Anyone who’s stood at a Grand Canyon National Park overlook knows this natural wonder can appear inconceivably huge. But from the remote wilderness perch where I’m sitting, it’s even bigger.
High atop 7,866-foot Mt. Logan in northwestern Arizona, I lean back on my elbows and gaze at the most spectacular Grand Canyon panorama I’ve ever seen. Spreading out before me in kaleidoscopic relief is not only the massive canyon, but also its sister region, the Shivwits Plateau, a place 19th-century cowboys called the “high, wide, and lonesome” country.
To the south, the plateau drops off into the broad, snaking chasm of the western Grand Canyon. I look down and wonder if rafters are running Lava Falls. Far on the western horizon, the Shivwits fades into the starkly eroded Grand Wash Cliffs. Between here and there, the plateau is cut by Parashant Canyon and other little-explored drainages that flow into the Grand Canyon. To the north are the Virgin Mountains and vast tablelands that gave the Shivwits its “high, wide” reputation. From this perch, I can see the entire Grand Canyon ecosystem, 150 miles’ worth, the whole enchilada. And much to the delight of scientists, environmentalists, and vista mongers like me, that enchilada is now protected.
On January 11, 2000, President Bill Clinton established the 1.1-million-acre Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument. The move, as Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt put it at the dedication ceremony, “writes the full and final chapter in the history of preserving the canyon.” Encompassing spectacular viewing points from the north rim of the Grand Canyon as well as watersheds crucial to the health of the Colorado River, the vast monument protects much of the Shivwits Plateau and doubles the amount of Grand Canyon land protected under the National Parks and Monuments system. The Grand Canyon-Parashant abuts Grand Canyon National Park’s northern boundary and extends west to the Nevada border. Within the massive preserve are a variety of landscapes, from forested mountains to plateau grasslands to slickrock slot canyons.
Protection of the Grand Canyon itself began in 1908 when President Theodore Roosevelt established Grand Canyon National Monument, which Congress designated a national park in 1919. Land around the park was added in 1975 with the passage of the Grand Canyon Enlargement Act, bringing the park to its current 1 million acres. However, in 1975 and again in the 1980s, when the region was surveyed for wilderness designation, the Shivwits Plateau was bypassed for preservation by a Congress pressured by ranching and mining interests. Those ranchers and miners never could have guessed back then that Babbitt, an Arizona native and that state’s governor in the 1980s, would eventually hold a governmental post granting him the authority and influence to finally protect his favorite place.
“I first encountered (the Shivwits region) in the 1950s and was struck by its beauty and remoteness. I’ve been in love with this landscape for a long time,” Babbitt said in March 1999 at a Flagstaff, Arizona, public hearing on the proposed national monument. The auditorium was full of angry ranchers who heckled Babbitt, shouting, “Why don’t you just go back to Washington and leave us alone?”
“This is my state, and I want to get this land protected on my watch,” responded Babbitt, a seasoned Grand Canyon hiker. And he did. Although the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument proposal was vehemently opposed by people living in the sparsely populated Arizona Strip, as well as by Gov. Jane Hull and most of the state’s congressional delegation, Babbitt convinced President Clinton to approve it anyway. The monument even doubled in size from the originally proposed 500,000 acres, thanks to lobbying from environmental groups who successfully championed the notion of protecting the entire Grand Canyon ecosystem.
“The most astonishing thing is that it’s set up around watershed boundaries and intended to preserve the whole ecosystem,” Kelly Burke of the Grand Canyon Wildlands Council told me
6 months after the monument’s creation was announced, still in shock that her environmental coalition had actually won. “People think that just because a region is remote, it will be protected by default, but they have no idea how fast and how much a place can change.”
