Located in the wild and remote Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, the hike to Cosmic Ashtray is an otherworldly adventure that is perfect for those looking to get off the beaten path. In an area filled with crazy rock formations, narrow slot canyons, and limitless adventure, the hike to Cosmic Ashtray stands above all else. With no designated trail, you will need to use your navigational skills (or Alltrails!) to reach this strange and unique rock formation. But with a little planning and an adventurous spirit, you will be rewarded with one of the craziest sights we have ever seen!
- What is the Cosmic Ashtray?
- About Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
- Hike Details
- Highlights and lowlights
- Route Options
- Dispersed Camping in Grand Staircase
What is the Cosmic Ashray
Cosmic Ashtray is a hidden wonder nestled among the rocky hills of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. It is hard to adequately describe just how strange the formation is – it isn’t really a canyon, mountain, gulch, or any other desert landscape we have seen.
To give you some idea, it initially reminded us of a giant sandbox filled with super soft orange sand. Cosmic Ashtray is circular in shape and kind of resembles a hurricane in that its perimeter seems to be swirling around an “eye” in the middle. In this case, the “eye” is actually a 33-foot tall rock, that looks a bit like a giant skull.
And while the Ashtray is remarkable, the hike to reach the strange formation is also exciting. There is no designated trail as you meander your way through the beauty of the desert, making the journey both thrilling and serene, as there are unlikely to be many hikers in the area.
We were also blown away by how much bigger the Cosmic Ashtray is in person – the pictures don’t do it justice! The best part is that you can venture down into the Ashtray and explore, like kids in a giant sandbox!
How was Cosmic Ashtray formed?
While it may look like the aftermath of a meteor crashing into the earth, the Cosmic Ashtray was actually formed by the less dramatic forces of erosion.
Over thousands of years, the unrelenting pressure of a now-extinct river and mighty desert winds slowly eroded the rock, leaving behind the formation that stands today. Isn’t it crazy what water, wind and time can create!?
After the area dried up, continuous winds blasting the rock slowly formed the deep layer of sand that covers the bottom of the Ashtray to this day. It is thought that this process occurred over 200,000 years ago!
About Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
The Cosmic Ashtray is located in the remote Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in Southern Utah. Spanning over 1 million acres, Grand Staircase is one of the largest protected areas of land in the United States, offering endless opportunities for adventure, including some amazing hikes, backpacking trips, slot canyons, and even waterfalls.
With fewer crowds than the nearby “Mighty 5” national parks of Utah (Zion, Bryce, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Arches), you might actually be able to enjoy the beauty of the desert without traffic, tourists, and headaches.
Be respectful to this beautiful place!
Cosmic Ashtray and the area surrounding it is a remote and rugged place. Please help keep it that way! Do not carve or vandalize the rock or leave behind trash. Use waste disposal bags to carry out any human waste.
While there is no defined trail, you should do your best to avoid trampling the crypotbiotic soil (that layer of black or white crust over the sand and dirt). Walk through loose sand, previously disturbed land, or across slick rock where ever possible.
Remember to Leave No Trace. Pack out what you pack in, stay on trail, be well-prepared, leave nothing behind, take only photos and memories with you, treat the area with respect and help preserve this beautiful spot for generations to come.
In the following section, we’ll provide you with more details on the hike to Cosmic Ashtray, including hike stats, highlights and lowlights, and trail details.
Cosmic Ashtray Hike Details
- Hiking distance | 8.3 miles
- Elevation gain | 880 feet
- Total time | 5 – 6 hours
- Epic-ness rating | 8
- Difficulty | Moderate (requires route finding)
Find this hike on AllTrails: Cosmic Ashtray via Volcano Trail
- Crazy, unique rock formation unlike anything you’ve ever seen
- Playing in the sand inside the Ashtray is a blast!
- Relatively uncrowded
- Climbing into the Ashtray can be dangerous
- No designated trail to follow makes navigation difficult
- Rough dirt road to reach the trailhead
- Can get very hot, with no shade
There are two different routes you can take to hike to the Cosmic Ashtray:
- Northwest approach: trailhead is on Spencer Flat Road, round trip hike is 8.3 miles and 880 feet elevation gain
- Southern approach: trailhead is on Harris Wash Road, off Hole in the Rock Road, round trip hike is 9 miles with 975 feet elevation gain
We reached the Cosmic Ashtray via option 1, so this article will focus on that approach. This is the more popular option and we believe it is the better hike for a number of reasons:
- 4WD is typically not required to access the trailhead off Spencer Flat Road, while Harris Wash Road is known to get muddy and can be more difficult to access.
- The hike is more scenic – the southern approach is mainly along a washed out dirt road.
- It’s about a mile shorter and entails slightly less elevation gain.
