Devil’s Garden-an exploration of an alien landscape
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
By Abby McAllister
If you are anywhere near Highway 12 as it winds in and out of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM) near the town of Escalante, you have no excuse not to visit Devil’s Garden. It is a surprisingly short trip on a dirt road off the main highway (see “When you go” below) and is well worth the minimal amount of time it takes to get there. As you head off on Hole-in-the-Rock road and the dry sage and cactus flats stretch out on either side of you, you may be tempted to think that there is no way there are cool rock formations near here. That’s what I thought. “We’ve made a mistake in coming here,” I thought to myself, literally until the moment we pulled into the parking lot. It’s no mistake and it will be worth it, especially if you have kids.
As our kids piled out of the car and ran towards the rock formations I started to hear them shout to each other, “over here, it’s so cool!” and “you have to see this!” or “Look at me, I’m up on top!” Keep in mind that this is not a national park and therefore is not subject to the same level of strictness in regards to how much you can interact with the environment. This doesn’t mean we don’t treat it with respect and do our best to leave no trace but it does allow our kids a bit more freedom to climb and explore. We loved that about GSENM.
Anyway, back to the garden. As I got the 2 year old ready and hurried to join the other kids I began to see what they were so excited about. As soon as you leave the parking lot and head out into the “garden” you begin to see a seemingly endless maze of the most curious and unusual shapes. They rise up out of the sand like some mystical being’s garden, as the name implies. It is hard to imagine how they came to be other than to assume they were planted there by giants. There are hoodoos, arches, tunnels, caves, and balancing rocks. They are like a sampling of all the amazing formations from all 5 of Southern Utah’s big National Parks, all planted there in one place.
We spent about 2 hours there and never ran out of places to explore or things to climb. We took some fun and funny photos but mostly just enjoyed some free play time. In this day, and in our world, it is really hard to come by that kind of imaginative play. It is not directed. It is not scripted. It flows and changes as each child’s imagination is moved to. This kind of play is crucial to our kids. They need it to grow into the kind of thinkers, dreamers and creators our world will need. They need time away from sports, music lessons, PE class and our agendas. Sometimes it is hard for them to engage in this type of play at home. Things are structured there. I always have some agenda. There are so many (electronic) distractions. If for no other reason than this desperate need for free play, take your kids outside. Not only that, find magical places outdoors for them to enter into this experience. They are wired for it. They need it. And our world needs them to do it.
When you go:
You will find Hole-In-The-Rock Road off of Highway 12 in Southern Utah, between the towns of Escalante and Boulder (closer to Escalante). The pull off is marked but not in any real obvious way so keep a look out. There is a large gravel pull-out with some signage there. But before you head off down the road it is a good idea to check in at one of the many visitor centers. They can give you current weather conditions (really important when exploring desert areas), road conditions and even trail write-ups with mileages, descriptions and safety concerns. You won’t need that last item for this location because the “garden” is immediately adjacent to a large parking area with pit toilets and picnic tables. Still, it is really helpful to know about the road and weather conditions. There are visitor centers in Escalante and Cannonville. The visitor center in Cannonville was beautiful and had great interpretive gardens and displays. The visitor center in Escalante was also great. It had topographic maps of the entire region and very helpful rangers. We also filled up water jugs and used bathrooms here.
Once you have plenty of water, know the weather and road conditions and know where you are headed, you are ready to set out for adventure. Head down Highway 12 until you see the turnout for Hole-In-The-Rock road on the South side. It is approximately 12 miles down Hole-In-The-Rock road. Turn out here and head down this dirt road, keeping an eye out on the right for the dirt road turn off for Devil’s garden. This is marked and you should have no trouble finding it. Turn right and head about 1 mile to the parking area.
There is no real trail-you are free to explore as you want!