The Shivwits tablelands have suffered for more than a century from overgrazing, and the area was recently targeted for potential uranium mining and oil and gas extraction. Plus, development booms in the towns of St. George, Utah, and Mesquite, Nevada (both near the Shivwits), have increased prospects for rural sprawl, off-road vehicle (ORV) use, and camping in the “high, wide, and lonesome” country. While a small portion of the land within Grand Canyon-Parashant is part of Lake Mead National Recreation Area and is managed by the National Park Service, most of the 1 million acres has been and will continue to be under the stewardship of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
“The monument designation gives the BLM the authority they need to protect it,” said Burke. Limited grazing will continue within the preserve, but mining, development, and ORV use will be banned.
Under the auspices of the federal Antiquities Act, which Clinton used to establish the monument, the Shivwits was deemed to be “of historic and scientific significance” not only because of its remote wilderness character, but also for its geology and wildlife. From the 1.7-billion-year-old Vishnu Schist at the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the 1-million-year-old volcanic basalt atop Mt. Logan, the geologic features in the National Park and Monument offer more information on the formation of the Earth than do those at almost any other location on the planet.
The Shivwits is also ecologically unique because it’s where the Sonoran, Great Basin, and Mojave Deserts intersect. The region provides critical habitat for numerous endangered and threatened species as well, including California condors, desert tortoises, willow flycatchers, desert bighorn sheep, and pronghorn antelope.
While some 5 million people a year peer over the rim of the Grand Canyon in the national park, it’s doubtful many of those sightseers will venture into the new monument. There are no paved roads within the 1-million-acre preserve, and no development beyond a BLM field station and old livestock corrals.
“We intend to maintain the area’s remoteness,” says Betty Arial of the BLM’s Arizona Strip Field Office. “We don’t want to pave roads or have established campgrounds like a national park. We don’t want to do anything to detract from the natural experience of the place.”
I’m all for that, and mainly for selfish reasons. The development on the south rim of the Grand Canyon has turned that part of the national park and its primary corridor trails into a tourist haven rather than a wilderness preserve. Here on Mt. Logan, in the southeastern section of the new monument, I have a spectacular view of the Grand Canyon all to myself, although it required driving 55 miles down a brain-rattling dirt road and hiking steadily uphill for several hours to get here.
With afternoon thunderstorms brewing to the south and west, I finally tear myself away from the overlook long enough to set up my tent in a sheltered grove of old- growth ponderosa pines. There’s no sign of humans anywhere.
I wait inside my tent for the storm to pass and listen to a dove cooing nearby. Its sweet music is eventually drowned out by wind that roars up off the plateau and buffets the mountain like a pounding ocean surf.
As soon as the lightning subsides, I return to the overlook with a sense of urgency, afraid I might miss some subtle change in the light and color of the Grand Canyon. In early evening, the sun pokes through the clouds and the light becomes softer, painting the canyons and cliffs in shades of lavender, pink, and orange. I scope out places to explore on future trips: Hell’s Hollow, Parashant Canyon, Grand Wash Cliffs. The new monument is so big and the hiking possibilities so numerous that just thinking about it is overwhelming. There’s no rush, though. As President Clinton said when he dedicated the preserve, “Thousands of years from now, no one will remember who set aside this land for protection, but it will be here for people to enjoy.”
On this particular summer evening, I’m content to just sit back and enjoy-the sunset, the spectacular size of the grand view before me, and the prospect of what’s finally been protected.
Expedition Planner: Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, AZ
The best places to hike are in the wilderness areas, where motorized travel is prohibited:
Grand Wash Cliffs Wilderness
This jagged, multicolored escarpment in the western portion of the monument has long fascinated geologists. The cliffs mark a unique geologic crossroad where the Basin and Range region of the western United States intersects with the Colorado Plateau. The formation is broken into two sets of sheer cliffs within the 36,300-acre Grand Wash Wilderness that are connected by a plateaulike bench.
The way: The wilderness is located in the western part of the monument, near the Arizona/Nevada border. The north and south trailheads of the Bench Trail can be reached via Grand Wash Road.
