Ranger Kathryn's Arches

September 16, 2016

Stairway to heaven

Filed under: Hikes — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 12:46 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

Only the first step or two were tentative.


We stared at the steps before us, Melanie and I did, a bit unsure of our next move. Shot Canyon is steep-walled Cedar Mesa sandstone; there is no other entry. Basque herdsmen in the 1890s constructed a way for their sheep to access water in the canyon bottom, and these (*cough*) stairs are still in use.


Above Shot Canyon on a perfect September day

120 years ago some guy stacked a base layer of rocks on slanty sandstone, and then layered step after step upward. Hikers gingerly (not knowing the lifespan of a sheep stairway) descend the narrow steps, cross the bare area, land on the slab rocks atop the log, and descend further to the second, less-sketchy, stairway below. All this while five hours’ difficult drive from the nearest human being, should anything go wrong.


Ranger Kathryn in her beloved Maze District of Canyonlands Nat’l Park

Can you see the happy park ranger* smiling to be out in the wilderness? She is happy because at 0124 that morning, under a nearly-full moon, a rare Spotted Owl hooted her awake. And she is happy because she’s ready to go down some clever steps and explore a place she’s never seen before. It doesn’t get much better than this!


Where was the last dangerous staircase you used? How did you feel? Leave a comment, please!


*Disguised as a volunteer this season, as you can see by my hat.


  1. Yes. Yes. And Yes! Love it.

    Comment by Mike Colestock — September 16, 2016 @ 12:56 pm | Reply

  2. An old stock trail, just a few miles from the Hans Flats ranger station, leads into upper Millard Canyon and has a slightly sketchy-looking staircase–nowhere near as sketchy as the one in Shot Canyon, though! I didn’t try it out ’cause I had already passed above it on a higher cliff band before noticing it. Here’s a photo of that one: https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/-_QzEJauAH6E/UykeB3BdUgI/AAAAAAAAjlM/H-970i_b0KU/s1024/IMG_3431.JPG

    I’d guess that it, too, was built by sheepherders, as it doesn’t look like something cattle would be able to go up/down.

    Comment by Dennis — September 16, 2016 @ 3:10 pm | Reply

    • Thanks for sharing that photo and tidbit! I’m fascinated by all rock staircases; the labor and effort and design that went into them is leagues beyond my understanding. Shot Canyon’s was far more solid than I expected it to be. Wish I had taken a photo from the side, showing construction details.

      Comment by Kathryn Colestock-Burke — September 17, 2016 @ 9:23 pm | Reply

  3. I am speechless. That leaves all other dangerous staircases in the dust! Do sheep actually use this? Chris

    Comment by Chris Youngman — September 17, 2016 @ 3:34 pm | Reply

    • Well, they DID use it back when livestock were in these canyons. It’s been five or more decades. I wonder if that should increase or decrease my trepidation???

      Comment by Kathryn Colestock-Burke — September 17, 2016 @ 9:24 pm | Reply

    • Reply #2: for steps held in place solely by friction, I take some small comfort in knowing that thousands of sheep have gone before me. Rocks tend to get ‘packed’ in place in the desert with repeated use.

      Comment by Kathryn Colestock-Burke — September 18, 2016 @ 6:57 am | Reply

  4. We did that route on our last trip to the Maze in 2014 although we ascended the stairs rather than descended which reduces the pucker factor. It is not that bad and actually pretty well constructed.

    The Maze overlook trail has more exposure and we generally bring a rope for those prone to paralysis on steep ground.

    The real gem is the descent into the Maze behind the Chocolate Drops however. Love those 13-14 mile loops up past Chimney rock or past the Plug that you can do in a splendid day or finish by moonlight.

    Comment by Kurt Knutson — August 29, 2017 @ 8:21 pm | Reply

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