Grand Entrance on the Grand Staircase

Four ways to explore Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in style.

Ashley Sanders Sep 19, 2018

This article was originally published in the September/October 2015 issue of Community magazine.

When the federal government christened Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996, they could have taken a cue from the landscape and added a few more superlatives, naming it the Tallest, Best Staircase National Monument of All Time.

After all, the Grand Staircase area is superlative country: The largest exposure of cross-bedded sandstone surrounded by the highest forested plateau next to the most remote town in North America, in what used to be the largest sand desert in earth’s history. Here, you can ride impossible roads over unthinkable terrain and discover canyons that haven’t seen a human in hundreds of years. 

You can follow the course of an unlikely river, the Paria, as it carves its way through the Paunsaugunt Plateau until it heaves itself, exhausted, into the mighty Colorado. And, walking the desiccated canyons left in its wake, you can find traces of both ancient and contemporary peoples who left the art of their survival on the landscape, from Pueblo rock art to pioneer roads cut into solid rock.

calf creek gorge rock formation in southern utah
Calf Creek Gorge - Photo by Kevin Kiernan

What you might not find, however, is the staircase itself. That’s because — true to its name and the country around it — it is both too grand and too vast to be contained by the curvature of earth. It is a staircase made for giants traveling epic stretches of time, rising up from the bottom of the Grand Canyon and stepping toward the sky until it reaches the balcony of the earth in Bryce Canyon. Its risers are cliffs that come in riots of color, from the Chocolate Cliffs down south to the Vermillion, White, Gray and Pink Cliffs that shoulder up against the airy deep. Its treads represent eons of time in rocks left almost entirely undisturbed by the chaos and cataclysms of geologic upheaval.

Divided into three distinct sections: the Grand Staircase, the Kaiparowits Plateau, and the Canyons of the Escalante, it’s a land that makes a person mix her metaphors. Some call the staircase a cake, its frosty pastel layers studded with sprinkles of fossil, tooth and bone, a wide bowl of Neapolitan desert dessert. Others have called it a library, with volumes of rock in precise chronological order, a well-kept archive of prehistoric dramas.

Whatever you call it, though, it will call to you, beckoning you to explore its hidden cottonwoods, its shaded alcoves, its weeping seeps. And with about 1.8 million miles to explore, you will need a guide. Don’t fret, astonished traveler! We’ve walked these stairs and culled our lists. Below you’ll find four ways you can make a grand entrance, whether you come from the Kanab/Big Water area on remote Highway 89 or on the equally primitive Highway 12 from the Escalante/Boulder area. And don’t be looking for some sort of marble monument, because there isn’t one.

Hell's Backbone Road

If you want to hike the slots and hollows of the lower canyons, you’ll want to arrive in style, and there’s no better way to do that than on Hell’s Backbone Road, a 38-mile stretch of Highway 12 between the towns of Boulder and Escalante that more than earns its devilish name.

Completed in 1933 by the dauntless Civilian Conservation Corps, the road careens down steep grades and around hairpin turns as the earth falls away around it, with 1,900-foot drops on either side to the Death Hollow wilderness below. Shore up the last of your chutzpah for the 109-foot clatter over the wooden bridge of the same name, and then rest on your laurels while updating your bucket list. And remember — a picture is worth a thousand heart palpitations!

mountainous are in southern utah wilderness
Calf Creek from Hell's Backbone Road - Photo by Kevin Kiernan

Petrified Forest State Park

If the Martian landscape is not bizarre enough for your tastes, head to the Petrified Forest State Park on the west edge of the town of Escalante, where nothing is as it seems. Here, ancient forests once buried in elemental muck have literally turned to stone, and visitors can walk a mile-long loop over eerie lava flows through a veritable bone yard of trees. The Fremont Indians described this region as a land of sleeping rainbows, and on the three-quarter-mile extension to the loop you can scramble over boulders and see just what they meant: Rather than turning a marbled white, the trees have ossified in Technicolor, and the ground looks almost littered with prisms. When you’re done clambering rocks, finish the day with a dip in the cool waters of nearby Wide Hollow Reservoir.

The Gulches

Even in a land laden with superlatives, the gulches of the Grand Staircase take the prize. The path into Buckskin Gulch — the longest and deepest of any slot canyon in the Southwest — is both real and surreal at once. Surrounded by vaulting 400-foot cliffs and sandstone walls smoothed by water and barely wider than a body, a person can walk 20 miles without seeing anything but the next five feet of labyrinth.

Coyote Gulch, wider and more conducive to casual adventure, boasts yawning alcoves and sandy beaches, with tinkling springs seeping out of red stone in small oases throughout. Hikers can wade (and, depending on the water levels, even swim) through narrow sections or in pools tucked away inside canyons. You can access Buckskin Gulch from the Paria Canyon turnoff on Highway 89, while Coyote Gulch can be accessed from the 40-mile Bench turnoff on Hole-in-the-Rock Road.

Grosvenor Arch

On your way out of the monument, head down Highway 12 south of Cannonville to snag at least one arch sighting, or — since Grosvenor is a rare double arch — make that two. Its two openings perfectly frame an azure Utah sky and compose a perfect memory on the last stop of a perfect weekend.

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