A trip to Salt Lake City is hardly complete without a visit to Temple Square. Well cared for gardens, visitors centers, the Tabernacle, Assembly Hall and of course the Salt lake Temple are all part of this walled block. It is possible to walk the grounds, tour the visitors centers, listen to the Tabernacle Organ recitals, watch the Mormon Tabernacle Choir during their early morning Sunday broadcast, hear free concerts on Friday and Saturday, and of course talk to the ubiquitous missionaries.
Zion stood out for me among the Utah National Parks as being much greener, even in places lush. Yes, the characteristic red sandstone rocks and cliffs surround you, but here they are offset by the greenery of the river valley. You can hike across bare rock, but you can also stroll beside running water and duck beneath waterfalls. You can view the park’s stunning landscapes from a high vantage point, after a strenuous hike to Angel’s Landing, or through the window of the shuttle bus that circles the park (although the latter would be a real shame, given the easiness of some of the trails). You can spend weeks here, or just a few hours ...
We spent the best part of a day touring the park. We did two of the easier trails – the one just over a mile to the Lower Emerald Pool, and another along the Virgin River at the far end of the scenic drive, near the spot known as the Temple of Sinawava. The latter is handicap-accessible and about 1.5 miles long. I’ve read that the Lower Emerald Pool trail is very popular and prone to over-crowding but back in 1993 we didn’t find it so – I only recall meeting a few other people there. And it’s certainly a very pretty walk, and one that nearly everyone could manage to do, so if you only plan to do one walk I would recommend this one.
Nowadays private vehicles are not allowed to tour the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive from April to October, so you need to take the shuttle to the various trailheads and other sights. When we visited this was not the case and we were able to tour in our hired car, but even then it was rather crowded at some of the prettiest spots and on the easiest trails, so the introduction of the shuttle is a great idea in my view.
Apart from walking and hiking, activities here include horse riding and the usual comprehensive National Park Service programme of ranger talks and guided walks. We just spent a day here, but if you want to stay longer you can camp in one of three campgrounds (two in Zion Canyon itself, the other about an hour’s drive away on the Kolob Terrace Road) or stay at the Zion Lodge.
If you have a camera with you, a stop here is a must – likewise if you enjoy hiking or off-highway vehicle riding, or simply want to play about in the sand! The colours are amazing, but perhaps less surprising when you consider the colours of the rock formations all over this spectacular state – red rocks make red sand. But whatever their origins, these dunes really capture the eye – and the lens! Furthermore, the rich hues of the sand are contrasted by the more sombre surroundings of pine-covered hills, making them all the more dramatic.
This is a unique geologic feature, the only major sand dune field on the Colorado Plateau. There is a particular reason for its presence in this spot. To create sand dunes, you need sand (obviously!) and high winds, strong enough to carry the grains of sand. Near here, the Moquith and Moccasin mountains are separated by a notch, through which the wind is funnelled. This narrowing of its path causes the velocity of the wind to increase, and as it passes it picks up grains of the eroding sandstone from which these mountains are formed. Once through the notch and into the wide open valley beyond, the wind speed drops, the grains of sand can no longer be supported, and they are deposited here, heaping up into these colourful dunes. This process has been going on for thousands of years – these dunes are estimated to be between 10,000 and 15,000 years old.
There is a nature trail here, and we enjoyed following the boardwalk and taking photos, but if you want to stay for a longer visit you could camp here (there are 22 units) and spend more time hiking.
The first thing to say is that we didn’t do Bryce Canyon justice. We allowed too little time, and what time we had was made even shorter when we arrived in the middle of such a heavy storm that we were forced to take shelter in the car. In the end we could only drive some distance along the road that follows the rim, stopping here and there for photos and for a few short walks. These included the popular (too popular!) walk between Sunrise and Sunset Points, although not at the right time of day to see either of their namesake events.
Yet even in such a short time, what we saw was spectacular. This is no regular canyon, awesome though these can be. In fact, despite the name, this is not strictly speaking a canyon, since it was carved not by a river but by the work of snow and ice. The central area of the park is described as an amphitheatre, which gives an indication of its shape as well as providing an appropriate sense of drama. The valley floor is full of so-called “hoodoos”, spires, formed by ice and rainwater wearing away the weak limestone that makes up the Claron Formation. These have taken on an almost Fairyland-like appearance, twisting their way up from the depths below to peer over the rim at the astounded visitor. What must the first white explorers in this region have felt, when they came across these formations for the first time?
