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Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument! ~ Utah Scenic Byway SR 12
The deafening silence of the wide open spaces is like a sigh of relief after spending time working in a bustling big city. There is something about the crisp fresh air and panoramic views that invigorates the body and mind with renewed clarity. After a short time, it becomes easy to forget the daily routine back home and interest in the pristine surroundings becomes all consuming. Soon an urge to take part in challenging activities strikes. Fun adventures in a beautiful landscape create memories that will be cherished for a lifetime. This is what experiencing the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is like!
The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument covers over 1.8 million acres of pristine wilderness in Southern Utah. "Grand Staircase" describes a unique geologic formation consisting of layers upon layers of various rock strata. The layered rock strata has eroded unevenly over a period of millions of years and the erosion has reshaped the earth's surface with a natural staircase effect. The apex of the Grand Staircase is located in the north end of Escalante and the lowest steps are way south toward Kanab and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
When looking at a topographic map of the Grand Staircase, the eroded layers of rock slowly climb like evenly placed steps. When climbing each vast step in the Grand Staircase, the color of the rock strata changes and the flora adjusts to the higher elevation. Millions of years of history are evident in each step of the Grand Staircase, which includes layers of fossils from ancient oceans, old dinosaur bones from the Jurassic Age and the Escalante Petrified Forest State Park. Ancient human history is also evident in native archeological sites when climbing the tiers of the Grand Staircase.
An article about the southern end of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument along U.S. Highway 89 was published in this website some time ago. An article about Kanab was also recently published in this website too. The historic town of Kanab is the gateway to outdoor adventures in the southwest section of Escalante National Park along Highway 89.
From Kanab, Highway 89 runs north eventually intersects with Utah State Road 12 near Bryce Canyon. Utah SR 12 runs through the northwest portion Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and this road is listed as one of Utah's Official Scenic Byways. The SR 12 Route borders on the northwestern edge of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument from close to Bryce Canyon National Park all the way north to the Capitol Reef National Park in Central Utah. This travel route connects three vast national wilderness areas that offer some of the most majestic scenery in the entire west.
When planning an excursion on SR 12 through the northwest sector of Escalante, be sure to allow plenty of extra travel time, because there are plenty of scenic overlooks that present great picture taking opportunities. The views are so amazing, that stopping at every scenic overlook parking area along the way becomes a necessary routine. Taking a break from the steep uphill climbs and downhill runs also allows the vehicle to cool down, so stopping to take in the majestic scenery is a good thing to do in a remote wilderness area like Escalante.
The are many access roads along SR 12 that lead to the interior of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The Escalante interior roads can be best compared to the interior roads in Canyonlands National Park. Some of the old BLM access roads going into Escalante are paved, but they are in rough condition. Most of the dirt roads are well maintained, but it is best to have a high ground clearance vehicle, especially if rain clouds are on the horizon. Many of the old BLM access roads run deep into this wilderness area to key points of interest and a map is required for following the vehicular trails, because GPS is useless in these parts. Some of the interior roads are well marked, like the Cottonwood Canyon Road that leads to the picturesque Kodachrome State Park within Escalante. Other roads inside Escalante require a map, compass and a little bit of guesswork to figure out.
Several small towns and points of interest are located on Utah State Road 12 along the northwest border of Escalante. Every small town on SR 12 caters to tourists and outdoor enthusiasts that need supplies for an Escalante vacation excursion. There are places to rent ATV's, canoes, Jeeps and even horses. Outdoor adventure guides, hunting guides, tackle shops and camping supply stores are plentiful in this region. Several old fashioned motels and restaurants are located in the small towns along this route too.
The small towns on SR 12 near Escalante also cater to the modern Scenic Byway travelers that seek opportunities to do some shopping along the way. Each small town has art galleries, native trading posts and antique shops that offer unique goods that cannot be found back home. Craft breweries and local wineries along the way spell rest and relaxation for road weary travelers. Rubbing elbows with the locals in these kinds of establishments is always a good way to find out about lesser known places in Escalante where few others go.
The wildlife is present along all roads near Escalante, so it pays to keep the eyes open. Mule Deer and Elk are the most common roadside obstacles and these wild animals always seem to be willing to pose for a picture, as long as visitors do not come too close. Many people think that wild turkeys can only be seen in eastern states, because of the association with the pilgrims and Thanksgiving. Wild turkeys are easy to spot on farms that border Escalante. In fact, the farm borders near Escalante offer some of the best opportunities to spot birds of prey, like hawks and falcons that perch on old fence posts while hinting mice and snakes.
The landscape changes dramatically in different areas of Escalante. Lush green forests in the mountains change to eroded narrow pale color sandstone buttes that are tall enough to touch the cobalt blue skies. In this area, the highest elevations of the Grand Staircase can be seen near the mountain tops in the distance.
A little further past the town of Escalante on SR 12, the canyons run like a maze through the multicolor sandstone desert landscape. Miles of hardened ancient pink sand dunes stretch out to the horizon with absolutely no signs of civilization. There are several scenic overlooks on this stretch of road that have views of the red, pink and white sandstone landscape that seems to stretch out forever. On this section of road is where the Kiva Koffee House can be found. This unique restaurant is literally carved into the top of a sandstone peak overlooking the canyons below. There is outdoor seating and the views are spectacular from every table.
In the multi color sandstone desert area, there are several small rivers and streams that carve their way through the canyons. Where there is water, the air temperatures are always relatively cool. In one canyon there are campsites and RV spots next to the river, where cottonwood trees provide plenty of shade. This oasis in Escalante is a great place for a few days of rest, relaxation and fun in the sun!
After traveling through the canyons, Utah State Road 12 goes uphill to a section of road that is called The Hogback. The Hogback is a section of narrow two lane road that runs on top of the sandstone mountain peaks. Driving on The Hogback is not for the feint hearted, because there are no guard rails and the road shoulders are as little as a few inches wide. Just beyond the slim road shoulders, the steep slopes of the barren sandstone cliffs drop thousands of feet into the abyss below. Needless to say, the rule of thumb is to drive slow and careful while traversing The Hogback, so the passengers do not have to cover their eyes in fear!
Fortunately, there are a few scenic places to safely pull off the road on the The Hogback and the panoramic views from this high elevation are breathtaking. The unobstructed views stretch so far into the horizon that one can actually see the curve of planet earth itself. The Hogback is a unique pristine wilderness area that is like no other place on earth and the challenging drive will provide interesting conversations for many years to come.
After The Hogback, the high barren elevations gradually head back downhill to greener pastures. Old pioneer communities that now cater to travelers can be found on SR 12 in the north Escalante region. The big old shade trees, green grass and log cabin resorts along this section of SR 12 will remind travelers of the old communities in the mountains back east. A few native trading posts, antique shops and museums are in this lush green end of Escalante and these points of interest provide opportunities for cultural exchange. The Anasazi State Park Museum is a nice place to stop to stretch the legs and this museum offers a chance for travelers of all ages to learn a little something about the ancient history of the Pueblo People in this region.
As can be seen in the slideshow above, there is plenty to see and do while traveling on Utah Scenic Byway SR 12 through the northwest section of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. This pristine wilderness area achieved National Monument status just a few years ago and just one visit is all it takes to see why this land was preserved for future generations. The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is so vast, that it never seems crowded even during the peak tourist season. Exploring the many ecosystems and unique landscapes in depth can take plenty of time, so planning a camping vacation is a good choice when visiting the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument!