Cosmic Ashtray (The Volcano): A strange landscape in the Utah desert
The hike to Cosmic Ashtray (or The Volcano) will immerse you in the rocky plains of Utah, not far from Escalante. Located near the Hole in the Rock road, you can discover this fascinating rock formation filled with immaculate orange sand after a few hours of walking.
In this article we will give you all the information you need to get to this still little-known curiosity of the American Southwest, which you will have to reach by foot and equipped with a GPS because the trail is neither marked nor indicated on the maps.
1How to get to Cosmic Ashtray?
You will first have to go to Escalante. This town is well known by western landscape lovers, because it is first of all one of the few towns crossed by Scenic Road 12, and it is then a town where it is good to make a stop, spend the night, but it is also the crossroads of many curiosities such as Grand Staircase, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, Lake Powell, or the Hole in the Rock Road located in the immediate vicinity.
There are three options for getting to Cosmic Ashtray.
- The first is the "main" access we have taken, which leads to a small car parking lot from which a 10 to 12 km round trip hike will allow you to reach the famous Cosmic Ashtray.
- A second option is to reach the Cosmic Ashtray by foot via the Red Breaks canyons. This option has the advantage of making you a large and interesting loop, crossing beautiful slots canyons, rather than a simple round trip. But this hike will be longer and more strenuous. Two accesses are possible for this large loop. A west access or a south access.
- The third option (which we only saw on site without testing it), is the possibility of approaching only 1 km (0.6 mile) from the Cosmic Ashtray from the south-east, but for that, it will be necessary to be equipped with a good 4WD.
Before you leave, make sure you have at least an SUV, because some parts of the route leading to the departure of the hike can be complex to cross with a touring car. We therefore advise you not to go there with a classic ca..
Main access - 28 km (17.3 miles) from Escalante
From Escalante, head southeast toward Boulder on Highway 12. After 17 km (10.5 miles), at the beginning of the descent to the Escalante River Valley, turn right onto Old Sheffield Road (which you will find as Spencer Flat Road on Google map).
Follow this path to GPS point 37.7129326,-111.3732982. At this intersection, continue straight ahead to reach the improvised car parking lot at the following coordinates: 37.7103407,-111.3576331. This is the green line on the map at the bottom of the article.
Secondary access via Red Breaks West - 31 km (19 miles) from Escalante
If you prefer to spend the full day on site and combine the discovery of the Cosmic Ashtray with the Red Breaks canyons, you will have to continue the Old Sheffield Road to the end (37.6800761,-111.3739406) and continue by foot from this point. This is the orange line on the map at the bottom of the article.
Secondary access via Red Breaks South - 35 km (21 miles) from Escalante
You can also start the hike via the Red Breaks from the south along the Hole in the Rock Road and then Harris Washington Road. The car parking lot is located just before the ford, at GPS point 37.634020, -111.341272. This is the red line on the map at the bottom of the item.
If you are interested in this option, you can read this article by Pete Ferranti with some very nice pictures.
Direct access via the south-east
If you wish to avoid walking and are equipped with a good 4WD, you can try to continue the previous route by crossing the ford until you get close enough to Cosmic Ashtray at GPS point 37.681697, -111.302361. You will then have 1 km (0.6 mile) to reach by foot the rock formation by using a GPS. This is the purple dotted line on the map at the bottom of the article.
We have not tested this track so we cannot estimate its difficulty, but satellite views seem to indicate the presence of sand (beware of deep sand in dry weather). Finally, crossing the ford could be a major difficulty if the water level is high. The ford also seems sandy, be careful not to get stuck.
2The hike to Cosmic Ashtray
We will detail here the hike that starts from the main access, as it is the only one we have done. Before you start, you will have to prepare your route carefully because no indication, except the clues that your GPS will give you, will help you to reach the goal. Don't look for a cellular network on site, there is no.
You will therefore need to have prepared your hike before leaving Escalante. It is quite common for Escalante's Search and Rescue team to have to help those who take the preparation of this walk too lightly, and get lost along the way.
