Emerging from my shelter after our third night out, I didn't get more than a few tentative steps beyond the door before I was forced to pause and take in my striking surroundings. My buddy Alec and I had rolled into this cliff-side camp in the Burning Hills a couple hours after sunset, already enveloped by another long mid-winter night. Now in the first light of morning, I could fully appreciate just where we had stopped for the night. Taking a few more distracted steps to the edge of the sandstone precipice, my eyes searched the broad view of deep drainages and plateaus to the west. Scraggy juniper and piñon pine dotted the yellow and gray slopes, and I could make out but one man-made feature within the sprawling high-desert expanse: a rugged 4×4 road along which we had ridden a couple days prior. We were deep in what has been known as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, exploring the areas of southern Utah slated for removal from the monument under a recent executive order from the White House.
At that moment, a pair of ravens flew over me, wingtips just inches apart as they silently headed south. If they continued on their course, these birds would not pass over a paved road for another 40 miles. Should they turn due east or west, they would fly over more than 70 miles of canyons, slickrock and mesas before seeing any pavement below. Behind these ravens, the small community of Escalante sits 25 miles back along a road not paved until the 1980s. Between these distant highways, hundreds of miles of rough dirt roads and 4×4 trails provide access to this wild country. The remoteness and solitude is what draws adventurers to this region, and the seemingly endless 4×4 roads are a dream for bikepackers. This is what has repeatedly brought me to this national monument, and the current threats to such experiences are why Alec and I came back to Grand Staircase-Escalante.
I had ridden through this region years ago, soon after moving to the Southwest. I recall being awestruck by the ruggedness, dryness, remoteness and the paucity of other people, an intimidating combination. But it is these characteristics that provide such an immersive experience for bikepackers, allowing one to pedal for days on dirt without seeing any development aside from the rough roads themselves. In the intervening years, I've spent many months bikepacking throughout this Four Corners region, elsewhere across the West and in more than a dozen other countries. I gravitate toward pedaling through rugged and remote places, avoiding towns and more popular destinations as best I can. And in those many thousands of miles of bikepacking, the two places that have provided the most expansive solitude and remoteness are Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments in Utah, both relatively young monuments now facing substantial reductions in size.
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was designated in 1996, providing protection to nearly 2 million acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) public lands. As a ‘working’ monument, extensive cattle grazing has continued, as has hunting and reduced motorized access, but additional development, paving of roadways and mineral extraction are prohibited. The monument has been controversial since its inception, but the increase in tourism has fueled a new economic growth in the local communities of Garfield and Kane counties. The recent executive order issued by President Trump reduces the size of the monument by 47 percent, dismantling it into three smaller monuments, removing the most visited areas and opening up regions underlain by coal deposits for potential mining. Much of the area through which we pedaled sits outside of the monument borders that were modified by Proclamation 9682, issued on Dec. 4, 2017. The BLM began its public scoping period starting Jan. 12, 2018, to seek public input in advance of preparing land use plans and will accept comments for a minimum of 60 days. We, however, wished to experience it before any changes are instituted. Time will tell overall as litigation by prominent public lands advocacy organizations and outdoor industry brands is challenging the legality of the recent executive order shrinking numerous national monuments.
Alec, a like-minded lover of Southwestern landscapes, and I spent four cool mid-winter days pedaling a 170-mile loop through the Grand Staircase-Escalante just before the close of 2017, linking the Smoky Mountain, Hole-in-the-Rock and Croton roads. Aside from the area immediately around the town of Escalante, I can count the number of people we saw with just my fingers. Our first day was spent along the base of the Gray Cliffs, meandering between scoured badlands and crunching along a shale-filled roadbed. This clay-rich landscape would be absolutely impassible when wet, but in this abnormally dry winter, there wasn't a cloud in sight. The Gray Cliffs sit near the top of the geologic Grand Staircase, a series of step-like cliffs that climb from northern Arizona into southern Utah, each composed of progressively younger and higher rock layers. It is within these rock layers that coal seams are preserved, the target of a mine and coal-fired power plant proposed in the 1970s.
