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Cannonville After more than 6 miles of weaving through thick pinyon and juniper forest on horseback, the view from Rock Springs Point was as overwhelming as it was amazing.
Clear skies at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument allowed for views easily beyond 100 miles.
Those long-distance panoramic views are typically associated with the high plateaus of nearby Bryce Canyon National Park. The nearly 1.9 million acres of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah take up a lot of that view from Bryce.
And, for many visitors to southern Utah, a view of the monument is enough. For others the chance to explore slot canyons, stumble on fossils, view petroglyphs and pictographs or just get away from everything draws them to the Grand Staircase-Escalante.
There is perhaps no better way to see the monument than from the back of a horse, just like the first Europeans did.
"We get a lot of 'wows' and 'oh my gods,' " said Norm Neilson, a wrangler leading guided horseback rides on the monument and around Bryce Canyon through Ruby's Inn. "You really realize what a special place it is when you get to witness people seeing it for the first time on a regular basis."
The Grand Staircase-Esclante encompasses about 3,000 square miles of south-central Utah. The monument stretches from Bryce Canyon on the west to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (Lake Powell) on the east. Highway 12 is a boundary on the north, while Highway 89 and the Arizona state line mostly serve as the southern edge of the monument.
Noel Poe has been exploring the monument from his home in Kanab since moving there five years ago. He quickly became involved in the High Desert chapter of the Utah Back County Horsemen club and now serves as the ride coordinator.
"The slot canyons are always fun to visit. There are places where you can ride in and reach out with both hands and touch walls while sitting in your saddle," said Poe, who also volunteers as president of the Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, a friends group of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. "You need to be careful because you need more room to turn around a horse and you can quickly run out of canyon."
Poe moved to Kanab after retiring from his job in Missouri to enjoy access to the vast public lands of southern Utah. He became involved with the Partners group to help support the mission of educating the public about wonder of the monument, implementing sustainable conservation practices, developing strong local economic benefits related to the monument for local economies and encouraging more research in the area.
Spending time on the monument fuels his passion to secure the mission of Partners.
"It is amazing to come across things you know were done by the cowboys who originally came into the area and settled here," he said. "It's fun to be riding and exploring and suddenly realize there is a trail. You also occasionally come across line shacks, places where you can tell they camped and places where juniper trees have been turned into corrals."
Real cowboys and cattle still inhabit the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, but the vastness of the landscape reduces chances of spotting them.
Vehicles and bicycles must stay on establish roads in the monument so horseback riding or hiking are the only ways to venture off the road.
Private parties are allowed to ride the monument, but free permits are required for overnight excursions and are available at one of the visitor centers located on the edges of Grand Staircase-Escalante. They are in Big Water, Cannonville, Escalante and Kanab.
Larry Crutchfield works for the BLM on the monument and suggests people make a stop at each of the centers to gain an appreciation of the reasons to visit.
"Every center has a different theme in relation to the monument," he said. "You can also get updated on weather and road conditions. It is important to know the weather. It is easy to get stuck in wet conditions."
Weather is an important thing to track because most of the comfortable riding time in the monument comes on fringe seasons. Late fall, late winter and early spring are when most people with horses head for the Grand Staircase. And those times, of course, are susceptible to moisture, which is a bad mix with the clay and dirt roads of the monument.
Vehicles with 4-wheel-drive and high clearance are recommended for driving on roads in the monument.
Most traffic in the Grand Staircase-Escalante occurs a few major roads: Hole-in-the-Rock Road near the town of Escalante; Cottonwood Canyon Road near Cannonville; and the Johnson Canyon-Skumptah Road near Kanab.
Crutchfield said more than 800,000 people visited the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 2011. Those numbers included people who walked into visitors centers or contact stations and hit traffic counters on roads inside the monument.
BLM officials believe most Grand Staircase-Escalante visitors are see the monument from behind a windshield, but there is a lot of interest in hiking and horseback riding, at least according to hot spots on the website.
Many of the visitors Neilson guides have traveled from other continents and the last thing they want to see is a landscape marred by glass. Horseback seems the perfect option.
"We get people from all over the world. They tell me they are here because the love the Old West. They just don't have anything like the scenery and the Western history that we do," he said. "This is their chance to experience that and they grasp the opportunity."
firstname.lastname@example.org Looking for a ride?
Here's a list of outfitters permitted to lead guided horseback trips on the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Capital Reef Backcountry Outfitters • http://www.ridethereef.com/
Easton Tolley Enterprises, Inc. • email email@example.com
Hondoo Rivers & Trails • http://www.hondoo.com
Mecham Outfitters and Guides • http://www.mechamoutfitters.com/
Old West Outfitters/Honey Moon Trail
Red Rock Adventures, Inc. • http://www.redrockride.com
Ruby's Inn Horseback Adventures • http://www.horserides.net
Sentinel Rock Horseback Adventures • http://www.sentinelrockhorses.com
Turn-About Ranch • http://www.turnaboutranch.com/
Source: Bureau of Land Management