Just twenty miles from Bryce Canyon National Park sits a lesser-known gem named Red Canyon. With a handful of lightly-trafficked trails meandering through a landscape of red sandstone spires and Ponderosa pines, it’s like a mini Bryce without the crowds.
Part of Dixie National Forest1, Red Canyon is just three miles from the western terminus of Scenic Byway 12 (where it intersects Highway 89) and about ten miles from the tiny town of Panguitch. Designated an All-American Road for its natural, cultural, and archaeological significance, Utah’s Scenic Byway 12 winds for 124 miles past the iconic sites of Red Canyon, Bryce and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, eventually heading north toward Capitol Reef National Park.
Though it’s much more modest than its more famous neighbor, Red Canyon offers recreation opportunities for everyone. A small network of walking trails crisscross Red and adjoining Losee and Casto Canyons, offering hikers the chance to explore the many hoodoos and arches. The Thunder Mountain Trail (#33098) is an 8-mile route that is popular with mountain bikers – taking riders to the top of the Claron Formation. The route can also be joined with the paved greenway to form a 15-mile loop. Additionally, the Red Canyon Bicycle Trail (#33016) allows road cyclists to enjoy the canyon via an 8.5-mile paved path that parallels Scenic Byway 12 and traverses part of the canyon to the Paunsaugunt Plateau. Horseback riders can also discover the area via trails around Losee and Casto Canyons, and even ATVs are permitted on the multi-use Casto Canyon OHV Trail (#33089).
We were thrilled to discover Red Canyon as it was both beautiful and somewhere we could hike with Sanchez (as with most national parks, dogs are not allowed in neighboring Bryce). Most of the trails here are pretty short, but it was fun to be able to take her through some of the red rock formations. Red Canyon was also just over an hour from our house in Monroe, so the location was great for us. Over the course of three visits to the canyon, we were able to hike eight of the trails, covering about fifteen miles total. The best part, though, was the solitude we were able to find there.
Golden Wall / Castle Bridge / Buckthorn Loop
Hands down our favorite trails in Red Canyon, the Golden Wall/Buckthorn Loop offers some absolutely stunning views of the area’s celebrated sandstone spires. Beginning from a trailhead just across Scenic Byway 12 from the visitor center, the Golden Wall Trail (#33095) winds through peaceful Ponderosa pine forests and under towering red rock walls and spires.
The day we visited, a fresh snow had just fallen, blanketing the smoldering sandstone with about five inches of fluffy, white powder. With temperatures hovering in the upper 20s, we were the only ones on the trail that afternoon. The snow-covered path was nearly indiscernible and the landscape silent. As we hiked, the only sound we could hear was the snow crunching beneath our boots as we broke trail. Sanchez bounded out ahead of us on her leash, absolutely thrilled with all the unspoiled terrain.
About a half mile into the trail, the path splits – with the Golden Wall Trail continuing straight and the Castle Bridge Trail (#33096) branching off to the left. The Castle Bridge arm ultimately rejoins the Golden Wall Trail after about 0.7 miles, so you could choose to continue on either trail at this junction. Sanchez thought Castle Bridge looked like the most exciting option, so we followed the footsteps of our fuzzy leader.
After rejoining the Golden Wall Trail, the track climbs briefly to the route’s highpoint, an elevation of about 7,900 feet. From this section of trail the views are sweeping, and we found them to be all the more spectacular with the freshly fallen snow.
From the highpoint, the Golden Wall Trail continues for another 1.4 miles before connecting with the Buckhorn Trail (#33037). At the junction, there’s a short, optional spur trail to the west (left), while the main portion of the Buckhorn Trail ultimately returns you to UT-12 after about 1.5 miles, terminating at the Red Canyon Campground. If you opt to hike the full length to the campground, you’ll have to make the half mile return to the Golden Wall Trailhead via the paved bicycle greenway that runs back along Scenic Byway 12.
While this route was spectacular for the views alone, the snow and solitude made it even more special. By the end Stephan and I were both freezing and soaked up to our knees from the calf-deep snow, and the late afternoon sun had all but disappeared behind the hillside, but it was perfect. We’re not sure Sanchez has ever had that much fun on a hike. For a pup that came from the humid highlands of Thailand, this little trailblazer sure does embrace the heck out of some winter weather.