Apparently on a clear day the visibility at Bryce Canyon National Park often exceeds 100 miles – on our visit it was barely a mile I think, maybe less. So perhaps it’s not surprising that, of all the Utah national parks, this is the one to which I most want to return ...
We stayed overnight in Escalante on our route from Capitol Reef to Bryce Canyon, and it appeared to us like a town that time forgot – a piece of small-town 50s America just as we know it from old films. From the “Mom & Pop” motel where we stayed (the Quiet Falls, which appears to be still there) to the Frosty Shop ice-cream parlour to the one café (the Golden Circle), the whole town felt like a film-set. There’s nothing much to do here, unless you share our fascination with 1950s Americana and welcome the opportunity to take a few different photos. Stroll down to the Frosty Shop and enjoy a cone in the shade of the nearby pines; peer into the dusty windows of the few shops on Main Street; dine on burger and chips at the Golden Circle – that’s about the sum of the fun to be had here, but fun it is, for an hour or two.
Of course the town may have changed since our visit in 1993, but somehow I doubt it. According to Wikipedia Escalante has a population of “818 people, 304 households, and 220 families”, so it must still be a pretty sleepy place. One thing that has changed though is the relatively recent popularity of nearby Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument. If this was there when we visited (and the landscape must have been, even if it weren’t then a national monument), somehow it managed to escape our attention totally, and its presence in the vicinity had not at that stage at least made much impact on Escalante itself in terms of tourist infrastructure.
Check out the website below for information on lots of the attractions in this area, including Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument. Oh, and unless things have changed a lot since our visit don’t be fooled, as we were, by the Coors neon sign in the window of the Golden Circle – this is dry Mormon country and you won’t be able to wash that tasty burger down with anything stronger than non-alcoholic beer!
This is a partially excavated ancient Indian village in the heart of Utah's canyon country. It was once one of the largest Anasazi communities west of the Colorado River, possibly housing as many as 200 people. It is believed to have been occupied from A.D. 1050 to 1200. The village remains largely unexcavated, but many artefacts have been uncovered and are on display in the little museum, which I gather has been updated since our visit. As always with such sites, it takes a little imagination while exploring to visualise the village as it once would have been, but you are greatly helped by the reconstructed six-room dwelling (see photo) which you can go inside.
The people who lived here would have been farmers, growing corn, beans and squash in plots near the village. In the surrounding mountains and canyons they would have hunted deer and desert bighorn sheep, and gathered seeds, nuts and berries.
Around A.D. 1200 the inhabitants left, never to return. It is unclear why they went – outgrowing their resources or trouble with neighbouring tribes perhaps. Now, hundreds of years later, it is well worth a stop here if passing on your way between the various National Parks and other scenic attractions, if only to provide a human dimension to the story of the shaping of this landscape.
There’s a fee of $5 per person, and picnicking areas and rest rooms available, but no camping or overnight stays.
This is one of the less well-known and less visited of Utah’s National Parks, it seems. Indeed, it has only been a national park since 1971, and access by standard motor vehicles only possible since the construction of Highway 24 just nine years before that.
The main geological feature here is the Waterpocket Fold, a nearly 100-mile long warp in the earth's crust. This is a “monocline”, a good description of which can be found on the National Park Service website:
“A monocline is a "step-up" in the rock layers. The rock layers on the west side of the Waterpocket Fold have been lifted more than 7000 feet higher than the layers on the east. Major folds are almost always associated with underlying faults. The Waterpocket Fold formed between 50 and 70 million years ago when a major mountain building event in western North America ... reactivated an ancient buried fault. When the fault moved, the overlying rock layers were draped above the fault and formed a monocline. More recent uplift of the entire Colorado Plateau and the resulting erosion has exposed this fold at the surface only within the last 15 to 20 million years.”
