Roam with a view: Drink up the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument while you still can
By Rebecca Chavez-Houck
The shoulder seasons are our most favorite times to visit southcentral Utah, and we love spending time in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). Our visits there are now particularly cherished, especially as efforts to wither the size of the monument move forward.
I can track the lifespan of GSENM with the passage of my time as a parent. The monument is only two years younger than our son, Michael. We’ve spent many family camping trips exploring the monument. I can’t believe it’s been reduced to a whisper of its original size within the span of the two years.
The hue and cry to reduce the size of the 22-year-old monument has been nonstop since then-President Bill Clinton designated the nearly 2 million-acre national monument in 1996. Now that the boundaries for the monument (along with Bears Ears) are threatened, the discussion in our state remains heated.
The legal battle to protect this part of our state is worth supporting. Its breathtaking landscape is distinct from the more popular national parks in the area. My colleagues on the advisory board of Hispanics Enjoying Camping and Hunting Outdoors (HECHO) and I continue to defend both monuments along with the nearly half-million advocates and other environmental organizations who weighed in during the public comment period. (Reports note that nearly 99 percent of comments submitted were in favor of maintaining the monuments’ original boundaries.) I encourage readers to follow the Grand Staircase-Escalante Partners’ website at GSENM.org.
My husband, Martin, and I visited GSENM most recently in October 2018 after spending a couple of days in Capitol Reef National Park. We traveled the Notom-Bullfrog Road south off of Utah State Route 24, through the southeast portion of Capitol Reef, and then made our way along the Burr Trail switchbacks back toward Boulder (ScenicByway12.com).
If you explore this road, it’s best with a high-clearance 4WD vehicle, although we did see some sedans. If the road gets wet, you’ll want to avoid driving on the unpaved sections. Check road conditions and recommendations at official GSENM visitor centers in Kanab, Escalante, Cannonville, Big Water and Anasazi State Park Museum.
Believe it or not, Martin and I navigated the Burr Trail switchbacks in the Winnebago View a few years ago (I would not recommend this for rigs longer than our 24-foot Class C). It’s breathtaking but a little scary for those who don’t like looking down the edge of cliffs as you travel upward (or downward).
There are delightful places to camp along the Burr Trail Scenic Byway, such as Deer Creek Campground (7 miles east of Boulder, 435-826-5499, BLM.gov). However, with only seven sites and nothing really for a rig our size, it’s better for tent camping or RPods and the like. You’d probably have better luck boondocking with a larger rig or trailer, which is permitted by the BLM in other areas of GSENM. Again, check in with the area rangers to evaluate your options.
The expanse of the monument offers so much to explore. You see signs of the early inhabitants of this area everywhere, even when you’re hiking on the Lower Calf Creek Falls trail. Coyote Gulch (about 30 miles southeast of Escalante via Hole-in-the-Rock Road) is the notable “go-to” location for seeing Anasazi rock art (near Cliff Arch). With the recent calls to exempt Utah from the Antiquities Act, I can only wonder what treasures will be lost in places like Coyote Gulch if the majority of our congressional delegation gets its way.
Martin and I have been lucky in the past to nab an RV campsite at Calf Creek Recreation Area Campground (15 miles east of Escalante on Highway 12, 435-826-5499, BLM.gov). I love the intimacy of this campground, but it is a luck-of the-draw situation because the sites are not reservable. You have to catch it early enough in the afternoon when folks are leaving their sites—but not too late, because there are only five RV sites and 14 tent sites. We found ours at around 2 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon, but even then, it was like “campsite lotto.”
If you’re looking for larger RV sites with hookups, showers and other amenities, we recommend Escalante Petrified Forest State Park (710 N. Reservoir Road, Escalante, 435-826-4466, StateParks.Utah.gov). We had hoped to kayak on Wide Hollow Reservoir the last time we were there (the campground is right next to it), but being late fall, the resevoir was nearly empty. You’ll want to check with the rangers in advance to assess the water level if you want to enjoy any water activities. If the state park is full, there might be sites available at Escalante Cabins and RV Park (Grand Staircase Resort, 680 W. Main, Escalante, 435-826-4433, EscalantePark.com).
In Boulder, one of the best ways to familiarize yourself with the area is to drop by the Anasazi State Park Museum (460 UT-12, Boulder, 435-335-7308, StateParks.Utah.gov). It provides informative context for the places you see in the monument. While locals there are divided about the monument, two of the most vocal defenders are Jen Castle and Blake Spalding, owners of Hell’s Backbone Grill (20 North Highway 12, Boulder, 435-335-7464, HellsBackboneGrill.com.) We stopped for a late dinner at the grill after our reverse trek on the Burr Trail in late 2018, and it gave me a chance to thank Blake for their valiant efforts to protect and the preserve the monument. If you drive either of the routes between Boulder and Capitol Reef National Park (either through the switchbacks or on Hwy 12), be sure to drop by the grill. You will find locally sourced gourmet fare that will not disappoint. Reservations are highly recommended.
For those not camping, Hell’s Backbone Grill is situated on the property of Boulder Mountain Lodge (20 N. Highway 12, 435-335-7460, Boulder-Utah.com), a home base for exploring the GSENM, Capitol Reef, Burr Trail and other public lands.
So much to take in, and possibly so little time to enjoy such rare isolation.
Monuments shouldn’t only have the lifespan of a childhood. The monument’s vanishing protection is something that I mourn. While market forces seem to be tempering any real appetite for energy development, I think that travelers would be well advised to take in the area’s raw beauty before it’s too late. Please also consider supporting organizations such as the Grand Staircase-Escalante Partners as it fights to protect this Utah treasure.