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Exploring: Grand Staircase Escalante

Water, wind, sandstone, geologic forces, time…  Taken separately these words mean very little, combined they achieve something extraordinary.  

The forces of nature have exerted their might on the whole of Southern Utah.  The Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument is just another example of the powers Mother Nature possesses. 

Before I launch into the review I suppose I should give a little history here.  The populace of Utah practically revolted when the reviled Bill Clinton named this Monument.  Slick Willie not only scorned the local politicians by the underhanded maneuver, but even declared it from the rim of the Grand Canyon!  Bill knew this was a wonderful way to appease the environmentalists while losing nothing for the party.  (if a Utahn votes democratic he is taken out and shot). 

The state of Utah’s educational budget is heavily dependent on mineral and oil rights royalties. The Dutch firm of Andalex was poised to begin mining on this very land.  They had plans to reap the rewards of the coal-fields in the Kaiparowits plateau while giving a pittance to the state.  I hate to say this but most Utahn’s would be happy to see Southern Utah strip-mined to death while they happily pump out children.   

escalante001.jpg (41322 bytes)

As you may be able to tell I’m a bit biased in this argument.  I agree with the monument wholeheartedly.  Call me green, call me an environmental whacko, whatever…  I don’t care.  I am of the crowd that believes we don’t need to use up everything we have.  I’d like my son’s children to be able to venture out into an unspoiled environment. 

Ok, enough said.  Think about those first six words of my sermon…  Think of what they mean in the grand scheme… 


Sandstone is the medium Mother Nature chooses to use in Southern Utah.  This material comes in varying hardnesses.  Wind deposited or water deposited is the main difference.  The different formations in the monument are because of the various types of sandstone.  Each succumbs to the tools of nature differently, hence the fantastic sights afforded to us. 


This chisel of nature has reared its head on both sides of the monuments formation.  Much of the sandstone in this monument was formed by wind blown sand dunes.  This same force today is working to erase these formations. 


Water is perhaps the most powerful force on the Colorado Plateau.  Rain is rather rare in this environment.  When it does come it falls upon a sea of rock, the water attempts to find its way to the lowest point.  The action of water upon sandstone is a slow but much more artistic way to cut stone.  Man has attempted to carve stone, nature has a bit more gentle touch.

Geologic Forces

The Colorado Plateau has been formed by many different types of sandstone.  These layers have been exposed by various uplifts.  Volcanic activity and plate shifting caused the rivers to carve the almost surreal landscape we see today.  


Time is a hard to define part of the equation.  Suffice it to say that time is defined in the desert by how many grains of sand were washed away in the latest flash flood.  Time has allowed the forces of water and wind to work their magic on the surrounding countryside. 

I challenge everyone who reads this article to get out and see a bit of your own local terrain.  Take the time to appreciate what time has created for you… 

The Monument Itself

The Grand Staircase-Escalante (from now on known as GSE), is quite an expansive monument.  I have to keep correcting myself from calling it a Park.  The area of GSE encompasses approximately 1.7 million acres.  That’s a lot of ground!  GSE is bordered by two national parks (Capitol Reef, and Bryce Canyon), one national recreation area (Glen Canyon), and one national forest (Dixie).  The area contained is a wonderland of colors and formations.  

The Grand Staircase rises in a multicolored series of steps towards the Western border of the monument.  The Eastern section of the monument is comprised of the Escalante River drainage area.  This is a magical land full of canyons and washes, a testament to the forces of nature mentioned earlier.  The central portion of the monument is the home of the Kaiparowits plateau. 

Many of the features of the Monument can be viewed by various overlooks.  Highway 12 and 89 both provide a scenic way to see the Monument by way of the auto.  Highway 12 has been listed as one of the top ten scenic drives in America.  The most scenic portion of this drive is between the towns of Boulder and Escalante.  The road climbs, winds and descends its way throughout some of the most awe-inspiring scenery you’ve ever seen.  The highway lies on the crest of a ridgeline for a while, 1000 foot dropoffs on either side of the road.  If you have the time and are traveling through the area I’d recommend driving the entire length of HWY 12.  The Northern section of this highway climbs over Boulder Mountain.  This climb up the mountain allows for some views that are out of this world.  Views of Capitol Reef National Park and the waterpocket fold are supplemented by a seemingly endless view of the Southern San Rafael Swell.  

Be very careful if driving any of the highways around here at night.  Deer are a plentiful animal, don’t be surprised if you venture upon a herd crossing the road on a dark night.  Keep an eye out for the glow of their eyes, be diligent while night driving. 


The area in the monument seems to be regulated much the same as BLM land, i.e. there are few regulations on camping.  Backcountry camping is allowed in pretty much all of the monument, a free permit is available at most trailheads.  There are plenty of car/truck camping sites throughout the monument.  When I say car/truck camping I mean a spot where it is obvious another party has camped before.  Some of these sites may be hidden a bit, down a non-descript two track.  I’d recommend buying the “Utah Atlas & Gazetteer” by Delorme publishing.   

As I always stress in all my reviews please tread lightly on any site you choose to camp at.  If you plan on having a campfire please pick a spot that already has a fire ring, don’t create another scar on the landscape.  While breaking up your camp pick up every little piece of trash you have created, and what the heck, pick up anything anyone else left behind.  If at all possible confine your hiking to established paths or washes.  The desert relies on a protective crust called cryptobiotic soil.  This crust allows the flowers and other forms of vegetation to survive.  Once broken the nomadic soil is allowed to migrate. 

There are many places to camp out “Hole in the Rock Road.”  The proximity of this road to the town of Escalante is convenient.  In Escalante the traveler can fill up on gas and provisions.  The convenience store/gas station nearest to Hole in the Rock Road has fuel pumps open 24 hours and a water spigot.  The water spigot is actually the biggest draw, if you are heading into the desert water will become your best friend. 

