Overview of the Canyons
Looking out over the Escalante River drainage from the air is truly a sight to behold. Vast stretches of exposed and jumbled sandstone intermittingly cut by deep sinuous canyons draw the more adventurous to explore an area steeped in harsh beauty. Exploring the canyons is no walk in the park, but the rewards are typically overwhelming.
The Escalante River, contained within impenetrable canyon walls, was the last river in the lower 48 states to be discovered. Even today, much of the drainage basin has yet to be explored. Countless side canyons and drainages join the Escalante River on its march to the Colorado River contained in Lake Powell. This is a wild place, there are no maintained trails, only routes in and out of the canyons exist. This is one of the last places in the U.S. where you are truly on your own.
Seasons and Weather
The canyons are a place of extreme weather conditions. Most of the time it is sunny and dry, but within minutes conditions can drastically change. As with any outdoor activity, awareness of your surroundings (including the sky) is paramount to enjoyment and safety. A flash flood can be deadly to the unaware, but it can also be one of the most powerful natural sights to behold. The rainy season, known locally as the monsoon, occurs from mid-July to mid-September.
Spring - The weather in spring can be highly variable. Expect highs in the 50s or 60s in March and April with lows at or above freezing. May and June are generally hot and dry with highs ranging from the 70s to 100 and lows in the 40s and 50s.
Summer - Most days are hot and dry and nights are pleasant.. Late summer, mid-July through mid-September, is the rainy season. Expect afternoon thunderstorms and flash flood threats.
Fall - The weather in the fall is usually great. Cooler days (60s to 80s) and nights (40s and 50s) combine with sunny cloudless skies. The first winter storms usually arrive in November.
Winter - The canyons can be quite nice in the winter during the days, however nights are cold. Expect highs in the 30s and 40s with lows below 20. Winter storms can last several days bringing rain and snow to the canyons.
Geology is what makes this place so spectacular. The drainages cut through the soft Navajo and Wingate sandstones to form steep sided canyons. Along with the canyons, the benches between the canyons make for challenging route finding in the intensely eroded rock. The Wingate and Navajo sandstones are Jurassic period sedimentary layers of fossilized sand dunes. The dune patterns are evident in the exposed cross bedding layers.
Over a quarter of all plant species that occur in the State of Utah can be found within Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Differences in elevations and life zones permit an abundant diversity of plant life. While the benches between the canyons are home to desert scrub and cacti, the canyon bottoms display a rich riparian habitat of willow, cattails, and cottonwoods. In May, the desert show of wildflowers overwhelms the senses.
Along with the diversity in plant life comes an equally rich diversity of animal life. The distinctive call of the canyon wren echoes off of the sandstone walls while hawks, eagles, and condors soar the open skies above. The rustle of mule deer in the canyon thickets is always a surprise. Night is the domain for most large mammals including coyotes, bobcats, and mountain lions. Keep alert at dusk in the warmer months to spy bats swooping for insect treats.
Archaeology and Paleontology
Ancient cultures and prehistoric life forms have all left their mark on the area. The canyons were home to Anasazi and Fremont cultures a thousand years ago. Archaeological and rock art sites can be found around just about every bend. Discovery of these sites is one of the joys of canyon exploration, but be respectful, do not touch or disturb artifacts or art work.
The Straight Cliffs which run parallel to the Escalante River to the west are considered to be the best evidence of the late Cretaceous Period on the face of the earth. Fossilized dinosaur remains are abundant and the finds scientists are making are astounding. Articulated skeletal remains complete with the skin impressions and fossilized soft tissue are becoming more common. Again, look but don't touch.
Access & Regulations
The Canyons of the Escalante are accessed by two main roads. Hole In The Rock Road provides access from the west and the Burr Trail provides access from the east. Off of each of these roads are numerous side roads which provide access to trail heads. To find out more about each of these roads check out the roads section for maps and updated road conditions.
Overnight stays in the backcountry require a free permit which is available at each of the trail heads and at the Escalante Interagency Center.
The Escalante River Drainage traverses three different federal government agencies. Most of the canyons are located within Glen Canyon National Recreation Area which is governed by the National Park Service. Access roads and most trail heads are located within Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument which is administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The headwaters of the Escalante River drainage are located within the Dixie National Forest and are administered by the U.S. Forest Service.
Although all of this may sound quite confusing, the agencies cooperate in their management of recreational activities in the area and apart from some minor differences, you generally can't tell when you've crossed from one jurisdiction to another. The free permit system works in all areas. For instance, a BLM overnight permit is valid in park service areas and visa versa. For more information contact the Escalante Interagency Center at (435) 826-5499.
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