In a recently protected swath of southern Utah, Tom Huth discovers monumental divisions

By Tom Huth
January 26, 2011

Utah's red-rock country is like the earth turned inside out, molten and forbidding. On a hike with guide Grant Johnson through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, I scramble over ancient logs and chunks of fallen sandstone under towering burnt-orange cliffs as if through the portals of hell. "Nobody goes where we're going," says Johnson, who's still a kid at 47, with a wild shock of blond hair. "The tourists hike the canyon bottoms, but the best stuff is on top."

Not that there are many tourists to begin with. Grand Staircase-Escalante was declared a national monument by President Clinton in 1996, one of 15 he established. At nearly 3,000 square miles, it's more than twice as big as Utah's five national parks combined, and it contains the same kind of unearthly red-rock formations that you'd find in Bryce and Zion, Arches and Canyonlands—just a whole lot more of them, and without the distraction of people. But Grand Staircase-Escalante is so off the map—and so new—that it can lay claim to only one marked trail.

Johnson and I hike up through millions of years of geological time to a high outcropping. The varnished cliffs of the Wingate formation loom behind us; in front, a madly colored panorama of badlands stretches toward the snowy Henry Mountains. The beauty of the place is overwhelming, indisputable—and strangely out of sync with the hostility the monument has engendered among the people who live and work in this area. The ranching communities here are devoutly Mormon and socially conservative, and Escalante's designation as a national monument—which affords it less protection from development than a national park—has inflamed age-old resentments about outsiders trying to tell them how to use the land. These bad feelings have almost guaranteed that the locals won't rush to accommodate tourists with new facilities—and that the visitor's experience, for better or worse, will remain elemental.

Until Clinton created the national monument (and he didn't dare set foot in Utah but announced it from the safety of the Grand Canyon), no one wanted this part of the West except the hardscrabble descendants of the pioneer Mormon families sent forth by Brigham Young in the 1870's. A maze of blistering rock riven with impenetrable canyons and blessed with a few heavenly green valleys, it was the last part of the United States to be mapped. Today, only 10,000 people live in Garfield and Kane counties, an area larger than Massachusetts.

When it comes to land-use issues, those people can be as intense and fiery as their surroundings. Johnson, who moved here from Wisconsin in his teens, remembers that back in the 1980's, local enemies of the environmental movement hanged him in effigy for helping to found a wilderness advocacy group. "I asked the sheriff why he didn't take it down. He said, 'Because I helped hang it up!'"

The federal government owns 91 percent of the land in Garfield and Kane counties; ranchers have always needed permits to graze their cattle. So have those who wanted to explore for oil or coal. Historically across the West, the Bureau of Land Management—which oversaw this acreage prior to 1996 and now runs the monument—has served the interests of ranchers and miners. In turn, they have come to regard public lands as their own backyards—and have abused them at times through practices like overgrazing.

Now, however, they're acting persecuted. Thayne C. Smith, president of the Sons of Utah Pioneers, recites local grievances as he drives me from the town of Kanab to the abandoned town of Pahreah, the day after my hike with Johnson. He claims that the establishment of the monument blocked a coal mine from opening, and that ranchers are being driven out by new grazing restrictions. Smith, a 78-year-old retired nurseryman, blames environmentalists for forcing a nearby sawmill and uranium company to close, keeping the region's one-horse economy depressed. But that's all part of the local song and dance. Environmentalists (along with East Coast politicians) get blamed for everything. "They keep taking things away—it gets worse all the time," Smith says.

Pahreah, established by Mormon pioneers in 1871 and destroyed by a flood 30 years later, lies in a part of the monument with spectacular sandstone formations that look like upended tiramisù. In the angling light, the colossal Vermilion Cliffs and White Cliffs glow to the northwest—two steps of the Grand Staircase, which climbs 5,000 feet in elevation over the course of 40 miles. Smithworked with the BLM to restore the town's neglected cemetery, and when we get there he points to some names on a bronze plaque. "There's my great-grandfather, and there's his wife, and here's my other great-grandfather." In all, 15 of the 17 names on the plaque are family members. "When the restoration project started five years ago," he tells me, "the BLM said, 'We'll call the shots—this is federal land,' and I said, 'Well, this is sacred ground to me.'" They haggled over every fence post since. A local witcher correctly divined where the bodies were buried, Smith says; the BLM hauled in sonar equipment but couldn't even read the results.