You will soon realize that the surroundings are rather uniform and the topology rather misleading. Despite our preparation and all our data entered in the GPS, it took us about twenty minutes to find the Cosmic Ashtray. That is to say if it is not easy to find in spite of its size!
To help you, you can rely on our GPS track. It is not the best, but the one we have made, going straight to the point. You will also find GPS points in the small map at the end of the article.
- Our GPS track on the way (GPX format) going as straight as possible and undergoing the topology of the terrain
- Our GPS track on the way back (GPX format) by bypassing the reliefs near the Cosmic Ashtray to avoid going up and down too much
It takes about 5 km (3 miles) as the crow flies to reach Cosmic Ashtray from the parking lot, but you should plan a little more by foot. In the light of our GPS track, we covered exactly 5.79 km (3.6 miles) in 1h38 and 6.24 km (3.8 miles) in 1h36 on the way back. But we are not an example because during our preparation, we only used Google Earth to evaluate the relief and thus optimize the path of the hike. Unfortunately, the software is not precise enough and we had to go up and down when we thought it was rather flat.
On this map, we have indicated in green the route we have followed on the way, and in red the one we recommend for those who prefer to avoid the topology of the terrain and stay as much as possible on the same gradient lines. However this second route will be easier but longer. It's up to you to see what you like best.
Our advice to follow the route
The progression during the first hectometers is done in soft and unpleasant sand. But soon enough you will have to leave this sandy path to turn towards Cosmic Ashtray. Be careful, do not be tempted to follow this sand path until the end, you will only move away from your destination.
The sand quickly gives way to the "mesa", a large rocky and hilly area that can become strenuous during hot weather because it is completely devoid of shade and wetlands. Under your feet will follow one another "brain-rocks", rock with forms reminiscent of the naked brain (yum), small sandy areas where find refuge the few plants that try to survive in this hostile environment and some crevasses that it will be necessary to bypass. The altitude difference is small but under a blazing sun, it can become quite quickly exhausting after several kilometers.
On several times we saw small cairns along the trail that indicated that we were on the right track. However they are not positioned on the whole course, this trail being rather little frequented and not maintained. We followed the cairns as soon as we saw them, taking care not to deviate too much from the target. As soon as the cairns disappeared, we continued using our GPS (Galileo Pro mobile application).
Remember to have enough battery to be able to use your GPS on the outward and return trip.
Never lose your course, but you can make exception to approximately 1 kilometer of Cosmic Ashtray: in front of you will stand a small valley which it will be necessary to cross and which would be likely to tire you. To avoid this expenditure of energy, we advise you to go on the left to pass behind the small rocky peaks on your left, and allowing you to reach the Cosmic Ashtray by its lowest access point (blue trail below), but it will not be the most impressive.
If for you the descent and the ascent is fun, then you can choose the option I tried, namely climb straight up towards Cosmic Ashtray. Thus you will reach it from above, which is the most impressive view to discover it.
All along the route and especially in the last rocky areas near Cosmic Ashtray, be attentive to the subtleties of the rocks which offer very pretty shapes, colors and layers!
Whatever route you choose to reach the Cosmic Ashtray, don't hesitate to discover it from every angle, especially from above. The views are really different and all as incredible as each other.
Finally, expect to have to find the Cosmic Ashtray on the last meters, the ground being very uneven with many successive climbs. You will be tempted to go all the way to the top of the back "hill" to find it, but in reality the Cosmic Ashtray is a little below, so there is no point in aiming for the top. The best thing is to try to zoom in as much on your GPS as possible to make sure you're going in the right direction.
3The discovery of Cosmic Ashtray
Here we are, in front of this UFO, as if we had come from space and were sitting there in the middle of the Utah desert. Depending on the access you have chosen, you may discover it like us from above. It's from here that he's most impressive!
From the top, to the northwest for a panoramic view
In front of us stands this kind of ashtray, one side of which is a large wall that protects it from the outside. In the middle of the basin is a piece of rounded rock. He seems to be sitting in this basket filled with sand, a sand whose orange hue is absolutely magnificent!
