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The Grand Staircase and
Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument

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GSE.jpg
He liked his ears scratched. Outside the Visitors Center in Escalante.
The Grand Staircase was going to get its own page, but since it has its own National Monument, I thought I'd just combine the two for conveniences sake.

When I first came through this area in 1997, I had absolutely no clue on what I was seeing as I drove upwards in time from the Grand Canyon through Zion and Bryce Canyon, then up Utah-12 and 24. You saw the exhibits in the visitors centers and signs around the parks, but they form a disjointed picture because of the local-centric explanations. Most of the information would tie some formations in the park to other areas of Utah, but mostly missing was the background for it all.

So let's see if we can just hit the highlights...

Grand Staircase
Profile of the Grand Staircase in Utah/Arizona. Click for a larger view.
And there you have it. That up thrust 70 million years ago caused huge faults that would push one area higher than another. The friction of the plates moving against one another melted the volcanic basalt rock, and the lighter stuff in the dense rock floated to the top. This lighter stuff, called granite, formed the Rocky Mountains as they were pushed high into the air over time.

While the granite was pretty tough stuff, the softer sandstone to the West was not. It eroded away after millions of years, forming some of the odd formations out West. One of these is the Grand Staircase, which is a large area of Southern Utah and Northern Arizona. Back to Top

The Grand Staircase

Grand Staircase
Another profile of the Grand Staircase in Utah/Arizona. Click for a larger view.
It's easy to see why the area would be called The Grand Staircase, just by looking at a cross-section of the phenomenon. A huge up thrust forced the rock upward, which eroded down by plates, exposing the different colored layers laid down over hundreds of millions of years in sort of a staircase, stepping down until you get to the Grand Canyon.

It's thought the North American plate in this region has been pushed up 5,000 to 10,000 feet, with the youngest and highest exposed rock around the Markagunt Plateau.

It's called a journey through time because in the (relatively) short drive, you travel over a layer of relatively young rock at the top of Bryce Canyon, around 140 million years old, to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, where the rock is somewhere around 1700 to 1800 million years old. That's over a billion and a half years of geologic history in some 300 to 400 linear miles.

Looking at it another way, the oldest rock in Bryce Canyon National Park is roughly the same as the youngest rock in Zion National Park. The oldest rock in Zion, is the same layer as the youngest rock in Grand Canyon. So just by visiting those three parks, you can see over 1.5 billion years of exposed, sedimentary rock.

You can also from the cross section, the up thrust under the Grand Canyon area was the cause of the buzz saw effect of the Colorado against the rock. As the ground moved upward, the river cut its channel deeper, trapping it within deep canyons.

It is another geologic wonder transversed by US-89, though other roads that transverse the Staircase, like Utah-12 are just as spectacular. Back to Top

Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument

Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument Map
Cropped map of a terrible map of Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument from the BLM website.
There was a lot of controversy over the creation of Grand Staircase - Escalante. It was widely seen as a 3000 square mile land grab, by a president in an election year who had no chance of winning the state of Utah. The park wasn't even dedicated in Utah, but in Grand Canyon in Arizona, even though Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef National Parks and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area touch the National Monument's borders. Utah was also the home state of the candidate the POTUS was running against. Of course, all of that had to be coincidence.

And while it is a desert, with zip codes with less than two people per square mile in it, it's still larger than the state of Delaware! If you travel to the interior of the park, make sure you have emergency supplies just in case. Should you be off the beaten path (not that there are a lot of beaten paths in the first place), it could take days for you to be found. This is not a place to win Darwin Awards because you blindly followed a GPS.

We were staying the night in Escalante, so we decided to try to get to one of the rock gardens in the park, one of the few places that doesn't require you to have a high-clearance, 4WD vehicle. It was 14 miles down a gravel road, which became a wash boarded hell seven miles in. Even if you think your car can handle that, remember your suspension will already be loaded with all your luggage, supplies and people, amplifying the bad road surface. I aborted the trip and had a delicious dinner in town.

Bottom line, if you don't have a high-clearance vehicle you're better off spending your time at Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef or Kodachrome Basin. On the other hand, if Georgie's Cafe is still open in Escalante, stop in for lunch or dinner. So what if she only has four tables. The food was excellent.

Since some of Utah-12 runs through the park, some images are duplicated here. Back to Top

Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument
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It's funny that I can't really recommend Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument as a place to visit for the casual traveler, but I highly recommend seeing the established sights on the Grand Staircase itself. Cedar Breaks, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Glen Canyon and Grand Canyon are the big parks, but Kodachrome Basin and Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, Little Colorado River Gorge, and many of the public areas along US-89 and Utah-12 are also showcases of awesome scenery and geology.

Related Links

The Utah-12 page might have more images of Grand Staircase-Escalante than this page. It's hard to tell where you are on the road without GPS coordinates. US-89 (older than the Monument) transverses the Southern part of the Park by the base of the Vermillion Cliffs before entering Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

Utah State Route 12
Utah-12 Link Utah State Route 12 (also named as the "Journey Through Time Byway") is my favorite road in America.

The 124 mile road starts at a unnamed junction with US-89 and ends in Torrey, Utah, pretty much connecting Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef National Park. In-between are a couple of those spectacular Utah State Parks, a National Monument and some jaw-dropping landscapes just off the side of the road.
Utah / 67 Images. Visited Sep 1997, Sep 2008.

US-89
US-89 Link US-89 is a remarkable road that follows some of the most scenic areas of the West from Canada to Arizona, and along the way passes through (or comes within a few miles of) over a half dozen major Western Parks. Glacier to Yellowstone to Grand Teton, Bryce, Zion, Glen Canyon and Grand Canyon.

I've actually frequented this road quite a bit, but in a disjointed, non-continuous fashion.

Visited Various
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Trip Report: Sep 2008.

Return to: State Index Utah State Page National Monuments

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