Looking to get off the beaten path and explore one of southern Utah’s most unique geological formations? Golden Cathedral in Neon Canyon is a fun and challenging adventure near Escalante, Utah with no defined trail to follow, several river crossings, deep sand, and a remote location down Hole in the Rock Road. In this article, we’ll give you all the information you need to plan an epic (and safe) hike to Golden Cathedral.
- About Golden Cathedral & Neon Canyon
- How difficult is the hike?
- Highlights and lowlights
- When is the best time to hike?
- Weather conditions
- Route finding tips
- Other things to know before you go
- Golden Cathedral as a backpacking trip
- Hike Details | Golden Cathedral & Neon Canyon
- Other hikes nearby
Golden Cathedral & Neon Canyon
- Hiking distance | 10.5 miles
- Elevation gain | 1500 feet
- Total time | 6 – 8 hours
- Epic-ness rating | 7
- Difficulty | Hard
- Permits/fees: none
- 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.
Find this hike on AllTrails: Golden Cathedral Trail
Golden Cathedral Trail 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. Golden Cathedral sits at the lower end of aptly named Neon Canyon in an especially remote area of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.
That being said, getting there is no easy feat!
First, the Golden Cathedral Trail begins from Egypt Trailhead (yes, the name feels fitting) which is located 17 miles down Hole in the Rock road, plus 9 miles down Egypt Road. Egypt Road starts out in fairly good condition but deteriorates the further you drive.
Furthermore, the trail to Golden Cathedral is not well marked, requires hiking through sections of deep sand and 5 river crossings, which are frequently knee to hip deep.
If this sounds like the type of adventure you’re up for, the payoff upon reaching Golden Cathedral is well worth the effort! If you are looking for off-the-beaten-path hikes in Southern Utah, add this hike to your bucket list.
Be respectful to this beautiful place!
Golden Cathedral and the area surrounding it is a remote and rugged area. 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 the 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.
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.
Golden Cathedral is one of the most iconic hikes in Grand Staircase and Glen Canyon, and worthy of a spot on any southern Utah bucket list!
- 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
How difficult is the Golden Cathedral hike?
Like most of the best things in life, getting to Golden Cathedral will not come easy. Although by the numbers, Golden Cathedral Trail seems like a fairly moderate hike, there are several factors that make the hike more time intensive and mentally and physically challenging than you may expect:
- No defined trail for most of the hike. Requires route finding and navigation skills and a bit of bushwhacking once inside the canyon.
- Much of the “trail” involves walking through very deep sand, which effectively saps your energy with each step.
- Reverse ascent, meaning you lose elevation first and then have to climb back up to the trailhead.
- Very steep climb up slick rock back to the trailhead over the final half mile of the hike.
- 28 miles of driving down a dirt road to reach the Egypt Trailhead, with the last 5-6 miles being very rough.
- 5 river crossings involving knee to thigh deep water and a fairly strong current (particularly during the spring due to snow melt). We hiked in late March and our shorts got soaked.
- Little to no shade and often extreme heat (even in cooler temperatures, the sun feels very strong)
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 to 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! Light beams or not, the area is incredibly beautiful and worth the trip!
Route finding tips
- There is NO defined trail. Do not attempt this hike without some means of self-navigating. We recommend downloading the AllTrails Pro map and carrying a GPS device.
- You should also drop a pin on your GPS periodically along the way in case you get lost, and most importantly at the trailhead before you set off.
- There may be cairns along the route, but you should not rely on them solely, as they are not always reliable and may lead to other trails.
- We found the cairns were great on the hike out, but many had blown over in the wind that picked up throughout the day by the time we were heading back to the trailhead.
- Make note of the landscape. Find unique landmarks and commit them to memory.
- Follow well worn paths or walk on slickrock as much as possible. Avoid trampling the cryptobiotic soil (the layer or black or white crust that forms over sandy areas – it helps prevent erosion and provides important nutrients to the soil)
Other things to know before you go
Below are a few tips and things to know before you go for the best experience.
- Pack plenty of water (at least 3 liters) – you will drink more than you expect. You can also pack a water filter and fill up in the Escalante River, although be warned that the water is usually quite silty.
- Be sure to fuel up in Escalante before setting off to the trailhead. Once you turn onto Hole in the Rock, there are no services.
- Make sure you have at least one spare tire and know how to change it. The road is rocky and rough and a tow-truck isn’t coming to rescue you if you pop a tire out here.
- There is no cell service along the hike or the road to the trailhead. Download maps and directions ahead of time.
- Let someone know your plans to hike Golden Cathedral before you hike in case of an emergency.
