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Grand Staircase: Escalante National Monument

Bighorn Plains Road

Larry E. HeckPhotographer, Writer

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.

If there were thousands of people in Staircase that day, we didn't see any of them. The only fresh tracks on the road were the ones made by us. The sky was a clear blue color with no clouds anywhere in sight. The air had that special quality that can only be found in a place far away from cities.

We spent some time reminiscing about the past. This was not our first time on that road but it had been long ago. The last time we were there, it did not have a name and it was not within a monument. The roads were a little narrower and a lot less used. The first time we made that trip, it took a little road building to get up the narrow switchbacks to the top of the ridge and there was not as much room between the tires and edge of the cliff. Even so, none of the beauty along that desert path has been lost to its designation as a monument. It is a place we will visit again.

Happy Jack led the way down the winding road to the point where it reconnected to Cottonwood Canyon Road. His little shortcut had been 16.9 miles long and worth every inch.

We were back on a road graded for passenger cars. There were a few places where a low-clearance car would need to be carefully navigated, but we passed one that seemed to be doing fine. We also found some of those other people that add to the daily average of visitors.

Our next stop was Grosvenor Arch. It is a designated picnic area with an outhouse. If you have a really old map, it might call this one Butler Arch. That was its name prior to the year I was born in 1947. During an expedition of a National Geographic Society in that year, the decision was made to rename the arch after the organization's founder. Regardless of what you call it, the arch is a masterpiece formed by Mother Nature using wind, rain, and millions of years.

Happy Jack ended the day at an established campsite farther out in the desert. We watched the sun go down in the west turning some distant clouds into a golden glow. Those clouds never made it to us and our night was filled with millions of stars.

Navigation: GPS Positions
Trip Meter Latitude Longitude Comments
0.0 N 37 6.3012 W 111 50.7653 Turn right on Cottonwood Canyon Road between milepost 17 and 18 on Highway 89 west of Big Water, Utah.
1.4 N 37 7.4587 W111 51.2389 Turn right on Road 431. This is Coyote Valley Road.
5.2 N 37 9.9487 W111 48.9809 Left on Road 430. This is Big Horn Plains Road.
16.9 N 37 15.2330 W111 54.5559 Right onto Cottonwood Canyon Road.
32.3 N37 27.1099 W111 50.9060 Turn right on Road 440 to Grosvenor Arch.

The 411
The map used in this story was taken from a printout of the online visitor guide available at the GSENM page of the BLM website, http://www.blm.gov/ut/st/en/fo/grand_staircase-escalante.html. Historic information was found online. Some comments were obtained from local residents. Tires are provided by BFGoodrich. GPS and mapping software is provided by DeLorme. For additional information about this adventure, check out www.Lone-Writer.com.