Canyoneering

The Definitive Reflection Canyon Trail Guide for the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

There are a number of spectacularly beautiful backcountry hikes that you can take in the Southern Utah area, but my favorite is undoubtedly the hike to Reflection Canyon in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. While it is one of the most breathtaking hikes that you will find in the area, it is also one of the most difficult. There is no marked trail to help you navigate the roughly 15-mile round trip hike thru slot canyons and deep washes, and shelter from the blistering sun is almost non-existent. That’s why I believe this trail earns every bit of the “Difficult” rating that it has been given. The awe-inspiring beauty of Reflection Canyon is definitely something that all backcountry hikers should see in their lifetime, but it is important that you are prepared for this hike before setting out. I have created this Reflection Canyon trail guide to help you with that preparation so that you can complete this hike safely and successfully.

Reflection Canyon Trail Guide

In this Reflection Canyon trail guide, I am going to provide you with all of the critical information that you will need to know to make it to Reflection Canyon and back safely. I will provide you with some key weather stats, as well as my recommendation on the best times to try this hike. I also provide you with a number of important maps that you will use in your planning for this hike. For instance, my Hole in the Rock Road directions map will help you navigate your way to the Reflection Canyon trailhead. Believe me, driving the Hole in the Rock Road is an adventure in and of itself.

I have also included a Reflection Canyon trail navigation map in this Reflection Canyon trail guide. This map outlines several key landmarks located along the trail that will greatly assist you in navigating this unmarked trail. Finally, I have included a number of resources and links in this guide that will help ensure that you have the right gear, permits, and supplies whether you are planning on hiking this trail as a thru hike or as an overnight. With all of this information in hand, you should have everything you need to successfully reach the beautiful Reflection Canyon and return safe and sound.

How to Visit Reflection Canyon

Reflection Canyon Trail Guide

Accessing Reflection Canyon by Boat

While most of the iconic photographs that you have seen of Reflection Canyon were taken from above the canyon, the canyon is also accessible from the water by boat. The views of the canyon from water level aren’t nearly as spectacular, but it is much easier to visit Reflection Canyon by boat than it is to hike in to see the canyon. If you aren’t sure that you are up to the task of hiking to see the canyon, I have included some tips on visiting by boat in my Reflection Canyon trail guide below.

  • You can rent a boat from either the Wahweap Marina or the Bullfrog Marina on Lake Powell. I would strongly recommend renting from the Bullfrog Marina as it is closer to Reflection Canyon and some of the other Glen Canyon National Recreation sights like Rainbow Bridge National Monument.
  • Make sure you begin your trip early in the day as it is a long boat ride to Reflection Canyon from either marina. On a straight line, it is roughly 25-miles from Bullfrog Marina and 34-miles from Wahweap Marina, but you will be following the contours of the lake, so the distance is actually much longer from each.
  • Reflection Canyon is located at mile marker 57 and is marked by a sign, so it is rather easy to find if you are paying attention.
  • The water level within the canyon will dictate how far in you are able to go. There is no place to dock within the canyon and I would strongly recommend not trying to get off the boat and climb on the rock structures.

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Hiking to Reflection Canyon

Without a doubt, the best way to view and photograph Reflection Canyon is to hike to the canyon and see it from above. While the views from water level are beautiful, they pale in comparison to seeing the canyon from up high. While it does require a difficult and strenuous hike to get to Reflection Canyon, the views you will be rewarded with are well worth it. In this Reflection Canyon trail guide, I am going to give you all of the information you need to successfully hike to the canyon and photograph it. You can use the links below to navigate to the different sections of the trail guide.

What to Know Before You Visit

Reflection Canyon Trail Guide

When to Visit Reflection Canyon

Part of the reason why the hike to Reflection Canyon is so difficult, and at times even dangerous, is the weather that the area gets. During the summer months, the temperatures can be blistering hot. It is not unusual to see long stretches of days where the high temperature can exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat alone is bad enough, but add to that the fact that there is very little, if any, shade along the route to Reflection Canyon, and it can be recipe for disaster for hikers who aren’t prepared. That is why I would strongly recommend that you ensure that you are prepared for this hike by utilizing all of the information in my Reflection Canyon trail guide and the safety and packing guides that I have linked to.

visiting Reflection canyon in the summer

If you plan on visiting Reflection Canyon during the summer months of June thru August, it is critically important that you carry enough water with you. There is rarely water to be found along the trail to the canyon, so do not rely on being able to find and purify water as you go. Because of the heat, you will go thru quite a bit of water on your way to the canyon and back.

