The Grand Staircase I   Leave a comment

The canyons of the Escalante in southern Utah wait for the first storm of the winter to arrive.

The Grand Staircase is part of the Colorado Plateau and lies mostly in southern Utah but creeps over into northern Arizona as well.  It is the defining geographic and geologic feature of the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument.  Charles Keyes, one of the early geologists to study this remote region was the first to use the term Grand Staircase.  He was describing the series of stepped cliffs separated by broad terraces that extend from the Grand Canyon’s north rim northward to the high Paunsaugunt and Kaiparowits Plateaus.  The cliffs are colorful and spectacular features, cut as they are by scenic canyons and running across some of the last terrain in the U.S. to be mapped.

The Vermilion Cliffs in southern Utah are just as beautiful at night as they are during daylight hours. Here near Kanab, UT they are illuminated by a partial moon, not so bright as to interfere with the stars, including the Big Dipper standing on end.

The southernmost (and oldest) step of the Staircase is called the Chocolate Cliffs.  These are the most subtle of the formations, best viewed from the south when dropping off the Kaibab Plateau in Grand Canyon National Park.  On a clear day in fact, the highway that climbs from Fredonia, Arizona to Jacob Lake, Arizona is a great place from which to view most or all of the Grand Staircase.  From here you are looking up the Staircase.  Another great viewpoint, this time looking down the staircase, is Rainbow Point at the far (south) end of the Bryce Canyon road. The rock layers of the Grand Canyon, which actually represent another (very large) step to the south, are all older than those that make up the Grand Staircase.

An old tree lives the second part of its life, as a snag, in an Escalante River tributary canyon.

The next step to the north, just beyond the Chocolate Cliffs, is the Vermilion Cliffs.  These red and pink layers are very prominent and beautiful.  They’re visible in an almost continuous band from near Lake Powell all the way west to the town of Kanab, Utah.  The next step to the north is the White Cliffs.  Made mostly of the Navajo Sandstone, an ancient sea of sand dunes, these are visible clearly from several places.  Look up to the east from Mount Carmel , which is the turnoff to Zion N.P. from Hwy. 89.

The year’s first snowfall and a cold morning makes staying in the sleeping bag seem like a great idea.

The next step to the north is the Grey Cliffs.  These more subtle cliffs can be viewed most easily from the unpaved roads that traverse the center of the Monument.  Some Bryce Canyon viewpoints will provide a view as well.  The last step, made of the youngest rocks, is the Pink Cliffs.  The fantastic rock formations of Bryce Canyon are the most obvious exposure of these cliffs.  They are also visible from Hwy. 12 as it passes through Red Canyon.

The year’s first snowfall decorates pinyon pine cones in Utah’s red-rock country.

In Kanab, Utah, you can visit one of the National Monument’s visitor centers that will give you a great overview of the geology of the Grand Staircase.  An enormous diagram of the cliffs covers one whole wall, and it details all of the geologic formations.  There are examples of the rocks there so you can recognize them once you are out in the field.  More on the geology in my next post.

This is the only National Monument that is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and they mostly do a decent job.  Here at the visitor center you can get information on the Coyote Buttes area.  Coyote Buttes North and South are limited entry areas in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument.  They lie to the east, between Kanab and Page, AZ.   The “Wave”, which is famous for its smooth and wave-like sandstone is in Coyote Buttes South.  The Wave (image below) requires you to enter a lottery for one of the 10 permits issued each day.  You can also reserve a place well ahead of time using the internet.

The wave is a formation of sculpted sandstone in the Coyote Buttes North area of Vermilion Cliffs National Monument


Sunset at Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah highlights the vibrant shades of the park’s sculpted rock formations.

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