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CPE - Grand Staircase Escalante NM (regions)

Climbing the Grand Staircase

The Grand Staircase, named in the 1880s by geologist Clarence Dutton, refers to a stairway of rock formed by alternating cliffs and terraces. Harder, more resistant layers like limestones and sandstones make up the vertical “risers,” while softer, more easily eroded rocks make up the flat “tread.” And so the landscape climbs in steps, from the Grand Canyon all the way to the top of the Aquarius Plateau.

Few places offer views of the entire staircase, but the western third of the monument encompasses a portion of it and provides access to several layers. Cottonwood Canyon Road, which runs between Hwy 89 and UT 12, follows the East Kaibab Monocline and marks the eastern edge of this unit. Along the road, ridges of bent, uplifted red and white rock jut out of the ground in near vertical slabs reminiscent of a rooster’s cockscomb. Excellent hikes in the area include Cottonwood Narrows Trail and Hackberry Canyon & Yellow Rock.

Kodachrome Basin State Park, another geologic gem with unusual vertical “pipes” of colorful rock, is at the northern end of Cottonwood Canyon Road near Cannonville, Utah (see Panorama Point Loop Trail).

Kaiparowits Plateau

The Kaiparowits Plateau occupies the middle section of the monument, a wedge of high country that starts near the town of Escalante and fans out in a triangle to the south. Lake Powell and its tributaries create an incised and rugged southern boundary of the Kaiparowits,  while the Straight Cliffs form a more linear eastern flank.

Few people venture onto the Kaiparowits Plateau; travel is rough and services are nonexistent. Juniper and piñon trees punctuate the plateau, with hidden riches below its surface. Over 62 billion tons of coal lay in beds deep underground. Exploratory drilling boomed in the 1960s, along with plans to develop an underground mining operation and power plant. The establishment of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996, however, stopped industry from taming the Kaiparowits’ wild nature.

If you drive up the rugged Smoky Mountain Road to the top of the plateau, you may see—and smell—smoke spiraling out of rock crevices. Coal seams burn naturally underground, collapsing and cracking to expose the earth’s innards. There are also hundreds of archaeological sites on the plateau. Although maintained hiking trails are hard to find, the Kaiparowits offers some of the most difficult and isolated terrain in the country for hiking. Be sure to bring spare tires, extra water and gasoline, and emergency supplies if you are exploring here.

Canyons of the Escalante 

The best known and most visited part of the monument is defined by blankets of Navajo Sandstone cut by the Escalante River and its tributaries to form an intricate network of sculpted canyons. The small towns of Boulder and Escalante are gateways for adventures in this region, including Calf Creek, Death Hollow, Willow Gulch, Peekaboo Canyon, and other delights in the Escalante River watershed.

Hole-in-the-Rock Road begins a few miles east of Escalante and follows a historic Mormon wagon route southeast to Lake Powell. In the late 1870s, church leaders called upon Mormon followers to establish a settlement near Bluff, Utah. In response, a Mormon wagon train of more than 230 people left from Panguitch, Utah, in 1879 on what was called the San Juan Expedition. They followed the Straight Cliffs to Glen Canyon, where they blasted a route down the cliffs, crossed what was then river, and continued to their destination. Their journey is one of the most remarkable in the settling of the West. Hole-in-the-Rock Road, as it’s called today, accesses several trailheads. This gravel road can deteriorate with weather, so be sure to check the latest road report before starting your trip.

On UT 12 between Escalante and Boulder, Calf Creek Recreation Area has a campground and the only maintained hiking trail in the entire monument. There are fees for the day use area, hiking trail, and campground. The trail goes to Lower Calf Creek Falls, an easy walk to a 215-foot tall waterfall.

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Cattle grazing takes a toll

The endless expanses of slickrock in Grand Staircase seem like unlikely places for cattle to graze. But cattle roam across more than 95 percent of the monument, destroying biological soil crusts, introducing invasive species, eroding stream banks, and trampling sensitive species. 

The Grand Canyon Trust is measuring problems on the ground and proposing a comprehensive alternative that can change how and where cattle graze this 1.9 million acre treasure. Learn more about our work in Grand Staircase ›

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What you can do

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We're looking for volunteers to gather information about pinyon jays in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and beyond.

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