A smaller version of Bryce, but no less spectacular, Cedar Breaks offers a 3 mile wide, 2500 foot deep rock amphitheater of eroded limestone colored by iron and other minerals. The rim here is 2000 feet higher than Bryce - 10662 feet - and you will feel the altitude stepping out of the car. The lack of Bryce's crowds make this a great experience. Late in the day the colors come out best since the cliffs face towards the west. On the road up from Cedar City, there is a viewpoint to the south which gives a great viewpoint over the Giant Staircase geological featrues found in southern Utah and northern Arizona. One thing to read about it but here you can see the Staircase. There is a small campground and a visitor center with a couple of trails going out along the rim. You get to the Park from the south off UT 20 from Cedar City or from the Brian Head ski resort to the north.
Zion is where Mormons feel heaven exists and this incredible canyon along the North Fork of the Virgin River - up to 2400 feet deep - could certainly fall into the category of Heaven on Earth. This Park deserves a couple of days or more to investigate the canyon via its many trails. Zion is best visited out of season due to high summer temperatures and huge crowds that include this Park, Bryce, Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon on the 'Great Circle'. In September, this is one of the few areas in the US I have been where foreign visitors outnumbered locals. There is a visitor center, a lodge and a couple of popular campgrounds in the Valley and more just outside the Park in the neighboring town of Springdale. See my Zion pages for more trail tips. As the popular Mormon church song goes, "Come to Zion, Come to Zion and within her Walls rejoice!"
$20 per car - From April through October, the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive (a park road off Rt. 9) is accessible by shuttle bus only. Rt. 9, which traverses the park from east to west, is open year-round to private vehicles.
Number Two among Utah's national parks, Bryce is not an actual canyon, but a huge series of rock amphitheaters sprawled out best explored from the Rim Road and the Below-the-Rim trail. The Rim Road - 17 miles long - is perched atop a faeryland of minerally-colored limestone hoodoos with several scenic turn-outs overlooking the various rock circuses. Several trailheads come off the road from which trails descend into the rock towers below. People usually fit a trip to Bryce in with a trip to Zion as well. At Zion, it is the small canyon that concentrates everyone. Here it is the Rim Road, reminiscent of the scene on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Here is where all of those rental campers come to. There is a shuttle that does run along the Rim Road as well. Drive safe and find a trail to escape on.
Our first visit to Utah in 1984 included a visit to Arches National Park. I have been back two times since then and still find it a great place to visit. It is small enough that you can see it in a single day. Much of the beauty of the park can be seen from the car, but it does also include some nice hikes.
Utah's Scenic Byway 12 has achieved National Status as an "All-American Road". It passes through some of the most diverse and beautiful landscapes in the country making Scenic Byway 12 a destination unto itself.
The Road travels for 124 miles from Panguitch in the west to Torrey in the east. You will pass Bryce Canyon NP, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Calf Creek Recreation Area. The road also takes you over Hell's Backbone which is a narrow ridge with steep dropoffs on both sides of the road. You will also drive up Boulder Mountain and through the Dixie National Forest to a 9400 foot elevation. We encountered snow in October on our drive over the mountain. Hwy 12 ends at Hwy 24 nine miles from Capitol Reef NP.
One of the best hikes in Utah, Timp towers high over Provo and is the second-highest peak in the Wasatch Range - 11750 ft/3582 m. The mountain is limestone with horizontal bedding remaining despite the massive upthrust. Two main routes exist up the mountain from the east - Aspen Grove trail 8.3 miles/11 km; 4900 foot elevation gain - and the north - Timpooneke trail 9.1 miles/13 km; 4350 feet of gain.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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).
Stayed for 3 nights. The room was very clean and spacious. Housekeepers were always prompt and did a...more
This is the only campground in Arches National Park. There are 52 site to choose from. Current...more
It's more like a motel that a hotel but it's nice and it's the best place to stay in vicinity of the...more