When Things Get Old ...

Escalante State Park

Several years ago, on the way to my first-ever canyon hiking trip in southern Utah, the group of hikers I was traveling with made an emergency stop at Escalante State Park. I say 'emergency' because it had not been our plan to stop there, but we needed a place with bathrooms and water where everyone (we were coming from different directions) could rendezvous. We arrived very late at night and left pretty early the next day. As a result, I saw next to nothing of the park. I had always wanted to return but never found the time. Finally, last week, I made it back.

'Escalante State Park' is really kind of a misnomer. 'Escalante' is the name of a Mexican Catholic friar who in 1776 helped lead a group of Mexican Spaniards north from Santa Fe in an attempt to find passage to San Bernardino. The group never even got close to California — they were turned back by deep September snows while in west-central Utah — but they did become the first verifiable expedition of non-Indians to visit Utah. The detailed journal penned by Escalante makes for good reading even today.

Well, I kind of got sidetracked there, but Escalante, the guy, never made it to Escalante, the town or Escalante, the state park. Most people call Escalante State Park something more descriptive: Escalante Petrified Forest State Park. There, that's better, since petrified wood is what has brought me here.

Large chunks of petrified wood can be found across parts of the West, and they signal not only an arid land today but also one that was much wetter millennia ago. Back then, the area was surrounded by tall mountain ranges similar to the Sierra Nevada and towering volcanoes not unlike Mount St. Helens. Large conifer trees, some of them perhaps 200 feet tall, covered the hillsides and floodplains below the mountains. The trees died and fell, and many were caught in flashfloods, washed downstream, saturated with water then buried by silt, which cut off oxygen and delayed decay. Ash from the volcanoes blanketed the ground and silicates mixed with groundwater filtered into the cells of the buried trees to form hard quartz crystals that simply turned the wood to stone. Some of the trees filled with colored crystals such as amethyst and jasper. Eventually, the sand and silt washed away, but the trees were likely buried several times in this fashion. Once the climate dried, the Colorado Plateau uplifted and exposed not only the astounding sandstone cliffs that surround Escalante but also the buried trees.

What remains today is an array of petrified logs, some broken into small bits, others several feet long and still half-buried in the ground. While some of the logs are simply rock-like, others hold a kaleidoscopic array of colorful crystals that look not so much like wood as they do sawed geodes in a classy rock shop, or brilliant gems in a jewelry store. And while some of the West's natural wonders suggest their presence long before the visitor actually arrives, the petrified wood of Escalante State Park is something you might not see until you stumble over it — literally. That, in my mind, makes the find all the more special.

Escalante State Park, located a few miles south and west of the small town of Escalante, was established in 1964 with land purchased from the Bureau of Land Management. More land was added in 1972 to include access to the shoreline of Wide Hollow Reservoir, which itself was created in the mid-50s and is used for irrigation by the town.

The park is a lovely spot for a short stopover or a place to relax after hard days of hiking. The campground has water and showers and cool green grass. Above the campground, in the petrified tree fields, trails lead both to the multi-hued wood as well as a small painted desert, views to the town of Escalante and, when I was there in late April, vibrant stands of wildflowers. For the uninitiated, the park's trails are a good way to get acquainted with the plants and animals of the Upper Sonoran life zone. There is sweet-smelling sagebrush, nut-bearing pinyon pines, black boulders which are the remnants of a nearby 50-million year old volcano, balanced rocks and desert varnish — a subtle coating of dark color that forms after centuries on sandstone. Other finds include roundleaf buffalo berry and a remarkable and huge trunk of petrified wood with subtle color changes from the outside to the core. When it is hot, the lake beckons.

As for me, I'm sorry I took so long to return.

Escalante State Park is 1.5 miles from Escalante and includes a visitors center, 22-unit campground, modern restrooms and showers, sanitary disposal station, group site and residential ranger.

For more information on the Grand Staircase/Escalante area, visit the Garfield County Travel Council or call 435-676-1160.

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