Smith might sound like a crank, but among southern Utahans, it's a badge to tell jokes about the BLM's incompetence, or about backpackers who come to town for a week with only a $20 bill and a pair of shorts and don't end up changing either one. Outsiders are the enemy, plain and simple. "Easterners are the ones who did us in," Smith says, and his solution is to start establishing national monuments where most Americans live. "Let's put them back East! The East ought to contribute," he says, only half joking. Historic areas of Manhattan would make fine public lands, he thinks.

In talking with BLM staffers here, I get an entirely different picture of the monument's effects. The agency's grazing specialist, who comes from an old ranching family, assures me the bureau isn't trying to force out cattle. As for the coal mine being foiled, I'm told the two companies that already had leases decided not to proceed. While locals grouse about roads being closed, the BLM argues convincingly that none have been closed yet at all.

But there does seem to be a thin new layer of bureaucratic control since the monument was established. Business owners swear that the BLM's sole intention is to drive them crazy. A rancher shows me a form asking him to list every dusty track he plans to drive on while looking after his wandering cattle. Even tourism operators are exasperated. Robert Houston, who leads pack trips into the monument, tells me he's not allowed to take more than 25 riders into Pahreah Canyon for fear of overcrowding, even though his trips have run across a grand total of six people there in a decade—four of them fish-and-game officers. Another outfitter wonders how he can tie his horses up at least 200 feet from a stream, as required by BLM rules, when the canyon is only 100 feet wide.

Then there are those who have gone beyond complaining. The couple who run the Escalante Wilderness Project have had their door kicked in, their windows broken, and their phone line cut—merely for advocating that more land be left undeveloped. The editor of the Southern Utah News had newspapers stuffed up the tailpipe of her car after writing that ranchers have been on the government dole for ages and should work with the system. Counties have sent bulldozers out to scar up wilderness areas to make sure they won't be classified as "roadless" and thus protected from further development.

Throughout the west, tourism has been seen as the next best hope for towns that have relied upon the declining economies of ranching, farming, mining, logging, and commercial fishing. Some places make the transition more gracefully than others. In the first two years after Grand Staircase-Escalante was designated a monument, the number of visitors increased sharply, from 520,000 to 850,000, but has plateaued since then. A second bed-and-breakfast has opened in Escalante; a young couple moved here from the Grand Canyon to set up shop as Escalante Outback Adventures; one entrepreneurial local serves up Dutch oven dinners and cowboy poetry in his yard. Scorn for the monument is so widespread, however, that hardly any natives have tried to cash in on the area's newfound popularity. The upshot is that, by day, visitors have the monument's wide-open spaces astonishingly to themselves, and yet at night they're hard put to find a good meal.

Still, you can look at Grand Staircase-Escalante as a complicated web of political and social issues for just so long. Then you have to see it the way most visitors do: at its glorious best, which is on foot. Grant Johnson is glad there are hardly any established trails. He's been stalking this vast emptiness for 28 years and would rather strike off on his own. "Exploring is what it's all about here—getting into a canyon and trying to find your way out."

I ask him, "Do you see it as any smaller by now, more familiar?"

"No," he assures me. "The better you know the country, the bigger it gets."

With its massive timbers, sandstone fireplace, and Craftsman-style furniture, the Boulder Mountain Lodge (20 N. Hwy. 12, Boulder; 800/556-3446 or 435/335-7460;; doubles from $109) is the most luxurious choice. It also has a great restaurant, Hell's Backbone Grill (435/335-7460; dinner for two $50), which serves up organic Southwestern dishes. The five rooms at Escalante's Grand Staircase B&B-Inn (280 W. Main St., Escalante; 866/826-4890 or 435/826-4890;; doubles from $90) have hand-painted murals and skylights.

Grant and Sue Johnson run Escalante Canyon Outfitters (888/326-4453;, which leads five-day, horse-supplied hiking trips throughout the monument. Boulder Mountain Ranch (435/335-7480; has horseback riding and three overnight cabins ($66 a night for up to four people). Robert Houston of Red Rock Adventures (435/679-8665; leads trail rides out of the town of Tropic. Drew and Julia Cozby of Escalante Outback Adventures (877/777-7988; lead four-wheel-drive tours and operate hiker shuttles.

Hell's Backbone Grill

Escalante's Grand Staircase B&B-Inn

Boulder Mountain Lodge