Breathtaking beauty in Utah’s national parks

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Fyllis Hockman

Driving along a winding, narrow cliff, a 1,300-foot drop on the driver’s side, I clung to my heart, with the rest of me halfway out the passenger-side window.

Hiking on slick rock at seemingly a 90-degree angle, I came to a visual wonder, and understood why so many made the climb.

Gaping at high cliff walls adorned with sharp pinnacles leaping skyward, it looked like the earth had been splashed with multi-hued red dyes, all running together.

Such is life among the five national parks of southern Utah. Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce and Zion share many commonalities, including uncompromising splendor, a history of both the Earth and the country, and a sense of personal sanctuary.

These five mystical worlds have been created over millions of years by the movement of the Earth, water and wind, rain and drought, freezes and thaws and, especially, erosion. Even today, these same elements continue to change the face of the parks. After more than 150 million years, they are still works in progress.

 Arcing arches


Delicate Arch rises above Arches National Park. Visitors can take an arduous uphill hike to reach the 65-foot arch, which is depicted on Utah’s license plate.
Photo courtesy of the Utah Office of Tourism

Aptly named Arches National Park is a collection of some of nature’s most intriguing creations: architectural designs that span space and confound logic, and for which no man-made blueprint was ever drawn. It boasts the largest concentration of naturally occurring arches in the world with more than 900 of the structures.

The trail to Delicate Arch, one of its most famous, is anything but delicate. Arduous is the more apt term for the mostly uphill climb over slick rock. By the time I neared the top, I was prepared to trip the next person heading down who said, “Oh, but it’s worth it.”

Still, after rounding the final obstacle, the only word that emerged with what I was sure was my final breath, was “Wow.” Leaving Delicate Arch, I was able to focus on the beauty of the surroundings. Going up, I could concentrate only on putting one foot in front of the other.

A land of canyons


Bryce Canyon National Park’s myriad rock formations were created by the park’s unique rain and ice patterns.
Photo courtesy of the Utah Office of Tourism

Nearby Canyonlands National Park requires a 4-wheel drive vehicle –- preferably with a driver. At 6,000 feet, the view from the Island in the Sky mesa looks down at cliffs 2,000 feet tall, arising out of a magnificently gouged and painted landscape.

The panorama at Grandview Point is unequaled in terms of sheer expanse, providing a broad view over the entire park, stretching across countless canyons -– and beyond. Indeed, Canyonlands is a series of spectacular views strung across hundreds of miles of remote wilderness. Suffice it to say, “Scenic Overlook” signs are redundant.

The highlight of the park for me was the Shafer Trail. The dirt road, rough in spots, very rough in others, is bordered on one side by perpendicular cliffs; on the other, the afore-mentioned sheer 1,300-foot drop. Riding along the very narrow, bumpy ledge, I found myself leaning far to the right in the hopes of influencing the car further in that direction.

Even so, I managed to appreciate the other-worldly landscape we were passing. Halfway down, the mountain on our right was so high I could barely see its top. On the other side, the drop to the vast valley below was vertigo-inducing.

The drive itself -– in lowest gear -– is slow-going. Bouncing up and down and rocking side to side 2,000 feet above any sane person’s comfort level for four hours, you can lose several pounds without ever leaving the car. A plus, as I saw it.

An arid reef

Although geologic history is stressed in every park, at Capitol Reef, it’s what defines it — ranging from 80 to 270 million years old.

Dana and Milo Breite from Shingle Springs, Calif., were as giddy as two kids in a video game store. “We’ve been collecting rocks and exploring geologic sites together for decades, and this is one of the highlights of all our excursions,” exclaimed Dana.

A stroll along the dry Grand Wash River bed nearby, so narrow in parts you can touch both canyon walls at the same time, evoked old western film images of the lonely cowboy out on the trail. Here cinema meets cinema verite.

This is Butch Cassidy country. He used to ride along this same stream bed (though it had water in it, then) and hide among the cavernous cliffs overhead –- now called, not surprisingly, Cassidy Arch.

Bryce Canyon

A park away, Bryce Canyon is synonymous with hoodoos — phantasmagorical images emerging from weird and wonderful rock formations. There are thousands of the little (and not so little) formations in all shapes, colors and sizes. The park’s unique rain and ice patterns sculpt these fanciful spires of rusted limestone; erosion at its most imaginative. More than geologic oddities, hoodoos cast a magical spell on all who return their stony gaze.

