A Guide to the Immense Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

January 27, 2021 /
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Warning: Due to COVID 19 some information in this article (e.g. operating hours) may not be up-to-date.

The first question that comes almost naturally is what in the world is the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument? If you have had the chance to browse our website a little, you will have seen it mentioned and indeed, I’ll tell you more. If you are not on your first trip to the USA, it is also possible that during a previous road trip in the West you have visited a part of it without knowing it!

What is a National Monument?

Bureaucratically speaking, a National Monument is a protected public area created by the President of the United States with a proclamation issued under the Antiquities Act (enacted in 1906). The designated area is managed by one of several federal government agencies (NPS, BLM, USFS among others).

Although it is difficult to make a clear distinction, there are factors that distinguish National Monuments from National Parks. While the latter are mainly natural and recreational areas, National Monuments may include areas of natural interest, but they may also be designated to preserve historical, cultural or scientific evidence. One national monument that comes to mind is the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument in Saint Augustine, which is a 17th-century fortress in the middle of a city in Florida. It certainly is not a natural park like the Grand Canyon or other American national parks.

The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is considered an area of both natural (we will see them) and historical interest, given the numerous artifacts from Prehistory to the present day.

What is the Grand Staircase Escalante? Short History of the Monument

Established by President Bill Clinton in 1996 amid controversy among Utah residents, the Grand Staircase-Escalante is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and is one of the largest National Monument in the United States. Until 2017, the area of the park was 2938 sq mi (larger than the state of Delaware!), but after the significant change in the boundaries of the park by President Trump, the “official” area of the park has been reduced to just over 1544 sq mi, which meant that the BLM no longer managed some natural areas rich in beauty, such as Hole in the Rock Road in Escalante Canyons (excluding Devil’s Garden) and Old Paria, Wahweap Hoodoos and The Toadstools in the Kaiparowits Plateau.

Although no longer officially part of the National Monument, the areas mentioned in the article remain open to visitors. In this article, I will also mention these natural attractions that were part of the park’s boundaries before Trump’s decision.

New Map of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument

New Map of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
The green area represents the new boundaries of the park. The outer contours mark the old boundaries.

How to Access Grand Staircase Escalante?

How to Access Grand Staircase Escalante?

The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is located in southern Utah, in Kane and Garfield counties. This large park is divided into three units: the Grand Staircase to the west, the Kaiparowits Plateau in the center and the Canyons of the Escalante to the east. The towns that you can use as reference points while visiting the park are:

  • Kanab and Big Water to the south
  • Cannonville, Escalante and Boulder in the north

The main paved roads within the National Monument are Scenic Byway 12  to reach the north side, and Highway 89 to reach the south side. Along these two roads – which you will most likely find yourself taking anyway during a tour of the West Coast or, more specifically, of the Utah Mighty Five in the case of Scenic Byway 12 – you will find all the most important places of interest and all the secondary roads that branch off of them that enter the more remote parts of the park.

The park’s busiest dirt roads are:

  • The Hole in the Rock Road, a road surrounded by natural beauty created by the Mormons that leads to Lake Powell;
  • The Cottonwood Canyon Scenic Backway, which connects Scenic Byway 12 to Highway 89 in the National Monument;
  • Hell’s Backbone Road, a mountain road that connects Escalante and Boulder. I talked about it here.

How Long Does It Take to Visit Grand Staircase-Escalante?

This is a tough question!

If Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is an important stop on your trip, you may need more than two days to go on at least 4-5 of the main hikes and you would spend the night in one or more of the towns mentioned in the article.

If you don’t have a lot of time left, but you still plan to drive along Scenic Byway 12 (from Bryce to Moab) or Highway 89 (from Page to Kanab), you can make do with a quick visit to the park by taking 1 or 2 easy trails on your way to the next stop in your itinerary.

Grand Staircase Escalante Interactive Map

Things to Do in Grand Staircase Escalante (along Scenic Byway 12)

The drive along the Scenic Byway 12 from Cannonville to Boulder is undoubtedly the easiest way to have a short but absolutely unforgettable experience of the park. It is known as one of the most beautiful scenic roads in the United States and it passes through perhaps the most popular part of the National Monument. If you’re going from Bryce to Moab via Capitol Reef, you’ll most likely find yourself driving on it, so I suggest you take note of the hikes that can be made inside the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument on this road.

For your convenience, I have divided the hikes and trails to make along the way into zones, indicating which is the town closest to the point of interest. If you have time (yes, it takes time to get the most out of the visit Grand Staircase-Escalante!), get familiar with the map and add to your itinerary the things you really don’t want to miss.

Cannonville

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Kodachrome Basin State Park is the most famous natural attraction in Cannonville, a tiny town 25 minutes south of Bryce Canyon. Kodachrome is not within the boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante, but, as you can understand from reading the article in the link, it fully reflects the geological features of the area.

In the immediate vicinity of the state park, in addition to the entrance to Cottonwood Canyon Scenic Backway (see last paragraph), there are two of the most famous natural features of Grand Staircase-Escalante, both on the Kaiparowits Plateau:

  • Willis Creek Narrows: We talked about this scenic and remote canyon in our article about Utah slot canyons. I will admit that technically the distance between the walls doesn’t really entitle us to call it a slot canyon, but the scenery and the kind of hike you will walk are absolutely comparable to what it is like to visit a slot canyon. The cover picture in this article is a picture taken of this hike.
  • Grosvenor Arch: The largest and most majestic rock arch in the entire park is located a few miles away from Kodachrome Basin State Park. Read here to find out how to get there.