In the warm glow of the late afternoon sunlight, we climbed 1,000 feet up these cliffs and onto the edge of Smoky Mountain. Named for centuries-old coal-seam fires that produce plumes of blue smoke here and in the Burning Hills to the east, the 78-mile-long Smoky Mountain Road traverses these cliffs and the Kaiparowits Plateau to the north. We spent two nights out along this road, surrounded by silence and stillness. On these short winter days, the daylight hours passed quickly, and the evenings cooled down rapidly as soon as the sun dropped below the horizon.
On the third morning, we awoke to temperatures in the teens, followed by a painfully frigid descent into the town of Escalante. The café hadn't yet opened when we arrived, so we found ourselves a sunny bench outside the market, bought snacks for the rest of our ride and savored some gas station coffee. A local resident rolled up on an e-bike, clearly excited to see our loaded rigs. He proudly told tales of his own exploits in the country through which we were pedaling, country that he found so inspiring that he moved to Escalante years prior. He shared with us some of the controversy over the monument--concerns over the impact of development in the previously protected land, the need to continue building a sustainable tourism economy, the seasonal and low-paying nature of tourism-related jobs, having most grazing leases held by non-local cattle companies and the possibility of better paying but relatively short-lived coal-mining and road-construction job opportunities. In these small western towns, there are obviously no simple solutions to complex socio-economic and environmental concerns, and profound ideological differences generally dictate each individual's opinion of what's ‘best.’
Alec and I turned back south from Escalante after the warm coffee and conversation, following the Hole-in-the-Rock Road through the most trafficked part of the monument. Slot canyons, arches and Mormon pioneer historic sites draw tourists to this area. Now removed from the monument, there is a proposal in Congress to turn this land over to the state of Utah to allow for paving, development and increased cattle-herd sizes in grazing allotments, potentially taking public land out of public hands. But as of now, Hole-in-the-Rock Road remains a 62-mile-long dead-end washboarded route, the national monument signs are still standing, and we alternated between riding in silence and sharing thoughts about the possible futures of this place. For me personally, imagining this landscape diced up by newly paved roads, overgrazed and heavily impacted by coal mining operations hurts--there aren't many places left in the Southwest with this same sense of sprawling remoteness, and losing it means losing it forever.
Late in the afternoon, we turned off Hole-in-the-Rock Road to climb Left Hand Collet Canyon. Deep sand and sandstone ledges keep most vehicles from traveling this route. In the narrowest parts of the canyon, the stream-bed road was instead glare ice with just a film of water moving across the slick surface. Our plan of making it up the climb to Collet Top by sunset seemed unlikely as our pace dropped to shuffling speed for long, slippery stretches. But at the same time, we were giddy at the unexpectedly icy scene in the bottom of this canyon. Flowing water on the Colorado Plateau always deserves celebration, and frozen streams like this are an even rarer find. Eventually, we reached the top of the climb just as the pastel shaded dusk lighting was fading. From there, we turned on our lights, pulled on our down jackets and rolled along a steadily narrowing ridge through the northern end of the Burning Hills under vibrant stars. I think we were both grinning to ourselves, relishing the rarity of so special an evening.
Alec joined me on the cliff edge the following morning, his eyes studying the scenery with an intensity exuded by individuals who know precisely what it feels like to fall in love with a landscape. We were in no hurry to get our bikes loaded, so we lingered. Traveling slowly through and connecting to places like this nourishes that love, a love that's strongly contagious. Threats to places as unique and special as Grand Staircase-Escalante can hurt deeply, just like when any other loving relationship finds itself in peril. These are places that deserve saving for many reasons--for indigenous groups whose spirituality is intricately tied to the land, for the preservation of the diverse high desert ecosystems, for yet-to-be-born generations to experience and learn from and for those of us who are recharged by remoteness and solitude. I feel incredibly fortunate to have experienced Grand Staircase-Escalante in the ways that I already have, and I hope that it remains protected so we can all have similar opportunities in the future.