After our back country excursion to Alstrom Point, I knew I had to explore more of these 4×4 dirt roads. The landscape is so perplexing and surreal that I couldn’t leave the area without delving deeper into Mother Nature’s handy work.
The land here is remote, harsh and unforgiving, and therefore I knew we shouldn’t explore without being prepared. Before embarking on our exploratory excursion into the back country, I made the short drive up to the nearby visitor center located just a few miles north of the Arizona – Utah border in the small town of Big Water, Utah.
Big Water Visitor Center
The visitor center is a worthwhile stop and the staff are a wealth of information regarding everything Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Don’t expect to get BLM info or any other information pertaining to the area outside of Grand Staircase-Escalante. This visitor center is all about the monument.
In the courtyard before entering the building, guests are greeted by a replicated dinosaur dig along with informative educational signs. Inside the visitor center is a large topographic map of the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument, as well as a fascinating dinosaur display complete with pamphlets describing the exact dinosaurs that once roamed the area.
After receiving a map and having all my questions answered regarding the condition of Cottonwood Road, I felt more comfortable about embarking on our trek through the Grand Staircase-Escalante. It also helped that fellow blogger and friend, Sue, had driven this road just a couple of weeks earlier and was able to share additional information.
The drive begins …
The following day, Al and I loaded up the Toyota Tacoma with plenty of food, water and emergency equipment. We knew we’d be traveling through some very remote territory without cell phone connection and running into another vehicle wouldn’t be a common occurrence. Thus, we’d be on our own!
From our campsite along the Arizona – Utah border, we traveled northwest via Highway 89 for about 17 miles and then turned north onto Cottonwood Road. The land starts off stark and barren and the road is easily navigated with the exception of some washboard areas.
Eventually, the scenery changes and we rolled into the Paria River valley. Cottonwood trees line the river’s edge and free-ranging cattle dot the landscape.
A few miles later as the road bends away from the Paria River, the landscape gets barren once again. The road gets rougher, narrower and we spot a sign … Reduced Speed Ahead. After reading that sign, the first thing out of my mouth was, “No sh*t, Sherlock!” Hmm, single lane road made for two-way traffic, a blind curve, and a rutted road … exactly how fast should I go?
As we rounded a bend, we were greeted with a perplexing range of hills called the cockscomb. Each mound seems to emulate the crest of a rooster. Therefore, we can see how this range got its name.
The landscape seems to go on forever. At this point we’ve driven over twenty miles (from the time we turned off Highway 89 onto Cottonwood Road) and it has taken us somewhere between an hour and a half to two hours to travel that distance and although the land exhibits a raw beauty, I can’t help but feel somewhat disappointed with the scenery.
I’m not sure what kind of landscape I was expecting, but a few miles later when we crested a hill, my mouth dropped open. Wow!
Okay! Now we’re talking drop dead gorgeous mind-boggling landscape. Of course this calls for a photo-op stop … don’tcha think!
In the above photo, at the bottom of the hill is a pull-off to the right for a trailhead called Cottonwood Wash Narrows. I could see portions of the canyon/slot from the road and was tempted to lace up the hiking shoes, but today was about the drive and I made a mental note for a future outing. Although, I think the hike would be better attempted when camping in Kodachrome State Park or any number of options near Highway 12. The drive to the trailhead would be easier and shorter from Highway 12 than driving up from Highway 89.
Crème de le crème
After lingering and savoring this unique sight, it was time to finish those last five miles to set my eyes on the real gem of our journey …. Grosvenor Arch!
It was a Sunday morning and I couldn’t believe our good fortune. We literally had the place to ourselves … that is, until it was time for us to return to the truck. I’ve wanted to see this famous arch ever since I first heard about it seven years ago.
When we visited Bryce Canyon in the past, I attempted to see the arch, but recent rains made the road to Grosvenor Arch impassable. This is another place you’ll want to check on road conditions at the Cannonville visitor center before embarking on the drive. From Kodachrome State Park to the arch is about a 17 mile drive on a gravel road with a small stream crossing.
A stunning state park
And speaking of Kodachrome State Park …. it was near noon by the time I was done photographing Grosvenor Arch and our bellies were growling. What better place to have lunch than at the state park!
I wish we could’ve stayed longer to explore Kodachrome State Park, but we knew we had a long and dusty drive back to camp and didn’t want the day to drag on too long. We enjoyed our lunch at the group picnic area and afterwards strolled the short nature loop taking in the magnificent scenery. This place needs to go on the list of must see places. It is stunningly beautiful!
And then we were on the road again, traveling the return 47 miles back to highway 89. It was a loooong day, but a fantastic day. We encountered few other people traversing Cottonwood Road on a Sunday (April 15, 2018). Although much of the road can be driven with a 2 wheel drive car, there are portions where a higher clearance vehicle would be preferable.
Driving Cottonwood Road through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument should not be attempted if rain is in the forecast or it has rained the previous days. The road does become impassable even with a 4×4 high clearance vehicle. And do note – a GPS should not be used to help navigate your travels within the monument. You WILL be lead astray.
We are but a minuscule blip in history
Later in the year, I’ll be celebrating a mile-stone birthday, even though I don’t have birthday’s anymore 🤗 It’s a number that has me questioning where has the time gone, but in comparison to this land, I’ve been on this earth but a small faction of time …. a minuscule blip in history.
As I peruse the literature on Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, I read the monument has been quietly doing its thing for 50 million to 275 million years. Who’s the spring chicken now 🤣
This Delaware-sized piece of land is the last part of the lower 48 United States to be surveyed and cartographed. Fossil excavations have yielded more information about changing ecosystems and the end of the dinosaur era more than any other place in the world. This remote unspoiled land is a dream for many: geologists, paleontologists, archeologists, historians, biologists, and tourists like myself.
More than rocks …
Although they are an interesting photographic subject, dead trees are an important part of the desert ecosystem. These dead trees provide nesting habitat for insects, birds, reptiles and rodents. These Junipers also help prevent erosion by holding the soil in place.
As trees decompose, they release vital nutrients and minerals back into the soil making it possible for new growth to occur. Mother Nature is a wonder!
If you’re looking for solitude and quiet recreation amongst an amazing landscape, you’ll find it here in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. But come prepared – the land and weather are harsh and unforgiving, but the beauty is like none other.
The finest workers of stone are not copper or steel tools, but the gentle touches of air and water working at their leisure with a liberal allowance of time – Henry David Thoreau
(affiliate links) These essentials made us feel a little more secure exploring this remote land. Being self-sufficient while exploring the remote back country is vital considering you may not see another vehicle for hours and cell reception is rare. Note – a GPS is not to be trusted in Grand Staircase-Escalante