Total distance: 4.4 miles
Elevation gain: 1,030 feet
Losee Canyon & Arches Trail
On the opposite side of Red Canyon and Scenic Byway 12 from Golden Wall, you’ll find the mixed-use trails of Losee (#33090) and Casto (#33089) Canyons. The two trailheads are accessible via Casto Canyon Road, which intersects UT-12 about a mile and a half west of the Red Canyon Visitor Center. With Casto Canyon open to OHVs, we opted to check out presumably quieter Losee Canyon. The small network of trails here (including the Cassidy, Rich and Ledge Point Trails) are permitted for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding, but no motorized vehicles.
The Losee Canyon Trail is three miles long, and can be hiked as a six-mile out-and-back or a longer thru hike terminating at either the Red Canyon Trailhead (about a mile east of the visitor center) or Casto Canyon. After three miles, the Losee Canyon Trail terminates at the junction with the Cassidy Trail (#33093), a route believed to be frequented by Old West outlaw Butch Cassidy. From here, the Cassidy Trail can then be followed for 4.5 miles south to the Red Canyon Trailhead, or 4 miles north where it meets the Casto Canyon Trail.2
After a morning hike in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, we decided to hike Losee Canyon on our way back to Monroe. The trail was pleasant enough, though it was nowhere near as scenic as the Golden Wall Trail. The path follows a wash through soaring sandstone formations and conifer forests; however with virtually no elevation gain, you aren’t afforded much of a view. Over the course of the entire six-mile return trip, there’s a mere five hundred feet of vertical gain.
Hoping for a bit more, we decided to take a quick walk up the mile-long Arches Trail (#33075) after returning to the trailhead. While it’s a super short little jaunt, we had a ton of fun casually exploring the weathered sandstone arches and hoodoos that give the trail its name. Even better, because we’d set out later in the day, the red rocks formations were set ablaze by the sun’s retreating rays.3 While the Arches Trail climbs just a few hundred feet, it’s enough to give a bit of perspective of the fanciful sculptures rising from the surrounding landscape. Importantly, just like with the Golden Wall Trail, we again found ourselves completely alone on the trail and able to enjoy the magic of the canyon in total solitude.
Total distance: 6.9 miles
Elevation gain: 794 feet
Pink Ledges / Hoodoo / Bird’s Eye Loop
Beginning just behind the Red Canyon Visitor Center, this small network of trails was easily our least favorite of the lot. As you’d expect with super short trails, there was significantly more foot traffic here. And unlike our other two outings, it was actually the first time we’d had to share some of Red Canyon’s trails with other people.
Similar to Losee Canyon, we decided to randomly stop here and check out the trails on a day where we’d already hiked elsewhere, but had a couple hours of daylight left that we didn’t want to waste. With that, we linked together the four trails near the visitor center to make a 3-mile loop – the maximum distance you can eke out in this more popular yet pocket-sized section of Red Canyon. Individually the trail lengths here are as follows: Bird’s Eye (#33097) is a 1.8-mile out-and-back, Pink Ledges (#33074) is 0.7-mile loop, the Hoodoo Trail (#33011) is a 0.3-mile loop, and the Photo Trail (#33099) is a 0.2-mile out-and-back.
While none of these trails was particularly noteworthy, there were some soaring spires and hoodoos to enjoy. Unfortunately, though, the paths largely parallel Scenic Byway 12, so the highway is ever-present just below the trails. If you’re looking for a meaningful hike, you can certainly do better than this within the bounds of Red Canyon – and we’d definitely recommend finding an alternative. That said, these trails are all easy walking, so it would be a great place to take young kids to do some shape-spotting amongst the easily-accessible hoodoos.
Total distance: 3.1 miles
Elevation gain: 564 feet
1Because it is part of Dixie National Forest, there is no fee to enter Red Canyon.
2If you’re looking for a decent mountain biking loop, you can begin at the Losee Canyon Trailhead, head south on the Cassidy Trail, then join the paved Red Canyon Bicycle Trail back to Casto Canyon Road to return to the trailhead (12 miles total). Similarly, a northern loop combining the Losee, Cassidy and Casto Canyon Trails (and return via Casto Canyon Road) would total about 13 miles.
3Many of the trails here are short enough that they could be squeezed in after a full day of hiking around some of the larger parks in the area. Not only will this help you maximize your sightseeing/outdoor time, but the late-day light on Red Canyon’s namesake sandstone is gorgeous.