Stan Weintraub of St. Augustine, Fla., claimed he could spend hours in Bryce Canyon National Park just looking at the hoodoos and assigning them different imaginary configurations. “You can write books about what you think you are seeing,” offered Weintraub.

The color-intense view from Aqua Canyon — vivid coppers glowing in ochres and vermillion, vying with slashes of oranges and invading magentas — challenges the most expensive of cameras or cell phones to reproduce it accurately. Just below, sandstone statues of a Pioneer Woman with bustled skirt and Mad Hunter with Hat reign as king and queen over a hoodoo chessboard.

Hiking brings an intimacy with surroundings impossible to experience from an observation ledge. Hikers way below negotiating in, around and through the hoodoo pillars resemble colorful, marching toothpicks.

Riparian Zion

Arriving at Zion reinforces the idea that each park is unique. At the other parks, your line of sight extends out toward the horizon as well as down into the canyons. At Zion, you look straight up —and up — and up. Towering cliffs —- some of the tallest in the world — flank you on either side. You’re now on the canyon floor, looking up at straight, sheer masses of Navajo sandstone unencumbered by frilly outgrowths and hoodoo pillars. They meet the sky at a point that strains both the neck and the imagination.

Water is an anomaly here, in contrast to the harsh drought of the other parks. The soft-running Virgin River, which accompanied me on many of the hikes throughout the park, is responsible for creating the huge rock gorges that encircle the park — and it took only 5 to 16 million years to do so.

At Bryce, riding the shuttle is optional; at Zion, it’s mandatory -– the only way visitors may tour the park. Running at six-minute intervals, it takes you to eight stops, which are simply starting points for further exploration by foot.

Because you’re so close to the canyons, “towering” replaces “expanse” as the word of the day. Viewing options at Zion are more under-looks than overlooks. For those who are afraid of heights, Zion is the park!

The Riverside Trail hike passes through surprisingly lush vegetation to streams where you can cool your feet; skip stones with the kids; picnic or simply sit upon a rock and get lost in the scenery. The Virgin River makes its less-than-virgin run through and over rocks, emitting self-satisfied sounds as a backdrop to the reverie.

If you go

Visitors, depending upon personal preference, can start at Zion and head north for increasingly spectacular views (my choice), or begin at Arches and drive south to save the best for last, as many consider Zion to be. Either way, it is impossible not to be enthralled by the unimaginable replay of expansive beauty and scenic motifs that present themselves in so many different ways from one park to the other.

There are numerous options for accommodations.

The lodge in Bryce Canyon National Park was built in the 1920s. It is designated as a historic landmark, and the décor is reflects the period. There are no TVs on the property or air conditioning, although temperatures rarely get into the 80s. Wifi is available in the lodge.

Cabins are $213 a night, while motel
rooms start at $183. For reservations, see http://brycecanyonforever.com/lodging or call 1-877-386-4383.

Zion National Park has a lodge with hotel rooms and 40 cabins. Hotel rooms are $197 a night and cabins are $200. There are two restaurants onsite. See www.zionlodge.com or call 1-888-297-2757.

Harvest House Bed & Breakfast is located a half mile from the entrance to Zion National Park.  It is run by the daughter of a prominent Boston caterer, and guests can enjoy hearty breakfasts with spectacular views. Rooms range from $130 to $160 a night. For more information, see www.harvesthouse.net or call (435) 772-3880.

None of the parks is near a large airport or urban area, and most are nearly equidistant from Las Vegas’ McCarron International Airport and Salt Lake City International Airport. Bryce Canyon is about a four-hour drive from either airport, while Zion National Park is closer to Las Vegas, about a two-hour and 45-minute drive.

Spirit Airlines offers an overnight, non-stop roundtrip flight from Marshal Baltimore-Washington International Airport to Las Vegas for just $265 in late August, but beware of extra fees, including one for carryon luggage, that can add up with this airline. Daytime flights on American and Frontier Airlines start at about $400.

The lowest roundtrip fare to Salt Lake City in late August is $345 on Frontier Airlines.

For more information, call the Utah Office of Tourism at 1-800-200-1160 or check the website at visitutah.com.

Gaithersburg, Md.-based writer Fyllis Hockman is the wife of the Beacon’s travel writer Victor Block.