There are two highways that run east and west along the northern and southern borders of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Both of these long roads take a few hours to traverse and they are two of the best scenic drives in the entire west! Escalante is one of the very last unspoiled wilderness areas on earth and this majestic landscape truly is breathtaking to see. Taking a scenic drive along the border of Escalante is a good way to become familiar with this unique terrain and many adventures await along the way.
U.S. Highway 89 is the southern route through Grand Staircase-Escalante. This long section of paved road parallels the Escalante border between the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Kanab, Utah. As a reference, the photographs for this article head in a westerly direction and the trip started at the Big Water Visitor Center, which is located at the eastern edge of the National Monument. The visitors center is the best place to start because maps, point of interest locations and a wealth of Grand Staircase-Escalante natural history information are provided in this place.
Most of the scenic drive on Highway 89 is for your eyes only, because there are relatively few places to safely pull off the road to take the views in. Even so, because this section of road goes for well over 100 miles, there will still be enough scenic overlooks to stretch the legs on a regular basis.
The Grand Staircase landscape is like no other place on earth and the colorful eroded tiers of this unique geological feature are fascinating to see! Thick layers upon layers of eroded bedrock that vary greatly in color are what the Grand Staircase is composed of. Some are volcanic black basalt and some are volcanic white ash. Some layers are ancient ocean bottom red sandstone, while others are composed of calcified yellow limestone from ancient lake shellfish. The mineralized staircase layers add magenta and rusty orange tones to the landscape. During spring, this region is alive with green growth and wildflowers, which add even more of a dramatic effect. As can be imagined, the scenic drive on Highway 89 through Grand Staircase-Escalante is quite a fascinating visual experience!
All along the southern stretch of U.S. 89, there are several BLM dirt roads that run deep into Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. A high ground clearance 4×4 vehicle definitely is the best mode of transportation for these rough dirt roads and ordinary passenger car drivers should not take the risk. Escalante is a very remote wilderness area and taking chances will likely result in a survival situation with little hope for rescue. Therefore, it is best to be fully prepared before venturing into the Escalante back country on the long dirt side roads.
Along the paved highway, there are many outdoor adventure options. Guided horseback ventures into Escalante are available and ATV rentals can be found in the small towns at either end of the park. Kanab is a nice old western town that is well known as the basecamp for Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument adventures. There are plenty of good dining options in Kanab too.
There are several hiking trailheads that are located along Highway 89 and most of the trails are quite lengthy, so they are overnighter ventures. There is one short hiking trail in the Toadstools area next to the highway that is a popular spot for taking a break from the road. This trail is only about a two mile round trip, so it is perfect for stretching the legs during the long scenic drive. The Toadstools are a unique eroded rock formation that is very photogenic, so be sure to pack a good camera and plenty of water for the short hike!
This entire National Monument has many diverse ecosystems and there is plenty of wildlife to see. It is even possible to stumble upon some ancient wildlife at Escalante too. Dinosaur fossil finds are numerous in this area, so do not be surprised if an old T-Rex jawbone is stumbled upon while taking a casual stroll. By law, only the memories or photos can legally be taken home and any ancient artifacts discovered must be left in their natural state. Reporting newly discovered artifacts to the park rangers is also part of a visitor’s responsibilities, so the new artifacts can be logged and protected as well. These rules also apply to ancient pottery shards or any native artifacts, because this entire region is a sacred heritage site.
The Grand Staircase actually refers to a unique condition of natural rock strata erosion. The Grand Staircase is composed of layers upon layers of limestone, hardened silt clay, volcanic ash and bedrock of every color imaginable. After millions of years of weathering, each layer has eroded at an individual rate to create what can only be described as a staircase formation that gradually rises to a high elevation apex from the desert floor. The lowest steps in the staircase are located along the southern border of this park, so as a visitor heads north into the wilderness, the vivid landscape becomes even more dramatic. There are many odd one of a kind features in this landscape that can only be accessed by foot, horseback or 4×4, which include hidden box canyons, tall rock outcrop spires, ancient aquifer caves and natural stone arches. Since this National Monument covers nearly two million acres, a visitor could spend weeks exploring this place and never become bored!
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is a place that cannot be fully experienced in just one day. Taking a scenic drive on Highway 89 through the southern edge of the Grand Staircase is a good way to discover what lies in store and it will make it easier to plan an off-highway excursion. For those who just want to experience some pretty views while passing through, a day trip on this section of road certainly will provide plenty of picturesque eye candy to see!
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