talk about it every day. After checking the weather data, and we know the weather is always variable, we plan on starting the first week in June. What’s your thoughts about this?

  • Lee Smith

    We did a similar route in the San Rafael Swell in the first week of June and it was way too hot. 99 in the shade. One of our party succumbed to heatstroke.

  • Roger Beck

    Thanks Lee. We’ve modified out plans to monitor the weather and if it looks hot, we are going to go in mid to late September per Joel Flowers’ post. Thanks again!

  • Roger Beck

    Thanks Joel! We’ve modified our plans to monitor the weather and if it looks hot, we are going to go in mid to late September per Lee Smith’s post of heat exhaustion. In fact, I just called the visitor’s center and they said, yes, it’s become really hot in early June. Thanks again!

  • Roger Beck

    When I started to trace the route on RWGPS to get turn by turns (not many but I thought I’d do it anyway) I could not trace the section between miles 81.7-83.4. From the OSM map layer, it appears that there is not road there.

    1. Has anybody ridden that section that can tell me what is there?
    2. Is there anything that is super worthwhile to see on the section of the route south of route 89 that is worth seeing?

  • Vanessa Holzmann

    Would late March be a good time for this ride?

  • Yes, I think so, as long is there is not a freak late snow in the area…

  • Jeff

    How is cell phonee coverage on this loop? Or is this a Garmin InReach application?

  • itsreasonable

    I have ridden this route/area many times of the year over many years and March-Early May and September-Early November are the best times to ride. It gets very hot in the summer and freak snowstorms can be a bitch to get through. Check the weather before setting out and plan accordingly. As stated, when it rains/snows, you are basically pinned down due to the bentonite clays ability to seize drivetrains and turn shoes into Frankenstein boots.

  • Tom Diegel

    My wife and I did most of this route and she was on 700×38/42 c cross tires and we had flat issues and had to pump them up pretty high to address this, which made for a bouncy ride. I was on 26×1.9 mtb tires and it was ok. Smokey mt road is quite rough. Sand isn’t as much of an issue as rocks. It was that trip that convinced her to get a new bike with 3″ tires.

  • Tom Diegel

    Escalante is a very chill town and you could leave the car anywhere. the folks at Escalante outfitters are great and there are great meals, camping, and bungalows there.

  • Tom Diegel

    Unfortunately there are no public transport options to that area that I know of from SLC. If you had extra time you could contact the Escalante outfitter folks to see if they knew of people going back and forth. But a cheap car from Fox Rental is probably your best bet.

  • Tom Diegel

    My wife and I have done two longer tours in this area, and I’ve done a couple of blog posts with pics and tales: and
    We can’t recommend that area highly enough.

  • Richard Abbott

    Cell phone coverage is almost nil