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Ultimate Guide to Backpacking Reflection Canyon, Utah

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Last Updated on February 22, 2024 by Sarah Puckett

Reflection Canyon at Sunrise
Reflection Canyon at Sunrise

Backpacking through the stunning landscapes of Reflection Canyon is a truly transformative experience. Tucked away in the heart of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, this hidden gem offers breathtaking views of towering red rock cliffs, crystal-clear waters, and a sense of solitude that can only be found in the remote wilderness.

Reflection Canyon had long been on my Southwest U.S. bucket list, along with the Wave and Havasupai. I dreamt of getting to backpack there and experience sunset and sunrise over the canyon’s iconic S-curve of sandstone rock formations.

In this guide, I share everything about our experience on a guided backpacking trip to Reflection Canyon with Dreamland Safari, including trail information, important logistics, photo tips, and our packing list!

Disclaimer: Dreamland Safari hosted us on a guided backpacking tour in exchange for social media content and this blog post. All opinions and recommendations are our own, and we hope that they make your planning easier and your adventure even better!

Follow the seven Leave No Trace principles: plan your hike in advance, stick to designated trails, carry out all your belongings, dispose of waste properly, leave natural areas untouched, minimize the impact of campfires, show consideration for fellow hikers, and avoid approaching or feeding wildlife.

What’s In This Guide to Backpacking Reflection Canyon

Reflection Canyon at Sunrise
Reflection Canyon at Sunrise

Overview of Reflection Canyon

Reflection Canyon Hike At-A-Glance

  • Distance: 16-18 miles out-and-back
  • Elevation Gain: 1,234 feet
  • Peak Elevation: 4,466 feet
  • Vehicle: AWD recommended for Hole-in-the-Rock Road
  • Difficulty: Difficult
  • Permits: Required for overnight trailhead parking
  • Pets: Allowed, but not recommended as you will need to pack enough food and water for them, plus pack out their waste in addition to your own.
  • Toilets: None. Bring a WAG Bag
  • Drones: Not allowed
  • Land Management: Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
  • AllTrails Link: Reflection Canyon on AllTrails
Reflection Canyon in the afternoon on a cloudy day

What is Reflection Canyon Anyway?

Reflection Canyon is a remote and visually stunning area of Lake Powell located within the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Utah, USA. It is known for its dramatic and intricate Navajo sandstone formations, iconic S-curve, and captivating sunrises and sunsets.

Reflection Canyon itself is not a canyon per se in the traditional sense of the word. Rather, it’s a winding, twisty curve of the Escalante arm of Lake Powell meandering through and between towering sandstone rocks.

Due to its isolation and difficulty of access, Reflection Canyon is not a heavily visited destination, but it has gained popularity in recent years thanks to its stunning natural beauty. Its location was first shared with the world by National Geographic in 1996, putting Reflection Canyon on the bucket lists of hikers and photographers around the world.

Golden hour at Reflection Canyon backpacking trip

Where is Reflection Canyon?

Reflection Canyon is located in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in southeastern Utah. Specifically, it is situated on the northeastern side of Lake Powell, which is a large reservoir formed by the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River. The canyon is nestled amidst the rugged and remote desert landscape of southern Utah, making it a relatively inaccessible and challenging destination to reach.

Where to Stay Before and After Visiting Reflection Canyon

The town of Escalante, Utah is the closest base to the Reflection Canyon trailhead. We’ve stayed in Escalante a few times during our southern Utah travels, once at Escalante Yurts and once at Canyon Country Lodge. Both were great stays, with the yurts being a cool aesthetic glamping option, and the lodge a more traditional hotel.

How to Get to Reflection Canyon

There are basically only three ways visitors can see Reflection Canyon:

  1. Scenic Boat Ride: You can tour Reflection Canyon from the water by boat, but note that you won’t be able to climb the cliffs to see the iconic view this way.
  2. Scenic Plane: You can see Reflection Canyon by plane to get an aerial perspective. Note that drones are NOT allowed at Reflection Canyon.
  3. Hiking or Backpacking: The most popular way to visit Reflection Canyon is by foot. Many visitors make the trip as a long day hike, but the best way to see Reflection Canyon is with an overnight backpacking trip. This not only splits up the hike but gives you the opportunity to see sunset and sunrise over the sandstone formations.

When is the Best Time to Visit Reflection Canyon?

Spring and fall are the best seasons of the year to visit Reflection Canyon. Temperatures are milder, with about 70 degrees Fahrenheit on days and 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit on nights. Winters can be brutally cold and summer is unsafely hot to make the trek through the desert.

