Grand Staircase III – Travel Info.   Leave a comment

The rural areas of southern Utah probably have more cows than people in late November when most of the tourists have gone.

The Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument covers a huge area in southwestern Utah.  Zion National Park is directly west while Capitol Reef N.P. and Glen Canyon Recreation Area lie to the east.  Lake Powell and the Arizona border skirts it to the south.  Two highways, U.S. 89 and Utah 12, encircle all but the east side of the Monument.  Both roads are very scenic, but you can also dive into the heart of the Monument by taking one of the unpaved routes.  Regular 2wd vehicles, as long as they have decent clearance, are usually suitable.  But beware: when it rains, these roads become impassable, even with a 4wd.  This is because of the abundant clay.

Grand Staircase is cut by two few major rivers that flow south toward the Colorado.  Actually they enter Lake Powell, since the Colorado has been dammed at Glen Canyon.  The Paria and Escalante Rivers are characterized by gorgeous wilderness canyons with countless tributaries.  This is canyon country…big time canyon country!

Clay often forms sculpture in canyon bottoms of the Paria River system in Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument, Utah.


Spencer Flat is accessed via an unpaved road that heads south from Hwy. 12 between the town of Escalante and the bridge over the Escalante River.  The turnoff is very close to the top of the big hill just west of the Escalante River bridge.  The gravel road heads 7 miles or so to Spencer Flat. Along the way are a myriad of interesting rock formations.  The road forks right at the far end of Spencer Flat and soon becomes too sandy for 2-wheel drive vehicles.  Actually, you can’t go much further in a 4wd. If you camp here, or at any likely spot along the road, make sure you bring plenty of water (there is none).

The Wave in the Coyote Buttes area of Vermilion Cliffs N.M. is made of thinly laminated and sculpted sandstone “waves”.

You can literally close your eyes and have a friend spin you round.  When you stop, open your eyes and that is the direction you will go.  Whichever direction you happened to choose, you are sure to find a desert canyon playground.  There are sand dunes nearby, unnamed slot canyons, huge rock massifs, fields of moqui marbles, and assorted other wonders.  Stop at Escalante Outfitters in the namesake town and grab a map.  National Geographic has an excellent one called “Canyons of the Escalante”.  The guys there can give you plenty of local advice too. Either use a GPS and set your camp’s location, or be very handy with map and compass.

I have camped and hiked at Spencer Flat twice now, once a couple years ago and again this time.  I think I will go there each and every time I visit.  It’s not far from a town, relatively unknown, and unlike many of the destinations in the Monument, it does not involve endless miles of washboard.  I think one could easily spend a month here, camped in the same spot, and never visit the same place twice.

A classic sandy wash hike at Spencer Flat near the Escalante River, Utah.

Sandstone strata near “the wave” in southern Utah, near the Pariah River.

Lick Wash is another great place, on the opposite side of the monument from Spencer Flat.  The canyon hike is accessed from the gravel Skutumpah Road (I don’t make these names up!).  This very scenic route connects Henrieville just west of Bryce Canyon to Johnson Canyon, from where a paved road connects to Hwy. 89 just east of Kanab.  Lick Wash is a hike of about 4 miles one way, through a beautiful canyon.  At the far end of the canyon it opens out to a large area surrounded by mesas (you can climb one!).  There is a charming stone cabin.  You are likely to have the place to yourself, as I did when I hiked it in the early Spring last time I was here.  The creek had a healthy flow, and so I was hiking in the water.  If you don’t have soggy sneakers on numerous occasions while hiking Grand Staircase in the springtime, you aren’t doing it right!  Later in the year, Lick will be a dry hike.

The Pine Creek/Hell’s Backbone loop road is another very worthwhile detour.  The gravel road heads north from Escalante and loops around back south to Hwy. 12 near the town of Boulder.  It will take you through a very different kind of country: mountain lakes, pine forests and clear streams.  Blue Spruce is a lovely small camp set amongst pine trees.  You’ll sleep mere yards from a gurgling creek.  Visit at least one of the lakes along the route, and wet a line or take a dip.

You will drive around the head of a huge box canyon called Death Hollow.  There is a very adventurous backpack trip that heads down this canyon, ending at the Escalante River Bridge.  Previous canyoneering experience is a good idea; this is no walk in the park, believe me.  Hell’s Backbone, where the road traverses along the top of a narrow ridge, will have you alternately rubbernecking and gripping the wheel tightly.  At one point a skinny bridge spans a gap in the ridge – it’s a catwalk.  You will end your descent in quiet ranch land on the beautiful lower slopes of Boulder Mountain.  I fantasize about having a place here, reveling in the quiet surrounded by my animals.

There are many many other places to visit at Grand Staircase/Escalante. Camping at Kodachrome Basin or Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Parks, hiking Peekaboo and Spooky slot canyons, driving the Burr Trail, or visiting the town site of Pahreah with its pioneer cemetery.  

And if you can get a permit, do the obvious; that is hiking The Wave.  Be sure to take the whole day to hike the area around the Wave though, don’t just go see the formation itself.  All of these could have you lingering a week or more.  Even more important than plenty of time, I think, is to bring a real sense of adventure.  If you visit Grand Staircase and the Escalante River country, be prepared for BIG fun in a BIG playground!

Hell’s Backbone near Boulder, Utah is like driving across a huge natural catwalk.


A bit of the old west survives at the old Gifford homestead, now inside Capitol Reef National Park.  It’s a short drive east of the Grand Staircase.

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