A Grand Tour of Utah’s Five National Parks
The erosive grandeur of Utah’s National Parks offers the visitor an experience available nowhere else. A grand tour of this densest cluster of national parks in the country merits a week to two-week vacation.
From anywhere in the U.S., you can fly to Las Vegas or Salt Lake and then rent a car or RV to explore the parks. The parks are a day south of Salt Lake or a few hours east of Las Vegas. The dominant “picture” is the erosion, especially that of the Colorado and other rivers, gradually wearing away the soft stone, leaving imaginative and breathtaking rock formations. The Spanish named the river Rio Colorado, the river “colored red” by the silt.
Arches and Canyonlands are the easterly parks. Capitol Reef is in the south center. Bryce and Zion are in the southwest. Utah is a magnificent and vast area, so it is best to plan with a map in hand.
Striking salmon-colored rock formations, including the greatest density of natural stone arches in the world, draw appreciators of erosive desert beauty to Arches National Park. Arches are literal stone spans created by water and polished by wind. Water, the stronger agent, wears out the soft center rock. In the park there are more than 1500 arches. The longest, Landscape Arch, is a ribbon of rock with a 434-foot-long span, according to re-measurement in 1984. Delicate Arch wins many votes as the most attractive arch. A section called the Windows (North and South Windows Arches, Turret Arch, and Double Arch) enjoys the greatest concentration of large arches.
The full beauty of Arches’ 115 square miles is a subtle blend of color and form. The colors are the red and salmon of the iron oxide rock, the intense blue of the sky, the deep but sparse green of pinyon pine and Utah juniper, and the pastel blue-green of many desert plants, such as sage. Into this palette of colors, which can be metamorphosed through the spectrum at sunset and sunrise, enter a full pageant of forms, meaning arches, cliffs, balanced rocks, canyons, pedestals, and pinnacles, to name a few. In recent time only one primitive ranch, the Wolfe Ranch, survived in the region. Wolfe Ranch’s crude log cabins can be visited. Arches became a national park in 1971.
Majestic canyon vistas of the Colorado and Green Rivers are the special reward when visiting Canyonlands National Park. The rivers amount to streamers of fluid sandpaper cutting through the sandstone canyons of eastern Utah. Rivers and rainwater are the major erosive architects here, with wind as an associate. This 527-square-mile wilderness of rock is part of the Colorado Plateau.
An insight into the reality of this area can be stated as a paradox: Water is a major erosive force because there is so little water here. The paradox involves a predictable cycle. Because there is little water, there is only sparse vegetation. When rain falls, there is little vegetation to absorb it, so the water runs off rapidly, causing much erosion. To qualify as a desert, an area must have less than 10 inches of rain annually and the rain must fall irregularly, which is exactly what happens here. If 10 inches were distributed evenly through the year, the effect would be grassy meadows. Here a late summer thunderstorm may commonly drop two inches of moisture in a wave of water that runs off quickly in a silt-laden fury and is of little enduring use to plants.
If one view in Utah were singled out as the most stunning of all, the likely candidate would be the Deadhorse Point overlook into Canyonlands National Park. This unforgettable view presents the Colorado River as it goosenecks through a section of purple mesas amidst the Colorado and Green Rivers. The section of mesas, called the Island in the Sky, kaleidoscopes through a technicolor transformation in the hour before sunset. The view extends an easy 50 miles southwest to the La Sal Mountains.
The story of human history in Canyonlands is less compelling than the geologic record, with two notable exceptions.
First, there is the tale of the initial Colorado River explorer, John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran who mapped the Colorado from a small dory at a time when no pioneer knew what lay around the next bend. While passing what is now Canyonlands, in 1869, he wrote, “We glide along through a strange, weird, grand region. The landscape everywhere, away from the river, is of rock.” Below the confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers, the combined force of the water begins a 14-mile rush and tumble through the rapids of Cataract Canyon, one of the most dramatic river rafting adventures available. As the only water source in the area, the river attracts many forms of wildlife. Views of wildlife are appreciated by the rafters who make this dramatic descent each season, following the wake of Powell.
The second appealing human presence here is the scratchings of the Anasazi Indians at Newspaper Rock State Park along the southern entrance to Canyonlands Park. The road into Newspaper Rock is one of the most engaging drives in Utah. You pass through a narrow verdant valley with towering sandstone walls, which resembles a desert version of Yosemite Valley. Wildflowers are abundant in this congenial, wooded setting.
It is easy to understand how a large population of Anasazi Indians (the word is Navajo and means “the ancient ones”) could have lived here. Their extensive petroglyphs are scratched through the “desert varnish,” a durable black oxide of iron and manganese on the rock. It is intriguing to study and speculate on the meaning of the hundreds of petroglyphs remaining on Newspaper Rock. The deer, mountain sheep, and sun signs are fairly obvious, but other, partly human figures, are more mysterious. The motives of the carvers are not well understood. Were they doodlers or did the figures have an intensely religious meaning, to name just two possibilities?