We visited in late October and thought it was the absolute perfect time to visit Reflection Canyon. The weather was beautiful, and both the moon and the sun rose perfectly centered over the view. Plus, we had a nearly full moon, which made for fantastic evening conditions.

Can You Day Hike Reflection Canyon?

You can definitely hike Reflection Canyon in a day and not stay overnight. It would be a long day, however. That said, if staying overnight is not an option for you, it is doable to see Reflection Canyon in one day. If your concern with staying overnight is related to not having a backpacking experience or gear, we’d recommend looking into Dreamland Safari’s guided Reflection Canyon backpacking tour first before deciding to make it a day hike.

Sarah at Reflection Canyon at sunset

Backpacking Reflection Canyon

We think backpacking Reflection Canyon is THE best way to see it, so we’re dedicating this next portion of this article to everything you need to know to prepare for a Reflection Canyon backpacking trip.

Advantages of Backpacking Reflection Canyon With a Guide

We’d wanted to visit Reflection Canyon for years before we finally did it, and a big reason why it took us so long is because we weren’t experienced backpackers, and until recently, guided options didn’t exist. The two areas where we felt a guide would benefit us were wayfinding and water access in the desert. When Dreamland Safari announced they would be offering Reflection Canyon backpacking trips in 2023, we immediately reached out to arrange our tour.

Backpacking Reflection Canyon

Here are some of the reasons backpacking Reflection Canyon with a guide was right for us:

  1. Wayfinding: There is no official trail to Reflection Canyon, only social trails worn over time and use. The main social trail is easy enough to follow for the first 5 miles, but when you get to the slick rock portion of the hike, there is no discernible trail. Hikers need to navigate their way toward Reflection Canyon by landmarks and GPS for the rest of the hike. Being relatively inexperienced with this sort of wayfinding, and knowing the high stakes of getting lost in the desert, we felt going with a guide was the safest option.
  2. Water Access: There is no easy water access at Reflection Canyon, so most backpackers will need to plan to carry in all of the water they will need for the entirety of the overnight trip. Not including water used for food, Tim and I each drank 6 liters of water (3 on the way to Reflection Canyon, and 3 the next day on the hike back to the trailhead). Our guides from Dreamland navigated a steep (but relatively less steep) section of the cliffs near Reflection Canyon to get down to water level on Lake Powell and fill up water to be filtered for drinking back at camp.
  3. Vehicle: An AWD vehicle is recommended for Hole-in-the-Rock Road, a rough 40-mile dirt road. Spare your own vehicle and let the Dreamland cars take the beating!
  4. Permits: An overnight permit is required to park at the trailhead during your backpacking trip. These are free and easy enough to get at the Grand Staircase – Escalante Interagency Visitor Center in Escalante, Utah, but it’s nice to have this bit of logistics worked out for you.
  5. Meals: The Dreamland team took care of all of the main meals (breakfasts, lunches, and dinners) so we were only responsible for planning for and packing our snacks.
  6. Backpacking Gear: Dreamland provided gear like a self-standing tent and trekking poles. We brought our own sleeping bags and pads. The Dreamland team also took care of all the cooking supplies.
  7. First Aid: Hiking in the desert is no joke, with many safety risks to watch out for like dehydration, sunstroke, and rattlesnakes, not to mention the usual hiking risks like falling. Dreamland guides are all capable of administering first aid (many of them are on the Search and Rescue team in Kanab).
  8. Satellite Communication: All Dreamland guides carry a satellite GPS device for emergency communication in places where cell phone coverage is non-existent. If you are considering hiking to Reflection Canyon or other backcountry destinations, having your own satellite device like a Garmin InReach is important so you can call for help in an emergency!

Reflection Canyon Need-To-Knows (water, toilets, wayfinding)

  • Water Access: As previously mentioned, you need to carefully plan your water access to hike and backpack Reflection Canyon. Plan to carry at least 7-8 liters per person for an overnight trip (including water for food), and consider caching water along the trail on your way that you can pick up on your hike out so you don’t have to carry it the entire time. Just be sure to label that it’s a water cache and to not remove it. Reminder: 1 liter of water weighs about 2 pounds.
  • WAG Bags: There are no toilets at the trailhead, anywhere on the trail, or at Reflection Canyon itself. This is truly a primitive wilderness. You should bring a WAG Bag and know how to use it. Solid human waste doesn’t decompose well in the desert, so you need to pack it out with you. It’s fine to urine on the sand or rocks, but you should carry out menstrual waste and excrement.
  • Wayfinding: There is no official trail to Reflection Canyon, and while the social trail is easy to follow on the sandy/dirt portion of the hike the first few miles, there is no discernible trail the last 2 miles over the slick rock. Make sure you download the trail map in advance on AllTrails or Gaia. I followed the AllTrails map during our hike and it was accurate.

