Bighorn Plains Road
It was a warm day in September when Happy Jack pointed west out of Page, Arizona, and said, "I wanna go there." He looked at Lone Writer and Sundance, waiting for a response.
"Lead the way," they said in unison.
The three of them headed west on Highway 89. They crossed into Utah and followed the highway past Big Water to Cottonwood Canyon Road No. 400. Turning on that road put them at the boundary for Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Staying on the Cottonwood Canyon Road could take them across the monument to Cannonville but Happy Jack knew a shortcut. By our definition, a shortcut is any road that is more fun than the one most commonly used. The BLM calls it the Bighorn Plains Road No. 430.
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is normally referred to by us as the Staircase. Its full name became official in 1996. Then-President Bill Clinton went to the Grand Canyon to designate 1.9 million acres in Utah as a monument. Local residents say he never visited the area and never realized he was in the wrong state when he designated it.
The Staircase is the largest National Monument in the country. It is larger than the state of Delaware and is the first monument to be managed by the BLM. Because it is a monument, there are lots of rules and regulations. To stay overnight, visitors must check with one of the offices to find out where camping is allowed and what permits must be obtained. Dogs are allowed in some areas and not in others. The size of groups is also regulated depending on where the group is going. In other words, the best bet is to contact the BLM and be sure that what you want to do is allowed.
Before Clinton said he was protecting all that land from people who might damage it, there were very few people who ever went there. A few isolated ranchers, a group of petroleum workers, and some small groups of backcountry enthusiasts were the only ones who even knew where it was. The number of visitors to that part of the country every year would be only a few hundred.
Since being designated, interest in the area has mushroomed. One reference put the estimated number of people visiting the monument last year at just under 800,000, which averages about 2,000 a day. That's a whole lot more zeros than would be going there if the former president had just left it alone.
Happy Jack led his pals down the Cottonwood Canyon Road for a little more than a mile before turning right on Coyote Valley Road 431. It was relatively flat with the usual desert vegetation on both sides. The next turn was a left onto Bighorn Plains Road 430. That's when the scenery really began to change. The road meandered into a canyon where the only exit was a narrow path up the canyon wall. For our stock vehicles, it was time to shift to 4-Low. We were spending a little more time watching the road and a little less time admiring the scenery. That meant we had to make frequent stops to be sure we didn't miss any of the amazing views.
The road went over the top of a ridge and then started down the other side. The switchbacks were fun but the best view was the route the road took riding on top of a hogback. With a drop off on both sides of the vehicle the views in any direction were nothing short of spectacular. It was time to get out the lawn chairs and have a Utah desert lunch.