Roaming the Escalante

Although a dozen miles at most separate the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument from the Kaibab National Forest to the south, the two environments are as different as can be imagined (my posts on the Kaibab can be found here , here  and here).  Several thousand feet lower and far dryer, the Escalante is a void of shattered rock, high mesas, endless canyons, and seemingly infinite aridity, but for the thunderstorms that hover motionless in the afternoons of summer over one part of the landscape or another for hours at a time.  More often than not, these showy storms simply tease with thunder, lightning and a quick shower or a spattering of raindrops, but sometimes they unleash a deluge that leads (as yesterday) to flash floods.


This difference in climate makes accessing the Escalante a far different proposition for a visitor than the Kaibab.  While the Kaibab Plateau supports an active lumbering and "wildlife management" economy for those that live around it, and therefore has hundreds of miles of well maintained dirt roads, the Escalante has no trees to harvest, and only marginal ranching opportunities through much of its range.  Unlike almost all government land in the West (other than National Parks), there are large areas of the Escalante where there is no evidence (think hard what that might be) of any cattle at all.


As a result, no paved roads cross the sixty mile wide Monument, and huge areas of the Escalante have no dirt roads, or miracle of miracles, even jeep or ATV tracks at all.  As I sit here typing today, I'm parked on a rock ledge next to one of the few rough dirt roads for many miles around, overlooking a dry canyon to the south, and overlooked in turn by a massive, unvegetated mesa to the north.  The "road" I traveled for the last two hours simply follows the dry floor of a narrow wash for most of its length.  I can know almost to a certainty that I will see neither another car nor a soul (bovine or human) for as long as I choose to stay somewhere along this road's length — or the next.  For that matter, I am likely the only person within 10 to 25 miles in any direction.  Only a single old ATV track is visible.

All of which is by design.  When I arrived at the town of Kanab, on the southwestern corner of the park, I stopped at government information office to find out what the most popular locations and hikes in the Escalante might be.  After 20 minutes of circling points of interest on my map, I was happily well informed what parts of the park to avoid, the better to do my own poking around into parts nearly as spectacular, but deserted.


In truth, the risk of company in the Escalante is quite low anywhere you go.  I stopped at the trail register at the trailhead of an easy, “made for tourists,” 1 ½ mile (round trip) hike that leaves a paved road on the edge of the Monument within sight of one of the four Monument visitor centers, and counted a maximum of three groups signing in on almost any day during the whole summer.  With long distances between the few places to stay, and only two unpaved roads that cross the monument that are reliably navigable by other than a non-four wheel drive car, the Monument is inhospitable to anyone not interested in serious hiking or climbing.  Moreover, off-road travel by four-wheel drive, ATV or even mountain bike is verboten in the Monument, due to the fragility of the environment.


The scenery, on the other hand, is grand.  Wild, desolate, empty, and unspoiled (except as a result of habitat change and erosion from a hundred years of grazing), it offers some truly spectacular places, such as many of the slot canyons with magical light, sinuous passages, and vibrant bands of color that you have certainly seen at some point in a magazine or poster.  Red rock canyons are a commonplace, and strange toadstool-shaped hoodoos are a trademark.  All in all, the Escalante is supremely well equipped to reliably deliver on solitude — a deliverable that is all too hard to come by today.


It’s interesting to note that as the American population increases and access to the farthest corners of the country becomes pervasive, that some lonely parts of the west have become more empty rather than less so.  The great plains are emptying out as the always-marginal agricultural proposition loses appeal, and visitation often becomes more concentrated than diffuse in others.


Just as Edward Abbey, the supreme iconoclast of the southwest observed in a self-styled “polemic” in his classic Desert Solitaire almost 40 years ago, the easier access to public lands becomes, the more superficial the typical visit becomes.  Abbey saw unlimited access leading to the destruction of the National Parks, based on his own experience with the invasion of the Arches National Park in which he had been a ranger.  But what he did not foresee, perhaps, was that more people would be focus their attention on smaller areas, leaving the rest of many parks, monuments and National Forests largely unmolested. 


After all, the tiny Arches National Monument was crammed with spectacular natural formations, and easy enough to invade with a loop drive.  Spectacular landscapes lucky enough to lack such poster-child formations are more likely to escape the invasion by paved roads that might leave casual visitors disappointed.  And when they are crossed by roads, fewer and fewer people (on a percentage basis) may leave their cars at all.


This does not surprise me, given the direction that our society as a whole has taken.  For those that do not want to exert themselves, what can’t be seen quickly from an overlook can be easily missed.  And for those that do want to exert themselves, there is an increasing focus on the Big Challenges and the Classic Locations — the technical climbs that are written about, the peaks that are most challenging to scale, and the white water that has attracted the guide services.  People want to see the Blockbuster View, just as they want to see the  blockbuster movie, read the blockbuster novel, and watch the TV show of the hour.


Slightly more pedestrian, but still spectacular scenery — places that don’t make the top ten, or appear in magazine articles, are often largely left in peace.  Moreover, even popular destinations see only a small part of their terrain invaded.  What percentage of visitors out west ever hike somewhere other than on a trail — even where off-trail travel is not discouraged, and you can see in any direction for mile upon mile?  Today, people want guaranteed results that they can select from the menu of a trail guide book, with a certifiably satisfying view or waterfall to reward them for their labors as the focal point of the trek.


Of course, I am hardly complaining.  If the current state of affairs impressed others as being as odd as it does to me, then I might have company right now, as I watch the sunset light up the towering thunderheads that loom high above on the near horizon.


And I wouldn’t like that at all.

For more selections from Not Here But There: A Wilderness Journal, click here