BOULDER — Wind and water sculpted the jagging canyons and domes of slickrock in southern Utah. They are still at work.
“Erosion has really set in at this area,’’ Keith Watts says, dislodging an ocher-tinged chunk from the otherwise gray slickrock near the end of a six-hour hike he has led across a sliver of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. A squeeze of his hand crumbles the rock back to its form 180 million years ago: sand.
Elemental to epochal, the Grand Staircase Escalante bares the earth’s story and showcases its wonders like few other places.
At about 2,600 square miles — more than twice the size of Rhode Island — the land is the nation’s largest lab. Dinosaur hunters call it the world’s richest bone yard for a particularly revelatory period when a wide and wild variety of the lizards roamed its waters and rocks. Archeologists open a window into the lives of the Anasazi and Fremont Native-Americans, captured through their art and artifacts here. NASA studies peculiar tiny rock formations found here and compares them to similar formations on Mars.
For hikers, the experience can be transcendental and transformative. Yet, the land is arid, forbidding, and remote (the Escalante was the last named river in the continental United States). Even experienced hikers would do best hitching their day to someone who knows the area.
Tours of the canyons of the Escalante River and its tributaries, which at turns offer whimsy and cathedral-hushed awe, can be found in the town of Escalante. Watts’s Earth Tours is based in the more northern hamlet of Boulder.
Our tour was partly along a certain creek, partly along an old mail trail from the early 1900s, and wholly along the whims of the hikers, five of us, including Watts, plus two dogs.
His title is geologist, but Watts flits among a pack of specialties from archeology to zoology to meteorology (looking north toward seemingly blue skies at one point, he correctly predicted a storm that would sweep through Salt Lake City but only give the Escalante region a whipping wind for the next 36 hours).
For Watts, toss in a sprinkling of zenism.
“We call it a canyon spa,’’ were the only words spoken as we sat, cross-legged, in the desert sun for about 25 minutes as 35-mile-per-hour gusts blasted sand through an emerging slot canyon and across our bodies, the dappling sound of a waterfall behind us.
The hike is one of tasting, touching, and translating the wilds of an alien land. Roll a sprig of sagebrush between your thumb and forefinger and a crisp scent intoxicates. Press a yucca petal against the roof of your mouth with your tongue (“Be sure to blow off the ants,” Watts advises, “unless you’re looking for some extra protein”) and a cabbage-like flavor comes forth. The bark of large ponderosa pines, the few that hug the creek, gives off the sweet smell of vanilla or, perhaps, butterscotch.
Nothing shudders the senses like the vistas. Unlike hiking in the White Mountains or the Rockies, where the view is mostly shrouded in trees until you reach the summit, a trek along the slickrock of Escalante affords horizon-to-glorious-horizon views.
With Watts, it’s a joy-is-in-the-journey-not-the-destination kind of pace. And there is an organic quality to its direction. At several points, Watts asks which way we want to go. Bound to the left to plop shin-deep through Sand Creek several more times to search for beaver dams, head right to gaze at Native American petroglyphs from a millennia past, straight ahead for the ascent up Navajo sandstone. (“I’ll scout around a little,” Watts frequently says; then we know our adventure is about to take another twist.)
A standing of pinyon pines offers an opportunity to learn how the Anasazis would harvest pine nuts by carpeting the base of the tree with blankets, then shaking the tree branches just hard enough so the nuts would fall from the cones without knocking the cones down. Come across a Mormon tea bush and we learn not only the many uses of the plant but how the Mormons made a home in such a hostile land.
And here, nature is red in tooth and claw.
“Probably an unfortunate jackrabbit,” Watts surmises, as we come across splotches of blood on the rock. The predator was most likely a coyote or hawk; the attack only minutes before.
What hikers with Watts won’t encounter are crowds. Even for tours to the few areas such as the spectacular Calf Creek falls that attract sizable numbers of hikers, Watts takes the path less — or hardly ever — traveled.
The restorative and contemplative solitude of the desert is one of its main attractions.
“Danged Grand Central,’’ Watts mutters, as we encounter a second small group of hikers during our hike.
Escalante’s canyons and slickrock — ancient sand dunes formed when much of North America was under a shallow sea — constitute one of three regions of the national monument. Farthest south, the Grand Staircase rises from the Grand Canyon in a series of cliffs and terraces, each bracketed by its own resplendent grays and pinks and reds and each yielding its own treasure of fossils and geologic glimpses into the earth’s past.
The middle Kaiparowits Plateau is a paleontologist’s playground. Its maze of canyons and pockets of poisonous soil have produced a lode of remnants from one of the last, most vibrant periods of dinosaurs.
The monument has recently been in the news for other reasons. State lawmakers passed a bill this spring demanding that the US government give the monument and some other federal lands back to the state. The legislators contend President Clinton, in 1996, improperly bypassed Congress in designating the area a national monument.
The result, they say, is a reduced tax base and more rules for mining and grazing interests.
With Earth Tours, the interests are more eternal — and clandestine.
“You’re not going to tell people where we went, right?’’ Watts says, urgently, near the end of the tour.
Only to the places that leave no prints.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, geologist and tour guide Keith Watts was misquoted. In reference to an encounter with a handful of other hikers on the trail, Watts said, "Danged Grand Central Station.''