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59 miles E of Bryce Canyon National Park (to the town of Escalante)

Covering almost 1.9 million acres, this vast area of red-orange canyons, mesas, plateaus, and river valleys is known for its stark, rugged beauty. Operated by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), it contains a unique combination of geological, biological, paleontological, archaeological, and historical resources.

In announcing the creation of the monument from lands already under federal control in 1996, former President Bill Clinton proclaimed, "This high, rugged, and remote region was the last place in the continental United States to be mapped; even today, this unspoiled natural area remains a frontier, a quality that greatly enhances the monument's value for scientific study."

While hailed by environmentalists, the president's action was not popular in Utah, largely because the area contains a great deal of coal and other valuable resources. Utah Senator Orrin Hatch denounced Clinton's decree, calling it "the mother of all land-grabs."

Unlike most other national monuments, practically all of this vast area is undeveloped -- there are few all-weather roads, only one maintained hiking trail, and two developed campgrounds. But the adventurous will find miles upon miles of dirt roads and what are called "hiking routes," offering practically unlimited opportunities for hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking on existing dirt roads, and camping.

The national monument can be divided into three distinct sections: The Grand Staircase of sandstone cliffs, which includes five life zones, from Sonoran Desert to coniferous forests, in the southwest; the Kaiparowits Plateau, a vast, wild region of rugged mesas and steep canyons, in the center; and the Escalante River Canyons section, along the northern edge of the monument, a delightfully scenic area containing miles of interconnecting river canyons.

Over such a vast area, weather conditions vary greatly, but it's safe to say that summers are hot. As with most parts of southern Utah, spring and fall are the best times to visit.

Getting There -- The national monument occupies a large section of southern Utah -- covering an area almost as big as the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined -- with Bryce Canyon National Park to the west, Capitol Reef National Park on the northeast edge, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area along the east and part of the south sides.

Access is via Utah 12, along the monument's northern boundary, from Kodachrome Basin State Park and the communities of Escalante and Boulder; and via U.S. 89 to the southwestern section of the monument, east of the town of Kanab, which is about 80 miles south of Bryce Canyon.

Information & Visitor Centers -- The national monument remains a very rugged area, with limited facilities, poor roads, and changeable weather. To put it bluntly, people die here, so we strongly recommend that before setting out, all visitors contact one of the monument's visitor centers to get maps and other information, and especially to check on current road and weather conditions. Also see the monument's website, www.ut.blm.gov/monument.

Visitor centers include the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center, on the west side of Escalante, at 755 W. Main St. (Utah 12), Escalante, UT 84726 (tel. 435/826-5499), open daily 8am to 4:30pm from mid-March through mid-November, and Monday through Friday the same hours the rest of the year. You can also get information at the Bureau of Land Management's Kanab Visitor Center, 745 E. U.S. 89, Kanab, UT 84741 (tel. 435/644-4680), open daily 8am to 4:30pm.

The Cannonville Visitor Center is open daily from 8am to 4:30pm, mid-March through mid-November only, at 10 Center St., in Cannonville (tel. 435/826-5640), east of Bryce Canyon National Park. The Big Water Visitor Center is along U.S. 89, near the southern edge of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, at 100 Upper Revolution Way, in Big Water (tel. 435/675-3200). It is open daily from 9am to 5:30pm April through October and daily 8am to 4:30pm the rest of the year.

Fees, Regulations, and Safety -- There is no charge to enter the monument; however, those planning overnight trips into the backcountry must obtain free permits at any of the visitor centers listed above. Regulations are similar to those on other public lands, but damaging or disturbing archaeological and historic sites in any way is particularly forbidden. There are also several areas where dogs are forbidden; check with one of the visitor centers.

Water is the main safety concern here -- either too little or too much. This is generally very dry country, so carry plenty of drinking water. However, thunderstorms can turn the monument's dirt roads into impassable mud bogs in minutes, stranding motorists; and potentially fatal flash floods through narrow canyons can catch hikers by surprise. Anyone planning trips into the monument should check first with one of the offices listed above for current and anticipated weather and travel conditions, and should be alert to changing conditions while exploring the monument.

Camping

There are two designated campgrounds in the monument. Calf Creek Campground, in the Calf Creek Recreation Area, about 15 miles northeast of the town of Escalante via Utah 12, has 14 sites and a picnic area. Open year-round, the tree-shaded campground is situated in a scenic, steep canyon along Calf Creek, surrounded by high rock walls. Facilities include picnic tables, grills, and an interpretive hiking trail. There also are flush toilets and drinking water, but no showers, RV hookups, RV dump station, or trash removal. In summer, the campground is often full by 10am. November through March, water is turned off and only vault toilets are available. Vehicles must ford a shallow creek, and the campground is not recommended for vehicles over 25 feet long. Campsites cost $7 per night; day use is $2 per vehicle.

The national monument's other designated campground is Deer Creek, located 6 miles east of the town of Boulder along the scenic Burr Trail Road. There are vault toilets, picnic tables, and grills, but no drinking water or other facilities. Camping at the seven primitive sites costs $4, and the campground is open year-round. RVs and cars can fit onto the sites here.

There are also developed campgrounds and a number of primitive camping locations just outside the monument's boundaries. Backcountry camping is permitted in most areas of the monument with a free permit, available at the Interagency Office in Escalante and the BLM office in Kanab.

Sports & Activities

This rugged national monument offers numerous opportunities for outdoor adventures, including canyoneering through narrow slot canyons, with the aid of ropes. You can get information on the best areas for canyoneering at the monument's visitor centers, but we cannot emphasize too strongly that this is not the place for beginners. To put it bluntly, people die here, and you don't want to be one of them.

