Even if it didn't have a beautiful national park at each end -- Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef -- the Highway 12 Scenic Byway, which passes by and through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, would be well worth the drive for the richly varied scenery: red-rock spires and canyons, dense forests of tall evergreens, pastoral meadows, colorful slickrock, and plunging waterfalls. Whether you're just passing through, pausing briefly at scenic viewpoints along the way, or stopping to explore this huge national monument, you'll have plenty to see. Those driving between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef national parks should allow at least 4 hours for the trip, but can easily take longer with a stop in the small community of Escalante, a visit to its fine state park, and a detour through the wild areas in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and other nearby public lands.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Known for its stark, rugged beauty, this vast land contains a unique combination of geological, biological, paleontological, archaeological, and historical resources. The area's 1.9 million acres of red-orange canyons, mesas, plateaus, and river valleys became a national monument by presidential proclamation in 1996.

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

Under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management, the monument is expected to remain open for grazing and possible oil and gas drilling under existing leases (although no new leases will be issued), as well as for hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, and other forms of recreation.

Unlike most other national monuments, almost 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 practically unlimited opportunities for camping, and hiking, horseback riding, and mountain biking on existing dirt roads.

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, which is a delightfully scenic area containing miles of interconnecting river canyons.