Capitol Reef is the next of the great national parks of Utah. To the Navajos the terrain was “the land of the sleeping rainbow.”
To pioneers and prospectors proceeding west and thinking nautically, the massive cliffs were like a reef, a ridge of rocks forming a barrier. For Mormon farmers of the 1880s, the fertile and sheltered valley, dependably watered by the Fremont River, was “Utah’s Eden,” a place where they could homestead and plant more than 2,500 fruit trees. They called the settlement Fruita. To early travelers, who favored identifying landmarks with fanciful names, one of the round, “petrified” sand dunes, amounting to a sandstone dome, looked like the capitol building in Washington, D.C. All these elements contributed to the creation of a national monument, called Capitol Reef, in 1937. In 1971 the area’s status was elevated to national park. Currently, the park covers 378 square miles of geologic marvels.
The surprise to most visitors at Capitol Reef is that it is so verdant. Entering from the east, you pick up the Fremont River after crossing a hundred miles of parched desert. Eventually the Fremont River, a year-around water source, cuts through a silted valley filled with water-loving cottonwood trees. In the 1960s the last farmers departed. Today the Park Service hires fruit tree managers to tend the orchards and invites visitors to harvest the fruit for a nominal fee.
Be sure to see the largest sandstone dome, called Capitol Dome, and then take the drive south along the Waterpocket Fold to see the special geologic features of the park.
Scenic Byway Highway 12 through Escalante
Besides the great national parks themselves, the scenic drive between is a subject unto itself, especially Scenic Byway 12, along 124 miles of Highway 12, mainly between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef National Parks.
Consider this drive with a focus on the town of Escalante. The road is a designated National Scenic Byway, with many appealing red rock close-ups of Navajo sandstone rock as well as sweeping geology-rich vistas of the “staircase” of mountain ranges. At some of the frequent roadside scenic turnoffs, you can see around you for 50 miles. Highway 12 skirts the immense Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument, set aside in 1996 during the Bill Clinton presidency. The National Monument’s size is difficult to grasp, dwarfing the national parks themselves. Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument is about 1.9 million acres. Another 300,000 adjacent acres are further wild national forest lands.
In this immense landscape there are many competent, small-scale, mom-and-pop providers of services for a traveler. For example, you could base yourself in Escalante for a few days and explore the countryside. For a one-of-a-kind lodging, consider staying at Mark Gudenas’s Shooting Star Drive In, where you bunk in classic Airstream trailers, complete with outdoor barbecue decks, and spend the evening at a re-created drive-in watching classic movies from the 1940s-1960s while seated in vintage convertibles.
You could devote several days in Escalante to various outings. For the first day, consider a horseback ride with local wrangler Jamie Barnson and his son Cash to a high meadow area, called The Gap. You climb the mountain on horseback through ponderosa pine and aspen forests and emerge in a high meadow with spectacular views in all directions. On another day, you might rent local resident Dale Henrie’s jeep and do some nearby off-roading with his hand-drawn GPS-enabled maps. On a third day in Escalante, you might walk the Escalante Petrified Forest State Park’s one-mile loop trail to enjoy compelling vistas and observe the extensive petrified wood strewn along the path.
The small town of Escalante, founded in 1867 by Mormon pioneers and now home to 800 people, also hosts the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center, where a traveler can get information from all the various government entities managing the region, such as the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management. In town, Escalante Outfitters offers a range of services. They have a gourmet restaurant specializing in sourdough crust pizzas with Utah-ingredient toppings, such as goat cheese and smoked trout. Escalante Outfitters can guide you on their own fly-fishing trips for catch-and-release trout, especially the native Colorado cutthroat. They also host natural history outings and emphasize “quiet use” encounters with the landscape, where a walk rather than an ATV is the encouraged mode. Outings from Escalante often proceed to the high meadow country of the 11,000-foot Aquarius Plateau, the highest forested plateau in North America. Escalante Outfitters can also book you with other local outfitters offering further options, such as horseback riding daytrips or multi-day pack trips, with some using goats as the beast of burden.
Bryce Canyon National Park, established in 1928, enshrines masterpieces of erosive scenery. The pink cliffs, colored by iron and other minerals in the limestone, lure visitors from all over the world.
The main features to see are the huge amphitheaters at the north end of the park. Try and view the amphitheaters from different vantage points, such as the Bryce Point, Inspiration Point, and Sunset Point overlooks. The view not to miss is from Bryce Point.
The afternoon perspective, from an hour to two hours before sunset, is spectacular, as is the dawn view, especially from Bryce Point. The early morning light creeps slowly down the steeply vertical columns.
