Of all the things I wondered about on this land, I wondered the hardest about the seduction of certain geographies that feel like home — not by story or blood but merely by their forms and colors. How our perceptions are our only internal map of the world, how there are places that claim you and places that warn you away. How you can fall in love with the light. ~Ellen Meloy in Anthropology of Turquoise
Often I wonder if I just love everywhere. There are places I’ve been that all I can think about is how and when I can get back there. I obsess and my dreams are filled with the rolling green boggy hills of Scotland, the beautifully sculpted peaks of Italy’s Dolomites, and the magical sandstone labyrinths of the Southern Utah canyons especially those in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
This was my first trip to the Grand Staircase since President Trump signed a proclamation in December 2017 reducing the monument in half. Although I knew such a thing was imminent, it still broke my heart when it happened. Ironically I visited over President’s Weekend.
Nearly 12 years ago I dropped out of graduate school and moved all my belongings into a storage unit and hit the open road solo. After hiking out of the Grand Canyon one morning with nowhere to be or go next, the road took me to a tiny, sleepy Southern Utah town, Escalante. Exhausted, I stumbled into a shop looking for a map and inquiring about free camping spots and for reasons I still don’t quite understand, I ended up with a job and started the next day.
I spent that summer exploring the Canyons of the Escalante and was for forever changed. I’ve taken for granted the idea that these places would be protected and unchanged for my generation and all the future generations to come. Who ever thought a president would want to or have the power to reduce a national monument? As far as I am concerned it is equal to closing the doors of Yellowstone National Park or dismantling the Statue of Liberty. I feel like Bears Ears is getting all the attention, but Grand Staircase-Escalante was my first Utah monumental love and I try to visit as often as I can.
Visiting Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Winter
Monumental rant aside, winter is a fantastic time to visit Grand-Staircase National Monument. Much of the monument is at lower elevations than the neighboring areas so temps can be quite pleasant during the day compared to say visiting Bryce Canyon National Park in winter.
The major concern in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in winter are the roads. Many of the roads leading to the best hikes and sites are dirt, which can quickly become a nightmare when wet. Years ago I learned that lesson firsthand when the frozen Cottonwood Road quickly turned into impassable mud with mid-day temps. We had to wait until the road froze again to make it back out to pavement.
If it hasn’t precipitated in days and there is no rain in the forecast and the road looks dry – go for it, but always carry plenty of water, food, and warm clothing when visiting the southern Utah desert in winter.
Best Hikes in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Winter
Great places to visit in winter are the non-technical slot canyons off Hole-in-the-Rock Road such as Zebra Canyon and Spooky and Peek-a-boo Canyons. Devil’s Garden is always a good spot for sunrise and sunset. I also highly recommend Willis Creek and Bull Valley Gorge off of the Skutumpah road and the Toadstools close to Page, Arizona. This Canyons of the Escalante map and this new Grand Staircase guidebook are helpful for trip planning.
Where to Stay in Grand Staircase-Escalante in Winter
Lodging options in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument are limited in winter since many spots in and around the Boulder and Escalante area shut down for the winter. The Entrada Escalante Lodge is a brand new pet (and equine) friendly lodge open year round in Escalante. The owner of the lodge supports public lands and stands behind the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument making it a great place to stay to support the local community.
Camping opportunities are endless in the monument and dispersed camping is allowed anywhere unless marked. There are great camping spots located off the Hole-in-the-Rock Road, Burr Trail, and Cottonwood Roads, but these spots have no toilets or other services so you must pack out all trash and abide by leave no trace ethics. I recommend camping off the Hole-in-the-Rock Road in winter since the terrain offers plenty of early morning sun.
If digging six-inch cat holes is not your thing, the developed Calf Creek Campground is open in winter. Camp spots are first-come first-serve and almost impossible to score in the spring, summer, and fall, but you should have very little difficulty scoring a campsite in winter. The trail to Lower Calf Creek Falls begins from the campground and leads to a stunning desert alcove featuring a 126-foot high waterfall.