Sunday, January 29, 2012

Steps Carved by Father Escalante at Crossing of the Fathers

In 1776-1777 Father Dominguez and Father Escalante were sent by the Catholic Church to find a direct route from the mission settlement in Santa Fe, NM to the one in Monterrey, CA. They intended to head due west to make the connection, but instead, they made a huge, 2000-mile circle, ending up back at Santa Fe. It took them 6 ½ months.

Father Escalante and his comrads didn’t reach their stated goal, but they chronicled their journey and that has survived. They almost perished from cold and hunger several times, and when they got to the Colorado River at what is now Lee’s Ferry, they found they could not cross at that point.

They then searched upriver, and two weeks later, they found Padre Creek. There the river was wider and shallow enough to ford, and the canyon walls sloped down. However, this slope was what is known as “slick rock,” and with good reason. The picture below is of me and my friend Nayna Judd Christensen sitting on the slick rock as it slopes down to the river. Getting horses down without incident was a problem, but this was the only way to cross they had found thus far, so they cut steps in the rock so the horses could get footing.

These steps survived for almost 200 years. In fact, they’re probably still there, except that now they’re covered by Lake Powell, the lake that backs up behind the Glen Canyon Dam. My dad worked on that project, and one Easter weekend in the early 1960s we made the dirt-road drive out to see them.

These images surfaced a couple weeks ago when I was having my son sort pictures for me. Wondering if they might be historically valuable, I made an internet search. Though I found several pictures of early expeditions to the Crossing of the Fathers in the early 20th century, I didn’t find any of the steps Father Escalante cut into the rock. So, if you’ll pardon the intrusion of a younger me in the picture, I’m posting this for posterity.

You can read a good description of the Escalante-Dominguez expedition at:

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Peter N. Steinmetz said...

Thanks so much for posting these. I was curious what the steps looked like and one can no longer see them in real life without diving.


Liz Adair said...

You are most welcome, Peter. I have accomplished my goal in posting them. Thanks for letting me know.

Anonymous said...

I've been reading about the Old Spanish Trail, which the Dominguez-Escalante Expedition helped to establish. I couldn't find any pictures of the Crossing of the Fathers, especially the steps, so thanks for sharing. J B

Liz Adair said...

Thanks for your comment, JB. That is exactly why I posted this picture, even if my large back side is particularly prominent.

Randall Armstrong said...

very important historical reference
thank s for posting these

Erika B. said...

Thank you for posting these pictures! It's so wonderful to see these steps. I'm wondering if you might give me permission to use them in a book I'm writing on water in the West. I'd give you the photo credit. I'd also be interested in talking to you about your father's role in the construction of the dam. My name is Erika Bsumek and I'm originally from Utah. My grandfather also worked on the dam -- but I'm now a history professor at the University of Texas. Feel free to email me at