If you have more time, a central road in the park makes the famous vistas easily accessible. From the southernmost vista you can see for 90 miles.
The rock of Bryce is younger than the rock of other national parks in Utah. Youth to the geologist is an unimaginable span to the layman. About 60 million years ago sea-level basins covered the Bryce area. This body of water, which geologists call Lake Flagstaff, changed in size and shape over time, sometimes forming a single lake and sometimes several. Rivers and streams carried sediment into Lake Flagstaff. The sediment varied from fine-grained clay to gravel and consisted of diverse minerals. The deposits of pink stone were originally about 2,000 feet thick, but they have eroded now to 800-1,300 feet thick. Today you can see the deposited layers, plus the older deposits below them, in the cliffs of Bryce.
The Paiute word for Bryce expressed the appearance accurately. The Paiutes imagined Bryce as “red rocks standing like men in a bowl-shaped canyon.” Mormon cattle rancher Ebenezer Bryce gave his name to the place, but his only surviving comment about the region is that it was “a hell of a place to lose a cow.”
Union Pacific Railroad was the original park concessionaire, building cabins and a lodge with a plan to bring patrons in by a spur rail line. Forever Resorts is the current park concessionaire.
One special Park Service ranger talk to experience is the star gazing discussion, given at night. Bryce Canyon is a particularly good place to enjoy stargazing because of the altitude, clear skies, and lack of city lights, which obscure the night sky in more urban locations.
Ruby’s is a multi-faceted and historic operator of services at the north edge of the park. Ruby’s offers all services, such as lodging, dining, horseback riding, camping (including in teepees), RVing, and even entertainment (their nightly cowboy-music-with-dinner performance at the Ebenezer Barn & Grill). The word Barn rather than Bar is a humorous nod to an historic fact. Cattle rancher Ebenezer Bryce owned this land before Bryce Canyon became a National Park. Ruby’s Best Western Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel is the most modern facility in the area.
Every viewpoint along the Bryce Canyon park road offers lovely vistas. Close to the north entrance, as mentioned, one good option for dawn viewing of the parade of sunrise light creeping along the rock is at Bryce Point. The Point also presents a good example of a bristlecone pine tree, clearly marked for identification. The Bristlecones are the oldest living things on earth, capable to surviving 4,000-5,000 years. (The actual oldest bristlecone pine trees are in the White Mountains of California, east from Bishop.)
For an appealing half-mile walk along the rim, consider a stroll from Sunrise Point to Sunset Point. The Navajo Loop Trail at Sunset Point is a popular place for a steep descent into the rock formations. Hikers need to realize that they are above 7,000 feet altitude, so it is wise to take it easy for the first day or so. Every step down will later require a step up. Consider doing a hike early in the day before the sun becomes intense. Be sure to carry plenty of water.
Sunset views are particularly lovely at Fairyland Point and Paria View.
Cedar City as a Base of Exploration
Cedar City and St. George are the two substantial cities in this southwest region of Utah. Cedar City has a fly-in airport, but most visitors tend to fly into Las Vegas, to the west, and rent a car for the drive east to the national parks area, especially if they are concentrating just on Zion and Bryce. Salt Lake would be closer for those who want to start at Arches. A scheduled shuttle runs from the Las Vegas airport to St. George, where cars can be rented. A local shuttle can take you from St. George to Cedar City, which also has a regional airport.
Cedar City is known for its cultural assets, such as the Frontier Homestead State Park, which presents the Mormon pioneering heritage. Cedar City’s Utah Shakespeare Festival offers an eight-play season each June-September. Three of the selections are from Shakespeare. There is one musical. The other four plays are classic plays or theatrical adaptations, ranging from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. A festive pre-performance Green Show draws a family crowd, outdoors and adjacent to the theatre. Cedar City is conveniently near the two great parks, Zion and Bryce Canyon, making it a plausible base for exploring on day trips.
Zion is the last of Utah’s glorious national parks in this survey, although the first of the state’s national parks to be created. Zion is also the most popular of these parks, readily accessible with a drive from Las Vegas. The park attracts some 3 million visitors per year.
Allow a day minimum to explore the wonders of Zion, which was declared a national park in 1918. Zion has a shuttle bus, from April to November, for travel within the southern area of the park, allowing you to hop on and hop off at determined points. Private cars are not allowed during the shuttle months. Without cars, but with dependable shuttles arriving every 10 minutes, the visitor experience is superior, due to the quiet and absence of congestion. The park is about an hour’s drive from Cedar City.
