Given your viewpoint within this vast area, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is actively reshaping itself and has been for well over 275 million to 50 million years. Yet, it remains a fairly new concept for us. Indeed, this remains the last part of the lower 48 States to be mapped by a cartographer.
Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument
Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument is a unique and outstanding region of canyons, arches, plateaus, and cliffs. In fact, it encompasses 1.9 million acres. The communities of Kanab, Glendale, and Big Water border it at the southwestern portion. The gateway communities of Tropic, Cannonville, Henrieville, Escalante, and Boulder sit atop the northeastern range.
The Monument’s name comes from the Escalante River, which flows from Boulder Mountain to the Colorado River. It’s deep canyons, and gorges derive from eons of years of carving. The sandstone labyrinths highlight unusual rock formations and mesmerizing slot canyons. Some of the best hiking and backing in the world come from this area.
It also shares its name from a geologic phenomenon of tilted sedimentary rock layers covering millions of acres. Clarence Dutton first conceptualized the “staircase” idea in the 1870s. It consists of a series of topographic benches (steps) and cliffs (risers) ascending in elevation from the south to the north. These steps correspond to the terraces and plateaus in a staircase. The base of the staircase sits at the highest bench of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. These five eroded “steps” each reveal cliffs of a unique, distinctive color. In fact, their names come from their color (in ascending elevation and age order): Chocolate, Vermillion, White, Gray, and Pink.
Some of the best places to see the Grand Staircase are viewpoints within Bryce Canyon National Park.
The Chocolate Cliffs solidify the oldest and bottom of the Grand Staircase. Essentially, it is the northern rim of the Grand Canyon. They started forming around 200 to 225 million years ago. This layer is the Kaibab Plateau. It is made up of Kaibab limestone.
The Vermillion Cliffs offer a brilliant reddish-brown color. They comprise of silt and ancient desert sand. Consequently, this layer forms the red rock cliffs near Kanab. They date back around 165 to 200 million years ago.
These are massive cliffs. They comprise mostly of Navajo sandstone and can easily be seen within Zion National Park. The White Cliff layer dates around 150 million years old. Lakes and huge dunes originally formed this region.
It is only an hour’s drive between Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National park. However, that drive highlights 130 million years of geology. The Gray Cliffs hold mostly sandstone and shale from the Cretaceous period.
Above all, Bryce Canyon National Park is famous for its sculpted hoodoos. These come from the youngest layer of the Grand Staircase. These pink cliffs derive from the Claron Formation and are nearly 60 million years old. This region sits right on the edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, between 7,000 and 9,000 feet above sea level.
The Paunsaugunt and Aquarius Plateaus
The Paunsaugunt Plateau is about 10-20 million years old and started via a tectonic uplift on the Colorado Plateau (the highest plateau in North America). This uplift, combined with erosional forces along the Paunsaugunt Plateau, created Bryce Canyon’s wonderful hoodoos.
The Aquarius Plateau is yet another tectonic uplift along the Colorado Plateau. This area is more than 50,000 acres of forest and is above the 11,000 feet mark. In fact, Boulder Mountain’s Blueball Knoll is the highest point in the Bryce Canyon area at 11,328 feet above sea level.
President Bill Clinton established the entire Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in September 1996. It was controversial when he did, and it remains controversial on numerous fronts. In 2017, President Donald Trump ordered the monument’s size reduced by nearly 47%. As a result, conservationists, outdoor groups, hunters, and recreation groups filed multiple suits to block this national monument’s reduction. Many of the cases stay pending today.