Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM) in southern Utah is among my favorite places we’ve visited so far and another pleasant, unexpected surprise, as it wasn’t on our initial unofficial list of places to go. We decided to check it out because our brother-in-law Tim recommended a hike within the monument. Besides the promise of a cool hike, we didn’t have many expectations, and we grew to love so much about this area.
GSENM is beautiful, rugged, often other-worldly, and remote. The region was the last to be mapped in the continental US – that’s how rugged and remote it is. The monument was established relatively recently (1996) and protects almost two-million acres of wilderness! One of the main goals of the monument is to keep the land wild and undeveloped. This mission is what I love most about the monument.
Although the national park service has a mandate to protect their lands and they do an incredible job of this, they’re also charged with making the land accessible for the enjoyment of the public. With that latter goal comes some degree of development and, of course, people, many of whom approach the parks like tourist attractions (which they are to some degree) rather than experiencing the true nature preserved in the parks. Our favorite national park experiences have been those away from the crowds, and it was so nice to find that experience easily at GSENM. A sign at a roadside exhibit within the monument pointed out that the monument preserves not only land but also the opportunity to experience solitude, which is one of our rarest natural resources.
And solitude we found, which we thoroughly enjoyed after the crowds at Arches and Zion national parks. We camped for free (dispersed camping is allowed in several areas with a free permit) with no one close by, which was divine. We obtained our camping permit, trail and area maps at this really nice Visitor’s Center, one of several in the area, though this is the largest, as it serves as the interagency office.
During our time in the monument, we traversed many miles of wash-boarded dirt roads with the truck. We experienced a free-range cattle traffic jam one evening. I’m sure the cowboys thought we were all pretty silly for taking pictures.
We enjoyed dark night skies optimal for star-gazing and learning more about our camera.
We marveled at more cool rock formations.
We spent a couple of hours in perfect solitude searching for dinosaur tracks contained in sandstone rock. Look closely below for the circular prints.
We did the hike recommended by our brother-in-law, which is among our top five favorite hikes and overall experiences so far. The hike requires driving a little over 50 miles roundtrip on the aforementioned dirt road, then another four miles roundtrip on a 4-wheel drive road in order to reach the trailhead; this nicely limits the number of people who attempt the hike. The hike itself can be done several ways, and we chose to complete it as a loop that connects a short section of Coyote Gulch with two slot canyons called Spooky Gulch and Peek-A-Boo Gulch, which can also be connected to each other via a loop. The two slot canyons were awesome, challenging, and super fun.
We did Spooky first, as the ascent into Peek-A-Book is steep, tough and requires wading through several deep-ish pools of water; we opted instead to descend into the back of Peek-A-Boo and save the water for the very end (who wants to hike with wet shoes for several miles when you have a choice otherwise?).
Spooky was narrow, curvy, and deep the whole way through with a sandy bottom the majority of the time (until the end when it turned into rocks and boulders), and we loved it! At its narrowest point, it was about 10 inches wide. It was a marvel to behold.
There was some tough ascending at the back end – no equipment needed, but we did have to hoist and pull each other up through some of the tall, steep, narrow sections. About the time we reached the most challenging section, we meet a family coming the opposite direction, which meant we had to backtrack and find separate alcoves to squeeze into in order to give them room to get past us. The family was led by an older man, who we soon found out is nearly 84 years old! Due to the tight space and challenging nature of this particular section of the canyon, we ended up providing a good bit of physical assistance to the family, particularly the older man, which gave us all some good laughs and extra fun. After the family passed us, a pair of really nice guys (and their dog!) in their 20’s came up behind us. We created a bit of an assembly line getting through the back end of the canyon; we passed our backpacks down the line, then up the line to get through the narrowest spots; I led and scouted out the tightest spots, with Jason hoisting me up into the steep, small sections; one of the guys was then able to hoist Jason up and so-on, until the fourth person came up, at which point a person or two could pull him up. There was a really neat sense of comradery to the whole experience. It seemed that every person we met along the trail wanted information/advice about the hike and then shared some in return.
Peek-A-Boo Gulch was rockier, wider, and shallower with the aforementioned pools of water toward the end. Cool in its own right, though, as it had some neat rock formations and arches. (The picture below is actually from inside Spooky, as we had our camera stowed to protect it from the water in Peek-A-Boo.)
On our last day in the monument, we hiked to this beautiful waterfall via the Lower Calf Creek Falls Trail. It was definitely the most crowded and popular place we experienced in the monument, but still manageable and definitely worth it. To add to the fun, we ran into two of the same groups we saw the day before while hiking Spooky/Peek-A-Boo, including the pair of guys with their super athletic dog.
We’re so glad we added this special monument to our trip. We’ll be posting more pictures on our Facebook page soon. Thanks, as always, for following along with our adventure! We love sharing it with you.