Getting to the Reflection Canyon Trailhead

The Reflection Canyon Trailhead is an unmarked dirt parking area on Hole-in-the-Rock Road (BLM 200) about 2 hours southeast of the town of Escalante. The GPS coordinates are 37.252146, -110.973501. The road is mostly unpaved, and while the graded road was in decent condition during our drive, it’s still a long 40-mile bumpy journey to the trailhead. If there is any rain in the forecast, don’t risk driving out that way, as flash floods and muddy roads can make travel impossible. And a tow back to town will run you $1000.

In dry conditions, though, you shouldn’t have any issues getting to the trailhead in a high-clearance AWD or 4WD vehicle.

Overnight Parking Permits

To park at the trailhead overnight (and for all overnight stays in the Escalante District of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area), you’ll need to pick up a free backcountry permit from the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center in the town of Escalante. You can do this the day before your trip.

Reflection Canyon Trail Route Details

From the trailhead, you’ll first walk over a small slick rock hill before reaching the sandy dirt social trail. You should be able to easily see where the trail is from here. The path is mostly flat with some ups and downs through various washes. Around the 2-mile mark, you’ll see a water trough for cows. The trail to Reflection Canyon is on Bureau of Land Management land which is permissible for livestock grazing.

Keep the cliffs to your right as you hike. Eventually, at about the 6-mile mark, you’ll arrive at an open area where the trail transitions to slick rock. This is where you’ll want to keep your map and GPS handy on your phone to ensure you stay on track. We found the AllTrails lines to be generally accurate, so if you just follow them you will get there.

Reflection Canyon Trail
Rock formations on the Reflection Canyon Trail

The map below shows the route we took (green line).

Where to Camp at Reflection Canyon

There are many options for camping at Reflection Canyon. Before you get to the viewpoint itself, you’ll pass by a large open area. This is where our group set up camp for the night. The map below shows the general area where we camped. This spot was great because of its spaciousness and the ridge that protected us from the wind.

You can also camp along the rim of Reflection Canyon, directly in front of the iconic viewpoint. However, these sites are tricky to access and don’t leave much room for error if you get out of your tent in the pitch dark of night. I wouldn’t recommend them if you are afraid of heights. Additionally, the wind here can make for a rough night’s sleep.

Even though our campsite didn’t have the “Instagram view” of Reflection Canyon from our tents, we were happy with our location, which was quiet, private, and had plenty of room to spread out.

TIP: Only camp on the hard rock surfaces. Do not camp on the sand and grass patches, as tempting as it may be to have a soft surface. These areas are very fragile and to reduce human impact to the area, it’s important to camp on durable surfaces like the rock!

Water Access at Reflection Canyon

Do not plan for any water sources at Reflection Canyon. While it is possible to lower yourself down to Lake Powell and up again, it’s dangerous and should only be attempted by those with the experience and gear to do so. For this reason, it’s important to carry all of the water you’ll need with you. Tim and I each drank 3 liters of water each way on the hike, and that doesn’t include water that was used in preparing food.

We also used electrolytes in our water to help us stay hydrated. We like DripDrop and Liquid IV brands.

Reflection Canyon Backpacking Gear

🎒Gear:

  • Backpacks with water reservoirs: A backpack with a water reservoir will make it easier to stay hydrated on the trail without having to stop to access your water bottle.
  • Freestanding tent: You need a tent that doesn’t require stakes to stand since you will be camping on a hard rock surface at Reflection Canyon

😴Sleep system:

  • Sleeping bags: Make sure to choose a sleeping bag that’s rated for the temperature range you expect to encounter on your trip.
  • Air pads: An air pad will provide extra insulation and cushioning to help you sleep comfortably.
  • Inflatable pillows: A small inflatable pillow will help you get a better night’s sleep.

🥪For Food:

  • Camping stove: A camping stove is essential for cooking meals on the trail.
  • Gas canister: Make sure to bring enough fuel for your stove.
  • Backpacking meals: Choose lightweight, easy-to-prepare backpacking meals that are high in protein and calories.
  • Electrolyte powder: Electrolyte powder will help you stay hydrated and replace lost electrolytes.
  • PB&Js, trail mix, energy bars
  • Mugs: Mugs will come in handy for hot drinks or soups.
  • Camping dishware: All you really need is a bowl and a spork!

