Staircases don’t come much more flamboyant than the one that cuts a large swath across southern Utah. Think gigantic “stairs” of pink, gray, white, vermillion, and chocolate.
At nearly 1 million acres, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument makes quite a statement. The Bureau of Land Management describes the national monument as a “diverse geologic treasure speckled with monoliths, slot canyons, natural bridges, and arches.”
The steps of the Grand Staircase can be seen in the form of cliffs, mesas, bluffs, and ridges in varying colors -- all standing out dramatically against the deep blue skies of southern Utah.
Take some time to explore this vast land. You will encounter crystalline creek water cascading over a sheer rock wall, toadstool-like rock formations that would do The Flintstones proud, and the longest and deepest slot canyon in the southwestern United States.
Due to its size, the national monument can be accessed on a number of highways, including U.S. Highway 89 between Page, Arizona, and Kanab, Utah, in the south, and State Route 12, between Panguitch in the west and Torrey, Utah, in the northeast.
Here are seven of the best experiences in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
1. Hike To Lower Calf Creek Falls
It is a bit of a trek to get there, but if you’re able, the Lower Calf Creek Falls is well worth the effort.
After hiking about 3 miles through rugged terrain and along sandy trails, you will begin to hear the lovely sound of rushing water. And as you near, the air temperature seems to drop dramatically from the falls’ cool mist.
The Lower Calf Creek descends 126 feet over a sheer rock wall into a clear pool at its base. If you visit during hot weather, you’re likely to find groups of hikers -- sometimes with their dogs -- playing in the pool below the falls. It is a glorious sight!
Note that although the trail has minimal overall elevation gain, it does include some sections of steep rocky climbs. Also, much of the trail surface is soft sand, which adds to the hike’s difficulty. The route is about 6.7 miles roundtrip, and it is rated as moderate. It takes about 3 to 4 hours to complete.
Located in the Calf Creek Recreation Area along Utah’s State Route 12, the trailhead to the falls is a popular spot year-round. It is also the site of the Calf Creek Campground, so traffic can get clogged on busy weekends. Try to arrive as early as possible in the morning to secure a spot, and have cash or a check on hand to pay the day-use fee.
2. Drive Scenic Highway 12
It is known as both a Scenic Byway and an All-American Road, and the 123-mile Highway 12 easily lives up to both titles.
The scenes flashing by as you drive the route are ever-changing -- from far-off white mesas to deep red canyons to oceans of orange-and-pink Slickrock.
The route connects Highway 89 near Panguitch in the west with State Route 24 near Torrey in the northeast. Along the way, it passes near the entrances to Bryce Canyon National Park and Capitol Reef National Park, as well as the Calf Creek Recreational Area, several state parks, a 9,000-foot summit, and a half-dozen picturesque little towns.
The highway has numerous overlooks with parking, so stopping to take in the views is convenient. One not-to-be-missed spot is the 9,000-foot-elevation summit overlook, where the Grand Staircase and the red rock of Capitol Reef is spread before you in the distance. “You’re looking at some of the wildest lands in the United States,” says an interpretive sign at the overlook.
Other worthy stops include the Escalante Petrified Forest State Park, the Hogback Ridge overlooks, the Anasazi State Park Museum, the Calf Creek Recreational Area, and the Burr Trail Scenic Backway. Any of the small towns, including Cannonville, Escalante, Boulder, and Torrey, also make great stops for exploring and refreshments.
You could drive the entire route in a few hours, but it’s best to take a few days, stop along the way to camp in the national or state parks, sample the charming towns, and take in several of the hikes.
3. Walk Among The Toadstools
At first glance, it seems almost impossible that The Toadstools of the Grand Staircase-Escalante could be a natural phenomenon. The boulders seem curiously out of place, sitting precariously on their thin spires.
A sign at the trailhead located along Highway 89 explains the toadstool geology: “It forms when softer rock erodes away, leaving a column sheltered from wind and water.”
