(CN) – Rabbitbrush bloomed in abundance, casting a soft yellow sheen that extended out from both sides of the desert roadway. To the north, the carpet of wildflowers was broken only by distant hills along the horizon that wall in the Paria River Valley. The super bloom gave testament to the glut of precipitation that fell in Utah’s high desert this past winter.
The hills are cracked with drainage patterns, rounded tops offset with an occasional pyramidal peak. The Paria River runs shallow but steady, wide and brown, slouching casually through wide bends amid the cottonwoods.
I had driven to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument from St. George – nestled in the southwestern corner of Utah – the previous day. I navigated through Zion Canyon National Park and its roads snarled with cars and campers, stopping to walk on a tourist-laden trail before continuing on to Grand Staircase. Upon arriving, I was struck by the sharp contrast between the monument and its more famous neighbor – not so much the beauty of its landscape, but its measure of solitude.
“Wilderness is where a person goes, but does not stay,” a monument park ranger told me during the first days my wanderings amid the immense desert territory that comprises the monument.
No one stays long in Grand Staircase.
The first night I slept in the back of my pickup beneath the glinting pinpricks of innumerable stars. The Milky Way spans the night sky, sharpened with desert clarity.
The next morning, I had two cups of camp coffee and some instant oatmeal and stumbled up Coyote Canyon with its rocks worn smooth by intermittent cascades that pour through the canyon.
It was early June and flowers were everywhere, belying the desert’s reputation as a desolate place where little grows.
The canyon flanks were littered with the characteristic hoodoos of the Utah desert, large russet boulders impossibly propped up by thin necks of red rock. I climbed a wall where a waterfall had died of thirst and ate lunch in the shade, drinking more water than was wise to defray the midday heat. By the time I retraced the path to the pickup, the sun was high and I hadn’t seen a single other person since the previous night when I took a left off of Highway 89 running the southern border of the monument onto Cottonwood Canyon Road that runs 47 miles north to south through the heart of Grand Staircase Escalante.
Such solitude felt rare, is rare.
The sole hike I took in Zion Canyon National Park was more reminiscent of an amusement park line. While at Bryce Canyon, I came off the Navajo Loop Trail at Sunset Point where an incredibly crowded parking lot featured two grown men nearly coming to blows over a parking spot.
But Grand Staircase Escalante is different. No less spectacular, but far less crowded.
All four nights I slept under the stars at different points throughout the park and not once did I share my camp with another soul. The mornings and nights I spent alone.