A Monumental Two Days in Utah

By Robert C. Wurmstedt
Sunday, April 9, 2000

What: Grand Staircase-Escalante in southeastern Utah, one of the nation's newest national monuments.

Why: A backpacker's paradise, the monument is one of the most remote and undeveloped areas in the continental United States.

First, let's talk size. Designated a national monument in 1996, Grand Staircase-Escalante is, at 1.9 million acres, the largest outside Alaska and bigger than the combined land areas of Rhode Island and Delaware. The monument is more than twice as large as Utah's five national parks combined, including Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef and Zion, which surround it on three sides.

So how much time did my wife, Claudia, and I give ourselves last May to explore this massive chunk of America? A whopping two days. That's just poking at the edges, I admit. But it was enough time to give us a good sense of this spectacular place.

It's helpful to think of the vast, arid monument as three separate landscapes: the Escalante Canyons, Kaiparowits Plateau and the Grand Staircase, a series of benches and cliffs forming massive natural steps. Our strategy: Pick a few highlights along State Highway 12, the scenic and narrow road that twists and turns for about 27 miles between the small ranching towns of Boulder (pop. 250) and Escalante (pop. 900).

Our base was Boulder Mountain Lodge in Boulder, which was the last town in the United States to receive mail by mule (until 1935). The lodge, opened by area tourism pioneer Mark Austin in 1994, is a compound of ocher stucco buildings, including Hell's Backbone Grill. Built around a horse pasture and an 11-acre pond and bird sanctuary, Boulder Mountain has 20 comfortable, rustic-luxe rooms furnished with heavy, Mission-style furniture and Southwestern Indian rugs.

On our first day out, we drove about 10 miles down Highway 12 to a small parking area where the road crosses the Escalante River, which we hiked along between towering sandstone cliffs streaked with dark mineral stains. We waded across the river several times, pushing our way through willow thickets on the banks along the sandy trail. Deeper in the canyon, we spotted an Anasazi Indian cliff house and petroglyphs carved in rock high above the river; indeed, the canyons hold thousands of never-surveyed archaeological sites left by the Anasazis.

After lunch under a spectacular sandstone arch connecting two cliffs hundreds of feet above, we hiked for a couple of miles into another canyon to Upper Calf Creek Falls, where the creek crashes about 70 feet into a deep, green pool. Vines cover the cliffs at the bottom of the canyon like a hanging garden.

We saved rugged Kaiparowits Plateau--home to 17 species of raptors, smoldering underground coal fires and groves of 1,000-year-old juniper trees--for our second day. The Straight Cliffs, on the eastern side of the plateau, run for almost 42 miles. To the west, the nearly impenetrable Grand Staircase drops to the Arizona state line.

Our destination was Hole-in-the-Rock Road, a dirt track 22 miles down Highway 12. Built by Mormon settlers in 1880, the road stretches for 57 grueling miles across the sagebrush-covered Kaiparowits to Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. We followed it for about 26 miles south to Peek-a-Boo Gulch and a series of slot canyons, one of the monument's most popular features.

But skip the slot canyons if you are prone to claustrophobia. In some places, they're barely wide enough to walk through. We squeezed along in one for about a mile, with only a sliver of blue sky visible through a crevice some 30 feet above us. Later, we climbed a slick rock overlook and simply sat there, entranced by the silence and the unreal vastness of the canyon country surrounding us.

We enthusiastically began planning future backpacking trips to traverse more of this wild and unspoiled land. After all, the Escalante was the last river in the continental United States to be mapped--and there is still plenty of exploring for us to do.

Escalante is about 300 miles south of Salt Lake City and about 490 miles southwest of Denver. Because of scorching summer temperatures and rough winters, the best times to visit are autumn and spring. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management manages Grand Staircase- Escalante (435-826-5499, www.ut.blm.gov /monument). A free permit is required for camping and is available at trail heads and at the Interagency Visitor Center (435-826-5499 or 435-826- 4291) in Escalante, open seven days March 15 through November, Monday through Friday in winter.

Boulder Mountain Lodge (1-800- 556-3446, www.boulder-utah .com; $69 to $129 for a double) has maps and can arrange hiking trips, horseback riding, etc.

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