A daunting, beautiful place

  • Escalante River in Utah's newest national monument

    Al Hartmann/Salt Lake Tribune

Note: This article is a sidebar to a feature story.

Covering an area larger than the state of Delaware, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument encompasses some of the wildest, most desolate land in the country. The expanse of canyons, bluffs, grasslands, cliffs is dotted with fossils and Native American archaeological sites.

If you stand on the north rim of the Grand Canyon and look into the western reaches of the monument, you will see the Grand Staircase: a series of vermilion, white and grey cliff walls rising in the distance. The final, pink, highest layer is farther west, at the rim of Bryce Canyon National Park. If you were to walk from the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the rim of Bryce Canyon, you'd cover 90 miles, climb 7,000 feet over 4 billion years of geologic history, and encounter life zones ranging from lower Sonoran desert to arctic alpine forest. Along the way, in hard-to-reach places like No Man's Mesa, you'd find undisturbed grasslands growing rich with native species like manzanita, poa, buckwheat and ricegrass.

In the eastern reaches of the monument lies the Escalante River and its sandstone canyons. Utah writer Kent Frost wrote of the area's fairy tale quality: "Escalante is sliced from beautiful rock that has been sculpted on a grand scale. Every side canyon conceals an arch or a cave or vault in sandstone colors of cream, beige, salmon, pink and brown."

Yet the monument's centerpiece is undoubtedly the formidable 60-mile long Kaiparowits Plateau, which looms nearly 2,000 feet above the surrounding country. It presents a daunting challenge to hikers, who must scale its sides and endure its persistent lack of water. But its beauty and sheer inaccessibility have won their share of fans. In his 1928 book Beyond the Rainbow, author Clyde Kluckhohn wrote:

"The panoramas from the rim are magnificent. Indeed for sublimity of scenery (the plateau) surpasses even the Grand Canyon.

"It must also be remembered that this is not a cheap scenery; it must be bought with time and sweat ... One can look down into Grand Canyon without ever having abandoned a single comfort or luxury, while the view from the rims of (the Kaiparowits) is purchased at high price, and perhaps is therefore understood and appreciated more."

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