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Need to know ~ Places

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Utah, USA – Iconic Parks

Escalante, Grand Staircase, Utah

Photo: Tucker Kirby, CC BY-SA 4.0

Valley of the Gods, Bears Ears National Monument

Photo: John Fowler, CC BY 2.0

Why current?


Back in 1996, President Bill Clinton exercised one of the unique powers of the US government’s executive branch: designating a national monument.  National monuments are not buildings or statues.  They are lands set aside for permanent protection because they are significant for some reason.  At the time, President Clinton declared 1.87 million acres in southern Utah as worthy of protection, due to the region’s unspoiled beauty, its significance for geological and paleontological research, and its diverse flora and fauna.  The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was born. 

Ten years later in 2016, President Barack Obama created Bears Ears National Monument.  The protected area made up 1.35 million acres in southeastern Utah.  This designation recognized the cultural importance of the Bears Ears area to Native American people.  It also gave protection to the unusual habitats found there, which are home to a remarkable range of plant and animal species.

The decisions of these two presidents were not embraced by all.  Some felt that local government had not had enough of a say in the matter and that the interests of the people of Utah had not been sufficiently considered.  After all, protecting such vast areas from building, mining, and other forms of commercial development would have an impact on the state’s economy.  And so, in 2017, President Trump chose to cut the area of Grand Staircase-Escalante by half and that of Bears Ears by 85%.

Fast forward to October 8, 2021.  Joe Biden is president and has the power to reverse the changes made by Trump.  And he does.  Not only does he put back all the protections to both monuments, he actually increases the area of Bears Ears to 1.36 million acres.

This move by President Biden is seen as a triumph for environmental groups, as well as for all those fighting for the preservation of Native American cultural sites.  Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland – the first Native American to have a cabinet position – said that Biden’s decision “…[bent]the arc of the moral universe toward justice.”

See Utah on Google Earth (zoom in to find the monuments and parks mentioned in this article):  


More about the newly restored National Monuments

Bears Ears National Monument

– Bears Ears National Monument is named after two distinctive buttes (buttes are hills with steep sides and small, flat tops that often stand alone in a landscape), which resemble the ears of a bear, peeking over the horizon.  The monument encompasses lands rich with ancient cultural sites and artifacts dating back some 13,000 years.  Various Native American tribes thrived in this particular area, and they left behind cherished rock art, ceremonial treasures, dwelling sites, and many other rare and precious items that remain meaningful to indigenous peoples today. 

– Bears Ears is also home to many plant and animal species that are not found anywhere else on earth.  Pumas, big horn sheep, a stunning variety of bird species, 15 types of bat, as well as rare salamanders, frogs, and toads all live in the area.  Populations of some of these species are fragile, and protections are essential to their survival.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

– The expansive range of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument encompasses five different life zones (life zones are areas that provide habitats for specific groups of plants and animals), including desert regions and ancient pine forests.  Large mammals like mountain lions, elk, bighorn sheep, mule deer, and black bears are just some of the species found here.  The various habitats are also home to many different kinds of snakes and lizards, as well as around 300 bird species.  In the areas that are seemingly barren, cacti and yucca thrive.  And in the forests of juniper and pinyon, you can find trees that are 1,400 years old!

– The monument is remote.  In fact, it was the last land in the continental United States to be mapped.

– The terrain of Grand Staircase-Escalante is rich with geological wonders.  Mazes of winding canyons, cliffs of pink, white, and gray, arches that seem otherworldly — all are found here.

– Just like Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante is also an area treasured for its ancient cultural importance.  Rock art and dwelling sites from long ago provide important clues to the lives of people who inhabited this area.

– Because the area encompassed by this monument includes rich deposits of coal and maybe also oil, people interested in exploiting these resources have disagreed with the protective restrictions placed on Grand Staircase-Escalante.

The Mighty Five – Utah’s Famous National Parks

When it comes to jaw-dropping natural beauty, the state of Utah cannot be beat.  Besides its national monuments, there are lots of state parks, as well as five of the most beloved national parks in the country.  Here is a quick overview of “The Mighty Five.”

1) Zion National Park (established 1919)

– A favorite among hikers, Zion is known for its wondrous maze of well-maintained trails.

– The park is a study in contrasts, both in color and form.  The reds, pinks, and whites of canyons cut by millennia of wind and water, stand out from among the dark greens of dense forests and flourishing valleys.  The Virgin River has cut one of the most breathtaking canyons in the world, featuring sheer cliffs that drop over a thousand feet.  In fact, Zion has some of the tallest sandstone cliffs on earth.

2) Bryce Canyon National Park (established 1928)

– It isn’t just one canyon.  Rather, it’s a group of natural amphitheaters made up of striking rock formations.  These ethereal spires, called “hoodoos,” formed over millions of years, during which the steady forces of erosion have relentlessly been wearing away at the soft limestone.  Of course, this process is ongoing, and the landscape of Bryce continues to be shaped and reshaped by the power of the elements.