There is one road in and out of the southern part of the park. Park your car at the Visitor Center or in the small town of Springfield at the southern entrance and catch the shuttle into the park. Stop at the Visitor Center for an introduction. Then proceed to the first shuttle stop, the Zion Human History Museum, for your initial stunning views as well as an orientation to the early Indian and Mormon pioneer legacy. Approximately 10,000 years of human habitation have been documented in the park, starting with paleo-Indians hunting woolly mammoths. The view from behind the Human History Museum is a taste of numerous visual treats to come. Names for the landforms, such as West Temple and Altar of Sacrifice, suggest the biblical passion that animated the early Mormon pioneers as they viewed the landscape. The word Zion itself suggests that the terrain possesses a heavenly and otherworldly beauty.
One good strategy for exploring the park is to take the shuttle all the way to the end of the road at Temple of Sinawa. Enjoy the views there and then work your way back, pausing at each shuttle stop to enjoy the landscape. Gradually, make your way south to the shuttle stop at Zion Lodge, a good place to pause for lunch. In warm weather, get an early morning start to hike in the canyon before noon, by which time the heat and sun can be formidable. In Zion you are at about 4,000 feet, as opposed to 8,000 feet at Bryce, so the temperature will be higher. You are also at the bottom of the canyon looking up at the walls. In Bryce you are at the top of the ridge looking down into an amphitheater of landform features.
Here are the highlights to savor at the named shuttle stops:
At Temple of Sinawava there are stunning views of the red rock walls arising on both sides of the Virgin River. A paved path leads a mile up the canyon and then ends, allowing you to proceed by walking in the river itself. This area is called The Narrows and is one of the most popular hikes in the park.
At Big Bend, the purpose of the stop is the view alone. There are no trails. The view is of the Great White Throne, an imposing white monolith, one of the iconic visual elements of the park.
Weeping Rock is one of the most popular and fascinating stops because of all the flora and fauna that flourish when abundant water is present. In a compact space you can see a range of the 900 plants found in the park. Rain percolates down through the red Navajo sandstone, but then may hit an impervious layer of shale. When that happens, as at Weeping Rock, the water moves sideways and oozes out of the canyon wall. The dripping wall has a multicolored beauty and hosts such water-loving plants as maidenhair fern. Along the steep, but short trail up to weeping rock, you can pause at the trail signs and learn to identify the plants, such as the boxelder tree. Wildflowers are numerous, one of which is the Colorado columbine. Birdlife is abundant, from robins to black-chinned hummingbirds.
The Grotto is a pleasing stop because the river valley widens to host a cottonwood forest. You can walk out to the river and stand on a bridge, giving you a perspective above the water. The Grotto is a starting point for a strenuous but popular hike to a high point known as Angels Landing.
At Zion Lodge there is a hike to the Emerald Pools, which starts with a bridge across the Virgin River, offering another pleasing view of the river, a wide spot in the valley, and lovely cottonwood trees. An enormous cottonwood on the lawn in front of Zion Lodge shows just how large these trees can grow when they receive optimal water. Zion Lodge provides a full spectrum of services, such as lodging, dining, and horseback rides. If you stay at Zion Lodge, you will receive a permit allowing you to drive your car into this central park position and park it there during your stay. After an ambitious morning of scenic viewing and hiking, it is possible to kick back in the upstairs air-con lounge at with a chilled glass of hand-crafted pale ale. Because this is Utah, you must order food with your drink, but chips and salsa will suffice to satisfy the legal requirements.
If looking for an ideal place to witness the setting sun on the red rocks in Zion, consider Kolob Canyon, a remote wilderness area in the northwest region of the park. Kolob Canyon has its own entrance road. In the final hour before sunset, this canyon is aglow as the sun lights up the red Navajo sandstone into vibrant rust reds. Kolob Canyon has some of the reddest rocks in the park, due to the high concentration of iron oxide. Drive to the end of the road to enjoy the most compelling viewpoint. This road in Zion always allows private cars. Kolob Canyon immerses you in a wilderness terrain with relatively little human presence. About 80 percent of Zion is officially classified as wilderness. For solitude and contemplation, far from the maddening crowd, Kolob Canyon is outstanding. Though Zion is the seventh most-visited national park in the U.S., only between 6 to 8 percent of those visitors get to Kolob Canyon.
Not all the attractions of the Zion area are within the park. One popular but strenuous hike nearby is the Kanarra Creek Falls hike up a “slot” canyon. Slot is the term used to describe the narrow and twisting red-rock canyons that have been carved, over time, by the flow of streams. This hike takes you through knee-deep water as you scramble over rocks and walk up the stream or adjacent trails. One waterfall can be passed only if you climb up a log ladder. For the physically fit, this slot canyon hike offers exceptional aesthetic value as the light filters through the rock and tree landscape.
If you have an opportunity to make a grand tour of the national parks of southern Utah, imposing views of erosive desert beauty will linger in your memory.
If You Go …
The official park service Websites are excellent sources to begin your planning.
At Escalante, one of the main organizers of lodging and activities is the Shooting Star Drive In