The Grand Staircase: It’s Not Just a National Monument

The view of West Temple from just outside of Zion National Park shows the first three steps of the "Grand Staircase".
The view of West Temple from just outside of Zion National Park shows the first three steps of the “Grand Staircase”.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton set aside a massive region North-East of Kanab, Utah, as “Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument”. Although it is the largest national monument in the country (almost 2 million acres!), the park is still not big enough to contain the entire “Grand Staircase.” In fact, many southern Utahns are surprised to learn that the giant stairs that give this park its name are all around them. Learning to recognize the “stairs”, understanding their origins and why they are significant can enhance any visit to southern Utah, and perhaps give you a greater appreciation for your own backyard.

The Grand Staircase is an immense series of sedimentary rock layers consisting of five giant steps which are found north of the Grand Canyon. Returning to Utah from a visit to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon provides an excellent view of these layers as you descend the Kaibab Plateau between Jacob Lake and Fredonia, Arizona. Next visit, look off in the distance. Can you identify each step?

  • Step 1: The “Chocolate Cliffs,” made up mostly of very soft shale deposited in the Triassic Period, 250 million years ago. These can be seen between Hurricane and Zion National Park, and on the long road between Page and Flagstaff, Arizona. They contain numerous dinosaur tracks, including those found at the Dinosaur Track Museum in St. George
  • Step 2: The Vermillion Cliffs, a harder sandstone layer which is easily seen in places like Snow Canyon, St. George, Zion National Park and, the area between Kanab and Page, Arizona (including the “House Rock” Valley).
  • Step 3: The White Cliffs.These are essentially petrified sand-dunes from the Jurassic Period (200 mya), and they form many notable features such as West Temple and The Great White Throne in Zion Canyon, and the upper section of Snow Canyon State Park. They are also prominently displayed near Glendale and Orderville, Utah, on Highway 89.
  • Step 4: The Gray Cliffs, found in Cedar Canyon and between Parowan and Brianhead. Also seen near Panguitch, Utah.
  • Step 5: The Pink Cliffs, seen at Cedar Breaks National Monument and, most famously, at Bryce Canyon National Park.

From bottom to top, the Grand Staircase has a fascinating story to tell. Learning to read the rocks (as well as a few good geology books) will add much to your understanding of southern Utah, and help you to see more than just beauty.


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