For this reason, I suggest that you bring no less than 6 liters of water per hiker for the trek. You will use all of that water, so bringing more is definitely recommended if you have the room. When I hiked to the Reflection Canyon this year, I carried 9 liters of water with me and I used all of it. Night temperatures can also be miserably hot during this time of year, so you might want to consider doing this as a day hike if you are up to it.

visiting reflection canyon in the spring or autumn

For hikers who plan on visiting Reflection Canyon during the early spring or late autumn months of April or October, I would strongly recommend that you plan on overnighting at the canyon instead of trying to do this hike as a day hike. There are more limited hours of daylight during these months of the year and getting to the canyon and back during the day will be a challenge. Hikers who visit Reflection Canyon often forget that the drive to the trailhead is a long one because of the unimproved conditions of the Hole in the Rock road.

The drive from Escalante to the trailhead will take you over two hours, which makes starting your hike early in the morning rather difficult. Because of the condition of the road and the terrain you will find along the trail, I do not recommend attempting to drive or hike in the dark. For information on how to plan for an overnight at Reflection Canyon, please refer to the overnight hike preparation section of this guide.

visiting reflection canyon in the winter

During the winter months of December thru February, the weather around Reflection Canyon can be fairly nasty. Reflection Canyon is at high enough of an elevation that it does get snow during the winter months, and the canyon gets high winds frequently throughout the year. Not to mention, much of the hike requires navigating into and out of slot canyons, deep washes, and over slick rock. Trying to hike this trail during the winter months will be very miserable and could even be dangerous.

If you are looking to avoid the heat, I would recommend planning your hike for the spring and autumn months instead and doing an overnight hike. Reflection Canyon is a beautiful place and you won’t want to rush your time there. For more information on what type of weather to expect at Reflection Canyon throughout the year, I have included several weather charts for you to review in my Reflection Canyon trail guide below.

average temperature (°F)
AVERAGE PRECIPITATION (Inches)

Reflection Canyon Safety Advice

While backcountry hiking and backpacking is an incredible way to get out into nature and appreciate the beauty of the world, it is also an endeavor that should be taken seriously. Every year, hundreds of hikers in the United States, and many more abroad, have accidents while hiking in the backcountry. While no amount of preparation will completely prevent accidents from occurring, many of the accidents that do occur are the result of, or are compounded by, poor preparation. If you are planning on hiking to Reflection Canyon, I would strongly recommend that you review my article on the Ten Easy Backpacking Safety Steps that you can take to stay safe, which is linked in my Reflection Canyon trail guide below.

READ MORE:
Reflection Canyon Trail Guide
Ten Easy Backpacking Safety Steps

Reflection Canyon Trail Stats

Reflection Canyon Trail Guide

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the trail is difficult

As you can see by the trail stats map above, the Reflection Canyon hike is not any easy hike no matter what time of the year you are visiting. This out-and-back trail measures at just over 15-miles round trip and has over 1,500-feet of elevation climb throughout. If you look at the topographical map for the Reflection Canyon Hike on the Alltrails website, you’ll notice that most of this elevation gain comes from dropping into and climbing out of many slot canyons and deep washes along the trail. In fact, one of the most exhausting aspects of this hike is the seemingly constant descending and ascending required to navigate the landscape.

the trail is unmarked

Another aspect of this hike that makes it fairly difficult is the fact that it is an unmarked trail, so you really need to be able to navigate on your own. For the first two-thirds of the hike, you will be hiking on dirt and can often times see the footprints of previous hikers. However, when you get to the smooth rock section that covers the final third of the hike, there is absolutely no path for you to follow. If you aren’t able to navigate, or don’t have the tools to help you navigate, then you could make this hike much longer than it needs to be or even get lost.

having the tools to navigate is important

There are some very distinct landscape features that you can use to help you navigate, which I cover in my Navigating the Reflection Canyon Trail section of this Reflection Canyon trail guide, so I would definitely recommend reading that section. I have also included several trail photos that I took during my hike in the What to Expect on the Trail section of this guide. Those resources should help you find your way to Reflection Canyon and back safely. However, if you want to be extra sure of your direction when hiking, I would strongly recommend signing up for the Pro version of the Alltrails App or investing in a Garmin InReach GPS device and setting up waypoints to assist you in your navigation.

