Ringing in the New Year at Grand Staircase-Escalante & Bears Ears
My wife, Grace, and I have been saddened by the news of the recent shrinking of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Bears Ears National Monument. The beautiful and unexplored frontiers of these national monuments should be cherished. Grand Staircase-Escalante was the last part of the lower 48 to get cartographed, and remains full of history and geological wonders yet to be fully appreciated. For example, since 2000, archaeologists have found twenty new dinosaur species there that have all been new to science–dated between 70-100 million years old. Bears Ears is home to a significant number of Puebloan cliff dwellings from more than 3,500 years ago. There is much to be discovered within the region, and we've only scratched the surface. With news of the shrinking, Grace and I decided to make a trip out there our top priority. We chose to ring in the New Year with our cherished public lands.
We started by visiting Hole-in-the-Rock Road, a famous road leading into the heart of Grand Staircase-Escalante to the trailhead for Peek-a-Boo and Spooky Slot Canyons. Starting high above the canyons, the colorful earth in front of us showed no cracks, and we wondered how slot canyons could be so close. The trail, however, quickly wound us down red cliffs, and we dropped to the exit of Peek-a-Boo canyon with two pink arches marking the portal to this new world of high and tight walls. Weaving in and out and ducking under arches, we scrambled through the slot canyon, enjoying the orange and pink hues of the walls and the smooth striations in the rock. We could almost picture the flow of water that had carved it centuries ago.
Creating a loop, we then followed a cairned path to the entrance of Spooky Gulch. Though just over half a mile from Peek-a-Boo, the rock was starkly different. The smooth surface was speckled, and layers of stronger rock jutted out of the smoothed sandstone. The gulch got much tighter and deeper than Peek-a-Boo, too, and as such, the canyon was much darker, lending an eerie feel as we inched our way sideways through the dark narrows with the walls reaching far above us.
After exiting Spooky, we returned to the entrance of Peek-a-Boo and turned left to head into Dry Fork. Not often discussed, the narrows here were far longer than the other canyons previously mentioned. The canyon walls were wider apart and not as deep, but that allowed more sunlight to highlight the colorful gradient in the sandstone.
A few miles down Hole-in-the-Rock Road, we headed for Zebra and Tunnel Slot Canyons. The hike in was several miles, initially starting on grassy fields before entering a beautiful wash with rock features similar to the features on the famous 'Wave' in Arizona. We walked the sandy wash to the base of Zebra Slot. Scrambling up and over some rocks, we made it to the tight striped rocks, no more than two feet apart, and much tighter in several spots. Zebra Slot is well named–red and white striations line the rock, perfectly parallel with the ground. We marveled at the special beauty in this canyon for almost an hour. On the way out, the sun started to set, and we had to skip Tunnel due to the time spent photographing and exploring Zebra. The days are short!
From there, we headed southeast to Page, Arizona. In stark contrast to Grand Staircase-Escalante, a giant power plant spewing smoke into the air was our welcoming view upon nearing Page. As we explored the famous Antelope Canyon, the power plant came up several times. The Navajo guides want it gone, saying the jobs could be easily replaced with tourism jobs, guiding in the canyons, and having a more preserved area in totality. I wonder–is this a picture of what's to come in Grand Staircase-Escalante? Should we upend the restrictions and pave hole in the rock road to allow mineral extraction? I sure hope not–and per public response, that's the view of the majority.
The final day of our trip we headed to Bears Ears, heading north through Valley of the Gods. There's nothing here–a few dirt tracks, no visible trails, and one main road (Utah State Route 261) cutting north. The rugged Moki Dugway switchback road takes us up onto the rim of the mesa above Valley of the Gods, and soon we can see the iconic 'bears ears' formation–two side-by-side mesas in the distance. Bears Ears National Monument is home to over 100,000 archaeological sites, many of which we viewed along the way through the monument. Unfortunately for Bears Ears, most of these sites will no longer be protected, as it also contains numerous natural resources.
It was only a few days, yet it meant a lot to see these lands, and give them meaning to ourselves. There are so many recreational possibilities on these lands. They're beautiful, expansive, and hold much cultural and scientific significance. Visit them, and you will surely agree. These lands deserve the protection they were given.
Last month, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke publicly stated that the 2.5 million comments they received on the monuments were "overwhelmingly" in favor of maintaining their current sizes. However, he brushed this aside, stating that this was part of "a well-orchestrated national campaign organized by multiple groups."
As such, rather than continuing to feel helpless calling deaf ears, a visit to one of these public lands is one of the best things you can do to spread awareness. Go experience the area for yourself, and you'll surely fall in love with it. We have. The inspiration you will receive from your visit will call you to action!