Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern
Utah. This rugged region was the last part of the
continental United States to be mapped, and it
requires work for those wanting to see its
on the ground in Coyote Gulch, the night sky framed by
openings in a natural arch and a curved canyon wall, I
peer at the cosmos as through a Mardi Gras mask.
legs and shoulders ache near the end of a 70-mile
backpacking hike in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National
Monument in southern Utah. This is the reward for
exploring remote places: a long and challenging trek
culminating in an otherworldly vista.
short distance from Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks,
the national monument shares some of the red-rock wonders
of its better-known neighbors. During a weeklong visit in
May, I saw natural arches and bridges, Indian ruins and
drawings, slot canyons and more, all contained in
deep-red, sculpted ravines that run through the Escalante
River basin like roads in a city.
the Escalante doesn’t share with the national parks is
well-marked trails or paved roads — or the crowds that
come with those "amenities." This rugged region
was the last part of the continental United States to be
mapped, and it requires work for those wanting to see its
Ruess shared my love of remote places. A teenager from Los
Angeles, Ruess traveled the Southwest and the Sierra with
two burros, making block-print art and meeting famous
photographers Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, before
disappearing in the Escalante in 1934.
to when I shall visit civilization, it will not be soon, I
think," Everett wrote his brother Waldo, in the last
of his many letters recounting his adventures. "I
have not tired of the wilderness; rather, I enjoy its
beauty and the vagrant life I lead, more keenly all the
body has never been recovered, only adding to the mystery.
In 1996, Jon Krakauer revived the Ruess story in his book
"Into the Wild," about Christopher McCandless,
another youthful wilderness traveler who died. Longtime
adventure writer David Roberts and former Los Angeles
Times reporter Philip L. Fradkin followed up a few years
ago with their own books about Ruess.
teen’s last known location was about 10 miles from where
I scanned the heavens from Coyote Gulch. His legacies
colored much of my trip, for better or worse, making me
better realize the risks and rewards of travel in isolated
places like the Escalante.
rigors of traveling in the Escalante telegraphed through
my body on the drive there, as soon as I left Utah 12 for
the unpaved, 55-mile Hole in the Rock Road. My teeth were
on edge as my car rattled past the monument’s most
popular attractions and made its way to near the road’s
end at the "Hole in the Rock," an opening in a
canyon wall next to Lake Powell.
1880, Mormon pioneers made their way through the hole to
begin settling the area. "It’s the roughest country
you or anybody else ever seen; it’s nothing in the world
but rocks and holes, hills and hollows," a
Hole-in-the-Rock pioneer said around the time, as I
learned at a visitors center. John Wesley Powell’s
expedition of the American West did initial mapping of the
area during this period.
have long explored the Canyons of the Escalante, but it
was not made a national monument until 1996, when
then-President Bill Clinton praised the "high, rugged
and remote region." The monument covers 1.9 million
acres and has three parts — the Kaiparowits Plateau,
which includes the distinct Straight Cliffs, a sandstone
shelf that runs parallel to the Hole in the Rock Road; the
Grand Staircase, where cliff lines and benches form the
"steps" near the Arizona-Utah border; and the
Canyons of the Escalante, the area I visited, largely
north of Hole in the Rock Road.
addition to endless opportunities for hiking and
backpacking, the monument has many campsites, a river for
fishing and rafting, trails for mountain biking, and much
Bureau of Land Management, which is responsible for the
monument, does not provide many of the features designed
to make a park user-friendly: signs, built trails and the
like. While this gives the area a more wild and natural
feel, it can also make the area more difficult to travel.
Guide services in the town of Escalante provide tours of
you go without a guide, make sure you know a few things
about desert hiking. Take plenty of water, of course. Also
take detailed maps or a GPS unit. Desert trails are
typically harder to follow than trails in other places
because the ground doesn’t retain footprints and the
sparse landscape provides fewer natural cues to follow.
used a GPS unit to find two slot canyons, West Fork and
Big Horn; without the unit, I would have been lost in a
maze of desert canyons.
I found them, I was transfixed. Bright orange and red
walls look freshly painted with swirls. As those walls
press closer and closer, small shafts of light seem to set
them on fire, until canyons get so tight you can’t move
highlight of my excursion was hiking the serpentine
canyons of Coyote Gulch, named a top hiking destination by
many outdoor writers, including Peter Potterfield in his
"Classic Hikes of North America."
Gulch is probably the monument’s most crowded
attraction. In three days I saw about 40 people, most of
them traveling in large groups. I met a couple from
Northern California traveling the trail for the second
time; they had wonder and joy etched in their faces. Most
of the time, I trekked in secluded bliss, as hours would
pass without seeing anyone.
Gulch leads across 14 miles of land and ankle-deep water.
The canyon walls get bigger and the views get more
dramatic as the gulch makes its way toward the Escalante
River, under the Jacob Hamblin Arch and the Coyote Natural
Bridge and past Cliff Arch. The topography gets trickier
with a succession of waterfalls requiring the traveler to
scramble on rocks at the edge of the water.
one of those scrambles, I had to ease across a strip of
slickrock about a foot wide. On another, I was traversing
steep slickrock that led to a 30-foot drop-off into a
rocky waterfall. At such moments as these, I was most
aware of my solitude. If I broke a bone, I would have to
wait for rescue, which may not come.
such moments as these, I thought of Ruess. Any statement
about his fate is speculation. I had time to develop my
own: that he died in a hiking or swimming accident and his
body was washed away by the Colorado River, before it was
overtaken by Lake Powell.
of Ruess’ fate made me more careful as I climbed or
stepped on wet rocks. Ruess was apparently without a
companion to help him when he disappeared. But his legacy
is also one reason why I took those risks — to see
beautiful places such as the Escalante.
I finished my first trip through Coyote Gulch, I went out
to the Escalante River and saw yet another natural arch.
Then I immediately made my return trip down Coyote Gulch,
to be just as stunned by the beauty as on the initial
legs felt like burning stumps from a week’s hiking, but
like Ruess, I had not tired of the wilderness. The beauty
propelled me forward.