Slickrock & Roll
Southern Utah, U.S.A.
Death Hollow. Hell’s Backbone. The Devil’s Garden. With names like these, you know that a visit to Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument won’t be just another picnic in the national park. And canyoneering—a silver-dollar word that describes hiking, scrambling, swimming, crawling, and scraping your way through a narrow canyon—may be the best way to explore this little-known and utterly breathtaking park.
Located in south-central Utah, Grand Staircase/Escalante takes up 1.9 million acres (760,000 hectacres) of some of America’s most remote backcountry. It’s not easy to get here: The nearest airports are hundreds of miles away in Salt Lake City or Las Vegas, and few roads traverse this region. But this isolation gives visitors the chance to explore a wilderness area virtually unchanged since the Anasazi natives abandoned it hundreds of years ago, leaving behind relics such as petroglyphs, building ruins, and even dried and preserved corn cobs.
Don’t come here expecting a sprawling visitors center with gurgling fountains and lavish exhibits. The national monument wasn’t established until 1996, and park amenities are few and far between: a handful of primitive campsites, a sign-in logbook nailed to a post, a pile of rocks denoting a trail head, and that’s about it. You might see another hiker or two, but most of your companions will be lizards, eagles, jackrabbits, and the indescribable beauty and silence of this rugged, colorful land.
The staircase that gives this national monument its name is a series of sedimentary rock layers that have been sliced open by wind and water to reveal over 600 million years of our planet’s history. The canyons that form the pages of this natural history book are as narrow as eight inches in some places, and glow with an almost psychedelic palette: pink, orange, blood red, chocolate and gold, all exposed under a mantle of perfect blue sky. Canyoneering here involves wading through ice-cold pools, scrambling over smooth slickrock, and squeezing your frame through narrow slot canyons. A good topographic map, a keen sense of direction, and an adventurous spirit will all come in handy here—as well as an appreciation for the beauty of this rare and magical landscape. —ML
Escalante Chamber of Commerce ( 435/826-4810; www.escalante-cc.com).
When to Go: Year-round.
$$ Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort, North Fork Rd., Mt. Carmel, UT ( 800/293-5444; www.zionponderosa.com). $$ Grand Staircase Inn, 105 North Kodachrome Dr., Cannonville, UT ( 435/679-8400; www.grandstaircaseinn.com).