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December 1997

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.

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.
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