From Alaska’s Admiralty Islands and Nebraska’s agate fossil deposits to the Caribbean’s Virgin Islands Barrier Reef and Colorado’s Yucca House, the US boasts 131 national monuments.
That’s about twice as many as the total number of national parks. Add the fact that many of them are remote, obscure and rarely filmed or written about, it’s hard for anyone to know which ones to visit.
But there’s a strong case that Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM) in southern Utah — managed by the Bureau of Land Management, not the National Park Service — could be the undisputed heavyweight champion of America’s national monuments.
The park is named after two of the three main geographical features.
The Grand Staircase is part of a series of vast plateaus that gradually descend between Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon. Escalante Canyons were formed by the river of the same name and its tributaries. In between is the colossal Kaiparowits Plateau, which stretches more than 50 miles between the town of Escalante and the Colorado River.
The monument was signed by President Clinton in 1996. Energy companies convinced the Trump administration to reduce the size of the monument by 47% so they could explore coal reserves in the Kaiparowits. One of the first things the Biden administration did after taking office in 2020 was to restore the original size.
Huge, handsome and pristine
By any stretch of the imagination, the Grand Staircase-Escalante is huge. At nearly 1.9 million hectares, GSENM is huge. The third largest federal reserve in the lower 48 states after Death Valley and Yellowstone National Parks. Bigger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined.
It is also beautiful. A vast wilderness dotted with canyons, golden cliffs, rock arches, slickrock formations and other desert landscapes, as well as forests and flower meadows at higher points like the 7,000-foot Kaiparowits Plateau.
And untouched. Almost completely untouched. While roads (paved and unpaved) offer access to many of the monument’s most popular trails and geological wonders, most of the region is inaccessible unless you’re on foot, bike, horse—or helicopter if you’ve got the kind of dollars.
And a wildlife wonderland. The combination of different ecosystems, extreme remoteness and few people means that the animals have the park largely to themselves.
From black bears, cats and badgers to bighorn sheep, coyotes and mountain lions, more than 60 mammals are known to inhabit Grand Staircase-Escalante. More than 200 species of birds call the area home, including the endangered giant condor, bald eagle and peregrine falcon. Researchers have found over 650 different species of bees in the region, some of which inhabit only a small ecological niche.
Once upon a time, another type of wild animal was also abundant – dinosaurs. Paleontologists have discovered thousands of fossils, from the oldest tyrannosaur ever discovered (80 million years old) and a giant duck-billed dinosaur, to five species of horned ceratops and the giant crocodile-like Deinosuchus.
Twenty-five species of dinosaurs are unique to this region. There’s even one named after a park – Gryposaurus monumentensis (“the hook-billed lizard from the monument”).
Mountain biking enthusiasts consider Grand Staircase-Escalante one of the world’s premier locations for off-road biking and cycling. The first long-distance route is the 160-mile (257 km) Grand Staircase Route, a three-day dirt road ride that includes the opportunity to camp along the super-remote north shore of Lake Powell.
Long distance hiking is also epic. For those who can make their way through the wilderness with a GPS, compass and topographical map, there are plenty of options. The Hayduke Trail — an 812-mile (1,307 km) unmarked route between Arches and Zion National Parks — runs right through the middle of the GSENM.
However, you don’t have to be a marathon cyclist or hiker to hit the monument’s many highlights. Located on scenic State Highway 12, the town of Escalante is a jumping-off point for day trips and short hikes up north.
Pick up maps, brochures and the latest travel and weather conditions at the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center on the western edge of town before heading out on your own.
Just east of town is the turnoff for the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail, a dirt road that shoots south to the Devil’s Garden Trail, Peek-A-Boo Slot Canyon, 20 Mile Wash Dinosaur Trackway and the bizarre Cosmic Ash Rock.
Highway 12 offers roadside trails for the Calf Creek Trail to Calf Creek Falls and the Escalante Natural Bridge Trail along the oasis-like Escalante River to a towering red rock arch.
Crawling along the infernal spine
For a complete change of pace (and scenery), Hell’s Backbone Road runs 40 miles (65 km) between Escalante and Boulder. Rising out of the desert, the route climbs steadily into the densely wooded highlands of the Dixie National Forest and over the harrowing Hell’s Spine Bridge. Called “Utah’s scariest bridge,” this span was originally built in the 1930s over a narrow gorge 1,500 feet (457 meters) deep.
US Highway 89 winds along the southern edge of the national monument between Glen Canyon Dam and Kanaba. The Big Water Visitor Center is the place to gather information and maps about this region.
Just outside Big Water is the trailhead for the Wahweap Hoodoos, and further west along Highway 89 is the turnoff for the ghost town of Paria (where several western movies have been shown, including parts of Outlaw Josey Waleswere recorded).
Those with four-wheel drive and high ground clearance can cruise Cottonwood Canyon Road to the trails for Lower Hackberry Canyon and the iconic Grosvenor Arch. A rare double natural bridge, it was discovered in the 1930s during a National Geographic expedition through the last part of the Lower 48 states that had yet to be mapped.
BLM dispersed (free) camping is permitted throughout most of the national monument, however there are organized campgrounds at Calf Creek, Deer Creek, and White House, as well as state park campgrounds at Kodachrome Basin and Escalante Petrified Forest with its shady lakeside campsites.
The coolest place to stay on the north side of the monument, Yonder Escalante resort near the town of Escalante offers designer cabins, restored Airstream trailers, and hookup RV campsites. Amenities include a food truck, pool, fancy shower blocks and classic movies you watch from vintage cars in a simulated drive-in theater.
To the south, overnight options include glamping at Under Canvas Lake Powell-Grand Staircase and the chic Amangiri Resort, as well as ample motel-style accommodations in Kanab, UT and Page, AZ
Forbes – Lifestyle