Grand Staircase-Escalante: The Last Best Place

Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante is huge, remote, controversial, and one of the finest destinations for backpackers in the Lower 48.
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Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante is huge, remote, controversial, and one of the finest destinations for backpackers in the Lower 48.

In these parts a trailhead can be an elusive thing, more like a mirage than the traditional wilderness portal with a welcome-mat of a sign announcing "You are here!" to one and all. That's why you check the map a lot, to make sure you're in the right place-or somewhere close. When Drew and I headed south out of Cannonville, Utah, the road was narrow asphalt that dwindled to washboard dirt, then two-track, then anonymous sand wash that made driving risky even to a four-wheel-drive's suspension system. When the road gets to that point, you're probably at a trailhead.

To my way of thinking that's what a trailhead should be-out of the way, not too easy to find, a reward for those willing to go the extra mile. Our destination, the newly designated Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, is similar in character. It's huge, wild, and largely undeveloped, better suited for wildlife and backpackers than for windshield tourists and concessionaires. I remember what Matt How, a seasonal ranger at the visitor center in Escalante, had said: "This is more of a backcountry type of monument. You can drive through and catch some scenery, but if you really want to see the sights, you gotta sweat for 'em."

I'd schlepped down some of the better known canyons in the area, places like the upper Escalante and Coyote Gulch, but I was anxious to see the Grand Staircase-Escalante interior. I'd poked around enough to know it was a geologically spectacular area, a one-time overlap zone between the ancient Fremont and Anasazi native cultures, and that certain canyons are crowded during holiday weekends. But I also knew there were hidden worlds waiting for anyone willing to venture beyond the front country.

After double-checking the map we park above the drainage and sort our loads while the gnats and blackflies feast. Our packs fill quickly, then become ominously heavy once the requisite 2 gallons of water slide into each. There are springs about 10 miles down-canyon, but aside from a handful of perennial streams, water sources are notoriously unreliable. No way we're going to trust them.

We do a last-minute "idiot check." Headlights off, no hissing tires, spare keys accounted for, extra water for the parched return-it's a ritual born of sad experience. This isn't a place where a smiling ranger will happen by and save your butt from the consequences of carelessness. We buckle up and stride off, the blackflies keeping us in quick-step march.

Within half a mile a narrow crack cuts sinuously into the sandstone, incising it as cleanly as a scalpel. We wriggle into the gloomy trench and begin our descent through the narrows of Round Valley Draw, an upper tributary of Hackberry Canyon. We wrestle our packs through tight corridors, breathless but thankful for the cool shade and bugless depths. The narrow hallway winds between 400-foot cliffs, through showers of reflected light.

After an hour of oohs and ahhs we emerge into open, sunlit environs. It's been a rainy spring and the desert wildflowers are responding. Orange globemallow and yellow mule's ears, pink paintbrush and purple larkspur contrast with soaring buttresses of ochre sandstone. Lizard tracks decorate the sand and bunchgrass trembles in the afternoon's blast-furnace wind. We hike into gathering desert heat for 4 hours until the canyon opens wide and Drew yells halt, claiming exhaustion from recent work pressures. I take it as a gift from the trekking gods, since he usually walks my legs off. If the trail is steep I can use my short legs to good advantage, but on flat terrain like this I need binoculars to keep him in sight.

We scramble to an obscure bench high above the wash and roll our sleeping bags out amid yucca, manzanita, and a brilliant sprinkling of violet penstemon. Within minutes my companion is snoring like a hibernating grizzly, oblivious to the insectoid assault. I swat for several minutes, then decide movement is the best defense. Strolling contemplatively down-valley beneath a sky washed in clear afternoon sunlight, it feels good to be free of the weight of my pack. Multi-colored gravel paints the tan streambed with shades of gray, red, black, and the occasional milky quartz. The broad wash is as easy to follow as any well-used trail and as close to one as you're likely to find here. Occasionally you'll encounter old cattle tracks descending from canyon rims or shortcut user paths disappearing into streamside reeds, but typically you travel via washbottom and cliff scramble, abandoned mine road, or intermittent lines of cairns stretching across slickrock. How wilderness should be.

Ebony beetles scuttle across the sand. Arrow-straight yucca stalks, laden with white pods, lance upward from spheres of bayonet-like leaves. Bleached cow bones lie amid the wildflowers. Then the wash narrows into another stone hallway, where a primitive wire fence stretches across the gap. Chevron-patterned tracks show that someone's punched an all-terrain vehicle miles into this wilderness study area. Must have happened in winter, when ranchers use these canyons as cattle range.

