The Heart of the Monument

posted in: Our Public Lands | 0

Deep in the heart of our 20-year old national monument, Grand Staircase-Escalante, sits a lone arch. Surrounded by sage, hidden from view, with no trail leading to it, and no sign pointing the way, Sunset Arch seems to hover above the ground, inviting exploration, awaiting discovery. Of course many people have been there and even more have seen a photo or two of the arch, usually taken at sunset with the rock lit by the dying sun and framing the distant sacred dark mass of Navajo Mountain. But to see it anew – or the first time – is to (re-)discover it for oneself.

To the west runs the long and aptly named Straight Cliffs of Fifty Mile Bench. Rising over 2000 feet above the Hole-in-the-Rock road, the banded cliffs appear to be the walls of some immense, long-ancient fortress. Buried deep beneath them are beds of coal that hold a destructive promise for a dying industry. To the east, just a few miles away, is the gorgeous Coyote Gulch that twists and turns its way past arches and bridges to the lifeline that joins Boulder Mountain and the Colorado River: the Escalante River.

Standing once again before Sunset Arch, I re-discover it as storm-tossed clouds scud by dropping snow and producing an ever-changing, natural lightshow. My companions have never been here and are amazed that there are no signs of humans in this vastness. No sound but the wind and an occasional raven. For this moment we all relish the joys of expansive vistas, an improbable arch, and the sense of raw timelessness that existed before modernity and hopefully always will.

Later I mention how close we came to losing this wilderness. In the early 70’s our Utah congressional delegation pushed for the Trans-Escalante highway that would have stretched from Bullfrog to Wahweap marina. The road would have bridged across the Escalante canyon just downstream from Stevens Arch and Coyote Gulch, only a few miles from our still-wild campsite. Sanity prevailed. In silence we pondered how the threats to this incredible landscape, seemingly banished, have risen again, like some moldy, recalcitrant Lazarus.

— Jeff C.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument | Utah
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument | Utah