If you ask that question while you’re standing somewhere in South Central Utah, chances are, you’ve already found the Grand Staircase, and you are, in fact, standing on it. The immense geologic feature is a series of different colored rock layers with steep sides and flat tops that resemble a giant staircase stretching from the Arizona strip up to Bryce Canyon. Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks and the town of Kanab are all situated within the Grand Staircase. If you see the words Grand Staircase on a map, this is most likely referring to a 1-million acre national monument named Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Much of the Grand Staircase falls inside the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument boundary, but not all of it. Also, some of the land inside the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is actually not part of the geologic feature known as the Grand Staircase. The national monument is broken into three distinct sections: Grand Staircase Unit, Kaiparowits Unit and Escalante Canyons Unit. In addition to fascinating geology and gorgeous landscapes, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is home to valuable paleontological discoveries, more than 20,0000 identified archaeological sites, and five life zones of plants and animals that thrive from low-lying desert to coniferous forest.
How can I see the Grand Staircase?
If you’re simply looking for a view of the Grand Staircase, check out the La Fevre overlook on Highway 89A between Kanab and Jacob Lake. All five steps of the staircase are apparent and the view is stunning. The scenic overlook provides a detailed photo explaining the landforms and binoculars are on hand. Several of our tours also offer large-scale views of the Grand Staircase, such as our White Pocket Tour and South Coyote Buttes.
What’s the best way to visit Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument?
Imagine one million acres of unspoiled landscape with almost no paved roads, scarce signage and few rangers, perhaps the most remote land in the continental United States. That’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. From narrow slot canyons to desert mesas and peculiar rock formations, the rewards are great for those who explore here, but you need much planning, preparation, and a proper vehicle and tools. If you didn’t want to work that hard, call us. Our Grand Staircase Photographer’s Dream Tour offers an incredible overview of the Grand Staircase section of the monument in one day, and our new Yellow Rock trip offers a strenuous hike up an ancient petrified sand dune stained in brilliant yellow, orange and white. It’s absolutely spectacular.
If you decide to venture into Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument on your own, decide ahead of time exactly what you want to see. It’s really not feasible to simply “see the Grand Staircase” by driving around in it. But you could choose some specific hikes in the monument that interest you. Stay in the town that’s closest to the area you want to visit. This will most likely be Kanab, Escalante, Boulder, Henriville or Cannonville. The Grand Staircase-Escalante Visitor Centers are an excellent resource for information. Find their contact info on their websites:
- Kanab: https://www.blm.gov/visit/kanab-visitor-center
- Cannonville: https://www.blm.gov/visit/cannonville-visitor-center
- Escalante: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/dixie/recreation/recarea/?recid=24978&actid=120
There are a few public campgrounds within Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, including Whitehouse Campground, Calf Creek Campground or Deer Creek Campground. There are also campgrounds at Kodachrome Basin State Park, Escalante Petrified Forest State Park and in nearby National Parks: Bryce, Zion and Capitol Reef. You can camp in primitive, dispersed spots throughout most of the monument, but you have to get an advance permit to do so. Get your permit at one of the BLM visitor centers before heading out, and check on any fire restrictions and spots that are off limits. (For instance, you cannot camp at trailheads or near water sources such as springs.)
If I’m staying in Kanab, where are the best spots to visit in Grand Staircase-Escalante?
If you’re looking for day trips into the monument from Kanab, read up on visiting the Old Paria Townsite, Wire Pass, Buckskin Gulch, the Toadstools, Lick Wash, Yellow Rock, the Nautilus, or Wahweap Hoodoos. These hikes are all in the current or former boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
If you stay in Cannonville or Henriville:
Don’t miss Willis Creek slot canyon. The more adventurous might read up on hiking Bull Valley Gorge. There are tons of sites along Cottonwood Canyon Road if the weather is right and you’re comfortable traveling remote, unpaved roads. Learn about Grosvenor Arch, Cottonwood Narrows, Lower Hackberry Canyon, Yellow Rock or The Paria Box.
Staying in Escalante?
You could spend a week exploring just this portion of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Don’t miss Lower Calf Creek Falls. Read up on spots along unpaved Hole-in-the-Rock Road: Peek-a-Boo and Spooky Gulch, Devil’s Garden, Dance Hall Rock or Zebra Slot Canyon.