We recommend that unless you are an expert at this specialized sport that you go with an expert. One of the best is Rick Green, owner of Excursions of Escalante, 125 E. Main St. (P.O. Box 605), Escalante, UT 84726 (tel. 800/839-7567; www.excursionsofescalante.com). Trips, which are available mid-March through mid-November, usually include four people with one guide, and all equipment is provided. In addition to canyoneering trips, the company offers day hiking and backpacking excursions, specialized tours, and 3-day canyoneering courses ($500-$600). Day trips include lunch. Day hiking trips cost $125 per person, canyoneering costs $145 to $165 per person, and a photo safari costs $170 per person. Overnight backpacking trips cost $250 to $275 per person per day, which includes practically everything you need, including food. Credit cards are not accepted; cash and checks are welcome. Excursions of Escalante also provides a flexible shuttle service; call for a quote.

Hiking, Mountain Biking & Horseback Riding

Located about 15 miles northeast of Escalante via Utah 12, the Calf Creek Recreation Area has a campground, and a picnic area with fire grates and tables, trees, drinking water, and flush toilets. The best part of the recreation area, though, is the moderately strenuous 6-mile round-trip hike to Lower Calf Creek Falls. A sandy trail leads along Calf Creek, past beaver ponds and wetlands, to a beautiful waterfall, cascading 126 feet down a rock wall into a tree-shaded pool. You can pick up an interpretive brochure at the trail head. The day use fee is $2 per vehicle.

Although Calf Creek Trail is the monument's only officially marked and maintained trail, numerous unmarked cross-country routes are ideal for hiking, mountain biking (on existing dirt roads only), and horseback riding. We strongly recommend that hikers stop at the Interagency Office in Escalante or the BLM office in Kanab to get recommendations on hiking routes and to purchase topographic maps. Hikers need to remember that this is wild country, and hiking can be hazardous. Rangers recommend carrying at least 1 gallon of water per person per day, and say that all water from streams should be treated before drinking. The potential for flooding is high, and hikers should check with the BLM before attempting to hike through the monument's narrow slot canyons. Other hazards include poisonous snakes, scorpions, and poison ivy. Slickrock, as the name suggests, is slippery, so hikers should wear sturdy hiking boots with traction soles.

Among the most popular and relatively easy-to-follow hiking routes is the footpath to Escalante Natural Bridge. The path repeatedly crosses the river, so be prepared to get wet up to your knees. The easy 2-mile (one-way) hike begins at a parking area off Utah 12 at the bridge that crosses the Escalante River near Calf Creek Recreation Area, 15 miles northeast of the town of Escalante. From the parking area, hike upstream to Escalante Natural Bridge, on the south side of the river. The stone bridge is 130 feet high and spans 100 feet.

Also starting at the Utah 12 bridge parking area is a hike downstream to Phipps Wash. Mostly moderate, this hike goes about 1.5 miles to the mouth of Phipps Wash, which enters the river from the west. You'll find Maverick Natural Bridge at the north side drainage of Phipps Wash, and climbing up the drainage on the south side leads to Phipps Arch.

Hiking the national monument's slot canyons is very popular, but we can't overemphasize the importance of checking on flood potentials before starting out. A sudden rainstorm, even one that's miles away, can cause a flash flood through a narrow canyon, trapping hikers.

One challenging and very strenuous slot-canyon hike is through Peek-a-boo and Spooky canyons, which are accessible from the Hole-in-the-Rock Scenic Backway. Stop at the Escalante Interagency Office for precise directions.

Sightseeing & Four-Wheeling

Because it is one of America's least-developed sections of public land, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument offers a wonderful opportunity for exploration by the adventurous. Be aware, though, that the dirt roads inside the monument turn muddy -- and impassable -- when it rains.

One particularly popular road is the Hole-in-the-Rock Scenic Backway, which is partly in the national monument and partly in the adjacent Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Like most roads in the monument, driving this route should be attempted in dry weather only. Starting about 5 miles northeast of Escalante off Utah 12, this clearly marked dirt road travels 57 miles (one-way) to the Hole-in-the-Rock, where Mormon settlers, in 1880, cut a passage through solid rock to get their wagons down a 1,200-foot cliff to the canyon floor and Colorado River below.

About 12 miles in, you'll encounter the sign for the Devil's Rock Garden, an area of classic red rock formations and arches, where you'll also find a picnic area (about a mile off the main road). The road continues across a plateau of typical desert terrain, ending at a spectacular scenic overlook of Lake Powell. The first 35 miles of the scenic byway are relatively easy (in dry weather) in a standard passenger car; it then gets a bit steeper and sandier, and the last 6 miles of the road require a high clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle. Allow about 6 hours round-trip, and make sure you have plenty of fuel and water.

Another recommended drive in the national monument is the Cottonwood Canyon Road, which runs from Kodachrome Basin State Park south to U.S. 89, along the monument's southern edge, a distance of about 46 miles. The road is sandy and narrow, but usually serviceable for passenger cars in dry weather. It mostly follows Cottonwood Wash, with good views of red rock formations and distant panoramas from hilltops. About 10 miles east of Kodachrome Basin State Park, you'll find a short side road to Grosvenor Arch. This magnificent stone arch, with an opening 99 feet wide, was named for National Geographic Society founder and editor Gilbert H. Grosvenor. Incidentally, a professional photographer friend of ours complained bitterly about the power lines that parallel the road, making scenic photography difficult. However, the BLM tells us that the road wouldn't exist at all if it weren't for those power lines.

Wildlife- & Bird-Watching

This isolated and rugged terrain makes a good habitat for a number of species, including desert Bighorn sheep and mountain lions. More than 200 species of birds have been seen, including bald eagles, golden eagles, Swainson's hawks, and peregrine falcons. The best areas for seeing wildlife are along the Escalante and Paria rivers and Johnson Creek.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.