Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument


This high, rugged, and remote region, where bold plateaus and multi-hued cliffs run for distances that defy human perspective, was the last place in the continental United States to be mapped. The monument is a geologic treasure of clearly exposed stratigraphy and structures. The sedimentary rock layers are relatively undeformed and unobscured by vegetation, offering a clear view to understanding the processes of the earth's formation. A wide variety of formations, some in brilliant colors, have been exposed by millennia of erosion.

The monument contains significant portions of a vast geologic stairway, named the Grand Staircase by pioneering geologist Clarence Dutton, which rises 5,500 feet to the rim of Bryce Canyon in an unbroken sequence of great cliffs and plateaus.

The monument includes the rugged canyon country of the upper Paria Canyon system, major components of the White and Vermilion Cliffs and associated benches, and the Kaiparowits Plateau. That Plateau encompasses about 1,600 square miles of sedimentary rock and consists of successive south-to-north ascending plateaus or benches, deeply cut by steep-walled canyons. Naturally burning coal seams have scorched the tops of the Burning Hills brick-red. Another prominent geological feature of the plateau is the East Kaibab Monocline, known as the Cockscomb.

The monument also includes the spectacular Circle Cliffs and part of the Waterpocket Fold, the inclusion of which completes the protection of this geologic feature begun with the establishment of Capitol Reef National Monument in 1938. The monument holds many arches and natural bridges, including the 130-foot-high Escalante Natural Bridge, with a 100-foot span, and Grosvenor Arch, a rare double arch.

The upper Escalante Canyons, in the northeastern reaches of the monument, are distinctive: In addition to several major arches and natural bridges, vivid geological features are laid bare in narrow, serpentine canyons, where erosion has exposed sandstone and shale deposits in shades of red, maroon, chocolate, tan, gray, and white. The monument includes world-class paleontological sites. The Circle Cliffs reveal remarkable specimens of petrified wood, such as large unbroken logs exceeding 30 feet in length. The thickness, continuity, and broad temporal distribution of the Kaiparowits Plateau's stratigraphy provide significant opportunities to study the paleontology of the late Cretaceous Era. Extremely significant fossils, including marine and brackish water mollusks, turtles, crocodilians, lizards, dinosaurs, fishes, and mammals, have been recovered from the Dakota, Tropic Shale and Wahweap Formations, and the Tibbet Canyon, Smoky Hollow, and John Henry members of the Straight Cliffs Formation.

Within the monument, these formations have produced the only evidence in our hemisphere of terrestrial vertebrate fauna, including mammals, of the Cenomanian-Santonian ages. This sequence of rocks, including the overlaying Wahweap and Kaiparowits formations, contains one of the best and most continuous records of Late Cretaceous terrestrial life in the world. Spanning five life zones from low-lying desert to coniferous forest, with scarce and scattered water sources, the monument is an outstanding biological resource. Remoteness, limited travel corridors, and low visitation have all helped to preserve intact the monument's important ecological values. The blending of warm and cold desert floras, along with the high number of endemic species, place this area in the heart of perhaps the richest floristic region in the Intermountain West. It contains an abundance of unique, isolated communities such as hanging gardens, tinajas, and rock crevice, canyon bottom, and dunal pocket communities, which have provided refugia for many ancient plant species for millennia.

Geologic uplift with minimal deformation and subsequent downcutting by streams have exposed large expanses of a variety of geologic strata, each with unique physical and chemical characteristics. These strata are the parent material for a spectacular array of unusual and diverse soils that support many different vegetative communities and numerous types of endemic plants and their pollinators.

This presents an extraordinary opportunity to study plant speciation and community dynamics independent of climatic variables. The monument contains an extraordinary number of areas of relict vegetation, many of which have existed since the Pleistocene, where natural processes continue unaltered by man. These include relict grasslands, of which No Mans Mesa is an outstanding example, and pinon-juniper communities containing trees up to 1,400 years old. As witnesses to the past, these relict areas establish a baseline against which to measure changes in community dynamics and biogeochemical cycles in areas impacted by human activity. Most of the ecological communities contained in the monument have low resistance to, and slow recovery from, disturbance. Fragile cryptobiotic crusts, of significant biological interest, play a critical role throughout the monument, stabilizing the highly erodible desert soils and providing nutrients to plants. An abundance of packrat middens provides insight into the vegetation and climate of the past 25,000 years and furnishes context for studies of evolution and climate change.

The wildlife of the monument is characterized by a diversity of species. The monument varies greatly in elevation and topography and is in a climatic zone where northern and southern habitat species intermingle. Mountain lion, bear, and desert bighorn sheep roam the monument. Over 200 species of birds are found within the area, including bald eagles and peregrine falcons. Wildlife, including neotropical birds, concentrate around the Paria and Escalante Rivers and other riparian corridors within the monument.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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