Getting to the Trailhead

Hole in the Rock Road Utah

The first major challenge that you will face when attempting to hike to Reflection Canyon is getting to the trailhead. The trailhead is only accessible via the Hole in the Rock Road, which starts just outside of the town of Escalante, Utah. The road traverses much of the interior of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and then enters the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area before terminating at the trailhead for the Hole in the Rock trail. The Hole in the Rock Road is not paved and sections of the road are very rough, especially after it rains.

The Road requires a 4×4 vehicle with high clearance

If you are planning to hike to Reflection Canyon, I would strongly recommend that you bring a 4×4 vehicle with high clearance. The high clearance is important as you will risk bottoming out your vehicle on sections of the road. You can manage to drive much of the road without a 4×4 vehicle when the road is dry, but once the road enters the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, it is pretty much undrivable without a 4×4 vehicle. Keep in mind, even with a 4×4 vehicle, the Hole in the Rock Road is so rough in sections that it may be impassable in wet conditions. Keep this in mind before you head out for your hike. If there are heavy rains while you are down the road, you may be stuck in the backcountry until the road dries out.

leave early and obey the speed limit

The trailhead for the Reflection Canyon hike is located roughly 50.5-miles down the Hole in the Rock Road. To get to it from Escalante, you will take highway UT-12 East out of Escalante and then turn right on the Hole in the Rock Road. Be prepared for the drive to take you roughly 2.5-hours from Escalante to the trailhead. As I mentioned above, the road is very rough in places. I would strongly recommend not exceeding the speed limit while driving on the Hole in the Rock Road as you will jeopardize damaging your vehicle or getting stuck in the backcountry. On the bright side, the difficulty in reaching the trailhead has the benefit of keeping Reflection Canyon less crowded as only the motivated hikers are willing to venture this far down an unimproved road.

Hole in the Rock Road Map

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What to Expect on the Trail

One of the most important steps to preparing for any hike is to understand what to expect while you are on the trail. Understanding the landscape and the obstacles that you will face while on a hike will allow you to better prepare the gear and supplies that you bring with you. In order to give you a better understanding of what the trail looks like, I have included GPS tagged pictures on a map in my Reflection Canyon trail guide below to illustrate what you can expect while on this hike.

As you can see in the pictures, for the first two-thirds of the hike you will be navigating in and out of shallow slot canyons and washes. It is important to stay as close to the base of the mesa as possible as the canyons and washes will be shallower there. Once you get to the point where you turn East, the landscape you will cover is smooth rock. While this portion of the hike requires much less up-and-down hiking, it is much more difficult to navigate this section. For tips on how to navigate to Reflection Canyon, please refer to the Navigating the Reflection Canyon Trail section of this guide.

Reflection Canyon Trail Guide Map

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Reflection Canyon Trail Guide

If you ask hikers what makes them the most nervous about hiking in the backcountry, I am guessing a healthy portion of them will mention navigating without marked trails and the fear of getting lost. If you are planning on hiking to Reflection Canyon and this is a fear of yours, then you are definitely going to want to read this section of my Reflection Canyon trail guide closely. While there is no marked trail to the canyon, there are certain geographic features along the route that will significantly make navigation much easier for you.

As you can see in the navigation map that I have included below, the large mesa that will be on your right-hand side will act as a western boundary to keep you on course. As long as you follow the base of that mesa, it will be difficult for you to get lost for the first two-thirds of the hike. Again, as you are hiking, I would strongly suggest that you stick as close to the base of the mesa as possible. If you venture too far to the East, you will encounter deep slot canyons and washes that will be very difficult to navigate. Although you will have to climb into and out of these washes while you are close to the base, it will be much safer and more manageable because they will be shallower.

When to Turn East Towards Reflection Canyon

When you get to the section of the mesa with a very large, flat face, that will be your signal to turn to the East towards Reflection Canyon. If you have the pro version of the Alltrails App or a GPS unit, it will be easy for you to set a waypoint and then turn when you get there. However, if you don’t have one of these tools, you will need to be vigilant and look for the flat face. If you go too far and miss your turn, you will eventually run into Hidden Passage Canyon, which will be far too deep and steep to traverse. This will be your queue to turn around and backtrack. However, I would try not to get to that point as it will add significant distance and time to your hike.