Trails: The 12-mile (one way) Grand Gulch Bench Trail traverses the length of the wilderness over its namesake terrain. With the upper cliffs as a dramatic backdrop, you can take it easy and stick to the gentle bench, or you can make a challenging detour and cut down to some of the canyons slicing through the lower cliffs.
Season: Spring and fall are best for hiking; summer highs can reach the triple digits, and access roads are often snow-covered in winter.
Guides: USGS 7.5-minute quads St. George Canyon, Cane Springs SE, Last Chance Canyon, Olaf Knolls, Mustang Point, and Grand Gulch Bench (888-ASK-USGS; http://
ask.usgs.gov; $4 each).
With elevations ranging from 2,000 to 8,000 feet, the Paiute houses diverse vegetation ranging from desert Joshua trees to alpine Douglas firs. The most scenic section of the Virgin Mountains is protected within this 88,000-acre wilderness area.
The way: The wilderness is located in the far northwestern corner of the monument. The north Sullivan Canyon trailhead is in the Virgin River Gorge Recreation Area campground, 16 miles southwest of St. George, Utah, via I-15.
Trails: The 15-mile (one way) Sullivan Canyon Trail, which heads north from the Virgin River Gorge and traverses the length of the wilderness to reach the 8,000-foot summit of Mt. Bangs, is a challenging hike that showcases the area’s varied terrain and vegetation. You can detour onto the Atkin Springs or Virgin Ridge Trails. The only catch with this trek is that you’ll have to ford the Virgin River, which may be impossible during spring or periods of heavy run-off.
Season: Fall is most pleasant, but its varied elevation means this wilderness can be enjoyed during any season.
Guides: USGS 7.5-minute quads Littlefield Mountain, Sheep Spring, Elbow Canyon, Mount Bangs, Jacobs Well, Cane Springs, Purgatory Canyon, Wolf Hole Mountain, and Mustang Knoll (888-ASK-USGS; http://ask.usgs.gov; $4 each).
Mt. Trumbull and Mt. Logan Wilderness Areas
Located in the southeastern part of the monument near the national park boundary, these two wilderness areas offer spectacular views of the Shivwits Plateau and Grand Canyon. As both are cool, forested environs above 5,000 feet in elevation, they’re also the most pleasant places in the monument to hike during summer.
The way: Both Mt. Trumbull and
Mt. Logan can be reached via the long and bumpy Mt. Trumbull/ Toroweap Road, 8 miles west of Fredonia, Arizona, off AZ 389.
Trails: Neither the Mt. Trumbull (7,800 acres) nor the Mt. Logan (14,600 acres) areas have backpacking trails, but cross-country hiking through the areas’ ponderosa pine forests is relatively easy. If your goal is a campsite with a Grand Canyon view, head to the top of either of these volcanic mountains, or stick to the southwest ridge of Mt. Logan. If you’re more interested in adventure than a vista, hike through the southern portion of the Mt. Logan Wilderness, around the black cinder cones and into Hells Hollow canyon.
Season: Visit in summer and early fall; roads are usually inaccessible in winter and spring.
Guides: USGS 7.5-minute quads Mt. Trumbull NW, Mt. Trumbull NE, Mt. Trumbull SE, Mt. Logan, and Cold Spring (888-ASK-USGS; http://ask.usgs.gov; $4 each).
Permits: Not required.
Cautions: Although there are a few springs along the hiking routes described, they are unreliable and nonexistent during droughts. Carry all your drinking water. Before heading out, check with the BLM Information Center in St. George (see Contact) for road conditions and water availability. If you’re driving very far into the monument, carry two spare tires and extra food and water. There is no cell phone service in the region.
Guides: The BLM’s Arizona Strip map ($6) offers an overview of the region and is essential for navigating the monument’s backcountry roads. The map and other regional guidebooks can be purchased online at the Web site below.
Contact: Arizona Strip Field Office and Information Center, (435) 688-3200; http://azstrip.az.blm.gov.