Powell hadn't glimpsed some of the craziest rock shapes—the pinnacle-like hoodoos of Bryce Canyon or the vaulting spans of Arches, canonized by Edward Abbey. Bryce and Arches are two of the roughly 30 parks and other national preserves that make the heart of the province one of the nation's most protected regions. It isn't perfect protection; environmentalists decry its insufficiencies while locals, ingrained with the Westerner's mistrust of bureaucracy, grumble about overkill. In the largest unit, the 1.9-million-acre national monument Grand Staircase–Escalante, created only in 1996, off-road vehicles plow tracks that won't disappear for decades. On the other hand many mining claims have been relinquished or bought out by those devious Feds, and no new claims are permitted. And while allowing multiple uses, including ranching (yes, there's a little grass here and there), the Bureau of Land Management is charged with superintending the monument, to protect its attributes.
Gaudy vistas are only one of those attributes. The plateau is a time machine nonpareil, holding who knows what secrets. When the rocks at the bottom of the Grand Canyon are counted in, the swath of Earth's history exposed by water's relentless gouging of the plateau is reckoned by geologists to reach back 1.7 billion years, more than a third of Earth's existence.
One afternoon, puffing along behind Alan Titus, a BLM paleontologist, I dropped back a mere 75 million years or so. Titus assured me we were tramping through a swamp where ferns and magnolias had flourished, although it looked awfully like a forest of stunted piñons and junipers. "The whistles and shrieks you hear are not birds," Titus said, coaxing my imagination into play. "They're dinosaurs." Soon he had me seeing huge crocodiles and snakes sloshing lazily in warm pools. And then, guiding me to a row of dark, roundish objects half-buried in the soil, Titus said: "You're looking at the remains of an animal that's been extinct for 65 million years or more"—the fossilized vertebrae of a duck-billed dinosaur that lived in the Cretaceous period. Titus says this specimen was 25 feet long. "I'm waiting for that big tyrannosaur," he said. "I want to find one before I retire."
On another afternoon I climbed to a high cliff's edge. The setting sun infused the rocky layers vaulting away to the horizon with a crimson incandescence—the kind of glow, surely, that compelled Edward Abbey to pronounce these rocks beautiful. A hot, dry wind came up, gusting stronger and stronger, and as it assaulted the cliff faces it whined and screamed. Sounded just like dinosaur shrieks.