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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.

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.

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