Whatever your interest in geology, the scenery here is as dramatic as in many other parts of the state, and the park relatively quiet compare with others. There is also a lot of human interest here. A pioneer community known as Fruita once stood here, and its inhabitants farmed in the narrow valley of the Fremont River. Their orchards still remain, offering shade and greenery in what is otherwise mainly a desert environment. Visitors are allowed to stroll in the orchards and pick fruit when it is ripe, for which a fee is charged according to weight. But we were here in June, much too early in the season to enjoy these delights. However another memento of the Fruita community appealed to me a lot – the little school-house (photo 1). This dates back to the end of the nineteenth century, although the roof is an early twentieth century replacement for the flat mud one that originally sheltered the pupils. You can’t go into the school-house but can peer through the windows; it is furnished as it would have been about 100 years ago and it is easy to imagine it full of children at their lessons. There is a lovely description of life at the school, again, on the National Park website:
” The first desks were homemade, constructed of pine, and seated two students each. These were sometimes used to quiet unruly students. The teacher would seat a troublesome boy with a girl, and the resulting blow to his ego would often bring him under control. Teachers taught the "three-Rs" to the eight grades at the one-room school. If a teacher felt qualified and had enough textbooks, other subjects such as geography, were added. Students were full of pranks. To delay the start of class, they often hid the teacher's alarm clock in the woodpile. Lanterns used during night meetings were stored in the school, and a few enterprising students found that dropping a small piece of calcium carbide, taken from a lantern, into an inkwell produced a reaction that would cause the ink to overflow. If the inkwell was tightly capped, it would explode and spatter ink all over the room.”
Elsewhere in the park you can visit a typical farmhouse from that period, the Gifford Homestead, but despite it being only a short distance from the picnic area where we enjoyed our lunch (and spotted two deer – see photo 2), we seem to have missed this (although it’s possible that it wasn’t open to the public back in 1993).
As if Utah’s National Parks weren’t packed enough with stunning vistas, here’s another one for you, this time in a State Park.
Dead Horse Point is a promontory of stone which juts out into a deep gorge carved by the Colorado River. As you stand here, the river is two thousand feet below you, winding its way through the craggy rocks and cliffs of this desolate landscape. From the overlook, you have a perfect geology lesson set out before you. The erosion of this canyon has taken approximately 150 million years, caused by the river slicing down into the earth's crust as land is forced upward. These powerful forces are still at work here, imperceptibly carving out the dramatically precipitous bluffs.
This is desert country, where animals must struggle to survive and plants grow very slowly. Trees just 15 feet tall may be hundreds of years old. You’re unlikely to see much in the way of wildlife apart from lizards and possibly snakes. But the barren landscape is not without beauty as well as grandeur, and anyone who is captivated by such awe-inspiring vistas will want to linger here a while.
There is an interesting story attached to the name of Dead Horse Point. In the past mustang herds were allowed to run wild on these mesas. When cowboys wanted to catch some to break them for their own use or for sale they would drive them towards this point which acted as a natural corral, which the cowboys would fence off across its narrowest point, just 30 yards across. They would rope the best-looking ones, open the fence and leave the rest to find their own way off the point back to their herds. On one occasion it is said that despite the fence being opened a group of horses failed to return to the open range and remained on the Point. There they died of thirst within sight of the Colorado River, 2,000 feet below. I can’t help wondering if perhaps the cowboys had forgotten to open the fence but were ashamed to admit to it, but I guess we’ll never know, and it may be just a legend in any case.
Whatever the truth about the name, this small State Park is certainly worth a diversion. When we came there was not lot to see here apart from the view and a short trail along the rim, but that alone justified the trip. Since then a small Visitor Centre has been added and a ranger programme of walks and talks is available (check the website below for details). You can also camp here – the fee is $20 per tent – and there is a mountain bike trail. The entrance fee is $10 per car, regardless of the number of occupants.
This was probably my favourite of the National Parks we visited in Utah, although Zion ran it a close second and Bryce Canyon might have been a competitor had we seen it in better weather! The ability of the forces of nature (wind, rain, ice) to create such spectacular formations is truly awe-inspiring.
Arches National Park contains the world's largest concentration of natural stone arches - over 2,000 of them! You can see a fair number of them even without leaving your car, on the 36 mile round-trip paved road, but that would be a shame. You only need to take short walks to get up close and personal with some of the arches, and if you have the time and inclination for longer hikes you will see many more.
The park is divided into several sections. The Windows section makes an ideal focus for your visit if you have limited time and want to see as much as possible – this is where we spent much of our one day in the park. There are easy walks from parking areas to several of the park’s most notable features, including the Windows Arches (photo 2), Turret Arch (photo 1) and Double Arch. All of these can be seen on an easy one mile round walk from the Windows trailhead. Near the turning for this is Balanced Rock (photo 3), an eye-catching formation 128 feet high, with a huge balanced rock rising 55 feet above its base.
