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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.

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.

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