Accommodations available in Cannonville

Escalante

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As the name suggests, the Escalante area is the central area for exploring the Canyons of the Escalante section of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Near this Mormon-founded town is Hole in the Rock Road, which – while most of it is no longer within the park’s geographical boundaries – it remains one of the reasons why the Grand Staircase is famous throughout the United States and beyond.

In my article, I have explained in detail which hikes you must do. Devil’s Garden and the 4 canyons of Dry Fork of Coyote Gulch require some time (besides a 4×4 or an SUV to get there), but they are worth it. Besides this scenic road on the eastern side of SR-12 (Scenic Byway 12), there are other hikes to do near Escalante on the other side of the road:

  • Escalante Petrified Forest State Park: in this small park, located a few miles west of Escalante, you have the possibility to see ancient petrified trees on short scenic trails.
  • Escalante River Trail: a long but simple trail that runs along the Escalante River through the walls of a gorge. The two main attractions are the Escalante Natural Arch and the Escalante Natural Bridge, located at an intermediate point of the trail. If you don’t have time you can just reach the two rock formations and then turn back without completing the whole trail. At one point you need to cross the river, which is not complex, but if you don’t feel like it, go back.
  • Lower Calf Creek Falls: one of the most famous landscapes in the whole park. Unlike the previous hike, this one is much more tiring and takes 3 hours round trip. The main attraction of this hike is found at the end of the trail. After a walk inside a wide canyon, you will find a waterfall that flows into a natural pool from the top of a cliff.

Accommodations available in Escalante

Boulder

grand staircase escalante trails

Boulder marks the starting point of a truly exceptional scenic road called the Burr Trail. This road stretches from Boulder to Bullfrog, the port on Lake Powell, and also crosses through Capitol Reef and Glen Canyon. For the first 31 miles, the Burr Trail travels in the boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante. The road is paved and takes you through Long Canyon, a gorge with high reddish walls that contrast the yellowish hues of the sandstone.

If you feel like exploring one of Utah’s “less mainstream” slot canyons, there is one right on this road called Singing Canyon. This is a place that musicians love for its natural acoustics. The link (click on Singing Canyon) has some more info and advice.

Available accommodations in Boulder

Things to Do in Grand Staircase Escalante (along Hwy 89)

The southern side of the park has other marvels, which can be easily explored on the route between Page and Kanab along Hwy 89 by taking short detours. Although Kanab is the largest town and therefore the main point of reference to explore these beautiful landscapes and a place to seek overnight accommodations, the Big Water Visitor Center (20 Revolution Way, Big Water) is the place to go to gather information on the following trails.

Tips for accommodations in Kanab

The Wahweap Hoodoos

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Along the drained bed of the Wahweap River, there are some beautiful rock formations known as hoodoos. The ultimate place to see hoodoos is definitely Bryce Canyon, but this area is full of pinnacles, fungiform rocks and balanced rocks that create an otherwordly landscape.

If you have a half-day or longer at your disposal and you want to take a hike on one of the less conventional trails, take Hwy 89 to Big Water and drive to this point north of the town. The road is unpaved, so be careful! You will have to pass a fish farm before you reach the point where you need to cross the river bed (see link above).

You will park there and start walking along the river bed towards the north. When you arrive, on the left side of the riverbed, you will see the White Ghost Hoodoo, the most impressive in an area where we find a forest of towers, brown hooded pinnacles and surreally shaped white rock bases. It is not easy to understand where this area is without using GPS coordinates. Click here for the coordinates.

The Toadstools

toadstools grand staircase

If you would like to see a landscape similar to White Ghost Hoodoos that is much more accessible, just pass Big Water and drive another 12 miles west towards Kanab. On the right, you will find a parking lot, at the entrance of a short and easy path that leads to the hoodoos called The Toadstools.

Paria Contact Station

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About 2 miles after The Toadstools Parking Lot, on the left, you will find the Paria Contact Station, an information center located in the southern section of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

The main function of this visitor center, however, is to give information and permits for Vermilion Cliffs and Paria Canyon, a natural area bordering the Grand Staircase-Escalante known for the famous and coveted The Wave, which can only be visited with a lottery ticket. Click on the link (Vermillion Cliffs and Paria Canyon) to read my article which contains more information on the subject.

Old Paria

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Halfway between Big Water and Kanab, you can turn on Old Paria Town Road, a dirt road that originally led to a town (now destroyed) surrounded by another landscape not to be missed. The area of Old Paria is in fact characterized by multi-colored streaked mountains that are stunning, as shown in our photo above.

In our article dedicated to Old Paria, you will find all the information to reach this amazing natural area.

Cottonwood Canyon Scenic Backway

what to do at grand staircase escalante

As previously mentioned, there is a way to cross the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument from north to south (and vice versa) without going through Glendale, Hatch and Bryce (west of the park). It is known as the Cottonwood Canyon Scenic Backway. Those who want to explore Cottonwood Canyon and see the spectacular rock formations can drive this 47-mile road in a 4×4 (or rather tall SUV). The route connects Cannonville to Hwy 89. If you want to get a better idea of the route, click on this Google Maps link. If you don’t have a suitable vehicle, don’t venture out, especially if the terrain is wet!

The road is paved from Cannonville to the junction with the Kodachrome Basin State Park and then becomes a dirt road. Along the way, there are also access points to some canyons to explore on foot. Cottonwood Narrows and Lower Hackberry Canyon are the most popular. Find the starting point of the Cottonwood Canyon Scenic Backway on the map I provided above.

Tips for accommodations in Kanab

Bernardo Pacini
Bernardo Pacini

I am an editor and copywriter and have published some poetry. Besides traveling, my interests include literature, experimental music and good food

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