Great American Landscapes

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Too many pets and too little time means I have to plan trips to maximize the most number of stops possible each day. Recently I did 2 National Parks, 4 National Monuments, and 1 National Recreation Area in 1 day. While I wouldn't necessarily recommend that much travel in one day I will say it was an exceptional experience, traveling from Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, where I had spent the previous days, south on US Hwy 89 to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument in Arizona. On the way I stopped and/or drove through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Skylight Arch, the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, the Glen Canyon Dam, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument and Marble Canyon, The Grand Canyon, and Wupatki National Monument. These are some images of that journey.

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Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument US Hwy 89 Bryce to Flagstaff

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is a National Monument protecting 1,880,461 acres (760,996 ha) or about 2,938 square miles (7,610 square kilometers). Needless to say this massive landscape encompasses the largest land area of all the US National Monuments. The monument is unique to the National Park System in that it is managed by the Bureau of Land Management rather than the National Park Service.

How big is the Grand Staircase?

The national monument is slightly larger than the US State of Delaware

Traveling on US Hwy 89 through these vast landscapes insures that one will not encounter crowds, traffic or congestion as it is far off the beaten tourist track, but singularly spectacular.

Big Water Visitor Center and Library Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Dinosaur Sculptures

I liked the dinosaur sculptures at the Big Water visitor center for Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. There is a library, picnic facilities (no trees), a gift shop, rest rooms and information on seeing the sights in the area. Perhaps the most visited site is Skylight Arch, an inverted arch overlooking Hwy 89. You can see the arch from Hwy 89 looking up or you can drive/hike to the top of the cliff and look down through the top of the arch. It is 4-wheel driving only (save the rental car; below). Because it is all dirt roads and mostly unmarked best to use GPS to find your way to the top of the arch using this link: Skylight Arch Drive and Hike.

Skylight Arch near Page Arizona

Why Protect This Landscape?

Below: One of the wonders of this land is the geologic evidence of Earth's past. Here, my hand is under the three-toed track of a Dilophosaurus that tracked through the silt of Glen Canyon 170,000,000 years ago. Then, shallow streams meandered across a marshy plain. Throughout Glen Canyon the red-orange layer of Kayenta sandstone appears—a lost world turned to stone, then river-cut and weathered into view. That's one reason this land must be protected.

Dinosaur Footprint three-toed Dilophosaurus with Phillip's Hand

Protecting such a vast landscape did not come without great controversy. One can read about that elsewhere (Grand Staircase Controversy). Its the same old story. Rich western ranchers were opposed to the designation of such a vast tract of land as a National Monument because they could no longer use it for free grazing for their massive herds of cattle (welfare lands). A Democrat President using the Antiquities Act declared the land protected (Bill Clinton), and blah, blah, blah. . . the same fight is ongoing today across the West.

National Conservation Lands

Grand Staircase-Eslalante National Monument was made a unit of the Bureau of Land Management's National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS), which protects some of the nation's most remarkable and rugged landscapes. By putting this vast area under control of the NLCS some cattle are grazed on these protected lands (for free or virtually free).

NLCS lands will enable future generations to experience the solitude and splendor of undeveloped landscapes by providing opportunities for exploration, research and discovery.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Another massive park, this area encompasses 1.25 million acres (1,953 square miles; 5,059 square kilometers). The area offers unparalled opportunites for water-based (Lake Powell) and backcountry recreation. The recreation area literally stretches for hundres of miles from Lees Ferry in Arizona to the Orange Cliffs of southern Utah.

Glen Canyon Dam with Shadow of Hwy 89 Bridge and Carl Hayden Visitor Center

Glen Canyon Dam

Carl Hayden Visitor Center

Pressed for time, the must-see on this trip is the Glen Canyon Dam with an air-conditioned overlook inside the Carl Hayden Visitor Center, museum and gift shop adjacent to the Dam. Here one can see how the Colorado River and its many tributaries, including the Dirty Devil, Paria, Escalante, and San Juan rivers, carve through the Colorado Plateau to form a landscape of dynamic and complex desert and water environments.

