It’s quite possibly the most stunning landscape we’ve yet seen. Cliffs striped in crimson, orange, and violet stand tall against a cobalt sky; cinnabar colored hills rest against pillowy white clouds; giant red and white rock toadstools rise from a lunar setting.
On a brilliantly sunny day with just enough clouds to add to the photographic drama, we embarked on a day trip from Lake Powell to visit a small portion of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah.
At close to two million acres, this is our country’s largest national monument. Our agenda was to visit three close-by places within the monument. A short hike to the Toadstools, a visit to the colorful ghost town of Paria, and a stop at the Big Water Visitor Center made for a perfect one-day adventure. All of our destinations were conveniently located off of Highway 89, traveling west out of Page.
• First stop: The Toadstools. A magical Alice-in-Wonderland landscape, this is a wonderful concentration of unique rock formations known as “hoodoos.” (A hoodoo is a spire of rock composed of a relatively soft rock topped by a harder rock; the softer rock erodes more quickly than the capstone, creating unusual rock sculptures.)
An easy three-quarter mile trail leads to the Red Toadstool, one of the most spectacular and photogenic hoodoos. But there’s more—if you follow the footpath that parallels the dry creek bed (with just a bit of scrambling), you’ll discover panoramic views of the surrounding colorful badlands and many more hoodoo toadstools, including a moonscape of brilliant white hoodoos. (Travel west on Highway 89, the trailhead is just past milepost 19 on the right.)
• Second stop: Paria Townsite. Originally settled by Mormon pioneers in 1869 (they called the town “Pahreah”), the community was abandoned 40 years later after recurrent flash floods washed away their farmland, their homes, and their dreams. In the 1940’s, Hollywood discovered the scenic area, built an Old West movie set, and filmed here through the mid-1970’s. The Old West movie set is gone now, too, victim to time and pyromaniacs.
But the real attraction—at least for us—is the magnificent multi-colored cliffs and hills. There’s also a lovely picnic area with a gorgeous view of the banded hills. (To reach Paria, drive another 12 miles west on Highway 89, turn right at milepost 31, and drive six miles of steep and twisting dirt road to the parking area and picnic site.)
• Third stop: Big Water Visitor Center. One of four visitor centers scattered across Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the focus here is on dinosaurs. Apparently the monument has recently been discovered to be a premier location for dinosaur fossils. My knowledge about dinosaurs pretty much ended with what I learned in elementary school. But at Big Water, I learned that all dinosaurs had feathers. Seriously? I was not taught that in school. Feathers on most dinosaurs obviously weren’t meant for flight, but were probably for insulation. Somehow I find dinosaurs more appealing when I imagine them covered in feathers. (Heading back toward Lake Powell, located just off Highway 89 in the town of Big Water.)
Unlike the tourist magnets of Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend that we visited earlier in the week, we saw few other people on the trail to the Toadstools and in the former township of Paria. And at the Big Water Visitor Center, we were the only visitors, which afforded us an opportunity to talk with the amateur paleontologist who discovered his own dinosaur while casually hiking in the monument.
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