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Utah's wonderful national parks
Five magnificant National Parks in southern Utah provide specatcular vistas and adventures galore.
The pleasant challenge I faced was finding words to describe the scenery surrounding me. That pleasant ask awaits everyone who explores the five national parks strung across southern Utah like glimmering jewels on a necklace. Even the most descriptive adjectives pale in comparison to the colors, shapes, and size of the landscape carved out over time by weather, erosion, and movement of the earth’s crust.
Much of this natural splendor may be viewed from the road, and strategically located scenic overlooks – a term amid such all-encompassing beauty that becomes redundant. People in their car or hopping aboard an in-park shuttle bus have more dramatic scenery to see, photograph, and “oooh” and “aah” over.
Those with the time, interest, and energy may explore in more depth by various conveyances. These include hiking and horseback riding, whitewater rafting and kayaking, biking, and jet boating.
Southern Utah’s National Parks present a Technicolor wonderland.
My first impression after arriving in the setting understood its description as red rock country. While countless hues of red are the predominant color, the landscape I painted with splashes of pale gray, tan, chocolate, and the “desert varnish” that covers some rock faces with a shiny black façade.
Along with color variations, each park envelopes the visitor in a unique environment, as dramatic as it is different in ways from the others. Following roughly a southeasterly route, the impatient traveler probably could maintain a park-a-day schedule -- but why would he? A minimum of two days at each one provides time to linger at the overlooks, perhaps enjoy a picnic by a cooling stream, and take strolls to view the astounding geologic formations up close.
Arches National Park offers much more than its name implies.
While aptly named Arches National Park is the second smallest of the five, it contains the greatest concentration of natural stone arches in the world -- some 900 that measure at least three feet in diameter. The varied landscape also boasts cliffs, deep canyons, pinnacles and plateaus, and a rainbow of colorful rocks everywhere.
But arches are the main attraction. Graceful Delicate Arch is the best-known span in the park. Landscape Arch, the longest known rock span, would stretch the length of a football field. Other natural wonders with man-given names include the rock skyscrapers of Park Avenue, Devil’s Garden, and the Windows, four large openings that may be viewed from the road.
Canyonlands is the largest of five National Parks in southern Utah.
While only a short drive from Arches, Canyonlands National Park – the largest of the five – presents a very different façade. Here is quintessential western canyon country of towering buttes and mesas, colorful cliffs, and deep canyons that have been carved over time by the rushing Green and Colorado Rivers.
Given its size (almost half as large as Rhode Island), Canyonlands consists of three separate districts named for its distinctive landscape. Island in the Sky is a towering wedge-shaped land island that points toward the confluence of the two rivers. The view from the top stretches across countless canyons to the horizon 100 miles away.
The Needles District is named for a maze of red- and white-banded pinnacles that resemble a fairyland. Adding to the dramatic tableau is a jumble of rock spires, gorges, and fins. Names of distinctive formations – like Elephant Hill, Angel Arch, and Paul Bunyan’s Potty – are as colorful as they are descriptive.
The labyrinth of colorful canyons and pillars of the Maze District, while magnificent, make it one of the most remote and forbidding places in the country. Only the most intrepid travelers venture there, by foot or by four-wheel-drive vehicle.
Capitol Reef National Park combines beauty and history.
Explorers in the West applied the name “reef” to barriers they encountered, and the first look at white, rounded domes capping an eroded layer of sandstone explains where Capitol Reef National Park got its name. A 90-mile-long fold dominates its terrain in the earth’s crust hindered early east-west travel. Bare-boulder “slickrock” cliffs, towering domes, and canyons that in places narrow to not much more than shoulder-width complete the setting.
Much of the park’s scenery is visible during the 10-mile drive through its central section. Walking on the level Pioneer Trail, which follows an old wagon route, I spotted the names of pioneers and prospectors scratched on the vertical side walls, along with dates as early as 1871 when they passed that way.
I also found intriguing graceful Cassidy Arch on a wall of the Grand Wash, one of the ubiquitous narrow canyons that are subject to dangerous flooding from sudden rainstorms miles away. The outlaw Butch Cassidy, rode and robbed banks and trains in these parts in the 1800s. He hid on occasion in the Grand Wash.
Despite – or possibly because of – the different experiences they offer visitors, Bryce and Zion National Parks are many people’s favorites. At Bryce, as in other parks, the most dramatic views combine overlooks into canyons with panoramic vistas to the distant horizon. At Zion, you look up, up – and up.
Hoodoos highlight Bryce National Park in southern Utah.
At Bryce National Park, limestone pillars stretch as far as the eye can see. Those delicately carved “hoodoos” rise from amphitheater floors in various sizes, shapes, and colors.
Native Americans named the place “Red rocks standing like men in a bowl-shaped canyon.” Ebenezer Bryce, the first non-Indian settler for whom the park is named, described the seemingly endless labyrinth of twisting trails between the soaring pillars as “one hell of a place to lose a cow.”
The game played until your mind virtually numbs to identify the craggy creations as real and fanciful objects. Among those I spotted were the distinct outline of a pioneer woman in a bustle skirt and the image of a hunter wearing a hat. Above it all stands Queen Victoria, seemingly reigning over her countless rock subjects.
Attractions are BIG at Zion National Park in southern Utah.
At Zion National Park, visitors view the soaring sandstone walls, which present a kaleidoscope of reds and pastel hues from valley floors. This perspective serves to accentuate their massive size.
With elevations that fluctuate from 3,300 to 8,800 feet above sea level, it’s not surprising that Zion houses a variety of habitats. They range from semi-desert conditions along canyon floors to cool, moist plateaus at the upper levels, where mountain lions and big horn sheep find a home to their liking.
Despite its creek-like resemblance, the Virgin River that runs along the canyon bottom over eons has carved the huge rock gorge that surrounds you. Other water, dripping in a continuous flow fed by springs high in the rocks and cliff faces, nourishes hanging gardens of flowers and ferns that add even more color to the multi-hued backdrop.
The grandeur surrounding and rising above you at Zion provides a fitting finale to a national park tour of Utah. Each unique setting would be well worth a visit on its own. Combined into a leisurely time, they amaze the eye and provide countless memories – and photographs which, looked at later, can only hint at the beauty you have observed.
For more information, call the Utah Office of Tourism at 800/200-1160 or check the website at utah.com.
After gallivanting throughout the United States and to more than 75 other countries worldwide and writing about what he sees, does, and learns, Victor Block retains the travel bug. He firmly believes that travel is the best possible education and claims he still has a lot to learn. He loves to explore new destinations and cultures, and his stories about them have won many writing awards.