Utah’s Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument encompasses 1.9 million acres of spectacular wilderness. The vast and varied landscape offers unparalleled opportunities for scientists and visitors alike to experience the effects of millions of years of geological history. Reaching from the town of Escalante at the northeast end to Kanab in the southwest, the monument covers an area roughly the size of Delaware and was the last region in America to be explored. Grand Staircase Escalante is the first national monument managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) instead of the National Park Service (NPS).
Sixty million years ago most of southwestern Utah was covered by lakes, and over eons the lake sediment hardened into rock. The ‘staircase’ was formed when the area now known as the Colorado plateau lifted, causing the layers of sedimentary rock below to fan out. The exposed layers revealed a four-billion-year timeline of geological history; the lower, chocolate steps are located to the south in the Grand Canyon region, while the upper, geologically youngest layer makes up the pink cliffs of the Grand Staircase to the north. Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument is divided into three topographically-distinct regions: the cliffs of Grand Staircase; the central, fossil-rich Kaiparowits Plateau; and the dramatic Escalante Canyons.
Climate and Geography
Grand Staircase Escalante is comprised of remote, rugged landscape and contains nearly double the total combined acreage of all of Utah’s national parks. The two major rivers in the region are the Paria and the Escalante. Explorers should be aware of environmental threats such as extreme temperatures, sudden storms, flash floods, deep water in slot canyons, quicksand, slick rock, and steep cliffs.
The fauna and flora found in Grand Staircase Escalante is as varied as the landscape. The 1.9 million acres are home to 200 species of birds, including the endangered (and rarely sighted) Bald Eagle and Peregrine Falcon; nearly 60 species of mammals; dozens of reptiles and amphibians; and several types of fish. Fremont Cottonwood trees thrive in the moist soil of the Escalante River Canyon area, while pinion pine, juniper, and sagebrush are common in the Grand Staircase region. Utah’s state flower, the Sego Lily, can be found throughout the monument boundaries.
Camping, hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, off-roading, and photography are popular activities. Visitor centers are located in Kanab, Escalante, Cannonville, Paria, and Anasazi State Park. Visitors must keep in mind that this is mostly undeveloped territory, and the BLM recommends camping only in established campgrounds. There are no facilities, so campers are responsible for properly disposing of waste and litter.
Most hiking routes are not well marked, although there are several oft-used and well-worn paths. Lower Calf Creek Falls is a moderate-to-difficult 5.5-mile round trip hike along a developed trail, and there are several major trailheads with access to the Escalante River. Challenging hikes through the cliffs and slot canyons include Death Hollow, The Gulch, and Twenty-mile Wash. Backcountry hikers are required to obtain permits for overnight hikes at Escalante Interagency Visitor Center.
Some of the more accessible areas for day-trippers are the Devil’s Garden Natural Area and Grosvenor Arch. Vehicles can tour Utah Scenic Byway 12 or U.S. Route 89 for magnificent, changing vistas. There are also a number of partially-paved or dirt and gravel roads, including Hole-in-the-Rock Road, Cottonwood Canyon Road, Johnson Canyon/Skutumpah Road, Pahreah Townsite Road, and Burr Trail. Top sites in the monument and surrounding region include Calf Creek Falls, Canyons of the Escalante, Burr Trail, Anasazi Indian State Park, Escalante State Park, Johnson Canyon, Bull Valley Gorge, Grosvenor Arch, Kodachrome Basin State Park, and Bryce Canyon National Park.
The earliest humans known to occupy the area were the Basketmaker people and the Anasazi Indians, beginning around 500 A.D. The Fremont, Hopi, and Paiute also briefly occupied the area. The Escalante River Canyons presented a barrier to exploration until the Powell expeditions in the mid-1800s. In 1941 the NPS began studying the Escalante River area, the last in America to be discovered and mapped. The region was declared a national monument in 1996, under executive order by President Bill Clinton.