The other main section that is easy to visit and attracts plenty of visitors is the so-called Devil’s Garden, with an easy trail to Landscape Arch and a longer more strenuous one that will take you on a loop past several more arches, massive sandstone fins and other scenic features. Unfortunately we ran out of time to do this area justice, but hopefully one day will return ...
I have written a little more about the park, including the creation of its arches and the ones we were able to see on our visit, on a small separate page.
Canyonlands National Park is divided by the Green and Colorado Rivers into two distinct and geographically separate areas – this tip is about the Island in the Sky District while my previous tip is about the other part, Needles.
The Island in the Sky area of the park gets its name from the large mesa which towers over 1,000 feet above the surrounding landscape. It offers a scenic drive along the top of the mesa with many overlooks for stunning views of this bleak but awesome scenery. Perhaps the most spectacular of these is Grand View Point, as the name suggests. This is at the far end of the drive and is definitely worth driving the whole length to reach. An easy trail (2 miles round trip) leads out to the very end of the Island in the Sky mesa – this photo was taken from the trail, if I remember rightly.
If you want to stay longer there are several other short trails (the shortest just half a mile) and a number of longer ones. The latter tend to be strenuous and involve a considerable change in elevation – not for me, I’m afraid. But if you want to get off the beaten path and experience some classic western scenery, this could be the park for you.
Canyonlands National Park is divided by the Green and Colorado Rivers into two distinct and geographically separate areas – this tip is about the Needles District while my next tip is about the other part, Island in the Sky.
The Needles District forms the southeast corner of Canyonlands. The dramatic rock formations here, like the canyons and gorges of Island in the Sky, are the result of millions of years of erosion on a landscape of sedimentary rock. Rivers carved their way through, wind and rain attacked the outcrops, ice formed in cracks and widened them. Eventually these forces created the awe-inspiring landscape we see today, and in particular the spires of Cedar Mesa Sandstone that dominate the area and gave the Park its name. I found the way in which these rise in places from fairly green, lush surroundings to be particularly striking, and reminiscent of the scenery in many a Western. You can easily imagine cowboys herding cattle past these stark outcrops.
There are several short trails here, although some involve a bit of clambering or rough surfaces. Sights en route include pictographs and an ancient granary, as well as plenty of wonderful scenery – see website linked below for more information. We however spent only a little time here and contented ourselves with what could be seen from the road and from a very pleasant picnic spot near Pothole Point. If you want to stay longer there is a campground here – see website below for more information.
The view of the San Juan River here at Goosenecks State Park is like a geology lesson come to life. Remember when your teacher described to you how a river in its “old age” developed meandering curves? Well, here the river meanders back and forth in a fairly extreme manner, and flows for more than five miles while progressing only one linear mile toward the Colorado River and Lake Powell. What is more, it does so not over a flat terrain but instead has carved a deep sinuous gorge for itself through layers of shale and limestone. The river bed lies far below you and the sides of the gorge drop in steep steps, disappearing out of sight.
The park is undeveloped, with few facilities. There are no visitor centres, fancy camp grounds, well-laid trails etc. Come here as we did simply for the amazing view from its single viewpoint, or come prepared to rough it, with primitive camping in desert conditions. Entrance is free, as is camping.
This isn’t the easiest place to photograph, or so it seems from the one picture I took! So I have included a copyright-free image from Wiki Commons.
At I290 feet in height and spanning 275 feet, Rainbow Bridge is the world's largest known natural bridge, and since the flooding of Glen Canyon which created Lake Powell is only accessible by boat, or by backpacking. Boat tours can be taken from Wahweap Marina at the southern end of the lake near Page, Arizona, although Rainbow Bridge itself, like most of the lake, is in Utah. Of course if you are holidaying on the lake in a rented houseboat or your own boat, you can visit the bridge independently, but that option wasn’t open to us. Backpackers need a permit from the Navajo Nation – see website below for details.
Assuming that like most visitors you come by boat, you will still need to be willing to walk a bit, as the Bridge cannot be seen from the water. Boats dock in Forbidding Canyon, from where a fairly easy trail leads about 1.25 miles to the bridge. This distance can vary, depending on water levels in the lake, but you always need to be prepared, and capable, of walking some distance at least if you’re to see the bridge. The trail is not accessible to wheelchairs and has some small ascents and descents.