Tips and warnings that really are worth reading
Use a map when planning your trip to avoid needless driving. We can’t stress that enough. We see a lot of visitors regret spending too much time in the car because of poor planning or because they simply tried to see too much. Grand Staircase-Escalante and the surrounding area is big. Also, purchase good maps at the BLM office showing unpaved roads by their assigned number before you head off pavement. Your GPS is practically useless. Also, many of the roads in Grand Staircase-Escalante are impassable when wet – and we truly mean that. Plus, driving on the wet road creates deep ruts for future travelers and it’s super expensive for the state or BLM to repair. Don’t go if it’s wet or rain is in the forecast. You will find little cell phone service in GSENM. Flat tires are not uncommon on unpaved roads. Check your tools and know how to use them before you head out. Don’t assume your rental car came with everything you need to change a tire. It’s wise to also carry a shovel, tire plug kit, air compressor, blanket and extra food and water. Anyone who spends time in these remote areas eventually ends up spending the night because of unforeseen circumstances, and it’s not impossible to get two flat tires in the same trip. Or maybe you don’t need the tools but you come across someone else who does. We’re not trying to scare you so much as prepare you. This advice comes from experience. At one time or another, our guides have needed all of the tools mentioned above, both on tour and when they have headed out on their own.
Grand Staircase geology (trust us, it’s fascinating)
It was the U.S. Geological Survey’s Clarence Dutton who, in the 1870s, first described the Grand Staircase of southern Utah. Dutton was a close associate of explorer John Wesley Powell, and he wrote about a gigantic stairway of varied rock layers rising up out of the Grand Canyon and stretching all the way to Bryce. Dutton named the five basic steps of the Grand Staircase for their colors:
- Chocolate Cliffs
- Vermilion Cliffs
- White Cliffs
- Gray Cliffs
- Pink Cliffs
Each step in the staircase is comprised of several individual formations from mudstone layers of the Moenkopi, which was deposited in a river system 240 million years ago, to the 60-million-year-old pink limestone hoodoos of Bryce Canyon. The Grand Staircase represents 180 million years of geologic history. The continent has been drifting northward for millions of years and climate has changed many times from dry windy desert to inland sea and to a landscape carved up by an extensive system of rivers. Two mass extinction events have taken place and mammals have come into existence since the rock layers of the Grand Staircase began forming. The rocky mountains and the Grand Canyon also came into existence during this time. Apparently, 180 million years is a long time.
Why are the rocks shaped like a staircase?
Picture baking a layer cake. The oldest layer is on the bottom and the newest layer is on the top. Now take a knife and cut through the cake, revealing all the different colored layers. In the Grand Staircase, water is the knife that is cutting through the layer cake. More specifically, the Colorado River and its tributaries have carved the Grand Staircase. Unlike cake, the rock layers are made of different materials and some are harder than others. Where the rock is very hard and dense, it stands up to erosion and a cliff forms. Where the ground is soft and easily eroded, you’ll find flat ground. That’s why the Grand Staircase is a series of steep cliffs and flat spots. Of course, the geologic forces involved are quite complicated, but this provides a basic concept.
These are the major rock formations of the Grand Staircase, with a little bit of Earth history explaining what the area was like when these rocks were forming.
Claron Formation. The 60-million-year-old limestone was deposited by low-lying flood plains, lakes and streams after dinosaurs became extinct and mammals took center stage. This is the gorgeous pink rock that often stands as intriguing hoodoos at Bryce Canyon National Park.
Wahweap Formation. The 75-million-year-old sandstone and shale beds were deposited in muddy floodplains inhabited by dinosaurs. Sediment pouring into the Kaiparowits Basin from rivers coming off highlands to the south and southwest was largely stopped in its tracks by an inland sea.
Kaiparowits Formation. 76.5 to 74.5 million years old. A major river system deposited a half-mile of sediment in a rapidly sinking basin. Sea level was high and muddy floodplains dominated the landscape. Because of its position between the ocean and the land, the Kaiparowits Basin recorded alternating marine and terrestrial deposition for about 25 million years. This affords paleontologists a unique perspective on the Late Cretaeous world. An enormous amount of sediment was deposited in a short time. Much of the paleontological research on dinosaurs in the monument takes place in this rock formation.
Straight Cliffs. 75 million years ago during the Late Cretaceous Period, a series of deltas and coal swamps were common. The coastline had begun an overall retreat to the east. Sea level rose and fell and the land continued to subside because of uplift to the west. This formation contains lots of fossils, many of which fill in the gaps of the early evolution of some of the later Cretaceous dinosaurs.
Tropic Shale. 93 million years old, Clay /shale and dark gray mudstone. During the time represented by the Tropic and Dakota the area changed from a swampy river floodplain (Dakota) to a marine environment (Tropic). The sea level was at its highest during this time and a boat would have been required to explore what is now the Grand Staircase. Rivers flowing off the high western mountains carried sand and mud to the ocean. This sediment collected in an enormous pile in the deepening Kaiparowits Basin and became the Tropic Shale. Plesiosaurs, which were large, swimming, fish eating reptiles, left their fossils found in this rock layer.
Dakota Formation. This sandstone and shale deposit contains coal. It was deposited in a marine environment 95 million years old ago.
Entrada Formation. This cross bedded sandstone is 165 million years old. The Entrada and Henriville Formations record a time during the Jurassic Period when the monument was a desert tidal flat and dune field along the southern shore of a shallow sea.
