Dominguez-Escalante Expedition

Father Silvestre Velez de Escalante

There are many locations on the Colorado Plateau bearing the name "Escalante" -- the Escalante Ruins of western Colorado, the town of Escalante, Utah, the Escalante River which runs through the town and the newly created Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

All are named after Father Silvestre Velez de Escalante, a Spanish Franciscan missionary-explorer, who in 1776-77 along with his superior Francisco Domínguez, set out on an expedition seeking a northern route to Monterey in California from Santa Fe (now in New Mexico). Father Escalante chronicled this first European exploration across the Great Basin desert.

At the time, the New World Empire of Spain stretched from Panama, north through Mexico, and across the American Southwest to the California coast. But little was known about the immense country -­ much of it deserts -- between California and Santa Fe, primarily because the treacherous Colorado River northwest of the Capital.



The government of New Mexico, as well as the church, sought to establish overland routes through the deserts to the California coast. These routes would tie the north and western parts of Spain's Empire frontiers together, and bring hostile Indians under control.

In 1775, Juan Bautista de Anza led an expedition from northern Mexico across the Sonoran Desert, and eventually discovered a southern overland route to Monterey on the California coast. That same year, New Mexico's Spanish Governor Mendinuetta asked Father Escalante to furnish a report on a possible northern route to Monterey, across the Great Basin Desert.

Escalante's plan, which Governor Mendinuetta approved, called for an expedition of 14 men to travel north until they were above the Grand Canyon, unfriendly Indians and the deadly deserts they knew to lie due west, then in as straight a course as possible to head west for California.

On July 29, 1776, this expedition left Santa Fe to great fanfare and fervent prayers by Escalante. The 14 men knew little of the country they were entering. Traveling northwest, they made their way into what is now western Colorado. On August 13 the party reached and named the winding Dolores River, where they camped and explored the nearby area.  

Above their camp, Fathers Escalante and Dominguez found the ancient ruins of a small Indian village, which Escalante noted in his journal -- the first written record of a prehistoric Anasazi site in Colorado. This site is now called Escalante Ruin, and a second site discovered nearby in modern times is called Dominguez Ruin.

The party moved north through western Colorado, until they became lost and would have perished from thirst had they not met a Ute Indian, who guided them to the Uncompahgre River, where his band was camped. Here Dominguez and Escalante acquired the services of two northern Utes who took them still further north to where Rangely, Colorado, now stands. Here the expedition turned west toward "Utah Lake."

After having traveled across eastern Utah, the explorers found a sign of hope when they encountered a lone bison. They rested a full day while jerking the meat. With a fresh supply of meat, they faced the difficult ford of the Green River. Here, at the northernmost extent of their journey they were in constant fear of raiding Shoshone Indians.

Days later when the 14 men entered "Utah Valley" near the present city of Provo, Utah, they saw dozens of friendly Ute villages dotting the shore of a huge lake. They turned south along what is now roughly Interstate 15,. meeting several groups of Ute Indians, but these shy people fled from the Spaniards and gave them no help finding a route to California.


Finally, just north of Cedar City, Utah, the expedition determined that moving straight west would bring them directly to Monterey. But now snowstorms and freezing temperatures began to dampen the spirits of the explorers to the point of despair. So far, the hardships of exploring a strange land had been overwhelming. They nearly died of thirst in blistering heat and lived under the constant threat of attack by unknown Indians. When the cattle they'd brought had all been consumed, they were forced to eat their mules.

So on October 4, 1776, when they stopped near Cedar City and were staggered by a blizzard, Escalante and Dominguez, concerned with a lack of supplies and the approach of Winter, decided to turn back to Santa Fe. Dissension over this decision led the Fathers to put the matter in the hands of the Almighty and cast lots, which confirmed their decision.

So the Expedition continued southward instead of heading west. Before they crossed the Virgin River near present-day Toquerville, Utah, they discovered fields of corn and signs of irrigation, but no farmers. These Paiutes were the only Indians noted by the explorers who had progressed beyond seed gathering and small game hunting.

Obstacles on the return trip were, if anything, worse than those encountered d earlier. Freezing in alternating snow and cold rain, the expedition made its way south and east; twice they were stopped by cold so frightful they could only huddle around fires to survive.

