Looking to get off the beaten path and explore one of southern Utah’s most unique geological formations? Golden Cathedral in Neon Canyon is one of the most iconic hikes in Grand Staircase Escalante, featuring a massive amphitheater with 3 nearly perfectly round holes cut out of the canyon wall.
With no defined trail to follow, several river crossings, deep sand, and a remote location down Hole in the Rock Road, getting there is no easy feat! If this sounds like the type of adventure you’re up for, the payoff upon reaching Golden Cathedral is well worth the effort!
In this article, we’ll give you all the information you need to plan an epic (and safe) hike to Golden Cathedral.
Article Contents (click to expand)
- Golden Cathedral & Neon Canyon | Hike Overview
- Golden Cathedral & Neon Canyon | Trail Guide
- Golden Cathedral | FAQs
- Other Grand Staircase-Escalante Resources
Golden Cathedral & Neon Canyon | Hike Overview
- Hiking distance | 10.5 miles
- Elevation gain | 1500 feet
- Estimated time | 6 – 8 hours
- Difficulty | Hard
- Crowd levels | Low
- Location | Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
- Why you’ll love it | A remote and uncrowded hike to a unique hidden gem in the southern Utah desert, perfect for those wanting an off-the-beaten-path adventure.
- Trailhead & road conditions | Egypt Trailhead/Golden Cathedral Trailhead. Located 17 miles down Hole in the Rock Road, plus 9 miles down Egypt Road. Conditions deteriorate in the last 5-6 miles before the trailhead. High clearance and 4WD recommended.
- Route-finding required | There is no trail, so you will need some route-finding skills and a means of navigation without cell service (GPS device, map downloaded with AllTrails Pro, etc).
- When to go | Spring (March to May) or Fall (September to November).
- Dogs | Dogs are permitted on the trail.
- The Golden Cathedral is absolutely stunning
- Solitude – likely to see only a handful of other hikers
- Chance to see petroglyphs along the way
- Rough bumpy road to reach the trailhead (takes about 1.5 hours on dirt roads)
- Tough final climb at the end of the hike
- Deep river crossings with muddy riverbed
- No defined trail – route finding required in some spots
Where is the Golden Cathedral?
Technically, Golden Cathedral is located in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, a remote, vast track of land spanning 1.25 million acres across southern Utah and northern Arizona.
However, the trailhead for Golden Cathedral is located in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument on Egypt Road, a rough side road off of Hole in the Rock Road.
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.
Golden Cathedral & Neon Canyon | Trail Guide
We’ll be honest, the hike to Golden Cathedral was tougher than we were expecting! On paper it doesn’t seem that hard, but the steep climbs, constant route finding, river crossings and deep sand really take a toll on your stamina.
That being said, finally seeing the Golden Cathedral with our own eyes was totally worth the effort.
Getting to the trailhead
The adventure starts before you reach Golden Cathedral Trailhead, with 28 miles and about 1.5 hours of driving on dirt roads. High clearance is definitely needed to reach the trailhead and 4WD is certainly helpful.
To reach the trailhead, you will first drive 17 miles down Hole in the Rock Road before turning left onto Egypt Road. Hole in the Rock Road is a wide and well-maintained, but be prepared for a bumpy ride!
On the other hand, Egypt Road is quite rough, especially the further you drive. From Hole in the Rock Road, drive about 9 miles until you reach an intersection, where you will turn right and continue about half a mile to the Egypt Trailhead.
The road quality deteriorates over the last 5-6 miles to the trailhead. At one point, the road almost completely disappears and you drive over a brief section of bumpy slickrock. That being said, we did manage to reach the trailhead in our Subaru Forester.
When you finally arrive at the aptly named “Egypt Trailhead”, be sure to fill out the hiker logbook detailing your plans and when you expect to return.
Starting the hike
The trail starts out with a few switchbacks, followed by a very steep descent down slick rock. Keep an eye out for cairns to help you find the best way down.
The views from the very start of the hike are quite impressive, with a wide-open panorama of orange domes, canyons, and mountains out in the distance. Make note of the landscape around you as you go to help find your way back. We noted a few very distinctive vertical “slices” in the canyon wall just to the left of the trailhead.
The route traverses over alternating slick rock and thick sand, with cairns here and there to mark the way. Although the cairns are usually well-placed, it’s easy to miss one and get completely off-track. Having some means of offline navigation is a must.
Entering the canyon
Finding the route takes so much concentration that you may forget to stop and look at the beauty around you! At about a mile and a half into the hike, you suddenly reach the top of the canyon.
From here, the route follows along the rim and then slowly starts to descend. There is a fairly well defined trail that switchbacks down into the canyon.
Crossing the Escalante River
At the bottom of the canyon, you’ll enjoy some much-needed relief from the hot sun. This is where the fun begins! Around 3 miles into the hike, the trail intersects the Escalante River for the first time.
