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 explore a small portion of the monument.
At close to two million acres, this is our country’s largest national monument. Our agenda was to visit three close-by places within Grand Staircase Escalante. 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.
First stop: The Toadstools
A magical Alice-in-Wonderland landscape, the trail leading through The Toadstools offers 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, which creates unusual rock sculptures.
An easy three-quarter-mile trail leads to the Red Toadstool, one of the most spectacular and photogenic hoodoos. Following the footpath that parallels the dry creek bed reveals panoramic views of the surrounding colorful badlands and many more hoodoo toadstools.
Second stop: Paria Townsite
Originally settled by Mormon pioneers in 1869, Paria Townsite was abandoned 40 years after flash floods washed away their farmland, their homes, and their dreams. In the 1940s Hollywood discovered the scenic area, built an Old West movie set, and made films through the mid-1970s. The Old West movie set is gone now, too, a 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.
Third stop: Big Water Visitor Center
One of four visitor centers scattered across Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the focus at Big Water Visitor Center 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. I most definitely 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.
Unlike the tourist magnets of Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend that we visited earlier in the week, we saw few other people on the trails. At the Big Water Visitor Center, we were the only visitors. This gave us the opportunity to talk with the amateur paleontologist, who discovered his own dinosaur while casually hiking in the monument. He proudly told us that it’s named after him.