Friday, June 12, 2009

Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument

Until the late 1990s one of the most incredible places in the Southwest used to be a random collection of public and state lands just north of the Arizona-Utah border. Then President Bill Clinton took the bold step of creating The Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument by decree, thus preserving a vast swath of territory that contains some of the finest and most unspoiled landscapes the Colorado Plateau has to offer.

To be sure, the action was not unanimously applauded, and some local residents throughout the affected area are still angry about the Federal "land grab", but for the most part people have come to accept and understand the value of protecting such an incredible place. And as more and more visitors come to the region to learn about the array of fascinating geography, cultural and natural history, and priceless solitude found through much of the region, nearby residents are finding ways to profit from the would-be explorers.

The next series in my blog will explore the many different faces of the Grand Staircase.

What is the Grand Staircase?

The term Grand Staircase refers to a series of ever higher plateaus that begin with the Kaibab in Northern Arizona and culminate with the Aquarius Plateau in south-central Utah. Like risers on stairs, this succession of high and relatively flat land has been eroded and carved into some of the most spectacular canyon country on Earth. There are not enough superlatives in the English language to fully describe the dazzling array of shapes, colors, and formations found throughout the area, and only by visiting the Monument can you begin to understand and appreciate the amazing landscape.

The monument itself contains 1.9 million acres, and is set amongst several other incredible parks and recreation areas. Zion borders the GSENM to the west, Bryce Canyon is to the north, Capitol Reef NP to the northeast, Glen Canyon and Lake Powell to the east, and the newly created Vermilion Cliffs National Monument flanks the southern edge. Just south of all of it is the grandaddy of them all, the Grand Canyon. Another reason that makes GSENM unique is that it is administered by the Bureau of Land Management, and they continue to allow more use of the land than would be possible had the new monument been turned over to the Park Service.

Since the area is so big and access is fairly limited, I'll cover it over time using the three main regions. The westernmost section is called the Grand Staircase and roads here are a little less difficult from a terrain standpoint. The central section is referred to the as the Kaiparowits, and offers fewer roads and less forgiving landscapes. The eastern or Escalante region of GSENM is truly canyon country, and the roads and terrain are difficult at best. We'll begin by exploring in the Kaiparowits area.

Smoky Mountain Road - Day One

I recently took a 2 day trip into Utah to revisit a place I had not seen in 10 years. My goal was Smoky Mountain Road, a 78 mile long route that climbs up and over the remote and rugged Kaiparowits Plateau.

The road is one of three "main" routes that bisect the Monument, and it takes you through seldom visited and difficult terrain as it journeys north to Escalante. The memories I had of my previous trip were of a challenging and tortured backcountry road, along with complete and total solitude. I was curious about how accurately I remembered the place, so with some time off and very favorable weather, I decided to give it a shot.

I arrived at the BLM Visitor center in Big Water about mid-afternoon. They are one of several offices located around the edges of GSENM, where visitors can inquire about road conditions and get local weather forecasts. After checking out the status of the road and securing a permit, I was on my way.
To get here, travel west on Highway 89 about 10 miles west of Page, Arizona. Conveniently, the departure point for Smoky Mountain Road is directly across the highway from the building.

The trip begins as the road contours eastward around the base of Nipple Bench Cliffs. Here the soil is composed of silts and clays eroded from the layers above, and it contains high levels of minerals that are toxic to most plant life. The result is starkly beautiful but barren landscapes that resemble those of the Moon rather than Earth.

Without plant life to stabilize the soil, any rain carves and cuts deeply into the soft layers, resulting in weirdly eroded buttes and spires. Even though the environment is alien in appearance, it is very appealing in a visual way. The roadbed here is marked by evidence of heavy runoff and deep ruts of vehicles unfortunate enough to be driving in the area when the rains came.

Eventually the road leaves the base of the mesa behind, and begins to journey north towards the Kaiparowits itself. The name is of Paiute origin, and originally referred to a much smaller geographic area, but early settlers adopted the term to describe the entire region. Loosely translated it means "little brother of big mountain", where the big mountain is the Aquarius Plateau to the north.

As the road approaches the base of the plateau, it can be seen snaking its way up the sheer cliffs. This section of the road is called the "Kelly Grade", and it is steep and narrow with long drop offs down vertical slopes. Click on the photo below and look very hard to see where the road clings to the face of the cliff.

There is no room for two vehicles to pass, and literally no place to turn around. As I traveled up I kept hoping I would not meet any traffic on the way down. I needn't have worried - I saw no one else at all for the entire journey, and I'm sure that is normal out here.

The trail snakes it way across the face of the plateau, winding higher and higher until eventually it reaches the summit.

Looking out from the lofty heights you get a great view to the south of Page and Lake Powell

To the east Navajo Mountain rises over 10,000 feet to tower over the canyons of the San Juan arm of the lake.

I took advantage of the spectacular overlook to make camp for the night.

The air was cool and a slight breeze kept the cedar gnats at bay.... for the most part. The rain on the horizon made me wonder if the roads would be a challenge the following day. Next up: Into the heart of the Kaiparowits.

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