As you turn to the East to head towards Reflection Canyon, the remainder of your hike will be over smooth rock. This makes trail finding virtually impossible as you won’t be able to see any footsteps from previous hikers. This is the section of the hike that will really put your navigation skills to the test. There are two different routes that you can take to Reflection Canyon. The upper and lower routes are essentially the same distance and are equally as difficult to navigate in my opinion.

When I hiked to Reflection Canyon, I took the lower route on the way there and the upper route on the way back. If you have the pro version of the Alltrails App or a GPS device with waypoints you’ve setup, it will definitely make your life easier. Otherwise, you will want to make sure you are always navigating towards Navajo Mountain on the horizon. Navajo Mountain sits on the other side of Lake Powell in Arizona, but while you are hiking can be a good directional indicator as it sits just behind Reflection Canyon to the East on the horizon.

Reflection Canyon Navigation Map

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Planning a Day Hike

Reflection Canyon Trail Guide

Depending on what time of year your visit, how much time you have on your trip, and how comfortable you are with overnighting in the backcountry, a day hike to Reflection Canyon might be the best option for you. If you are a very experienced hiker and are visiting when the days are longer, a day hike to see the canyon is a very doable endeavor. In fact, many people day hike to Reflection Canyon every year.

However, if you aren’t a very fast hiker and are visiting during the time of year when days are shorter, you might want to rethink doing a day hike to Reflection Canyon. It would require hiking and or driving in the dark and this trail and the Hole in the Rock Road aren’t the easiest to navigate at night. If you are planning a day hike to Reflection Canyon, I have included some information you should know in my Reflection Canyon trail guide below.

Things to Know Before You Hike

  • You will not need a permit to day hike to Reflection Canyon.
  • If you are hiking in the summer months, start as early as possible to avoid the heat and give yourself time. Remember, the drive down the Hole in the Rock Road will take you at least a few hours.
  • Bring sun protection with you on the trail. A sun hat and sun screen is important as the heat is intense.
  • Make sure you have enough water. I cannot stress this enough. There is very little shade on the trail and water is very rarely found along the way. Each hiker should have at least 6-liters of water with them.
  • If you think you might have to hike in the dark, make sure you have a head-lamp or flashlight with you.

What to Pack for Your Hike

Packing the correct gear is important for any hike, but it is especially important when you are packing for a hike as difficult as the hike to Reflection Canyon. If you don’t have the proper gear and supplies with you, this hike can be especially hard to complete safely. If you are in the beginning stages of planning your hike to see Reflection Canyon and would like some advice on what to pack, I have included a summary of the gear I would suggest below.

  • At least 6 liters of water per hiker (do not expect to find water on the trail).
  • Hiking Boots (see my Backpackers Packing Guide and Checklist below for more specific recommendations).
  • Hiking Socks (moisture wicking are best).
  • Moisture wicking T-Shirt (for summer hikes) and Moisture wicking base layer for colder months.
  • Hiking Pants or Shorts (depending on the weather).
  • Lightweight Jacket or Fleece (if hiking in colder months).
  • Hiking Poles (very useful for descents and uneven terrain).
  • Sun hat (especially important in the summer months).
  • Winter Hat (if hiking during the colder months).
  • Sun glasses (especially important in the summer months).
  • Trail snacks (recharging your muscles is important on any long hike).
  • Compass and topographical map (for navigation).
  • Alltrails App or GPS device (to assist with navigation).
  • Lightweight Camera (you are going to want to photograph the beauty of the canyon).

Planning an Overnight Hike

Reflection Canyon Trail Guide

For hikers who are visiting Reflection Canyon during the times of year when daylight is limited, aren’t comfortable hiking all the miles in one day, or would like to photograph the canyon at sunrise, the best bet is to overnight at Reflection Canyon. When I visited this past autumn, I overnighted by the canyon and it was an incredible experience. However, if you plan on staying overnight near the canyon, you will need to make sure you are prepared.

You will need to make sure you have the proper gear with you if you plan on camping out, and enough water to last you for the extra time you will be there. You should also be aware that there are a limited number of good camp sites near Reflection Canyon, so getting their early and getting one of these spots is important. For more tips on what you will need to overnight at Reflection Canyon and what you should pack in your backpack, please see the sections below.

