The Grand Staircase rises in a multicolored series of steps towards the Western border of the monument and is broken into three sections. The Eastern section of the monument is comprised of the Escalante River drainage area. This is a magical land full of canyons and washes, a true testament to the forces of nature. The central portion of the monument is the home of the Kaiparowits plateau. Formation of these great plateaus, sheer cliffs, and deep canyons began during a period of intensive geological and erosional activity occurring 60-80 million years ago. As the plateaus were uplifted by the shifting and buckling of the earth, and the canyons were eroded by meandering streams, a great cross-section of geological formations was eventually exposed. These formations are thought to have been deposited some 180 to 225 million years ago. Geologists believe these various formations were deposited as the area alternated between sea, lake, and desert environments. Some of these formations contain the fossils of dinosaur bones, sea shells, land and marine organisms, and the petrified wood of ancient forests. As you hike along the canyons or drive down the highway today, you may be passing through an area once covered by seas and inhabited by marine organisms, or perhaps you’ll pass through an area where ancient forests once thrived and dinosaurs roamed.
Amazing displays of geological activities and erosional forces can be seen throughout the area, including the intricate network of deep canyons, uplifted plateaus, sheer cliffs, beautiful sandstone arches and natural bridges, water pockets, sandstone monoliths, pedestals and balanced rocks, domes and buttes, ironstone concretions, and volcanic boulder fields to name a few. Many of the features of the Monument can be viewed by various overlooks. Highway 12 and 89 both provide a scenic way to see the Monument by way of the auto. Highway 12 has been listed as one of the top ten scenic drives in America. The most scenic portion of this drive is between the towns of Boulder and Escalante. The road climbs, winds and descends its way throughout some of the most awe-inspiring scenery you’ve ever seen. The highway lies on the crest of a ridgeline for a while, 1000 foot dropoffs on either side of the road. If you have the time and are traveling through the area I’d recommend driving the entire length of HWY 12. The Northern section of this highway climbs over Boulder Mountain. This climb up the mountain allows for some views that are out of this world. Views of Capitol Reef National Park and the waterpocket fold are supplemented by a seemingly endless view of the Southern San Rafael Swell.
While visiting you will quickly realize that the whole area is essentially one giant geological wonder. This makes it a little difficult to give specific locations for viewing such splendors. However, below is a list of a few popular destinations for some awe inspiring geology.
- Devil’s Garden
- Escalante Petrified Forest State Park
- Smokey Mountain Road
- Hell’s Backbone Road: especially around the bridge
- Golden Cathedral
- Zebra Slot Canyon
- Spooky and Peekaboo Slot Canyons
- Hole-In-The-Rock Road
- Burr Trail Road
- All of Hwy 12: particularly the section from Boulder to Escalante