Natural bridges are rarer than arches, and differ from them in that they form when a watercourse breaks through rock, rather than by erosion. It is hard to imagine in this dry desert landscape, but fast flowing rivers once carved these canyons. One of these, here in Bridge Canyon, gradually wore through a spur of sandstone that was blocking its path, creating a natural bridge over the water. The river has almost dried up, and no longer has such power, but the Bridge remains.
Neighbouring American Indian tribes believe the Bridge is a sacred religious site, as they have done for centuries, so we are asked to visit “in a spirit that honours and respects the cultures to whom it is sacred”. They come to Rainbow Bridge to pray and make offerings near and under its lofty span. Special prayers are said before passing beneath the Bridge: neglect to say appropriate prayers might bring misfortune or hardship. Visitors are requested to view it from the viewing area rather than walking up to or under it.
Blow up the photo to get a sense of the scale - spot the tiny people on the left!
Lake Powell sits partly in Arizona but mainly in Utah. It is an artificial body of water, a reservoir created when the Glen Canyon Dam was constructed in the early 1960s. It holds 24,322,000 acre feet (30 km³) of water when full, and has a maximum length of 186 miles (299 kilometres) and is 25 miles (40 kilometres) wide at its widest point. More big numbers – it has a surface area of 254 square miles (658 square kilometres), an average depth of 132 feet (40 metres) and a maximum depth of 560 feet (170 metres). And for me, the most amazing number of all - Lake Powell has more than 2,000 miles of shoreline, more than the entire west coast of the United States.
Inevitably the flooding of such a large and beautiful canyon caused much controversy, although for the present-day visitor the beauty of the lake is such that it is harder to mourn the lost beauty of the former landscape. The blue of the water makes a vivid contrast with the red rock walls of the canyon, which for the most part dip straight into the lake with no shoreline to separate the two. The water is often ringed by a paler line of rock, almost like the ring left on a bath when the water drains away, and that is just what this is. Water levels fluctuate according to the amount of snow melting each spring from the surrounding mountains, as well depending on use, and when the level dips lower, paler rock strata are exposed.
The lake has become a very popular spot for recreational boating and many visitors hire houseboats for an extended stay. We were passing nearby on a circuitous route between the North and South Rims of the Grand Canyon, and a long stay wasn’t part of our plans, but luckily for visitors wanting a shorter introduction to the lake’s wonders, boat trips are available. There are various companies organising these, and a number of different options. We chose an afternoon tour that would take us to one of the main sights around the lake, Rainbow Bridge National Monument (see separate tip) as this can only be accessed from the water. Boat trips leave from Wahweap Marina at the southern end of the lake near Page, Arizona. Our tour lasted about five hours, including an hour on shore to walk to and from Rainbow Bridge, but shorter tours of a couple of hours take in several of the tributary canyons such as Antelope and Navajo for a close-up look at the geology of the area. Check out the website below for current prices, dates etc.
Monument Valley is one of those places you are sure you have already been to. This classic shot of the East and West Mittens is part of our shared iconography. But no matter how many photos you have seen, and how many Westerns you have watched with this as the back-drop, nothing quite prepares you for the real thing. The view from the Visitor Centre at Lookout Point is perhaps unsurprisingly, but regrettably, as much as many people see of Monument Valley. It may be stunning, it may epitomise everyone’s image of the American West, but it is only a small part of the whole.
An unpaved but reasonably well-maintained 17 mile road winds through the valley, and it is perfectly possible to drive it in your own car, even if not a 4WD. But we were very conscious of the exemption clause in the insurance cover of our hire car, which would be invalidated if we were to take it off the paved road at any point. So we opted for one of the tours offered by the local Navajo guides. Not being keen on being shepherded round in a crowd, we were pleased to find that we were the only ones on the tour, and our guide, John, was excellent, so we were very pleased with our choice. As well as taking in all the major formations that can be seen from this Valley Drive, he took us off the road to a few others which we wouldn’t have seen on our own. We stopped at one point to visit a traditional Navajo hogan, the home of one of his cousins, which I found very interesting, but the highlight of our afternoon was a stop at a dramatic towering red formation a little way from the main route where John sat on a rock and sang. The sound of the traditional Navajo chant echoing from the cliff above was one of the most memorable moments of our trip.
I have created a small separate page about Monument Valley if you would like to explore more.
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