“I liked the work and the canyon country and returned the following year for a second season. I would have returned the third year too and each year thereafter but unfortunately for me the Arches, a primitive place when I first went there, was developed and improved so well that I had to leave.”
— Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
In the fall of 2016 my wife and I took a trip to Utah. We aren’t the type for fancy resorts and high brow dining. For us vacation is renting a car and seeing as many places as our time there would allow. We book no hotels, and make no reservations ahead of time. We buy plane tickets, we rent a car, and we see where the road takes us. This type of travel gives us a freedom we don’t get in our day to day life, where each day blends together under the rhythm of routine. We want our vacations to be as far from predictable as we can get. For us, this is the perfect escape.
Before that, the last time I was in Utah was the winter of 2011. I just earned my first two paid vacation days in my life, and like a good 25 year old, I thought saving them for an actual illness would be wasteful. I moved to Denver six months earlier with the idea that I would spend all of my free time rock climbing and hiking in the Rockies. The cruel trick was that my job as a rental car agent kept me chained to the airport in a suit every day. It was about as far from my dream life as I could get—but I had never gotten paid to go on an adventure before, so I reveled in the moment.
I left Denver after work that evening and planned to drive through the night, with the goal of reaching Hurricane, Utah ten hours later. It ended up taking closer to 15 hours since a snow storm formed over the entire western front. Had I owned a smartphone, I could have checked the weather. Had I understood the point of AM radio, I would have known about 1010 WINS. Instead I put my iPod on shuffle and drove onward, clueless as to what awaited me.
My little Mazda3 entered Eisenhower Tunnel on the eastern side of Loveland Pass under a pleasant flurry of snow. I exited to the wrath of a Rocky Mountain blizzard that produced near white-out conditions. The roads grew treacherous and snow fell so hard that my car felt like a small boat as I slid down I-70. My left palm cramped around the steering wheel and my right hand slid over the shifter as I prayed my driving skills would keep me from careening off into the runaway truck ramp. I could have turned back, I should have turned back, but I was determined not to waste my mini-vacation. I would later learn the storm got so bad they closed Eisenhower tunnel, restricting travel through the mountains that evening, right after I made it through.
Five hours later, as though the state line were more than just a mark on a map, I crossed the curtain of snow to clear, starry skies. With no cars in sight, I stopped the car right in the middle of the interstate and lay on the hood of my car, wiping sweat from my forehead and laughing in relief. And that feeling is how I would always remember Utah, salvation. The evening my wife told me she wanted to go to Utah, I thought back to that night. It was such a shame that driving to and from Denver, I saw most of the Utah frontier in darkness. Sure I saw Zion and some of southwestern Utah, but on the way back to Denver I drove through the night again under the comfort of clear skies the entire way.
View of the south-side of Zion National Park
Hiking over the orange slick rock in Zion National Park
We planned to go for seven days and I made it a goal to not drive at night if we could help it. Seeing every mountain, rocky outcrop, and canyon was essential. We planned our route starting in Salt Lake City and driving south to Zion. Then we would make our way east across Bryce Canyon and Grand Staircase - Escalante before heading up through Capitol Reef and ending in Moab where we would see Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.
We had the goal of exploring a slot canyon. I had assumed we would do this when we got to Canyonlands National Park at the end of our trip, however I found a small blog post on a place in Grand Staircase - Escalante called Peek-a-boo Canyon. We decided we couldn’t wait until we got all the way to Moab and would check it out after Bryce Canyon.
We arrived at the entrance to Zion National Park on a Saturday morning to the glimmer of crawling lines of automobile hoods and RV roofs. The glowing orange towers rising out of the lush valley leave you in a surreal trance — but the freight train of motorists and pullouts filled with tourists, holding phones in outstretched arms, took something away. It made it impossible to just relax and enjoy, to stop and meander around, to get lost in the grandeur.
The following day at Bryce Canyon, the experience was similar to that of a shopping mall, circling the parking lot for ten minutes as we waited to see back-up lights. We decided it would be better to come back around dinner time when the crowds cleared. I was re-reading Desert Solitaire on that trip and was seeing first hand what Edward Abbey cautioned us against fifty years earlier.
