Thank you, President Biden, for Restoring Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

As we crested the final rise of Boulder Mountain, my heart began to race. We were almost there.

I pulled my truck into the viewpoint turnout and excitedly yelled at my wife and kids to get out and soak it all in. The big, bold, and beautiful expanse that is Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument spread out below us, stepping down from the wooded flanks of the Aquarius Plateau, past the sinewy curves of the Escalante River, all the way down to Lake Powell and the mighty Colorado.

This monument was one of two in Utah that President Trump decimated when he dramatically reduced its boundaries and protections, opening up the area for additional grazing and energy development.

dog stands in front of scenic vista
Lola the dog stretches her legs on the rocky, rugged earth. Credit: Craig Benjamin

A Return to Public Lands

A year into the perils of the pandemic, after having to cancel family vacations to Costa Rica and Las Vegas (the most underrated destination for outdoor adventure in America), we were rolling into Escalante for a Spring Break week of family fun exploring the wonders of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Even better, we were meeting my fully vaccinated parents who were driving up from Texas in their RV. They had not seen their grandchildren in way too long.

As we dropped into the hamlet of Boulder, Utah I pointed out where I had nearly hit a herd of mule deer on a work trip in 2018, told the story of a friend in Boulder who gifted me a jar of pickled elk from a bull she harvested with her bow on Boulder Mountain, and prattled on about the incredible food grown locally and amazingly prepared by the brave women of Hell’s Backbone Grill who are leading the fight to restore the Monument to its original size.

As I carefully navigated the unguarded curves of the Hogback on arguably the most beautiful stretch of highway on Earth, my kids voluntarily put down their devices to soak in the stunning beauty of the canyons, and I couldn’t shut up about how Calf Creek below us to our right is the southernmost range of Bonneville Cutthroat trout, and how the canyon is literally littered with wild turkeys.

flock of turkeys
Flocks of wild turkeys can be seen while driving through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Credit: Craig Benjamin

As we rolled into the town of Escalante, I noted the new hotel owned by Monument opponents, who are profiting off the tourists lured to this landscape conserved by the very designation they oppose, and I called out the canyon guides, outfitters, and restaurants, who are all part of the local chamber of commerce who support restoring the Monument to its original size.

And then, our adventures began. After dropping off our camper at one of the many new RV parks in town, part of the booming local tourism economy, we headed out for a short hike along the canyon rim to a viewpoint above the Escalante River, enjoying stunning views with no other people in sight—our dogs not bothered by the fact that they were wrestling in cacti.

Exploring the Escalante

The following day we battled the heat (after a long Wyoming winter, 75 degrees feels hot!) on a hike down the Escalante River and up to Phipps arch, my 12-year old daughter Piper slightly scaring herself on the scramble to the summit. Back at camp we welcomed my parents to this incredible place, and basked around the campfire in the glow you feel when reunited with family you haven’t seen in way, way too long.

Over the next few days we wandered Willis Creek (everyone’s favorite hike, and the busiest, in that we saw nearly two dozen people), explored Escalante Petrified Forest State Park (an absolute gem), froze our feet crossing back and forth across Pine Creek, took an absurdly beautiful drive on the Burr Trail up Long Canyon to the Circle Cliffs with a lovely stop at Singing Canyon, and discovered the stunning slot of Bighorn Canyon. I even managed to sneak in an early morning run across the ridiculously rugged Boulder Mail Trail.

family vacation slideshow
Family adventures in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Credit: Craig Benjamin

By far the best day was our son Ryder’s 9th birthday, which we let him plan. After a leisurely morning, we gorged ourselves on a progressive lunch through town, hitting Georgie’s Outdoor Mexican Café for nachos, Nemo’s for burgers, and the Escalante Mercantile and Natural Grocery for desert. Continuing the food theme (Ryder will tell you he is born to eat), my Dad, a world class chef, cooked up steaks from a local ranch.

And then we topped it off with what my entire family agreed was one of the most incredible (and completely absurd) public lands experiences any of us had ever had. After a brutal drive down the wash-boarded Hole-In-The-Rock road, we arrived at Devil’s Garden—a small area of hoodoos, natural arches, and other sandstone formations—at sunset, prepared to play laser tag.

family laser tag slideshow
With the hoodoos to themselves, the arches and sandstone formations were the perfect landscape for a game of evening laser tag. Credit: Craig Benjamin

We had warned Ryder that if there was anyone else around, it wouldn’t be appropriate for us to play, but lo and behold, this being Grand Staircase-Escalante, the only people there were pulling away as we pulled into the lot. For the next hour, we played family laser tag while climbing over arches, hiding behind hoodoos, and sprinting across the sandstone. It was magical, until the sun set, we got bombarded by bats, and we all ran back to my truck, and then drove back to camp under more stars than most Americans will ever see in their entire life.

For Everyone to Enjoy

Though we had only scratched the surface of this immeasurable place, after a week, it was time to head home. Piper declared it one of the best family vacations ever, explained how awesome it was that it wasn’t crowded, and when I asked her what she thought about restoring the Monument boundaries, responded that the area should be protected because it’s really pretty, everyone should get to enjoy it, and it shouldn’t get ruined. I couldn’t agree more, and would only add that it’s also home to myriad wildlife species and cultural treasures.

All of this is why I’m grateful President Biden chose to restore Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to its full size and glory. All Americans should have the opportunity to enjoy one of the most special landscapes in our Country, now, and for generations to come.

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