Carmel Formation. Southern Utah was a shallow marine and coastal environment 170 million years old when the Carmel Formation was being laid down. The Carmel Formation was deposited on the southern shoreline of a shallow sea that moved into this area from the north about 170 million years ago. The sea extended northward to Canada. Rock types range from marine mudstone and limestone to gypsum layers deposited in evaporative coastal lakes. Marine fossils are plentiful in the Carmel Formation, particularly bivalves (such as clams) and gastropods (snails), similar to life found in oceans today.
Navajo Sandstone. 185 million years old. This cross bedded sandstone forms the White Cliffs, but it can also appear bright red in areas where high iron concentrations have not been leached. Many of our tours visit areas comprised of Navajo Sandstone, including White Pocket, the Wave, South Coyote Buttes and Peekaboo Slot Canyon. Back in the early Jurassic, a vast dune field stretched from Canada to southern Arizona. The continent was drifting northward through the tradewind belt at the time, so the climate was dry and windy. Dinosaur tracks were often preserved in the shifting sand dunes.
Kayenta. The 199-175 million-year-old Kayenta Formation was deposited in a seasonally dry fluvial environment where dinosaurs and other creatures wandered the floodplains and streambeds. The Kayenta Formation frequently appears as a thinner dark broken layer below Navajo Sandstone and above Wingate Sandstone in the Vermilion Cliffs. Kayenta layers are typically red to brown in color, forming broken ledges.
Wingate Sandstone. 200 million years old (latest Triassic / earliest Jurassic Periods) An increasingly arid climate caused blowing sand to accumulate. This windblown desert contains few fossils other than tracks. Wingate sandstone frequently appears just below the Kayenta Formation and Navajo Sandstone, the two other formations of the Glen Canyon group. Together, these three formations can result in immense vertical cliffs of 2,000 feet or more. Wingate layers are typically pale orange to red in color, the remnants of wind-born sand dunes.
Moenave. 210-195 million years old. These river, lake and floodplain sediments are filled with fossils of invertebrates, sharks, fish and early crocodiles.
Chinle. The Chinle Formation was deposited 200 million years ago in a massive river system that flowed across the region from Arizona to Texas, on the scale of today’s Amazon. The variegated colors of the Chinle indicate slightly different environments within the channels and floodplains of the ancient river system. The Chinle contains Bentonite, which is the result of weathering volcanic ash. The volcanoes were west and south of the Colorado Plateau. The ash was transported here by rivers. The earliest true dinosaurs in North America wandered the waterways and became fossils in the Chinle Formation. Near ancestors of mammals appear in the Chinle, as do the earliest turtles. Massive volcanic eruptions associated with the ongoing breakup of Pangea caused a major spike in CO2. Half of Triassic plant species disappeared in less than 1 million years.
Moenkopi. 240 million years old. During the Early Triassic Period, Southern Utah was only 10 degrees north of the equator near the west coast of Pangea. The dark red sediments formed in meandering river channels and muddy tide flats. The Moenkopi forms the bulk of the Chocolate Cliffs. It preserves the remains of the few faunal and floral communities that survived the mass extinction at the end of the Paleozoic Era, the ones that were able to adapt to new conditions. Because the Moenkopi is one of the only extensive formations from this time period anywhere on the continent, it is an important window into the changes taking place in the wake of the devastation. Many sandstone and mudstone layers of the Moenkopi contain ripple marks, evidence of water and waves moving these sediments.
GSNEM really is ‘Rainbows and Unicorns’
Dr. Alan Titus, paleontologist at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, is known to be enthusiastic about his work. When he discovered a mass mortality bone bed in the Staircase in 2014, he couldn’t contain his excitement when describing it to others. A colleague joked that Titus sees every new find as “Rainbows and Unicorns.” But it turned out that this site really was the find of a lifetime and “Rainbows and Unicorns” became its name. Multiple tyrannosaurs, hadrosaur dinosaurs, turtles, raptors, fish and flying reptiles have been uncovered there. A newly discovered species of horned dinosaur has also been recently unearthed in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Ongoing research in the area has shed light on the ecosystems that existed during the Mesozoic Era just before the final extinction of the dinosaurs.
What’s all this controversy I read about the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument?
In 1996, 1.8 million acres of federal land were designated as Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by President Bill Clinton. In December of 2017, President Donald Trump signed a proclamation shrinking GSENM by almost 50% to about 1 million acres. The Bureau of Land Management still oversees the land that has been removed from the monument and it is still open for public use, though it is less protected than it was. A new management plan for this land has been released by the BLM. The biggest change in management is that there is now potential to gain mining claims on the land no longer falling within the national monument boundaries.
Sources for this article include websites: Visitutah.com, the Bureau of Land Management websites, Wikipedia. Book sources are “Where Dinosaurs Roam: Lost Worlds of Utah’s Grand Staircase”by Christa Sadler and “Geology Road Guide, Cottonwood Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument,” by Janice Gillespie.