With only about 900 feet of elevation over 8.3 miles, the hike to and from Cosmic Ashtray is not the most physically demanding but it does poses some challenges, including:
- Route-finding: There is NO marked trail and cairns are few and far between. To reach the Cosmic Ashtray (and avoid getting lost in the desert), you will need some means of navigation. We recommend downloading the trail map using AllTrails Pro. While the map is not perfect, it is easy to use and will lead you in the correct general direction. Some skill is still required on your part to navigate around the formations, valleys and steep rocks. We’d also recommend having a backup battery charger, GPS device and compass/map just in case your phone dies.
- Climbing into the Cosmic Ashtray: To climb into the adult-sized sandbox, you will need to scramble down via a set of footholds carved into the wall. The rock is worn down and can be slippery, so shoes with solid traction are highly recommended (I packed my rock-climbing shoes, and their small size was especially helpful in navigating the small footholds). You might want to bring a rope to ensure your safety getting down and make it easier to climb back out, but it’s probably not necessary unless you are particularly afraid of heights.
Parking and getting to the trailhead
The trailhead for Cosmic Ashtray is located off Spencer Flat Road, a dirt road that gets rougher as you get closer to the trailhead. A high-clearance vehicle with 4WD is helpful, but typically not necessary, unless it has recently rained and the road is muddy.
The hike to Cosmic Ashtray
The saying “middle of nowhere” gets thrown around a lot these days, but with Cosmic Ashtray it is very much true. Not only is Grand Staircase one of the most remote areas in the country, but Cosmic Ashtray is one of the more isolated hikes in the park. While there is undoubtedly appeal to that isolation, it definitely requires some extra planning and precautions.
With all that in mind, the hike through the desert is absolutely stunning. Given that there is no set trail, there are’t many step-by-step instructions we can provide. The trail generally follows along the base of a small mountain range on your right.
We often found ourselves wandering up towards the lower sections of the mountains, but we saw other hikers continuing along the flatter section of desert below. We can’t say which is better but we did enjoy some pretty sweet views.
Approaching the Cosmic Ashtray
After a little more than 4 miles, you will reach the end of the small mountain range and the Cosmic Ashtray will be up to your right. You can’t immediately see it, but keep your eye on your downloaded map and you will eventually come across it.
When we reached the Cosmic Ashtray, we were blown away by how strange and beautiful it is. Of course, we thought we had some idea of what to expect but the pictures pale in comparison to seeing it in person. The swirling rock and creamsicle-colored sand simply can’t be captured in photos.
How to climb into Cosmic Ashtray
Once you are done enjoying the view from outside, the fun really begins with the short trip down into the Ashtray. The path into the sand box is pretty straightforward but requires a pretty sizable rock scramble. To enter the Ashtray, you will need to climb down a roughly ten-foot wall.
There are some hand and foot holds carved into the side of the rock to assist you (see lefthand photo below), but they are a bit slippery from being used and might be difficult for those with shorter limbs. There is an anchor available to which you can attached a rope if you are feeling a bit uneasy.
Exploring inside the Ashtray
Make sure you bring your camera into the Ashtray, as there are tons of crazy picture opportunities. The walls inside the rock formation are lined with unique designs from years of erosion, which look almost like paintings. Try running up to the top of the sand hill – it is really hard to run in the sand!
As you are climbing into the Ashtray, remember that you will need to climb out using the same foot and hand holds. We found climbing out to be significantly easier than the journey in but, nonetheless, it is important to be aware that if you go in, you’ll be going out the same way.
The return hike
After you have had your fill of fun exploring the Cosmic Ashtray, you will need to make your way back to the trailhead. Again, with no defined trail, there aren’t many details to provide regarding the return hike. But generally, try to follow the same path you took on the way in.
Remember to keep an eye on your downloaded map and you’ll be going in the right direction.
Logistics | Planning your Cosmic Ashtray Hike
When to hike to Cosmic Ashtray
The best times to hike in Grand Staircase Escalante are in the spring and fall. This is the desert, so summertime temperatures can be scorching and winter temperatures regularly dip below freezing.
You may be able to find some temperate days in the winter but we wouldn’t plan on consistently comfortable temperatures. Due to intense heat and lack of shade for the entirety of the hike, we would not recommend hiking to Cosmic Ashtray during the summer.
Where to stay
You can either stay in the small town of Escalante or dispersed camp in Grand Staircase. We strongly recommend dispersed camping, as there are tons of amazing spots throughout the area.
Dispersed camping in Grand Staircase Escalante
To get an early start on your Cosmic Ashtray hike, your best option is dispersed camping in Grand Staircase Escalante the night before. Camping is permitted anywhere off of Spencer Flat Road, and the nearby Hole in the Rock road – both roads offer great (and plentiful!) campsite options.
Escalante, Utah is the located just 10 minutes from the start of Hole in the Rock Road and the closest town to the trailhead. It is relatively small town, but you will find a number of options to spend the night, as well as some restaurants and grocery stores.
Other tips for visiting Cosmic Ashtray
While all wilderness adventures have some risk, the hike to Cosmic Ashtray poses its own set of challenges and it is necessary to be prepared to ensure you have a great experience:
- Cosmic Ashtray is a remote and fragile area. It’s important that you leave no trace – do not vandalize or carve into rock, leave behind trash or trample the fragile ecosystem. Although there is no defined trail, you should do your best to avoid stepping on crypotbiotic soil (that layer of black or white crust over the sand the dirt).
- We would not recommend doing this hike alone. With no defined trail and the remote location, it’s not a place you want to get lost by yourself. Furthermore, climbing out of the ashtray can be challenging. If you have trouble getting out, you don’t want to be alone – it could be hours before another hiker comes by!
- Keep someone in your group outside the canyon at all times, to assist others climbing out if necessary. We didn’t have any trouble climbing out, but slick rock or fear of heights could pose an additional challenge – better to be safe than sorry!
- You will need to use a downloaded map, GPS device, or some other navigational device to reach the Cosmic Ashtray. We highly, highly recommend downloading the trail map on either AllTrails or Gaia GPS to help with navigation. It isn’t perfect, but we wouldn’t have been able to reach the Cosmic Ashtray without the downloaded map.
- There is no cell service in the area so be sure you download a map before entering the park.
- Prepare for extreme heat and strong sunshine, even in the spring and fall seasons. There is no shade, the desert sun is brutal, and you should be extra prepared given the lack of an established trail. Wear a hat and sunglasses, and pack plenty of water and sunscreen.
- Pack a rope if you have a fear of heights. While not necessary to get into the Cosmic Ashtray, having a rope may make you feel more comfortable climbing in and out if you have a fear of heights.
What to pack for the hike to Cosmic Ashtray
- Downloaded Trail Map | Since there is no trail to follow to Cosmic Ashtray, you need to have a means of navigating. We used AllTrails Pro for downloading the trail map and found it to be reasonably reliable for navigating to Cosmic Ashtray.
- GPS Device (Garmin InReach Mini) | We always carry our Garmin In-reach Mini in case of emergency in areas without cell service, but it’s extra important to have a GPS device on an exposed desert hike like this with no designated trail.
- Backpack with bladder (Hers: CamelBak Helena 20L, His: Camelback Rim Runner 22L) | A comfortable backpack with a hydration pack makes it easier to carry all the water you’ll need for this hot desert hike. Both these backpacks are mid-sized, large enough to hold a 3-liter hydration pack.
- Hiking boots (Hers: Danner Mountain 600s, His: Salomon Ultra 4 Mid GTX) | Boots with good traction are key for climbing in and out of the Cosmic Ashtray. You don’t want to attempt this hike in tennis shoes.
- Hiking pants (Hers: Athleta Headlands pants, His: PrAna Stretch Zion Pants) | These Athleta pants are Sarah’s absolute favorite! They’re comfortable and durable for hiking, and all the pockets make them more stylish, so they can double as normal pants.
- Hiking socks (Darn Tough) | Darn Tough makes our favorite hiking socks – they’re thick, comfortable and durable. Everything you need in a good hiking sock.
- Sunscreen and chapstick | this hike is very exposed, and the desert sun is strong no matter the time of year
- First Aid Kit | A key essential for day hiking in case of an emergency
- Sunglasses (Goodr) | At only $25, Goodr sunglasses are cheap, durable and non-slip (perfect if you’re the type of person that tends to loose sunglasses, like me!)
- Climbing shoes (Women’s La Sportiva Tarantulace) | While certainly not essential, I packed my rock climbing shoes and changed into them at the ashtray. I found that they made me feel more comfortable climbing in and out, largely because the footholds are narrow and slippery. I’m not sure I’d recommend buying them just for this hike, but if you have a pair or are considering buying a pair, they may be worth going for.
- Rope | If you intend to use one to help you climb in and out of the ashtray.
Other useful resources
Planning a trip to Grand Staircase Escalante? Be sure to check out these resources on other great hikes in the area:
- Complete Guide to Hiking to Golden Cathedral
- How to Hike Zebra Slot Canyon: Grand Staircase Escalante
- 12 Amazing Grand Staircase Escalante Hikes
- Coyote Gulch Backpacking Trip Trail Guide
- Peek-a-boo and Spooky Slot Canyons Hike
- Lower Calf Creek Falls Trail Guide
- Big Horn Canyon: an Underrated Slot Canyon in Grand Staircase
- How to Day Hike to Jacob Hamblin Arch
For all things Utah: Utah Travel Guide
Have you visited the Cosmic Ashtray? What’s the coolest rock formation you’ve visited in Southern Utah? Let us know in the comments section below!