Excavation Journal

May 1, 2001: Down Some Less-Traveled Roads

By Elizabeth Rieben, BLM Environmental Education & Volunteers Staff

Hello from southern Utah. I am in one of the most rugged and beautiful parts of the country, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. I have seen pictures and read descriptions of this area for years, but there is just no way to adequately describe its beauty. Wide-open spaces and unusual geologic formations are primary features.

Wildflowers look delicate, but are hardy enough to grow out of rocks.

On our first day here, we have seen delicate wildflowers growing out of rock formations, dinosaur tracks preserved in rock for millions of years, and massive hoodoos and other unusual rock formations. Nearby and more famous attractions draw many visitors, and of course the beauty of places such as Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon is indisputable. But here in the Monument, people are not often seen, trails are undeveloped or nonexistent, roads – when there are roads -- are not paved, and we are free to embrace peacefully a kind of solitude and quiet that is becoming increasingly difficult to find.

We are here (Art, Alma, and I) to document a dinosaur excavation taking place within the Monument. But getting to the excavation site today was not possible because of a previously scheduled field tour for students and others from some of the local communities. Visitation to the site is limited to a total of 12 people, so our crew stayed behind, and took a tour of the Escalante part of the greater Monument area to gather data and images for our educational October broadcast on the project

Powell Point is named after surveyor and explorer John Wesley Powell.

Chris McAlear, BLM outdoor recreation planner, was our host and guide. After an early breakfast, we loaded up our gear and took off from the small town of Tropic, Utah, heading down Scenic Highway 12 east toward the town of Escalante.

Outside of Cannonville, we crossed the Paria River, the last mapped river in the Lower 48 United States and a primary waterway through the area.

Our first stop on Highway 12 was to see Powell Point.While not part of the monument, it is a significant landmark in the area because, at 10,188 feet, it is the highest point around and can be used to "get your bearings." Named after John Wesley Powell, it is used as a survey landmark and can be seen for miles around.

In the town of Escalante, we stopped briefly at the interagency visitor center. Here, BLM, the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service have joined forces to provide visitor information on the entire area. We were told that about 28,000 people came through in a year. Perhaps not a lot for some attractions, but for the small town of Escalante, an impressive number.

The BLM, National Park Service, and Forest Service provide information to visitors.

We decided to fill a cooler with lunch since we would be in very remote areas for the rest of the day We had packed plenty of water and were driving a high clearance vehicle, since much of the road system in the Monument is dirt, and many roads are impassable in a sedan. (On the map, you see areas with names such as Death Ridge and Carcass Canyon. There's a message there!) We did learn that there are plenty of things to see and do fairly close to the road system – the area called the "front country." And given our time limitations, we did not venture too far into the backcountry. .

Soon after we left Escalante, still traveling on Highway 12, we turned right and headed south onto "Hole in the Rock" Road, a well-traveled dirt road from which you could see, looking to the West, the "Straight Cliffs" of the Kaiparowits Plateau rising up from the ground. It was beautiful and sunny and as we stopped to shoot video and enjoy the clear day, Chris told us that the area has the cleanest

Erosion creates holes in rock formations.

air in the United States according to recent air quality monitoring. So we took in a few extra deep breaths as we contemplated having to eventually head back to our home towns of Phoenix (Art and Alma), and the Washington, DC area (me). We were wondering how we could somehow bottle up this air and take it with us.

Continuing down Hole in the Rock Road, we turned right onto a not-so-well traveled road in Left Hand Collet Canyon. Chris explained that the road led up to the top of Kaiparowits Plateau, but it is a treacherous drive and even our vehicle would not make it. We were simply going to drive a short distance and hike to a dinosaur trackway. The trackway was located on top of a rock formation that, millions of years ago, is believed to have been the shore of an ancient sea. The tracks look very much as if they were made in mud. Frozen for millions of years, these mud prints from a swampy era sit exposed on this rock in the blazing sun, no water in sight for miles.

The hoodoos of Devil's Garden.


Driving back from the site, we stopped at a popular destination, Devil's Garden.

We saw the first "tourists" on our trip, and also the first snake – a harmless one. We were told that although rattlesnakes and poisonous insects do exist in the monument, the real dangers are those posed by people not being prepared for flash flooding, extreme heat, and unmarked trails and passageways. With few marked trails and even fewer roads in the monument, it is easy to get disoriented and lost if not prepared.

Back on Highway 12, we continued east toward the town of Boulder, stopping along the way to capture the grand vistas and expansive geology that can be seen from numerous overlooks highlighting the Escalante River and Calf Creek. Calf Creek campground is a popular, shaded camping spot located just off the highway. Hiking from there, one can visit Calf Creek Falls, another popular destination, but one that we had to forego.

Farther east on Highway 12 is a section of road on "The Hogback," offering sheer drops from both sides of the narrow highway -- not for the faint of heart.

Unfortunately, we had to turn around shortly after The Hogback, as we were running out of time, and needed to get back to meet on shooting schedules for the next few days. We also were anxious to meet up with a third videographer, Kelly Rigby, who was driving down from the BLM State Office in Salt Lake City to help us out for a few days. But we captured a lot of spectacular images, and before heading back, we filled our lungs with the cleanest air around.