Two years ago, inspired by a 22-day rafting trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, I started a new feature column for Eos magazine called Living in Geologic Time, “a series of personal accounts that highlight the past, present, and future of famous landmarks on both human and geologic timescales.“
My latest column on Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments might be my favorite installation yet!
If Utah’s five national parks (Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion) are shining jewels in the public lands crown, Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments remain diamonds in the rough. Over the past 15 years, I’ve been exploring deeper and deeper into Utah’s canyons, graduating from easy, well-marked day hikes in the national parks to multiday off-trail backpacking trips in the national monuments.
Of all the places I’ve hiked in all 50 states, nowhere offers the feeling of wild exploration, discovery, and life-or-death self-sufficiency like Grand Staircase and Bears Ears. If you can make it out there, you can make it anywhere on Earth. Climbing the Grand Staircase and treading between the Bears Ears, I’ve learned some of my most indelible backcountry lessons by getting lost, running out of water, and crossing paths with bears and mountain lions and barefoot human tracks. Over the years, I’ve gleaned enough hard-earned desert intuition to know how to blaze an off-trail loop and where to find water, good campsites, seldom-seen Ancestral Puebloan ruins, rock art panels, and my way back home.
People have been living in southern Utah for thousands of years, but the famously rugged canyon country was one of the last areas in North America to be explored and mapped. Even today, few roads traverse the region, and trails are often unmarked. But for those intrepid scientists who brave the backcountry to seek needles in this geological haystack, the rewards are bountiful: Fossils have been found in 20 of the 24 geological formations preserved in Grand Staircase. And many of those finds are unique. “Every field season, you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you’re going to go out and find things that are totally new to science,” said regional district paleontologist Alan Titus.
Over the past 20 years, this prolific fossil record has painted one of the clearest pictures scientists have of Mesozoic ecosystems and the overarching role of climate change, which influences everything from the thickness of geologic layers, to patterns of fossil preservation, to pockets of regional biodiversity, to the future of a dry-and-getting-drier desert.