The balanced rock formations are an iconic image in the national monument and should not be missed. Although the initial red toadstool is impressive, it is just the first in a series of similar rock formations. Be sure to continue toward the views of the Paria River and even more toadstool formations.
The roundtrip hike to The Toadstools is about 1.5 miles and is rated as easy to moderate. It should take about an hour.
4. Be A Shutterbug At Kodachrome Basin
A 7-mile detour south of Highway 12 from the town of Cannonville will get you to the gorgeous Kodachrome Basin State Park with its 67 monolithic stone spires rising from multi-hued sandstone layers that reveal 180 million years of geology.
The basin, with its rainbow of colors, is known to be insanely photogenic -- hence the park’s name, which originated with a National Geographic Society expedition back in 1948 (named after the popular color film of the era).
It also has a number of trails that take hikers and horseback riders deep into the basin. A few to check out are the 3-mile Panorama Trail (easy), the 0.4-mile Kodachrome Nature Trail (easy), and the 1.6-mile Shakespeare Arch and Sentinel Trail (moderate).
Pro Tip: While the Shakespeare Arch collapsed in 2019, leaving behind just a pile of rocks, the trail is still scenic.
5. Wander The Slot Canyon At Buckskin Gulch
Another of Grand Staircase’s iconic views can be found in the far southern section of the national monument at Buckskin Gulch. The 15-mile slot canyon features narrow pathways of rock sculpted by eons of water erosion.
The slot canyon can be hiked in its entirety by parking a vehicle at both ends or by a commercial shuttle, but many visitors opt to do just a day hike for as far as they are comfortable. The best way to access the canyon is at the Wire Pass Trailhead, located along a dirt road about 8 miles south of Highway 89 between Kanab, Utah, and Page, Arizona.
6. Get Informed At The Visitor Centers
With four excellent visitor centers, Grand Staircase-Escalante has more of a feel of a national park than a national monument.
A stop at any of the centers, or all four, is recommended to get your bearings in the massive territory as well as to get recommendations for not-to-be-missed and hidden-gem features of each region. The centers are also great places to stock up on maps and souvenirs.
The four visitor centers are located in the Utah communities of Big Water, Cannonville, Escalante, and Kanab.
7. Check Out The Hole-In-The-Rock Road
For the adventurous driver with a sturdy 4-wheel-drive vehicle, the historic 55-mile Hole-in-the-Rock Road beckons. The road, which heads south of Highway 12 a few minutes outside of the town of Escalante, is known as the route constructed by early Mormon settlers in 1879 during their southward quest.
Utah’s tourism website notes that although the first section of the route is doable in a car, “toward the end, the going gets rough, and a proper 4X4 is absolutely necessary.” It adds that visitors should avoid the road “if a single rain cloud is on the way.”
For those who want just a taste, consider taking the first 12 miles or so south to Devils Garden, home to an array of Navajo sandstone hoodoos, domes, narrow passages, and small arches.
Venture farther in, and you will reach the turnoff for the Dry Fork of the Coyote Gulch trailhead as well as the Peek-a-Boo and Spooky slot canyons. Remember to take along a detailed map and guidebook and have a full tank of gas.
Eventually, the Hole-in-the-Rock Road gets to the point where the original settlers chiseled and blasted their way through the red rocks to get to the river below (now Lake Powell).
If parking is unavailable at the various Grand Staircase-Escalante trailheads when you pass through, it pays to check back later in the day. Turnover is fairly quick at parking lots for the Toadstools, Lower Calf Creek Falls, and the Kodachrome Basin, and parking spaces open up regularly throughout the afternoon.
The best seasons to visit the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument are spring and fall. From April through June, average high temperatures in Escalante range from the mid-60s to the mid-80s. In fall, average highs are in the low 80s in September and the high 60s in October. Still, it is important to remember that because elevations vary widely throughout the million-acre national monument, weather conditions also vary.