View from the top of Bryce Canyon National Park
“Those were all good times, especially the first two seasons when the tourist business was poor and the time passed extremely slowly, as time should pass, with the days lingering and long, spacious and free as the summers of childhood.”
— Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
While we loved our time in Zion and Bryce, my wife and I reflected that we would have to remember to return on weekdays and in the off-season in the future. National Parks are incredible places, but it is clear that the demand has grown far higher than the supply. Today’s political struggle for the protection of public lands is astounding to me. When you consider the human herds that migrate over every square inch of roadway and trailhead every year, do we really need another resort casino or golf course?
The following morning we began the drive to Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument. A National Monument is different from a National Park in that it is maintained by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) rather than the National Parks Service (NPS). The land becomes off limits for industrial uses, however local ranchers use it to allow their cattle to graze on the open plains for a small fee. Many farmers rely on this land to provide the kind of space they need to raise their livestock every season. National Monuments are also far less manicured, and a bit more rugged. This is precisely why I love BLM land. It is typically free to enter, void of immense crowds, and ripe with little adventures and a play at your own risk ethos.
When we arrived at the entrance to Grand Staircase - Escalante, the difference from Zion and Bryce National Parks is striking. There are no fee booths, covered kiosks, or parking lots—just a mid-sized sign that reads “Grand Staircase - Escalante,” and a wire fence. Near the fence is an angled information display and six inch road sign warning visitors the road is maintained for four-wheel access only. We took a look down the dirt road that rolled over the desert plain, a look back at our tiny Chevy Cruze rental and started rumbling down the road into the interior.
Stefany at the entrance to Grand Staircase - Escalante
Stefany revoking my driving privileges.
The maps on our phone were not going to be much use since the road we were on did not appear anywhere on Google, just a pin in the rough location of Peek-a-boo canyon. We knew the road that led toward the canyon was 26 miles in. So we reset the trip odometer to zero and hoped that we would see a turnoff when we got there. As we crept down the dirt road, our bodies’ rumbling under the weak suspension of our rental, the emptiness of the place started to creep into our heads. Crowds can be frustrating, but the absence of a single soul gets frightening. When was the last time my wife and I were truly alone like this? Had we ever been? Our phones soon lost service and we just watched the odometer and prayed that this car would not get stuck in a sand trap.
Roughly 10 miles in we saw a truck hauling cattle in a pull-off where they would be left to graze open and free, which gave us some relief. At around 15 miles my wife got frustrated by my slow driving and decided to take the wheel. And at 26 miles, right when we were starting to think these canyons were a hoax and we would never find them there was a small road that cut off to the left. We started down the road and saw a small cluster of cars and vans, relieved that we were in fact somewhere.
We pulled over and made a quick lunch before heading over toward the trailhead. Again there were no road signs or markers, just stacks of rocks piled at various points indicating the way. We descended across the slick rock, into a sandy gulch, and at last arrived at the entryway to something we had only seen in pictures before, our first real slot canyon.
Arches National Park in Moab was as Edward Abbey described—developed and crowded. While it still retained its beauty everyone had to wait in line under Delicate Arch like taking a picture with Donald Duck in Disneyland. There’s always a special place in our heart for all of these places, for the beauty far outweighs the crowd. But when we look back and talk about the trip we always tell one story. The day we took that poor little Chevy Cruze into Grand Staircase in search of a true adventure and found it.
Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument was created by President Bill Clinton in 1996. At 1.9 million acres, it is the largest national monument in the United States and was the last piece of the lower 48 to be mapped. Its terrain is just as diverse, being home to both low-lying desert and coniferous forest. It was the home to the Anasazi and Fremont and contains one of the most extensive fossil records of the Late Cretaceous Period.
The history and scientific potential of this monument is enormous. However in 2017 its future is uncertain. President Trump has approved measures to shrink the size of Grand Staircase - Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments. I wrote this piece to urge people to both see the importance of these sites and to go enjoy them for yourselves. Their relative anonymity keeps the landscape pure and the crowds low. They are truly our last national treasures and worth our attention and efforts at preservation.