With my faith in Zion restored, I began my wandering trek across Utah’s southeastern limits. Bypassing Bryce Canyon, I barreled down scenic route 12 towards the town of Escalante. As the gateway to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, this tiny town of almost eight hundred people receives more than its fair share of visitors. It does not, however, feel overwhelmed by its surroundings. It feels quaint, quiet, and isolated. With a whole food grocery store across from a well-curated gear shop, I definitely had no trouble whiling away a few hours and restocking my larder. The rest of the town, sleepy as it was, seemed to focus its energy on off-roading, canyoneering, and desert adventure.
Encompassing almost two million acres, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument holds the title of the largest national monument in the federal system. It is even larger than the state of Delaware! Set aside under the Antiquities Act by Bill Clinton in 1996, the Bureau of Land Management manages the monument, which is highly irregular as most national monuments fall under the purview of the National Park Service. Within the bounds of this park lie slot canyons, hoodoos, and sweeping vistas of filled with plateaus and arches, making it a playground for hikers, climbers, and off-road enthusiasts alike.
The geology of the Grand Staircase formation runs beneath southern Utah like a wave of painted sandstone. Out of that multi-hued canvas the Virgin and Colorado Rivers carved the likes of Zion Canyon and the Grand Canyon. In Grand Staircase-Escalante, this geologic artistry manifests itself in the sculpted features of Devil’s Garden, Spooky Gulch, and Peekaboo Canyon. In true Bureau of Land Management fashion, the only way to access many of these features is a washboarded ribbon of dirt called Hole-in-the-Rock Road that winds deep into the backcountry towards Glen Canyon. Fearing for my suspension and my spine, I decided not to complete the fifty-mile trek to the Hole-in-the-Rock. After camping in a section of the BLM land, I headed to Devil’s Garden and wandered the bizarre, interconnected landscape of sunburnt hoodoos.
Attempting to cover an area like Grand Staircase-Escalante in a manner of days requires more than a little wishful thinking. As I have said before, some of the places I am traveling through would be far better served by a return visit in a high clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle. Sam gets by, but his reach can only extend so far. With most of the park left unexplored, I headed off towards Capitol Reef National Park.
With the prospects of friendly faces just ahead in Moab and some down time to catch up on writing, I felt oddly disconnected from the beauty of Capitol Reef. I needed a break from the red sandstone and contoured tunnels and arches of Utah. I needed fresh vegetables, a hot cup of coffee, and a comfy chair with cushions that I would sink right into. My mind wandered and I couldn’t stay focused on my surroundings.
Admittedly, I rushed through the park. I spent time at the visitor’s center, chatting with rangers and watching the park film. With the prospects of rain, I didn’t feel safe exploring the slot canyons that run down from the Waterpocket Fold, the nearly one hundred mile long spine of sandstone running through the park. The prospect of rain amid the tight confines of a slot canyon present a unique opportunity for flash floods, something I was clearly trying to avoid. As a result, I left Capitol Reef without having fully explored its rich interior. I will undoubtedly be back.
Cruising out of the park, I set my sights on Moab, a town I have been waiting to visit for quite some time.
From One Playground to Another