💡For Light and Power:

  • Headlamps: A headlamp is essential for hands-free lighting on the trail and in camp.
  • Solar-powered lantern: A solar-powered lantern will provide ambient light in camp and can be recharged during the day.
  • Charging brick and cords: Bring a charging brick and cords to keep your electronics charged.

👚To Wear:

  • Warm jackets/coats: Bring warm jackets or coats, as temperatures can drop at night.
  • Cold weather wool layers: Wool layers are a great choice for cold weather because they’re warm, breathable, and moisture-wicking.
  • Hiking pants/leggings: Choose lightweight, quick-drying pants or leggings for hiking.
  • Hiking boots: Sturdy hiking boots with good ankle support will help prevent injuries on rocky terrain.
  • Wool socks: Choose wool socks for their moisture-wicking and insulation properties.
  • Hats: Bring a hat to protect your face and head from the sun.
  • Sunglasses: Protect your eyes from the sun’s glare and harmful UV rays.
  • Underwear/bras: Bring enough underwear and bras for the length of your trip.

🪥 Toiletries:

  • Toothbrush/paste: Keeping your teeth clean is important, even while backpacking.
  • Sunscreen: Protect your skin from the sun’s harmful rays with a high-SPF sunscreen
  • Deodorant: Stay fresh on the trail with a natural deodorant.

⛑️ For Safety:

  • InReach Satellite SOS device: This is a must-have item for any backpacking trip. The InReach device allows you to send an SOS message in case of an emergency and can help rescuers locate you quickly.
  • First Aid Kit: Accidents can happen, so make sure to bring a well-stocked first aid kit that includes essentials such as bandages, gauze, antiseptic, and pain relievers.

📸 For Fun:

  • Camera: Capture all the memories of your trip with a high-quality camera such as the Sony a7iii.
  • Lenses: Bring a variety of lenses to capture different types of shots, such as wide-angle or telephoto lenses.
  • Tripod: A sturdy tripod can help you get the perfect shot, especially in low-light conditions.
  • 360 camera: Capture stunning 360-degree photos and videos with a GoPro Max or Insta360.

Photography at Reflection Canyon

Many people backpack Reflection Canyon for the opportunity to photograph it at sunrise and sunset. Here are some tips to keep in mind for getting the shot:

  1. Golden Hours are Key: Sunrise and sunset offer the best lighting conditions for capturing the reflections in the canyon. The warm, soft light enhances the colors and creates a magical atmosphere.
  2. Use a Sturdy Tripod: Given the low light conditions during sunrise and sunset, a stable tripod is crucial for sharp, long-exposure shots. It also allows for precise composition and framing.
  3. Wide-angle Lens for Landscapes: A wide-angle lens (around 16-35mm) is ideal for capturing the expansive beauty of Reflection Canyon. It helps to include as much of the landscape as possible.
Sarah at Reflection Canyon at Sunset

Example Reflection Canyon Photos and Locations

The first thing we did after setting up camp when we arrived at Reflection Canyon was to scope out photography locations and angles. Here are our favorite shots and where we took them. The map below shows all four photo locations so you can see where they each are in relation to one another.

Central Campsite Ledge – Red Star

This photo was taken on the ledges immediately in front of Reflection Canyon. This is one of the most popular places to set up camp because of the excellent view. We came to this location for sunrise and it was incredible! We also got lucky that the sun was coming up right in the center of the view. The only downside of this view is that you aren’t quite high enough to get a full view of the nearest “arm” of the canyon (the finger of land jutting out left to right in front of the red star).

To get to this location, follow the lines on AllTrails exactly. You’ll have to cross over some steep portions of the rocks, but if you have good shoes you should not have any issues gripping on. the rock. Still, it’s a little unnerving, so take your time and use three points of contact.

Knoll Above Campsites – Yellow Star

The spot marked by the yellow star is my favorite view at Reflection Canyon. Before the descent to the campsites, there’s a small rocky knoll overlooking the canyon. With a super wide-angle lens we were able to get this photo of both of us plus all of the land fingers that make up Reflection Canyon. This is the most complete view of the site, in my opinion.

Knoll Across From Campsites – Green Star

As you near Reflection Canyon, if you keep walking straight instead of heading left to the campsites, you’ll come to an uphill climb to a knoll that towers over the canyon, marked by the green star in the map above. This is a great spot to get a different perspective of the canyon from that of the campsites, and you can also see all of the rock formations from this vantage point. The only downside is that we couldn’t find a way to safely get a photo of us plus all of the view in this location. But, if you are going strictly for landscape photos, it’s a great spot!