– The magic of Bryce’s landscape lies not only in its shapes but also in its colors.  Depending on the time of day or the weather, the hoodoos can appear pink-peach, red, or white.  The dark greens of the evergreen forest stand out in contrast to the pastels of the rock.

– Bryce Canyon is at an elevation of 8,000-9,000 feet (2438-2743m).  In the winter, the park turns into a fairy landscape, as snowfall dusts the pink rock spires and dark trees.

– If you want to breathe in some of the most pristine air in the country, go to Bryce Canyon.  The air is so clear that you can see up to 200 miles from viewpoints at Bryce!  Also, the park is located in a very remote area, surrounded by vast spaces of completely undeveloped land.  To stand on Rainbow Point – one of the highest points at Bryce – you will be treated to a vista of nothing but wild beauty.

– Because of its clean, dry air, remote location, and high elevations, Bryce Canyon is one of the best places in the world to view the night sky.  In fact, in 2019, the park was officially named an International Dark Sky Place by the International Dark Sky Association.  You can experience some of the darkest skies on Earth – a rare experience in our brightly-lit world (see the Kidscurrent story on our vanishing night skies).  On a clear night, the Milky Way stretches in a dizzying band of brilliance across the blackness of the sky.  It has been reported that it is possible to see 2.2 million light years (527,000,000,000,000,000 miles) into space from look-outs at Bryce Canyon!

3) Arches National Park (established 1929)

– Located just five miles northwest of the town of Moab, Utah, Arches National Park is one of the most-photographed places in the United States.  It has more than 2000 natural arches made of molded red rock.  These stand amidst a multitude of other breathtaking rock formations like towers, hoodoos, and massive boulders impossibly balanced atop tall rock pedestals.  The park covers over 73,000 acres and protects the highest concentration of natural arches on Earth.

– One of the most famous free-standing arches in the park – and in the world – is Delicate Arch.  It is 60 feet (18 meters) tall and stands out conspicuously on a high slickrock slope.

4) Canyonlands National Park (established 1964)

– At 527 square miles, Canyonlands is the biggest park in Utah.  It is a seemingly boundless area of spectacular canyons, rock spires, arches, and nonstop vistas.  Its surreal landscapes have been carved over millions of years by two rivers, the Colorado and the Green, plus their tributaries.  The park is so huge that many areas remain simply out of reach to most visitors. 

– Canyonlands is made up of three regions: Needles, Island in the Sky, and The Maze.  The first two are quite easily accessed by moderately experienced hikers, but still offer incredible views.  Not many people visit The Maze, though.  It is much more remote and wild, more difficult to reach, and meant for those seeking adventure and solitude.

5) Capitol Reef National Park (established 1971)

– This park is located in south-central Utah.  It is one of the least-visited parks in the state because it is a bit off of the beaten track and also relatively new, compared to other parks in the state.  But lots of experienced hikers consider the possibilities for solitude within the sublime landscapes of Capitol Reef the most wondrous adventure of all.  In 2018, 1.2 million visitors were recorded at the park, which was not even one-fourth of the number of visits to Zion.  This is even more significant given the fact that Capitol Reef National Park is almost 60% larger than Zion National Park!

– The park’s name comes from an immense ridge that stretches for 100 miles from Thousand Lake Mountain to Lake Powell.  The ridge, called Waterpocket Fold, is a wrinkle in the earth’s crust that has created a sweeping landscape of canyons, cliffs, and colorful rock formations.  Some of the first settlers in the area thought that a dome-shaped sandstone elevation resembled the dome of the Capitol building in Washington D.C. and that Waterpocket Fold formed a kind of barrier, or “reef.”  This is how the park got its name.

Sources: Golden, Hallie, The Guardian, “Biden restores beloved national monuments, reversing Trump cuts,” https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/oct/08/biden-bears-ears-national-monument-grand-staircase-escalante,October 8, 2021;  National Parks Service, “Bryce Canyon,” https://www.nps.gov/brca/planyourvisit/index.htm, September 28, 2021; fs.usda.gov, “Fact Sheet for Bears Ears Monument,” https://www.fs.usda.gov/sites/default/files/bear-ears-fact-sheet.pdfblm.gov, “Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument,” https://www.blm.gov/programs/national-conservation-lands/utah/grand-staircase-escalante-national-monumentvisitutah.com, “The Mighty Five,” https://www.visitutah.com/places-to-go/parks-outdoors/the-mighty-5; Puliti, Lorenzo, travelinusa.us, “Utah’s Mighty Five: The ‘Big 5’ Amazing National Parks of the State,” https://www.travelinusa.us/utah-mighty-five/, October 21, 2021.