Things to Know Before You Hike

  • You will need to get a backcountry permit from the Grand Staircase-Escalante Visitor Center in Escalante before your hike. You can do this ahead of time to save yourself time on the morning of your hike or use the self-service drop box if you are visiting early before the visitor center opens.
  • If you are hiking in the summer months, start as early as possible to avoid the heat and give yourself time. Remember, the drive down the Hole in the Rock Road will take you at least a few hours.
  • Be aware that the number of good camp sites near Reflection Canyon is limited because most of the area is hard rock. There are a few sandy areas that you can put tent stakes into, but they get taken quickly. Reflection Canyon frequently gets high winds, so getting to the canyon early and getting one of these spots is important.
  • Bring sun protection with you on the trail. A sun hat and sun screen is important as the heat is intense.
  • Make sure you have enough water. I cannot stress this enough. There is very little shade on the trail and water is very rarely found along the way. Each hiker should have at least 9-liters of water with them.
  • When planning your food for your hike, I would strongly recommend bringing pre-prepared food or food that doesn’t require you to add water. Your water supply will be critically important for this hike and using some to cook food will diminish the supply that you need to drink.
  • If you think you might have to hike in the dark, make sure you have a head-lamp or flashlight with you.
best camp spots
Reflection Canyon Camp Site Locations Map

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What to Pack for Your Hike

If you are planning on spending the night at Reflection Canyon before hiking back, then you are going to need to plan on taking some additional gear and supplies with you on your hike. Things like a tent, a sleeping bag, a sleeping mat, and a headlamp are just some of the crucial supplies that you will need. One thing that I would strongly recommend for this hike is to plan on bringing pre-made food that does not require you to add water.

I cannot stress the importance of this enough, especially if you are planning on hiking to Reflection Canyon during the summer heat. Your water supply will be critically important to keep you hydrated, so having to use some to make food will jeopardize leaving you with not enough. I would strongly recommend bringing at least 9 liters of water if you are planning on overnighting at Reflection Canyon. For tips on additional gear that you will need, please review my Backpackers Packing Guide and Checklist that I linked to in my Reflection Canyon trail guide below.

READ MORE:
Reflection Canyon Trail Guide
Backpackers Packing Guide and Checklist

Photographing Reflection Canyon

Reflection Canyon Trail Guide

Ever since being first photographed by a Michael Melford for a National Geographic article in 2006, Reflection Canyon has captivated landscape photographers everywhere. The absolute jaw-dropping beauty of the canyon is almost impossible to put into words. If you are interested in photographing the beauty of the canyon, I have included a few pointers that I can pass on to you in my Reflection Canyon trail guide below.

  • As I have explained in this guide, the trail to Reflection Canyon is tough, so make sure the camera gear you pack is light. If you have a mirrorless camera, these are the moments those cameras were made for. I would also suggest investing in as small and light of a tripod as you can.
  • The sun rises behind Reflection Canyon from where you will view it and sets behind you. If you have your heart set on capturing a sunrise shot, you will need to camp out at Reflection Canyon and get up early to capture those shots. Because of the difficulty of getting to the canyon, arriving in time for sunrise shots on a day hike is extremely difficult and dangerous.
  • If you would like to get shots of the canyon with reflections off the water, you will want to plan on being at Reflection Canyon in the mid afternoon. The goal is to have the sun behind you, but not so close to the horizon that it is blocked by the large hill behind you. In the summer months, the best time is between 4-6pm. During the spring and autumn months, the best time is closer to 2-4pm.
Reflection Canyon Photography Tips and Sunrise Locations Map

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Reflection Canyon in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is one of the most incredible places that I have been fortunate enough to photograph. It’s not an easy place to get to, so you really have to put in the work to capture this beautiful place in photos. If you are interested in seeing some more of the wonderful shots that I was able to take during my visit to the canyon, please see the photo gallery that I have included in my Reflection Canyon trail guide below.

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2 replies »

  1. What a fabulous guide, Josh. Boy, can you work not just a camera, but also computer technology. Very impressive. You are so right to emphasize water, water, water for summertime. We were in Escalante for several days the first summer of the pandemic and it was SO hot. It even made the husband feel ill a few times. I’m so impressed at your skills. Way to go!

    • Thank you so much for your kind words!! You absolutely made my day! Yeah, the heat there can be a killer in the summer for sure. 🥵

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