Depression Between Knolls – Blue Star

This spot marked by the blue star on the map was an unexpected find. We were looking for a location along this side of the canyon where we could photograph both us and the view. Just to the right of the knoll marked by the green star above, there is a small depression with a patch of grass overlooking the two butte-like formations. We set the tripod up on the hill to our left and positioned ourselves just in front of the grassy patch. While not our favorite view, we love this one because it’s unique and we haven’t seen many people photograph this angle.

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Other Points of Interest Near Reflection Canyon

During your drive to and from the Reflection Canyon Trailhead, you’ll be passing or near many other attractions on Hole-In-The-Rock Road. Here are three stops you can add to your Reflection Canyon backpacking trip.

Devils Garden

Located at the beginning of the Hole-in-the-Rock Road, Devils Garden is a natural wonderland of unique sandstone formations. This area is known for its whimsical and intricately eroded rock structures, including towering hoodoos and arches. It’s a fantastic spot for leisurely exploration, with short trails leading visitors among these fascinating geological features.

Devils Garden

Dancehall Rock

Dancehall Rock is an impressive sandstone formation that earned its name from the smooth, flat surface at its summit, which resembles a dance floor. Situated along the Hole-in-the-Rock Road, this geological marvel is a popular spot for hikers and photographers.

Dancehall Rock

Hole-In-The-Rock

Hole-in-the-Rock is a historic site at the end of Hole-in-the-Rock Road, named after the feat of a group of Mormons led by Silas S. Smith in 1879. This site marks the spot where the group, so the story goes, seeking a direct route to the San Juan Mission in southeastern Utah, carved a passage through a narrow crevice in the sandstone cliffs. The resulting gap is known as “Hole-in-the-Rock.” A steep scramble leads down to the water of Lake Powell.

Hole-in-the-Rock

On our Dreamland Safari tour, we stopped at Dancehall Rock on our drive to camp the first night, which was at Hole-In-The-Rock. On our drive back to Escalante after the backpacking trip to Reflection Canyon, we stopped at Devils Garden.

Leave No Trace When Backpacking Reflection Canyon

You should always practice the principles of Leave No Trace when enjoying the outdoors. Read more about these principles and take the free and fun introductory course to Leave No Trace here.

Here are some call-outs on how to responsibly backpack Reflection Canyon with Leave No Trace in mind:

  • Pack it out: This principle emphasizes the importance of carrying out all waste, including human waste, to preserve the natural environment. In the case of Reflection Canyon, which lacks restroom facilities, it’s crucial for backpackers to bring portable waste disposal systems like a WAG Bag (described below) to ensure that no waste is left behind, protecting both the landscape and water quality.
  • WAG Bag: WAG Bags are portable waste disposal systems designed for backpackers. They typically consist of a double-bag system with a waste containment bag and a zip-closure outer bag for hygienic disposal. These are essential for adhering to the “Pack it out” principle, especially in sensitive and remote areas like Reflection Canyon where proper waste disposal facilities are absent.
  • Social trails: Social trails are unofficial, informal paths that develop over time due to repeated use by hikers. In places like Reflection Canyon, where the terrain can be fragile and sensitive, it’s crucial to stick to already-worn trails and routes to prevent further erosion, vegetation damage, and soil compaction. Avoiding the creation of new social trails helps preserve the natural beauty of the area.
  • Campsite location: Selecting an appropriate campsite is a vital aspect of Leave No Trace principles. You should camp only on the hard rock surfaces at Reflection Canyon. The softer grassy patches are tempting, but setting up camp there damages the fragile soil and plant life.
  • Cryptobiotic soil: Cryptobiotic soil is a living crust of lichens, mosses, and microorganisms that play a crucial role in stabilizing soil, preventing erosion, and contributing to overall ecosystem health. In areas like southern Utah, where desert soils are particularly fragile, it’s essential to avoid trampling on cryptobiotic soil. Stepping on it can lead to long-lasting damage, so staying on established trails and campsites is especially crucial. Cryptobiotic soil looks like the black crust of a toasted marshmallow sitting on top of the soil.
Cryptobiotic Soil

Final Thoughts on Backpacking Reflection Canyon

Backpacking to Reflection Canyon is an incredible outdoor adventure to the beauty and solitude of one of nature’s hidden gems. With its towering red rock walls, pristine waterways, and breathtaking sunrises and sunsets, this remote location in southeastern Utah offers a sense of tranquility and awe-inspiring scenery that is unparalleled.

Are you planning a backpacking trip to Reflection Canyon? Let us know!

More Southwest Adventures to Add to Your Reflection Canyon Backpacking Trip:

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