But where did this sand come from! What a brilliant color when nothing seems orange nearby! This sand seems to have been brought straight from space. Finally, it bears its name well this "Cosmic Ashtray"!
What also surprised us was its size. On the pictures we had seen before our departure, it didn't seem so big. But finally it's really impressive! To find out, try to find Flo, the tiny blue dot on the picture above. You will then take the full measure of the monument!
From above, you will have to turn back a bit to go down and get as close as possible to Cosmic Ashtray. Avoid bypassing the large wall of its southeast face, Flo has tested and almost fell as the wall is steep. Go around it to the north, going down slightly on the other side of its northwest wall.
From the north, as close as possible to Cosmic Ashtray
If you have followed our blue path, it is probably from here that you will discover the Cosmic Ashtray. The discovery is less impressive when seen from the bottom, but it is no less interesting. Here it is the orange color of the sand that will fill your eyes (literally as well as figuratively during our passage)!
A small slope brings us to the edge of the strange formation and here we are in front of this wonder of nature, facing an immaculate sand. One can only stop and admire this so beautiful sculpture whose orange sand is a wonder in itself.
The more sporty can use the few steps carved into the rock to descend to the bottom of the ashtray and tread the perfectly smooth sand to leave their footprints there.
From the inside, this new angle allows us to discover different colours and shapes! Do not hesitate to go down there if you think of course to be able to go up because the steps are very steep and not obvious to take.
4Some useful tips
When to come to Cosmic Ashtray?
Hiking to Cosmic Ashtray is possible all year round, but note that the weather conditions will make your progress more or less difficult.
We did the hike in mid-October. The temperatures were cool enough in the morning but ideal not to suffer from dehydration. On the other hand we had a lot of wind, especially near the Cosmic Ashtray, which made the photos almost impossible for fear of having a grain of sand in the camera, the wind making the sand twirl quite far from the "crater". It is this wind which is at the origin of the particular shape of the ashtray and is also at the origin of the presence of sand within it. Usually the wind rushes northeast, swirling and spiralling the Cosmic Ashtray, before coming out to the opposite in height, preventing the sand from escaping.
During the hottest months, remember to take a lot of water with you because there is no water or shade (except in the ashtray) on the entire trail, except for a few small shrubs to protect you not far from the parking and therefore not very useful.
Also avoid doing this hike in the middle of the afternoon during the summer, as the heat can be unbearable. Prefer the cool morning or evenings, keeping in mind that you will need about 1h40 to go and return, the times being quite similar, not less than 4h00 minimum time to enjoy on site.
Where to sleep near Cosmic Ashtray?
It is possible to make overnight stays in the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. Camping is free of charge but it is necessary to obtain a free permit from one of the 4 Visitor Centers around the area (Kanab, Escalante, Cannonville or Big Water). This process is essential to organize emergency assistance in the event of a problem (floods, impassable roads, etc.).
You will easily find small camping spots, usually equipped with a small fireplace on the roadsides. The area is famous for backcountry camping and many places have been developed by campers over the years.
Feel free to take adjacent routes for more peaceful. For example, the next day we discovered a great camping spot near the Hole in the Rock road after only 300 meters on an adjacent road. It was a perfect place to spend the night!
If you prefer a campsite with sanitary facilities, we have seen one in Escalante Outfitters which offers some campsites next to the cabins (see below).
In cabins or at the hotel
Escalante is the ideal city to settle down a few nights in the corner as there are so many things to do! In Escalante you will find some individual rooms and cabins. We tested the rental of a small cabin at Escalante Outfitters for an unexpected last minute night following the puncture of our air mattress, which helped us out especially as a strong gust of wind shook the area during the night!
Escalante Outfitters offers small cabins for 2 to 4 people. Some chalets are equipped with bunk beds, others with double beds. The room is really tiny and rather simple. The shower is taken in a common building, not mixed, located in the immediate vicinity of the cabins. There is not too much privacy (American style!) but it was clean and well equipped. The managers also have a small adjoining pizza restaurant, very practical and tasty. These small cabins will be suitable for small budgets or friends travelling together.