Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (UT)

At 1.9 million acres, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM) is the largest park in the Southwest, but one of the least visited. This is one big mother of a park, complete with all the geologic wonders that make the Southwest so visually stunning—hoodoos, slot canyons, buttes, mesas, towering cliffs, all in brilliant colors of vermillion, burnt orange, golds, pinks, purples—and man-made ones (ruins and petroglyphs). Its sprawling size and points-of-interest that are widely spaced apart, not to mention the largely undeveloped roads, make it unlikely to become a tourist magnet anytime soon. Most of the secondary roads become impassable in heavy rain or snow. Its national monument status was conferred by President Clinton only in 1996. As its name suggests, the park is part of the enormous and geologically unique formation, spread over two states, called the Grand Staircase. Think of it literally as a stairway that, at its lowest point, starts at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, stepping in ever higher elevations through the North Rim, Chocolate Cliffs, Escalante, Zion National Park, Bryce, and ending up the Aquarius Plateau at a dizzying 11,000 feet in elevation.

Image from wikipedia (click to enlarge)

To get to Bryce from Page, we had to backtrack westward on Highway 89 along the southern edge of GSENM, then cut through the national monument along the unimproved Cottonwood Canyon Road, which parallels a geologic formation known as the Cockscomb Monocline. This is not really just a way to get to Bryce but another spectacular Southwest scenic area.

Specializing in paleontology, the Big Water Visitor Center on the southern end of Highway 89 is a fascinating place to visit. Inside, there are a 30-foot mural that depicts the Cretaceous period and a complete dinosaur fossil. The enthusiastic ranger there told us that a complete dinosaur fossil is found on average once a month in the park.

Big Water Visitors Center specializes in paleontology
Big Water Visitors Center specializes in paleontology

Here we picked up a handout that identified the points-of-interest along 47-mile-long Cottonwood Canyon Road, including a 90-million-year-old oyster bed, some slot canyons, Grosvenor Arch and Kodachrome Basin State Park.

Oyster fossils are 95 million years old.
Oyster fossils are 95 million years old

Most of these were very hard to find; in fact, the handout relies on using your car’s odometer to locate them. Signs along the road were also not very explicit. A couple of the hikes were fruitless because they weren’t well marked. We wandered around without finding anything that resembled a trail. At least, attempting to find the trail to Lower Hackberry canyon, there was an sandstone upthrust that was immense.

Uplift along Cottonwood
Our car is dwarfed by this uplift

Another trail led to a boulder-littered slot canyon, definitely not conducive to an easy hike.

Boulder-strewn slot canyon
Boulder-strewn slot canyon

We finally salvaged something out of the day when we found Grosvenor Arch, the first arch (a double arch, in fact) we saw on our trip.

Grosvenor Arch
The double arches of Grosvenor Arch

The Cockscomb, more formally known as the East Kaibab Monocline, is so named for the alternating layers of white and red rock, like a rooster’s cockscomb, that lie almost vertically along the Cottonwood Canyon Road, as if these layers were tilted from folding over.

Cockscomb layering along the East Kaibab Monocline
Cockscomb layering along the East Kaibab Monocline

You can easily spend a week to explore the many geological wonders here. If you’re willing to do considerable off-roading, hiking and canyoneering, there are many splendors to experience that many visitors to the park will never see.


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