I had heard of the Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument, but I did not know why it was called that and I didn’t really understand the importance of the place. As I drove the Hells Backbone Road at the northern end of the National Monument, I could see for miles and miles, no civilization except the road I was on. I wasn’t the only one pulling off at every scenic viewpoint, trailer in tow, to try and capture the expanse before me.
But, the National Monument is only part of the Grand Staircase. What exactly is it, and why is it even called the Grand Staircase? Read on to find out the answers…
From the Grand Canyon at the southern end, to Bryce Canyon at the northern end, the Grand Staircase is a huge and amazing geological feature. It is the most complete sequence of sedimentary rocks in the world, built up from lakes, inland seas, swamps, deserts, and forests that each had their place in the geological timeline that is the Colorado Plateau and surrounding area. It’s 525 million years of geology in one place and it’s pretty freaking amazing when you realize that.
As I was driving south from Zion National Park to the north Rim of the Grand Canyon along Route 89A, I happened to look out my window. And immediately started searching for a pullout where I could stop and take some photos. Look at that, it’s literally a huge part of the Grand Staircase right there, out in the open, with people driving by and never giving it a second glance. Yikes.
Very Short Video: Grand Staircase
Understanding the Steps
The steps in the staircase are, from top to bottom (north to south):
- The Pink Cliffs of Bryce
- Gray Cliffs (Kaiparowits Plateau and Navajo Mountain)
- White Cliffs (Jurassic sand dunes)
- Vermillion Cliffs and Chocolate Cliffs
- Paria Plateau
- Kaibab Plateau
- Grand Canyon
As I left the Grand Canyon and drove north then east towards Lee’s Ferry, Arizona, I drove right along the southern edge of the Vermillion Cliffs. They are gorgeous things and I could have taken a million photos of them and not had enough.
After turning into the road to Lee’s Ferry, the views of the Vermillion Cliffs got even more amazing.
How Big Is It?
To help you get a sense of place and of how huge the Grand Staircase, here’s an annotated map, showing the National Parks and towns in and around it. For most of my Fall trip, I was exploring the Grand Staircase, I just didn’t know it when I started out. (The Grand Staircase is on the western edge of the much larger Colorado Plateau.)
How Old Is it?
OK, one last diagram showing the relative ages of the steps.
The cool thing about this diagram is that you can actually see what I mentioned in my Zion post: That the top layer at Zion is the bottom layer at Bryce, and the bottom layer of Zion is the top layer at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
Sedimentation, lithification, uplift, and erosion: The four powerful processes that created all this beauty over the last 500 million years. Well worth the wait 🙂
Want to Know More?
President Clinton created the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996. It has a huge amount of paleontological, geological, archaeological, biological and historical resources. In 2017, President Trump removed nearly half the protected land from the National Monument (including part of Waterpocket Fold), over the objections of the native tribes who had worked so hard to protect this area. In October, 2021, President Biden restored those removed lands to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
- Geology of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (by some really good geologists)
- Written in Stone: a blog post with great details about the geology of the Grand Staircase.
- A visual look at the steps of the Grand Staircase.
- A road log if you want to do some roadside geology while you’re driving.
…our parents and grandparents saved the Grand Canyon for us; today we will save the grand Escalante Canyons and the Kaiparowits Plateaus of Utah for our children. Sometimes progress is measured in mastering frontiers, but sometimes we must measure progress in protecting frontiers for our children and all children to come.
1996 Presidential Proclamation, William J. Clinton