The tire treads remind me of the many competing uses this land struggles to accommodate, and the irony that comes with Grand Staircase-Escalante's national monument status. The federal designation could result in more protection and a healthier ecology, or, if the eventual management plan tries to satisfy all parties, it'll merely add increased tourism to existing pressures like grazing, mining, oil drilling, and off-road vehicle (ORV) use. As early as 1936 this huge expanse of sculpted sandstone, throne-like plateaus, and deep river canyons was targeted for national monument status. It took a surprise executive order, signed by President Bill Clinton on September 18, 1996, in the midst of his reelection campaign against Bob Dole, to finally designate the 1.7-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. With an area of 2,933 square miles, it immediately became the largest national monument in the Lower 48. Politically speaking it was a masterstroke for Clinton, who had no chance of carrying ultra-conservative Utah but watched his approval rating soar in a neck-and-neck Arizona race.

Even to an unapologetic southern Utah preservationist like myself, the new monument was akin to a spaceship landing in the backyard. Suddenly there was this huge thing outside my door (30 miles south, actually) and everybody was hollering, but no one knew what to make of it. Even now, more than a year after its designation, nobody knows what Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument means.

Part of the confusion is due to the fact that Grand Staircase-Escalante is a whole new federal animal. While other national monuments are administered by the National Park Service, this one will be overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, traditionally a multiple-use agency. Activities like logging, hunting, fishing, and roadside tourism will be allowed to some degree, with levels to be determined after a three-year public input process that's likely to run well beyond deadline.

Two of the most controversial matters will no doubt be mining and oil drilling. Although President Clinton's executive order forbids new mine claims and oil leases, it allows existing ones. Even so, in the face of increased operating restrictions, Dutch-based Andalex Resources gave up on plans for a massive coal mine four months after the monument's designation. Conoco Oil, on the other hand, had geosurvey markers on the ground within three weeks, and is drilling some 14,000 feet into a plateau where oil has not been found previously. In response to this new pressure, The Wilderness Society has already placed Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument on its list of 10 Most Endangered Wildlands.

Then there's the matter of grazing and water rights. The canyons here make convenient cattle pens and cows love to stand in water, all the while hammering the vegetation and degrading streambeds until what little water there is simply sinks out of sight. Add to this the fact that the haphazard patchwork of western water law makes it nigh-on impossible to leave water in a stream, and you've got a huge mess. Conservation water rights were left out of Grand Staircase-Escalante's designation in order to avoid intense legal wrangling.

All these competing issues seem distant while you're sitting on a sandstone bench watching the desert world go by, but they may greatly affect this monumental land. The hasty, politically motivated creation of Grand Staircase-Escalante may, or may not, turn out to be a wilderness victory, but it clearly illustrates one thing: Here on the cusp of the twenty-first century, there is more to preserving wild lands than simply signing a piece of paper. I climb toward the canyon rim for a better view, stair-stepping along small erosion rivulets, the better to avoid black, wrinkly fields of cryptobiotic soil on either side. "Cryptogam," as it's more often called, is a vital but easily destroyed erosion anchor and nitrogen fixer for these thin desert soils. This picturesque blend of lichen, algae, and fungi is held together with fragile but sticky threads of cyanobacteria. Bootprints tear it apart, and the visible effects remain for years, even decades.

As I gain elevation I'm struck yet again by the haunting beauty of this land. Rounded domes patterned with honeycomb cracks mound off into the distance like piled tortoise shells. The sandy wash sweeps in graceful S-curves between overlapping buttresses. Expansive sandstone aprons climb toward the sun.

From up high something else becomes obvious: This place is big. It encompasses all the undeveloped land from Capitol Reef National Park on the north, to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area on the east, to Bryce Canyon National Park on the west, forming the core to one of the Lower 48's largest protected wildlands. Included within its boundaries are the upper Escalante River and its remote eastern tributaries, the vast and contorted Burr Trail country, the huge and austere Kaiparowits Plateau, and the slot canyons of the Paria River region.

I plop down against an overhanging cliff band to watch as shadows sundial their way across the clean-fractured panels of varnished sandstone. Older rocks here were originally laid down as ocean- and lake-bottom sediments, while the upper layers were deposited as arid dunes. Over the ages, water seeping into salt domes far below created a hydraulic swelling that gradually raised these uniform deposits far above sea level in a layer-cake arrangement now called the Colorado Plateau. As the country rose slowly, the rivers and creeks cut gradually downward, creating the scenic canyons that continue to attract, impress, and bedevil wilderness travelers.