- Dogs are permitted on the trail.
Golden Cathedral as a backpacking trip
If you want to really take your time exploring Neon Canyon, you can do the 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 Escalante 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! Alternatively, there are a few other spots in Neon Canyon you could camp, and plenty of options in the larger canyon along the way.
- Read more about backpacking Grand Staircase/Glen Canyon Recreation Area
Golden Cathedral packing list
In addition to your usual hiking gear, below are a few essentials we recommend bringing:
- Hiking poles (Hers: Black Diamond Distance Z poles, His: Black Diamond Distance FLZ poles ) | Useful for the river crossings and steep climb back up to the trailhead.
- Water shoes, hiking sandals, or Crocs| To change into for the river crossings.
- GPS Device (Garmin InReach Mini) | To help you navigate to the Golden Cathedral and
- Sunscreen, chapstick and Sunglasses (Goodr) | To protect yourself from the harsh desert sun.
- Headlamp | Always good to have in case you finish hiking later than expected. We both use the Black Diamond
- Plenty of water and water filter (Katadyn BeFree) | To refill your water supply at the river, you may want to bring a water filter.
Golden Cathedral & Neon Canyon Hike Details
Below we will give you all the details about the Golden Cathedral hike so you know what to expect.
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 even reach the trailhead, with 28 miles and about an hour and a half of driving on dirt roads. High clearance is definitely needed to reach the trailhead and 4WD is certainly helpful.
- Hole in the Rock Road: Hole in the Rock Road is a fairly wide and well-maintained, but bumpy and washboarded, dirt road providing access to many of the best hikes in Grand Staircase Escalante. To reach the Egypt Trailhead, you will first drive 17 miles down Hole in the Rock Road before turning left onto Egypt Road.
- Egypt Road: While Hole in Rock Road is generally in pretty decent shape, Egypt Road gets 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 really deteriorates over the last 5-6 miles to the trailhead. At one point, the road almost completely disappears and you must 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. In case of an emergency, it’s a good idea to leave a record of where you are going.
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, although be aware that there are other trails in the area so keep an eye on your map.
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. After about half a mile, the terrain levels out to a very slight decline. Make sure to turn around here and make note of the landscape around where you came from – this will be useful in finding your way back or in case you get lost. 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, so you’ll be constantly on the lookout for other hikers’ footsteps and cairns to lead the way. We found the cairns to be fairly well-placed and helpful on the hike out, but did get off track a couple times. Be sure to check your map consistently to make sure you are accidentally following a different trail.
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 find yourself at 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, but you still have to look over for cairns whenever you cross the slickrock.
Crossing the Escalante River
At 2.5 miles into the hike, you will reach the bottom of the canyon and find a little relief from the sun as you enter an oasis of brush and trees. This is where the fun begins! At just under 3 miles into the hike, you will come upon 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 – how wet depends on the time of year and recent weather conditions. When we hiked in late March, the surrounding area had gotten an unusual amount of snow so the water level was thigh deep and the current fairly strong. We made the mistake of not packing a pair of water shoes to change into, and had to choose between wet, water-logged boots or bare feet – Matt went barefoot and Sarah went boots.
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 rivers crossings in total, and thought the first one was the deepest.
As you get closer to Neon Canyon, there’s a chance to see 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.
There is 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.
Unfortunately, the wall of petroglyphs has been vandalized with graffiti so it’s a bit tough to decipher the actual petroglyphs – look for the drawings that appear more faded. It should go without saying, but do not carve, draw or otherwise deface the canyon wall.
Entering Neon Canyon
At roughly 4.5 miles into the hike, take a left and enter Neon Canyon. You will see how the canyon gets its name, as the bright canyon walls get taller and narrower. Continue for about half a mile, passing over a few rock scrambling obstacles, until you finally reach the Golden Cathedral at the end of the canyon.
Standing under the Golden Cathedral, peering up through the perfectly round holes carved out of the wall, you’ll see that all the effort to get here was worthwhile! 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 and have lunch.
The return hike
Once you spent sufficient time taking in the beauty of Golden Cathedral, begin the route back to the car. We followed the same route we took to get in, but there is also a more direct route out of the canyon to the trailhead. Since we didn’t take that route, we can’t comment on whether it’s worth doing.
Other hikes nearby
Looking for other great hikes in Grand Staircase Escalante? Below are a few of our favorites in the area!
- Zebra Slot Canyon
- Willis Creek Slot Canyon
- Peekaboo and Spooky Slot Canyons
- Big Horn Canyon
- Coyote Gulch and Jacob Hamblin Arch
For all things Utah: Utah Travel Guide
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!