This national monument was the crown jewel of conservation lands managed by the BLM: a wild and beautiful country of slot canyons, mesas, sandstone cliffs, plateaus, river gorges and desert habitats, all on almost 1.9 million acres (769,000 ha) which connected other conservation lands and provided critical space for species’ migration. Grand Staircase-Escalante was established in 1996, but in December 2017 President Trump passed another proclamation which reduced the size of the monument to a little over 1 million acres (405,000 ha) concentrated in three distinct areas: Grand Staircase, Kaiparowits, and Escalante Canyons. Currently the BLM is working on putting together new maps and resources adapted to the changes from last year, while local and national advocates and organizations have sued the presidential administration for the changes imposed. The old BLM map is available here, while this new one shows the boundary modifications. The best online map of the old monument can be found here. The Kaiparowits Plateau, at the heart of the Grand Staircase-Escalante, has been the hotspot for paleontologists from around the world. Since the monument’s creation in 1996, twenty one new species of dinosaurs previously unknown to science have been discovered here. The plateau is also the most remote part of the national monument and truly a wild country. There aren’t any significant marked trails throughout it, but you can take a couple of days driving the rough, remote and scenic Smoky Mountain road (BLM Rd 300) through the center of the plateau and do day hikes. On trail you can access the Kaiparowits Plateau from the eastern side, from the Hole-in-the-Rock maintained gravel road (with a lot of washboard areas). You can either do a day hike up the Straight Cliffs/Fiftymile Mountain from the trailhead across from Hurricane Wash or extend your adventure across several days (online information regarding trails up the Straight Cliffs is very scarce. This is a description of a 16-mile one way hike up the ridge and to Monday Canyon) . If you’re passionate about the idea of crossing the whole plateau on foot, you can get in touch with the community of hikers doing the 800 mile (1,287 km) Hayduke Trail, which winds its way atop the Kaiparowits (link to a recent blog documenting the trail and the sections in Grand Staircase-Escalante). The Kaiparowits is also where the highest density of natural resources is located, which is why many supporters of the monument fear that the changes brought by the Trump administration will also mean potential drilling in this sensitive area. The Hole-in-the-Rock road, aside from the Hayduke Trail, is also your access point to several landmarks in the national monument which can be done as day hikes: the popular but worth seeing Devil’s Garden, the picturesque Dance Hall Rock and the amazing Peekaboo and Spooky slot canyons which have been excluded from the monument in 2017. If your mind is set on the Escalante Canyons section, hiking possibilities are numerous, but they generally require experience and rappelling equipment. Despite their remoteness and difficulty at times, their beautiful narrow walls and impressive arches attract fairly large crowds. Probably the most popular day hike in this region is the Lower Calf Creek Falls, while Coyote Gulch is equally popular but a lot more difficult. Coyote Gulch is undoubtedly spectacular, but it can feel crowded at times. We happened to catch a weekend in Grand Staircase-Escalante when we visited in late October/early November and the monument was quite busy. To avoid large crowds and try out a less popular hike we went to the Interagency Visitor Center in the town of Escalante where we got our intel regarding the Escalante River Canyon trail. Since we had two friends joining us for this short backpacking trip we left one car at the Escalante River Trailhead where we would exit the following day and began hiking from the Escalante Town Trailhead. This walk is a beautiful introduction to a landscape carved and modified by water in the midst of an arid desert habitat. Fremont cottonwoods are present along the banks and wildflowers fill the air with a pleasant smell. Straight cliffs surround this canyon and from their sheer walls some ponderosa pines shoot up in an implausible act of defying gravity. A local organization which are the main supporters of the monument, Grand Staircase-Escalante Partners, have engaged in a massive effort alongside 30 other groups and agencies to restore the native habitat of this beautiful river and control the presence of invasive vegetation. There are at least a couple dozen river-crossings involved in this hike so wet feet will be a major part of it. Exiting at the Escalante River Trailhead was a bit startling after the solitude of the canyon, as this is a busy day-use area with a large campground adjacent to the popular Lower Calf Creek Falls. Finally, heading south through the Grand Staircase section you can take the amazing Cottonwood Canyon Road from Cannonville down to the Toadstools area. Not far from Cannonville you’ll find the small Kodachrome Basin State Park with some mind-boggling sandstone formations worth checking out, and with a busy campground. Continuing south you’ll soon reach a landmark area of Grand Staircase: Grosvenor Arch, rising 150 ft (45 m) above a sea of sagebrush and looking majestic in the sunset light. From here we had another short drive until we reached the Cottonwood Narrows North and South trailheads, which we thought was the most spectacular section of the entire road, including the short hike into the narrows. Approaching its southern end the scenic road passes through a small oasis in the middle of a dry landscape due to the presence of the Paria River, and ends at the junction with the paved US Route 89. Very close to this junction you’ll find another spectacular day-hike area to explore: the Toadstools. Since we first went there a few years ago this trail has gotten a lot more popular, so you’ll share it with a crowd, but it’s still worth it. The Toadstools has been excluded from the national monument as well according to the new boundaries. Finally, continuing on US-89 you’ll reach the monument’s main visitor center where you’ll find excellent maps, resources and the paleontology lab in the town of Kanab. Kanab has become, in the past twenty years since the monument was established, an attractive base and gateway community to a lot of adventures in Southern Utah due to its proximity not only to Grand Staircase, but also to Zion National Park and a lot of other Southern Utah attractions. You’ll find here good accommodation options, several outfitters, a nice outdoor shop, an excellent café, bakery and bistro, and a great pizzeria with a beer garden. Similar to Kanab but on a smaller scale, the town of Escalante in the north side is also fully adapted to being a base camp for adventures in the national monument. Truly, Grand Staircase-Escalante is so vast and the possibilities for recreation so numerous that it requires a lifetime to explore. Do your research and choose your best adventure, then head there because you’ll get to experience one of the most beautiful, remote places in the lower 48.
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