Dominican friars Francisco Dominguez and Silvestre de Escalante were the first white men to experience the difficulties of traveling this maze-like topography, when in 1776 they found themselves continually "cliffed out." Almost a century later in 1872, Grand Canyon explorer John Wesley Powell's brother-in-law, Almon Thompson, got lost along a river he named the Escalante after the Dominican friar-explorer. During the same expedition, Powell noted that the Colorado Plateau's layers all tilted upward to the southwest, ending in a series of south-facing cliffs that descended in orderly fashion from central Utah to the depths of the Grand Canyon. He called it "the Grand Staircase." Together, these explorers bequeathed our new national monument its rather cumbersome name and began a long-standing tradition of getting lost in canyon country.

Fifty years ago this country was the most remote region in the continental United States. The town of Boulder, Utah, received its mail via mule train until the 1950s, and asphalt didn't arrive in the region until the 1970s. Since then a lot has changed. "In March of 1996 our visitation doubled," Escalante Area Manager Greg Christiansen told me when I asked about the effects of the new designation. "Then in April it went down quite a bit, to about a 15 or 20 percent increase over last year. Popular day sites like Calf Creek and the slot canyons along Hole-in-the-Rock Road are still up by around 25 to 30 percent."

Given the rush of visitors, it's easy to wonder whether backcountry overnight fees will be instituted, as they have already been in the popular Paria drainage. "We don't want to impose backcountry regulations," one ranger told me, "but in the end that'll depend on visitor behavior. If we keep getting complaints about poor sanitation, illegal campfires, and uncontrolled dogs, then we'll have to restrict use to protect the resource."

Wilderness is about freedom, but wilderness freedom has always involved a thorny choice: responsibility or degradation. Fading sunlight reminds me I'm a long way from camp, so I descend to a ledge beneath the canyon wall and head back up valley. Eventually I spot Drew reading on our campsite ledge, which projects pulpit-like over the canyon. The contrast of tiny human, huge cliffs, and descending dusk emphasize the wildness and isolation of this place.

The bugs retire with the coming of darkness. No sign of rain so our tarp becomes a ground cloth. Gentle evening breezes carry the sensual aroma of wildflowers, and cool winds raise goosebumps on my sunburned skin. Drew and I while away the starlit hours with dinner and conversation, while a slender crescent moon floats low over the horizon. Perfect temperatures and the matchless peace of a summer night-just what a wilderness campsite should be.

Dawn arrives in a show of pastel colors that emphasize the distance surrounding us. We wake slowly over coffee until the gnats rev up, forcing us onto the trail again. Leaving our packs, we hike further down Hackberry Canyon, slogging along on oven-hot sand that occasionally gives way to blessed shade in what Drew calls "the cool blue corners of the canyon."

Yielding to exploratory impulse, we take the third interesting tributary that presents itself. The loveliness of the smaller defile is tempered by loose, deep sand. Progress is slow and legs churn like steamboat paddlewheels, until we round a corner and find ourselves blocked by a 20-foot "pourover" cliff of smoothly sculpted sandstone. Drew makes a high grab and pulls up onto easier ground, but somehow I can't manage the chest-high step while spread-eagled against the cliff. Normally we'd be carrying a short rope to help with such obstacles, but this was unanticipated, so I find myself unprepared for the task at hand.

"Screw it," I exclaim after plopping on to the sand once again. "Three strikes, I'm out."

"I'll be back," Drew chuckles with a Schwarzenegger accent.

He scouts ahead while I wait in the shade, enchanted by the penny-whistle trill of canyon wrens. A raven soars on warm updrafts that rise along the sun-heated cliffs. The coal-black specter coasts along the panels, the high solar angle turning the bird's shadow into a long-winged sailplane, tilted vertically on the wall beneath.

Ten minutes later Drew returns, having encountered his own dead end. "No can do," he reports, "but there are parallel grooves in the lip that look like someone's pulled down a rappel rope. We could get into it from the top."

We consult our map and mark the quad with arcane symbols of recreational promise to come. Like many potential adventures in Grand Staircase-Escalante, this canyon has no name to make it easy to tag, no guidebook to hand-hold you. It's available for the taking, but only for those willing to burn calories and make mistakes getting here. Another hidden world.

We head back to retrieve our packs. The world again narrows focus to a crunchy treadway of swinging boots, colored pebbles, and the musical clatter of zipper pulls clicking in time to our stride. Drew's long legs fly up canyon while I stump along. Every now and then we collapse in a shady patch. At least our loads are lighter, since we're almost out of water. We haven't encountered a drop.