Here we saw two ways of crossing the river here. We’d recommend the path to the right closer to the canyon wall, as it was much shallower.
Either way, you are going to get wet…. just how wet depends on the time of year and recent weather conditions. When we hiked in late March, the area had gotten an unusual amount of snow so the river was thigh-deep and the current was strong.
Pro Tip | Pack a pair of water shoes or sandals to change into! We made the mistake of just wearing boots and had to choose between wet, water-logged boots or bare feet.
Navigating through the canyon
After the first river crossing, the trail almost entirely disappears and you may find yourself bushwhacking through some dense brush. We thought this was the most difficult route-finding of the entire hike and the downloaded AllTrails map really came in handy.
Depending on the exact route you take you will cross the river a few more times. We counted 5 river crossings in total.
Close to Neon Canyon, there is a set of petroglyphs carved on the canyon wall. We had no idea about them before we started hiking, but spotted a group of other hikers looking at the wall and decided to check it out.
Follow a very faint trail off to the left of the main trail in the canyon after you’ve finished the river crossings, about 3.5 to 4 miles into the hike.
Leave no trace | Unfortunately, the wall of petroglyphs has been vandalized with graffiti so it’s a bit tough to decipher the petroglyphs. It should go without saying, but do not carve, draw, or otherwise deface the canyon wall.
Neon Canyon & Golden Cathedral
About 4.5 miles into the hike, take a left and enter Neon Canyon. Continue for about half a mile, passing over a few rock-scrambling obstacles, until you finally reach the Golden Cathedral.
There is a small pool of water that has collected just under the cathedral and a nice beachy area around it that makes a great spot to hang out.
The return hike
To get back to the trailhead, return following the same route you took in.
Golden Cathedral | FAQs
How hard is the Golden Cathedral hike?
Like most of the best things in life, getting to Golden Cathedral will not come easy. By the numbers, Golden Cathedral Trail seems like a fairly moderate hike, but several factors make the hike more physically and mentally challenging:
- No defined trail | Requires route finding skills and some bushwhacking once inside the canyon.
- Deep sand | Much of the “trail” involves walking through very deep sand, which effectively saps your energy with each step.
- Reverse ascent | The trail is all downhill to Golden Cathedral and it’s a steep climb back to the trailhead.
- River crossings | Five river crossings through deep water and a strong current.
- Lack of shade | The trail is almost entirely exposed, and the desert sun is intense any time of year.
How hard is the route finding?
Because the route to Golden Cathedral traverses slick rock and sand, there is often no clear trail. There are cairns along the route, but you should not rely on them too heavily. We found the cairns were great on the hike out, but many had blown over in the wind throughout the day.
It’s a good idea to drop a pin on your GPS device periodically along the way in case you get lost.
Remember to follow well-worn paths or walk on slick rock as much as possible. Avoid trampling the cryptobiotic soil (crust that forms over sandy areas), as it helps prevent erosion and provides important nutrients to the soil)
Can I backpack to Golden Cathedral?
Yes, you can hike to Golden Cathedral hike as a backpacking trip. Advance reservations are not required for backpacking in Grand Staircase Escalante, but you must pick up a permit from the Visitor Center before your trip.
There are no designated campsites in the area, but you should look for a piece of “previously distributed” land, meaning you can tell it’s been camped on before. There’s one awesome camp spot right next to the Golden Cathedral that would be the perfect place to spend the night!
Plan your trip | Read more about backpacking Grand Staircase/Glen Canyon Recreation Area
When is the best time to hike?
The best time to hike to Golden Cathedral is during the spring or fall. The route is very exposed with little shade and the summer brings extreme heat. We would not recommend attempting this hike from June through August.
April and October are probably the best months to hike, when temperatures are still mild but snow is very unlikely and river levels are typically lower. In March, runoff from melting snow causes a stronger current and higher water level, making the river crossings additionally challenging.
Be aware that rain or melting snow can turn the dirt roads to the trailhead into a complete mud pit, making them impassable even with 4WD. Additionally, the canyon is prone to flash floods so do not attempt this hike if the weather forecast calls for rain or snow.
How can I see the light beams?
You may have seen photos of beams of light shining through the arches of Golden Cathedral onto the pool of teal water below. To catch these elusive light beams, you have to visit the Golden Cathedral at just the right time.
The beams should occur when the sunlight is directly overhead, sometime between 11am and 2pm. We arrived at 11:30am and waited for about an hour in hopes of catching the beams, to no avail. Eventually, we gave up as time was running low and we had a long drive home.
Other Grand Staircase-Escalante Resources
Looking for other great hikes in Grand Staircase Escalante? You may also be interested in these resources:
Questions about the journey to Golden Cathedral and Neon Canyon? Getting there is no easy feat! Drop us a question in the comments below and we’ll be happy to help!