The Grand Escalante National Monument, a little known and under-visited natural area in southern Utah, is my favorite place to photograph red rock formations. At an impressive 2,938 square miles, the monument has room to roam, as well as to truly experience the natural wonders of the area, without the crowds.
Grand Escalante was named for the succession of cliffs that drop down to Lake Powell and the Colorado River to the south. In 1996 it was designated as a national monument by President Bill Clinton to protect its array of scientific and historic resources. An interesting note is that this area was the last to be mapped in the entire United States! The area contains a rich source of fossils including the best records of Late Cretaceous terrestrial life in the world. There is archeological evidence of use within the monument by the Anasazi and Fremont cultures, including rock art panels, occupation sites, and granaries. Remoteness and limited travel corridors have helped to protect this treasure which spans five life zones from low-lying desert to coniferous forests with scarce water sources. This is just one of the pristine natural wonders which was nearly decimated due to thoughtlessly reckless executive orders signed by Trump which allowed mining. Thankfully those orders have been largely overturned.
Although there are several entrances to the Grand Escalante NM, my favorite is from the tiny village of Boulder, Utah on Highway 12. My hotel of choice (and perhaps the only place one would want to stay in the entire village) is the Boulder Mountain Lodge which provides very nice rooms in several buildings. This is also the home of the famous Hell’s Backbone Grill, a farm-to-table restaurant serving delicious meals. Right next to the hotel is the entrance to the aptly named Burr Trail, a forty-mile-long paved road which winds through the Navajo Sandstone dune formations to finally arrive at my favorite destination: the tall and majestic Circle Cliffs. These beautiful cliff faces line both sides of the road for seven miles – that’s seven miles of stunningly beautiful photographic possibilities. All the images included in this post were taken at the Circle Cliffs from the driver’s seat of my car! During my recent visit I only encountered three cars over the course of two hours. Try to beat that anywhere in Arches or Canyonlands NP near Moab, UT. The stillness and serenity, with only the birds and a whispering wind to keep me company are all I needed to enter into a meditative state which helped me to capture the view. For those who enjoy more of a grand landscape type of photography, there’s plenty of possibilities to be had.
The Circle Cliffs were formed at the same time as the Rocky Mountains, as they were pushed up by pressure from the subduction of the Farallon Plate along the western edge of the continent. Between 6 and 5 million years ago rivers started cutting the canyon that exposes the layers of rock that we see today. Freeze and thaw conditions have created most of the cracks, textures and forms that make this such a photogenic place. You’ll notice many large rocks balanced along the tops of the cliffs, as well as piles of rock which have fallen over time. Just a gentle reminder that the cliffs are still actively changing. It’s possible to camp in designated areas in the monument, as well as at Capitol Reef.
You’ll hear that the Burr Trail is an alternate route to Capitol Reef National Park and the Waterpocket Fold – don’t believe it! Yes, the Burr Trail road is nicely maintained for nearly forty miles, but when you drop down the steep gravel switchbacks and onto Notom – Bullfrog Road, the red clay surface can quickly become a nearly impassable quagmire. I found this out a couple of years ago when I decided to drive from Capitol Reef to Boulder. The first part of the road is paved, but the last twenty miles or so were a nightmare filled with many areas of super slippery mud, steep mud-lined slopes heading into drainage areas, and with no place to turn around anywhere. My worse moment (of many very bad moments!) was coming around a corner and driving into a “lake” of axle deep mud and water. There was another SUV which had become stuck, but with persistence, some skill (and quite a bit of panic) I was able to maneuver my Highlander through the 50 foot long horror and make it out alive. It took an hour and half of hosing to get the thick coat of sticky mud off of my vehicle – about a ton of mud!
So, take Highway 12 between Capitol Reef NP (which you will want to check out) and Boulder, Utah. If you keep traveling southwest on Highway 12, you will come to Bryce Canyon NP and then can access Zion NP as well.
The best time, in my humble opinion, to visit this beautiful area is in mid to late October when the air is cooler and you have some fall color to work with. These images were taken in mid August during monsoon season, which worked out fine. However, during the monsoon there is the possibility of flash floods and road washouts, neither of which occurred while we were there. Even though I’ve visited the area three times, I’ll most likely go back for another look….it’s that kind of a place.
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