There are exhibits relating to geology and the human and natural history of Grand Canyon, Ancestral Puebloan ("anasazi") and pioneer artifacts, and a life-size model of a slot canyon.

Glen Canyon Dam with Lake Powell and Antelope Island in the distance looking east

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area preserves a record of more than 10,000 years of human presence, adaptation, and exploration. This place remains significant for many descendant communities, providing opportunities for people to connect with cultural values and associations that are both ancient and contemporary.

Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell

The deep 15-mile-long, narrow gorge blow the dam provides a glimpse of the high canyon walls, ancient rock art, and a vestige of the riparian and beach terrace environments that were seen by John Wesley Powell's Colorado expedition in 1869, providing a stark contrast to the impounded canyons of Lake Powell.

Glen Canyon Dam Bridge, Hwy 89

Glen Canyon Dam Bridge

For fun and to stretch, walk across the Hwy 89 bridge suspended hundreds of feet above the gorge and Colorado River below, and feel the bridge sway with each passing car or truck.

Glen Canyon Steel Arch Bridge 700 feet above the Colorado River

Named the Glen Canyon Dam Bridge, it is a steel arch bridge. The bridge was originally built by the US Bureau of Reclamation to facilitate transportation of materials for the Glen Canyon Dam. The bridge is a breath-taking 700 feet (210 m, 70 story building height) above the river and was the highest arch bridge in the world at the time of its completion. How'd they do that?

Glen Canyon Dam Steel Arch Bridge

I liked the artsy effect of the shadows on the narrow pedestrian sidewalk. I am tall so it was a bit claustrophobic trekking across the bridge with its narrow sidewalks and elaborate anti-suicide fencing.

Artsy shot of the Glen Canyon Dam Bridge with shadows, narrow sidewalk and suicide prevention fencing.  The bridge swayed, buckled and shimmied with each passing vehicle.

Below, looking southeast across the Colorado River toward Navajo Mountain in Arizona.

View from the Glen Canyon Bridge across this Great American Landscape, the Colorado River is in the foreground

Below: An artsy shot of the shadow of the Hwy 89 bridge hanging on the Glen Canyon Dam.

Artsy shot of the shadow of teh Hwy 89, Glen Canyon Dam Bridge, hanging on the Glen Canyon Dam

Below, a couple more artsy shots of me, taking photos of exhibits in the museum that detail the statistics of the Glen Canyon Dam and Power Plant. Notice my reflection in the exhibits.

Glen Canyon Dam exhibit with reflection of photographer
Glen Canyon Dam Exhibit with reflection of photographer
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, the better way to see the Grand Canyon

This remote and unspoiled, 280,000-acre, Monument is a geologic treasure, containing a variety of diverse landscapes from the Paria Plateau, Vermillion Cliffs, Coyote Buttes, and Paria Canyon. Elevations range from 3,100 to 7,100 feet. There was a dusting of snow from recent storms at the higher elevations.

There are views of the Grand Canyon here to the west that do not involve the traffic, sea of humanity, trash and other annoyances of going through the main entrance of Grand Canyon National Park.

Highest point in Vermilion Cliffs National Park, Native Americans selling their wares along roadside vista

At the highest elevation there is an overlook and there were Native Americans selling their wares. . . and it looked like I still had four hours of daylight remaining. No time to tarry. From this point it is a short drive over to the Grand Canyon National Park, and back. Note that there are other places to see the canyon without going through the torture of going in the front gates at Tusayan. I would strongly recommend choosing the much-less traveled North Rim route or viewing a slightly less spectacular vista at Marble Canyon or Vermilion Cliffs National Monument from US 89A which parallels the canyon up to Jacob Lake. The main entry to The Grand Canyon from the south (US 180/64 from Flagstaff to Tusayan) is trashed (strip malls, burger joints, crap hotels, traffic. . .). Not my idea of a National Park experience.