Soon enough we return to the shaded depths of Round Valley Draw. The temperature drops, the gnats give up and the sweat cools our bodies. Despite climbing rather than descending, the scrambles seem easier and muscles more limber, having briefly shed the stiffness and sloth of civilization. A bit farther on we spot flashes of truck chrome glinting through the junipers above the wash.

The tailgate opens, the packs are dumped, and we unearth two of the hottest beer bottles I've ever held. Foam pours out like champagne as we crack the tops. We look at each other, smile, and raise a toast to the beauty, and the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante. There are challenges ahead, but right now it's an altogether fitting monument to wild country, wild animals, backcountry solitude, and wilderness adventure-just the way it should be.

Expedition Planner:

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

When to go: April and May are most crowded. Wildflowers typically peak in May or early June. Midsummer temperatures can exceed 105°F, but September and October bring cool weather, golden cottonwoods, and another wave of visitors. Weather fluctuates wildly in spring and autumn. Winter can be one of the finest times to visit, but days are short, nights are windy, and you risk being stranded on back roads by snowstorms or mud.

Getting there: The main airports are in Salt Lake City and St. George, Utah, and Las Vegas, Nevada. Salt Lake and Vegas are about 6 hours' drive from the monument, while St. George is 2 to 3, with hotels, groceries, and outdoor supplies near the airport. Rent 4WDs early, since they are at a premium during high visitation seasons. Maps, information, and groceries are available in Panguitch, Escalante, and Kanab.

Driving: Take ample food and water for two or three days beyond your trail travels. Rain turns the roads to grease, and they become extremely dangerous on grades and exposed turns. For extended visits take a second spare tire. A map and compass are handy for navigating the back roads and are a necessity in the canyons.

On foot: You'll want solid backpacking boots to handle scree and scrambling and short gaiters to keep sand out. Tennis shoes or sport sandals are handy for wet, stream-bottom hikes and to reduce compaction in camp. Don't overestimate your hiking speed. With a loaded pack you might do 10 miles a day on good wash, or 3 miles when scrambling. Many people travel tentless but a tarp is advisable. Take a lightweight climbing rope, perhaps 80 feet of 8 millimeter, if you plan on scrambling or pack-hauling. Trekking poles help on steep, unstable terrain. Black flies can be nasty in spring, and gnats are a problem in summer.

Track your progress closely with map and compass because pinpointing location in canyons is difficult once you've lost a point of reference. Many trips work best as one-way hike-thrus, with a car shuttle for the return. Contact monument officials for a list of permitted guide and shuttle services.

Hazards: Unless you're in a creekbed canyon, water is the major concern. Treat everything you find, and carry iodine tablets as a backup, since silt-laden desert water plugs filters quickly. Two gallons per day, per person is a rule of thumb in hot weather. Use caution when scrambling. The rock is unreliable, particularly after rain. Keep a close eye on weather and camp above high water marks to avoid the rare flash floods in narrow canyons. Rattlesnakes and scorpions are present but seldom a problem. Desert bees are strongly attracted to sweat and water. Take a sting kit if you're allergic.

Permits: Stop by a BLM office to obtain information, register your itinerary in case of mishap, and obtain a free permit. Offices are located in: Escalante (755 W. Main St., P.O. Box 225, Escalante, UT 84726; 801-826-5499), and Kanab (318 North 100 East, Kanab, UT 84741; 801-644-2672). Another office is being established in Boulder.

Regulations: Fires are prohibited. Vehicles must stay on existing roads, and car camping is restricted to established sites. Collecting plants, rocks, fossils, animals, or Native American artifacts is prohibited. Groups of eight or less are preferred; maximum group size is 12. The BLM strongly recommends leaving dogs at home.

Leave No Trace: Travel as much as possible on rocks and sand, avoiding vegetated areas and the black, wrinkly cryptobiotic soil. When traveling in streambeds, walk in water or sand where high flows will remove evidence of your passing.

  • Camp on sand or flat slickrock benches. In stream canyons, camp well above the wash bottom to minimize disturbance to stream banks and other groups.
  • Bury human waste 6 to 8 inches deep, 100 feet or more from water or streams. Toilet paper should be burned (carefully, to avoid brush fires), or packed out. Urinate on bare rock or sand, not vegetation.
  • Avoid camping near isolated waterholes in dry regions, since wildlife need access.
  • Camp and travel quietly. Noises carry far in echoing canyons and open country.
  • Bury pet waste in same fashion as human waste (see above). Dogs should be kept away from waterholes and cryptobiotic soils.
  • For detailed information on low-impact desert camping and travel techniques, contact the Leave No Trace hotline at (800) 332-4100.