For the less adventurous camper there are a couple hotels in Escalante to fill your needs.  This monument is still in its infancy stages, there are no large tourist portals to serve the average sight-seeing American. 


This monument has some of the best hiking of any Utah parks.  GSE is home to some of the nation's  best slot canyons.  My latest camping trip in the GSE involved hiking three slot canyons. From one central entrance point  I hiked/scrambled my way through the Dry Fork of Coyote Gulch, Peekaboo Gulch, and Spooky Gulch.  Each of these slot canyons was worthwhile in their respective ways.  

To reach the trailhead for these slot canyons one must drive out “Hole in the Rock Road” for 25.5 miles from its intersection with HWY 12.  After 25.5 miles you will see a sign announcing a road to the left proclaiming Dry Fork 1.7 miles.  Take a left on the road (I use the term road loosely) immediately after the sign.  Follow this road out the proclaimed 1.7 miles and park in the parking lot. 

Once parked fill your pack full of water and strap on a pair of tennis shoes.  I’d recommend a pair of hiking boots normally, but you’ll be better off with tennis shoes on this one.  Occasionally on the hike you’re liable to find some standing water.  Being a day hike there’s no need to lug around in a pair of sodden hiking boots. 

The hike down into the canyon is marked by a couple signs, follow the most evident of the paths and you’ll find yourself atescalante002.jpg (47280 bytes) the head of a wash.  Once at the bottom of the wash you’ll notice a narrow canyon leading off to your left.  This canyon is the Dry Fork of Coyote Gulch.

Coyote Gulch is a relatively straightforward slot canyon.  The going doesn’t get much narrower than four feet wide, other than a couple steps up boulders the hiking is level.  After about a mile the canyon walls become shorter and wider, this trail eventually joins Hole in the Rock road.  It’s best to turn around when the canyon widens and return to your starting point. 

escalante003.jpg (69251 bytes)Once back to where you joined Coyote Gulch continue downstream a couple hundred yards.  Peekaboo Gulch is a bit harder to find, the entrance is about 15 feet up a vertical wall.  This wall will be on your left hand side and can be identified by steps carved into the wall.

You must scramble up the wall using the cut steps, this is rather easy but can be intimidating to novice hikers.  After youescalante004.jpg (48155 bytes) negotiate the wall you will pass through pool like depressions, sometimes you’re liable to find standing water here. Separating these two pools is a set of arches, this is a great spot to stop and take a photo.

escalante005.jpg (38096 bytes)  The going gets weirder as you continue on your way.  The water has carved the sandstone into intricate passageways.  The canyon eventually becomes shallow enough to where it is possible to scramble to the plateau.  Before you retrace your path back down again be sure and look at the canyon you just navigated. 

After you have negotiated back down the wall out of Peekaboo continue hiking downstream.  A couple of turns down Coyote Gulch you’ll come across a cairn marking a trail rising over a small sandbar.  Make a left here and follow it into Spooky Gulch.  Spooky can also be accessed at it's upper end from Peek-a-boo, hike cross country from the top of Peek-a-boo Gulch.  Follow the obvious cairns taking care not to get sucked into the canyon separating the two.

Spooky is the most narrow slot canyon I have ever been in.  At one spot the escalante006.jpg (33295 bytes)canyon narrows to approximately a foot and a half wide.  Spooky also provides the most physical obstacles of any of the three I hiked in this area.  A short distance after the narrowest portion one must chimney up over a vertical ridge.  The canyon continues on for some time, after a while you’ll reach the other obstacle.  A stack of boulders escalante007.jpg (39620 bytes)provides the excitement of this predicament.  When I went through there were two ways up and around this obstruction.  You could either chimney up and walk along the top by going left.  Taking the right version would have you climbing up a face then tunneling under the rock.. 

If one continues hiking down Coyote Gulch further you can hike Brimstone Gulch as well.  Although I’ve heard Brimstone is the best of the four slot canyons accessed from here I wasn’t able to hike it.  I had an almost eight months pregnant wife back at camp and a bored three year old.  As it was, it took us about three hours to hike the three we did and get back to the parking lot. 

There are many backpacking trails traversing this area.  Not all are located off “Hole in the Rock.”  From what I’ve been able to figure out by looking at the on-line monument boundaries Paria Canyon is located within the monument.  This canyon is a popular backpacking destination.  One of the alternative paths through this canyon is Buckskin Gulch, this is the longest slot canyon in the desert Southwest.  Buckskin is twelve miles long and averages under 15 feet in width.  I’ve never been here yet but hope to take a fall trip through the gulch.  

These hikes I’ve mentioned are but a few scenic ways to see this monument.  Check with the ranger station in Escalante for more information.  


I believe this is an integral addition to the federally controlled lands in the Southern Utah Canyonlands.  People who view this area as “worthless” land should come out and see what nature’s hand has created.  Get out and see the countryside, see this area before it becomes overrun.   

Nearby Areas:

Bryce Canyon National Park

Kodachrome Basin State Park

Escalante State Park



Escalante Canyons Trail Map

Escalante Canyons Trail Map

More than just a map - National Geographic Trails Illustrated topographic maps are designed to take you into the wilderness and back. Printed on durable tear-resistant waterproof material this map can go anywhere you do! Each map is based on exact reproductions of USGS topographic map information updated customized and enhanced to meet the unique features of each area. Folded and printed on plastic for durability.

Peekaboo Gulch Slot Canyon Map

This map of Peekaboo and other slot canyons in Escalante was provided courtesy of Franz Amussen. The same map is available in 2 versions:

PDF Version or JPG Version





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