Arizona's understated new national monument
About the third unmarked fork I came to while trying to find the North Rim, I began harboring serious doubts about Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument. I had already spent a couple of days in this new jurisdiction south of the Utah-Arizona border, driving across its sagebrush plains, winding through its piñon-juniper forest, and camping along dirt routes marked by signs that read Primitive road—use at your own risk. Normally, I'm happy to find myself in such places, but this one had apparently inspired unrealistic expectations.
It might have had something to do with the name of the place, and its suggestion of easy access to North America's most grandiose landform (which, as it happened, I had never visited before). "Most people want to get to the rim," Bette Arial, a public information official for the Bureau of Land Management in St. George, Utah, had said, referring to the northern edge of the Grand Canyon. "We were sorry that they named it Grand Canyon, because people will think that's what it's all about. But the secretary [of the interior, Bruce Babbitt] wanted to make it clear that his purpose was to protect the Grand Canyon watershed."
The Parashant area is part of the so-called Arizona Strip—the section of Arizona that lies north of the Grand Canyon and is thus cut off geographically from the rest of the state. It covers 1 million acres of remote plateaus, cliffs, and canyons. A transition zone between the Mojave Desert, Basin, and Range and the Colorado Plateau (varying in elevation from 2,000 to 8,000 feet), it contains a variety of life zones and species from Joshua tree to ponderosa pine. It also contains countless archaeological artifacts of the southern Paiutes.
As part of the conservation thrust that has characterized his final year in office, President Bill Clinton declared the Parashant a national monument in January, prohibiting future mining claims and off-road-vehicle activity but allowing livestock grazing to continue.
Meanwhile, the circumstances that have kept the Parashant unspoiled ensure an experience that Arial described as "different from any other national monument you'll ever visit. There are 6,000 miles of unpaved roads and no facilities. You don't need four-wheel drive, but your vehicle should definitely have high clearance."
Mine had both, so I anticipated a stimulating sojourn in the bona fide backcountry—a feeling encouraged by a BLM placard I passed near the Arizona state line, announcing that this was where The west stays wild. I was soon surprised to discover that the terrain wasn't red—the characteristic color of the Colorado Plateau. Sweeping before me was a gray-yellow-green expanse of grass, sagebrush, and juniper called Main Street Valley. To the east was the long brown line of the Hurricane Cliffs, a recent release site for California condors. As I made my way farther south, most of the Shivwits Plateau—which constitutes the bulk of the monument—was covered by piñons and junipers so thick that I could hardly get a view. Maybe this would change as I got nearer to the Grand Canyon.
The next day I visited the town site of Bundyville, officially called Mount Trumbull for the nearby peak of the same name. The area was farmed by Mormon settlers in the early 1900s, though little remains of the village. Mount Trumbull itself—at 8,000 feet the monument's highest point—is a "sky island" of ponderosa pines, an anomaly in the desert.
Upon leaving Bundyville, I drove to the trailhead for the peak—reportedly a short hike, although it ascends 1,500 feet. It took me an hour and a quarter, during which I glimpsed distant cliffs and canyons, though whether they included the Big One I couldn't tell through the trees. Toward the top, the trail became fainter, overgrown as it was with oaks; several times I wandered off course, and when I finally reached the summit, it also turned out to be forested, eliminating any chance for a view.
Frankly, I was starting to wonder what qualified this area as a national monument. Such status implies uniqueness, but this was a familiar high-desert landscape. Protecting the Grand Canyon watershed is a worthy aim, but it seemed that a national conservation area designation might have been more appropriate. Of course, that would have required a congressional vote, which Clinton apparently didn't want to gamble on. Hence, with a stroke of his pen the country had a new monument that doesn't really seem very monumental.
The morning after my hike, I met the BLM's acting manager for Grand Canyon-Parashant, Dennis Curtis. "We didn't think the area was particularly threatened," he said, "but the secretary was looking 50 years down the road. Las Vegas and St. George are growing, and mining is always a threat. National monument status is a double-edged sword. The area will receive more protection now, but it's also been advertised. My solution is to maintain its remoteness by not improving the roads. We're trying to put together a zoning concept to match people up with the type of experience they're prepared for. It would be similar to river rapids—Class I, II, III, or IV—from the most paved to the most rugged. I'd just as soon never have roads suitable for RVs. Class IV wouldn't even have signs."
Curtis had told me that by traveling directly to Mount Trumbull the day before, I'd "missed the best part" of Grand Canyon-Parashant—the North Rim viewpoints in the southernmost reaches of the monument. So, in a last-ditch attempt to garner a view, I retraced my route and turned south. The farther I went, the rougher the road became, ultimately qualifying as a solid Class IV. As I encountered the unmarked forks, I grew increasingly frustrated. I fumed that if "most people want to get to the rim," maybe there ought to be more signs telling them how to do it. It occurred to me that instead of trying to revoke the executive power to declare national monuments, perhaps Congress ought to expand it to include the authority to designate national conservation areas. Then, even a conservation-minded president would be able to reserve monument status for only the most spectacular spots, rather than luring clueless tourists into places like this.
Persevering, I found myself on yet another piñon-covered plateau. I didn't seem to be near any kind of canyon, but as the sun descended, the road began to describe a series of S-curves through the trees. There now seemed to be a gap between me and the horizon—and as the road emerged from the forest, all doubt vanished as to what it might be. With no warning whatsoever, the floor of the world suddenly fell through a trapdoor, plunging into a maze of clefts and canyons and multitudinous weaving watercourses. The earth was exposed in layers like a cut through a thousand-foot cake. As cliff swallows wheeled above the void, I stood with my mouth open, beholding the Grand Canyon.
Suddenly, the isolated, unspectacular character of Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument didn't seem so annoying after all.
Photography by David Darlington
This article was first published in November 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.