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Seeking Utah’s desert grandeur? Bypass crowded Zion for Grand Staircase-Escalante.

LEFT: A hiker walks near the Toadstool Hoodoos in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. RIGHT: The Virgin River Narrow in Zion National Park. (iStock)

Zion National Park offers spectacular scenery and plenty of company

Awe-inspiring natural beauty is easy to come across in Utah’s Zion National Park, where you barely have to leave the parking lot to find rose-red sandstone and trailheads for breathtaking hikes.

Some popular spots — including the vertiginous Angels Landing hiking trail and trek-able Virgin River Narrows — can be reached via free shuttle buses that whir through Zion Canyon each day, typically from March through November. Such ease of access has helped make Zion the second-most-visited U.S. national park.

But recent crowds have strained park infrastructure. The National Park Service estimated that 5,039,835 people visited Zion National Park in 2021, exceeding its previous annual visitation record by more than half a million. Beginning in April, would-be Angels Landing hikers will have to vie for permits in an online lottery pilot program, while the park website warns peak-season visitors to expect long lines, heavy traffic and major congestion.

Location: Zion National Park can be reached by car from airports in St. George (about 55 minutes), Las Vegas (about 2½ hours) and Salt Lake City (about 4½ hours).

There’s room to roam in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

When President Donald Trump lopped more than 800,000 acres from Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 2017, some D.C. politics watchers probably pulled out their maps. Although it’s less than an hour from beloved Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, the monument — which President Biden restored in October to 1.87 million acres — remains one of the West’s lesser-known treasures.

Grand Staircase is more than 12 times the size of Zion, yet it gets a fraction of the park’s visitors, recording just 959,234 in 2020. But that’s not for want of natural and historical wonders. Travelers equipped with a four-wheel-drive vehicle and a sense of adventure can explore surreal hoodoo rock formations, labyrinthine canyons and ancient petroglyphs.

To the west, a true “grand staircase” of rock lunges southward in vertical drops whose names hint at the area’s psychedelic color scheme: Pink Cliffs, Vermilion Cliffs, Chocolate Cliffs. Pinyon-juniper forests cover the remote Kaiparowits Plateau at the monument’s heart, while to the east, the Escalante River Basin fissures into red-rock slots and narrows.

The town of Kanab, home to the largest of Grand Staircase-Escalante’s four visitor centers, makes a popular jumping-off point for exploring slot canyons and plateaus in the southern part of the national monument. A day trip might follow unpaved Skutumpah Road past pink-and-white cliffs, with stops to walk Lick Wash and Bull Valley Gorge slot canyons, both tributaries of the Paria River.

Outside the monument but accessible from Kanab are the bottleneck narrows of Buckskin Gulch and the swoopily photogenic rock formation known as the Wave. Limited permits for the Wave are available in online lotteries held four months in advance. A daily lottery is open to visitors already in the area through the app, as long as they are within a certain geofence perimeter.

An alternative base is Escalante, a city on the northern edge of the monument with a visitor center and access to rugged terrain in the Escalante River Basin. Leaving from just outside of city, the 62-mile, unpaved Hole-in-the-Rock Road passes beginner-friendly Peek-a-Boo and Spooky Gulch slot canyons before reaching a viewpoint over Lake Powell’s western shore.

Stay in Kanab’s seasonal, off-grid glamping spot Basecamp37 for views of a night sky undimmed by town lights, or choose from an array of more central independent and chain hotels. Quirkier accommodations abound in tiny Escalante, including the renovated 1890 pioneer cabin Old Bailey Place and minimalist tiny houses at Escalante Escapes. Stylish Yonder Escalante arrived on the scene in 2021 with 10 vintage Airstreams, a line of glass-fronted cabins and its own drive-in movie theater.

Location: Kanab can be reached by car from airports in St. George (about 1½ hours) or Las Vegas (about three hours). Reach Escalante from St. George (about three hours), Las Vegas or Salt Lake City (each almost five hours).

Smith is a writer based in Vermont. Her website is Find her on Twitter and Instagram: @jenrosesmithvt.


Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.