The Biggest Mistakes People Make When Visiting the Grand Canyon

Remember your Park Pass, Food, Water,

Know there will be long lines, angry people. . . best to visit

in the dead of winter or not at all.

The Grand Canyon is Under Seige

Uranium mining, development (that would be crap, crap, and more

crap just like anytown USA), and how about hoards of ill-mannered tourists

Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument

Protection proposed for the areas around the Grand Canyon to

stop mining and development

Tribal Leaders Push for Grand Canyon Protection

Arizona tribal leader's facebook page urging

President Obama to create a new National Monument

to protect thousands of square miles around the

Grand Canyon.

Geoglyph painted on mountain near Page, Arizona

Hillside Letters?

Mountain Monograms?

Hill Figures?



On my first trips to the American West I took a series of photos of letters painted on the sides of mountains. The myth about these hillside letters or mountain monographs is that they were built to identify communities from the air for early pilots who air-dropped mail. That myth is just that. Untrue.

In reality these hill figures or geoglyphs, common across the American West are typically created and maintained by schools or towns. There are approximately 500 of these geoglyphs, ranging in size from a few feet to hundreds of feet tall.

The "P" above likely is somehow meant to evoke something to do with Page, Arizona. I would guess it is 300 feet tall? At least? I made the image from a mile distant.

Wupatki National Monument High Desert
Wupatki National Monument, Pueblo center left, Painted Desert National Park, top right

About an hour and a half south of Marble Canyon on Hwy 89, nestled between the Painted Desert National Park (top right) and ponderosa highlands of northern Arizona, Wupatki is a landscape of legacies. Ancient pueblos (left) dot red-rock outcroppings across miles of prairie. Where food and water seem impossible to find, people built pueblos, raised familes, farmed, traded, and thrived. The wind was howling across this starkly beautiful landscape as I hiked across miles with no other humans in sight.

Wupatki Pueblo, Wupatki National Monument near Flagstaff

Wupatki Pueblo

First inhabited around 500 AD, Wupatki, means "Tall House" in the Hopi language. The pueblo is a multistory Sinagua pueblo dwelling consisting of over 100 rooms and a community room and ball court, making it the largest ancient building for nearly 50 miles.

A major population influx of this area began after the eruption of nearby (below) Sunset Crater in the 11th century (between 1049 and 1100), which blanketed the area with volcanic ash. The ash improved agricultural productivity and the soils ability to retain water. By 1182, approximately 85 to 100 people lived at Wupatki Pueblo, but by 1225, the site was permanently abandoned.

Humphreys Peak as seen from Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument near Flagstaff, Arizona

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

Adjacent to and closely administered by the National Park Service with Wupatki, Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument protects the area where roughly 900 years ago the eruption of the volcano reshaped the surrounding landscape, forever changing the lives of people, plants and animals.

Further distant is 12,637-foot (3,852 m) Humphrey's Peak, the tallest point in Arizona located in the Kachina Peaks Wilderness of the Coconino National Forest about 11 miles north of Flagstaff, Arizona. Humphreys Peak is the highest of a group of presumably extinct volcanic peaks known as the San Francisco Peaks.

By this point, seeing Humphreys peak was a welcome sight as I was getting tired, and ready for dinner. But there were more stops to make getting up to the summit so I could get a handful of snow, a rarity for a native Floridian (below). I was surprised by how cold it was. Who knew? It was freezing cold at the top of the mountain with blustery winds blowing light fluffy snow everywhere.

Fluffy snow atop Humphreys Peak

Hwy 89, one of

America's Best Adventures

Bryce, Utah to Flagstaff, Arizona

US Hwy 89 from Bryce Canyon National Park to Flagstaff, Arizona, one of America's best adventures

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