Neon Canyon Escalante
Trail Length: 9.2 miles round trip, 4.6 miles one way
Trail Type: Mixture of slick rock, sand, river crossings and some semi-social trails.
Difficulty level: high
Neon Canyon is one of the icons of the Escalante River drainage. The trail is far from simple as there is some route finding that is needed and the drop off the plateau is a duzy. This is not a hike you generally do on a whim and a bit of planning and foresight should be used before undertaking this hike. Not only does this hike have some extreme elevation change it also has quite a bit of poison ivy. You have been warned.
The trailhead for Neon Canyon is accessed from Egypt Road off Hole-in-the-rock road outside of the town of Escalante. Drive down Hole-in-the-rock for about 16 miles and make a left onto Egypt Road. Drive down this road for about 7 miles and park at the trailhead of the Golden Cathedral.
Generally, the first 16 miles of Hole-in-the-rock are not too bad, but expect some washboard to rattle your teeth for at least 10 miles. From here you turn down Egypt and the road deteriorates. The first bit of the road is washboards, but there are sections of crawling along slick rock and one solid dry stream bed that needs to be crossed that has a steep approach and exit. These cross points and rock crawls do not technically need 4x4 but you are asking for trouble if you do it in a low-clearance vehicle. I wouldn't touch it in your corolla, you might need a new oil pan by time you are done... and a new suspension (I did that once to my Dodge Caliber).
The first thing you will notice is that there really isn't a solid trail off the top of the plateau when you arrive at the trailhead. You simply stare off a huge slick rock face that descends onto the step below. There are a lot of foot tracks you can generally rely on to mark your official drop-off point, but it's about a bit to the left of the trail sign (yeah it's about that vague). From here you follow a semi-worn path in the slick rock off the mountain. This is your first 500-700ft of elevation drop. There is a sign at the bottom to let you know you are entering into Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
From here, cross open country following a rag-tag collection of cairns and intuition for about a mile. You know you are going in the right direction if you are to the left of Fence Canyon and are traveling right down the middle of the V-shaped canyon complex.
The next section requires some intuition and paying close attention to the trail. After crossing much of the open 'flat' area you begin to drop down into the Escalante river/fence canyon drainage. The trail is a series of switchbacks and route finding that eventually lead you to a small stream that trickles its way to the Escalante River. Right where this stream meets the Escalante River is a nice sandy area to rest and camp if needs be.
From here, Neon Canyon is almost exactly one-mile downriver on river left (see above image). There are a few ways to get there, but all require river crossings. You can head right and take a series of social trails and river crossings that eventually lead you to the canyon. Or you can cross the Escalante right away, head to the far wall and hug the cliff following the trails to the canyon. There is no one perfect way to do it and all the different ways require at least two or three crossings depending on how long you walk in the river.
Neon Canyon and the Golden Cathedral
Neon Canyon is a relatively short hike, maybe one mile long. The canyon winds through a crimson 'neon' Navajo sandstone cutout that hides cottonwoods, canyon tree frogs, and poison ivy. The trail is essentially non-existent, but you cannot get lost, just follow the river bed. Avoid the poison ivy as much as possible and hike until you reach the end of the canyon.
The Golden Cathedral is a large double arch structure on the roof of the canyon wall alcove. Above the cathedral is a technical slot canyon that I have never done. Surrounding this alcove are a series of box elder trees basking in the cool canyon air and often a pool of water at the base of the cathedral. It is quite a pleasant place to visit.
This is one of my favorite places to visit and photograph in the grand staircase, but it is difficult and very likely going to kick most people's butts. These days this hike is very busy on weekends and holidays, but if you catch it on weekdays and off-season you can have it mostly to yourself. The best lighting here changes all the time. I recommend visiting and hanging out for a while if you plan on being there for pictures. If not, please enjoy and move on your way and keep the peace of the desert.