Overshadowed by Bryce and Zion National Parks, Grand Staircase- Escalante National Monument sits in the last corner of the American Southwest to be mapped. Tucked away in southern Utah, it remains wild, rugged and challenging, in ways that most national parks or monument forfeited decades ago.
Roads are often only dirt byways, rough and unforgiving. Signage is scarce. Trailheads are often unmarked. The cross-country route to a special scenic haven may only be indicated by “cairns,” a few rocks stacked atop one another. And you’d better like rock—this place has an overabundance.
The term “Grand Staircase” is inspired by a series of massive geologic layers, each photogenic in its own right, that stair step southward from Bryce Canyon to Grand Canyon. Each stairstep reveals a unique color in the aptly named Pink, Grey, White, Vermilion and Chocolate cliffs.
The namesake of “Escalante” is Spanish missionary Silvestre Vélez de Escalante, who traversed this territory in 1776. Escalante, Utah, situated at 5,812 feet elevation, is named for him, along with the canyon-entrenched Escalante River nearby.
LOWER CALF CREEK FALLS
Those who are inspired to follow a sundrenched, clear-running creek to reach a captivating riparian paradise will certainly find it worth hiking this roughly 6-mile round trip. The treasure at the end of the trail is an enchanting waterfall dropping 126 feet.
Partway down, the ribbon of free-falling water splashes onto a mossy landing then slithers into a wide and shallow pool. The waterfall hypnotizes the eye, and to a landscape photographer’s delight, it’s gracefully framed within a substantial amphitheater of honey-colored sandstone cliffs.
Highlights along the way include a beaver dam and lodge, a small ancient ruin and distant Freemont pictographs. Across the creek, you’ll also see lavish vertical stripes of black-and-white desert varnish painted on tall, salmon pink cliffs. These dramatic patterns, reminiscent of abstract modern art, then descend behind vibrant-green cottonwood trees in a stark contrast that seems to visually oscillate.
If you plan to photograph this sylvan oasis mid-day, bring a multi-stop neutral-density filter. The slow exposure time will give the waterfall a silky blur. And better yet, the bright ambient light of the open shade at that time of day will add more vibrancy to the colors.[Published in Outdoor Photographer magazine, 2019 Special Issue.]