Their provisions ran out 6 days after the casting of the lots. If the lot had said "Monterey'' they would have starved to death in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. Here, at least, they were able to escape the snow and get some nuts and berries from the Paiutes. However, this was not enough, so, as Escalante recorded, "the horses began to be deprived of their lives so we would not have to forfeit ours.''

Finally, after a week's journey in northern Arizona, crossing the north end of the Kaibab Plateau, descending into House Rock Valley, and following the base of the Vermillion Cliffs, they arrived at the Paria River. They traveled another 11 days before coming upon the Colorado River and crossed it at a place near Marble Canyon now known as The Crossing of the Fathers.

On November 26, 1776, the Expedition reached civilization at the Zuni Pueblo, south of Gallup, New Mexico, where the padres compiled their journals. Finally, after stopping on their way east at what is now El Malpais National Monument, the Dominguez- Escalante Expedition returned to Santa Fe on January 2, 1777 and reported to Governor Mendinuetta.

The expedition had traveled for nearly six and a half months, undergoing privations and suffering they would remember forever. At no time were they even close to their goal in California, making instead a huge, rambling 2,0000-mile circle through the Great Basin Desert and mountains of the West.

Yet the Expedition could not be called a failure. While no direct link was established between Monterey and Santa Fe, the interior West had at last been penetrated, explored and chronicled. Father Escalante's journals and Captain Miera's maps would become invaluable to those who would follow, opening what would be called the Old Spanish Trail 40 years later, between Santa Fe and California.

Historical Points along the Route of the
Dominguez-Escalante Expedition

Escalante Ruins Wayside - Colorado
Located 2 miles southwest of Dolores, Colorado, on ColoradoState Route 145

Escalante and Dominguez Ruins - Colorado
Located adjacent to the Anasazi Heritage Center on State Highway 184, 3 miles from Dolores. . It is considered one of the northernmost Chaco outliers.

Musket Shot Springs Wayside - Utah
Located 21 miles southeast of Vernal, Utah, on U. S. 40. This area commemorates the Expedition's northernmost intrusion into these uncharted lands.

Kanarraville Rest Area Wayside - Utah
The major interpretive facility in southern Utah is located at the Interstate 15 Kanarraville Rest Area, 15 miles south of Cedar City. A local map showing points of interest and Dominguez-Escalante campsites is exhibited.

Thermo Hot Springs & Casting of the Lots Areas Wayside - Utah
A more out-of-the way site, but of greater historical interest, is the Thermo Hot Springs and Casting of the Lots Areas, 30 miles northwest of Cedar City. Take Highways 56 and 253 west out of Cedar City one mile. Turn right at Highway 19 to Lund. Turn right at Lund where Highway 19 meets the railroad tracks; parallel the track to the sign ''Thermo Hot Springs.'' Hike required.

San Bartolome Campsite - Arizona
The Expedition's San Bartolome Campsite is located in House Rock Valley, bounded on the north by the Vermillion Cliffs. The Wayside is located on Alt. 89 about 20 miles west of Navajo Bridge over the Colorado River at Marble Canyon.

El Malpais-The Bad Earth ­ New Mexico
Take highway 117 south off 1-40. In nine miles will be the major wayside, four more miles along 117 will take you to the East Trailhead parking. The West Trailhead is 12 miles south on State Highway 53. It is located approximately 30 miles from the Pueblo of the Acoma, (Sky People of the White rock), one of the oldest inhabited settlements in the United States. Acoma was visited by Coronado in 1540, and in the late 1700s on a regular basis by Fr Escalante.

-- Bob Katz

Related Books & Gifts - Trading Post
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

El Malpais National Monument
Juan Bautista de Anza
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Cedar City, Utah



Related DesertUSA Pages


Share this page on Facebook:

DesertUSA Newsletter -- We send articles on hiking, camping and places to explore, as well as animals, wildflower reports, plant information and much more. Sign up below or read more about the DesertUSA newsletter here. (It's Free.)

The Desert Environment
The North American Deserts
Desert Geological Terms


Enter Email:

Shop desert store



Copyright © 1996- and Digital West Media, Inc. - -