During the damp and dreary days of the Oregon winter we began noticing television ads promoting tourist destinations in Utah. While rain pelted against our windows, sunny scenes of hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing and river rafting danced across the TV screen. Gorgeous monoliths of red rock stood out against a blue sky that we hadn’t seen for weeks here in the gloomy Pacific Northwest. Another ad touted the five great National Parks of Utah, and everyone in the ad was fit, tan, smiling and seeming to be having the time of their lives.
Well, the Utah Chamber of Commerce will be glad to know their promotions worked. For the last two years we have hauled our little trailer 900 miles southeast to spend the month of April exploring Utah’s abundance of red rock beauty. Here are some of our most pleasing discoveries:
Canyonlands, bisected by the Colorado River, is a sprawling National Park loaded with photogenic rock formations, archeological sites, and opportunities to hike, raft, climb, and mountain bike over slickrock trails. Our favorite hike in Canyonlands is the eight-mile round-trip to Chesler Park in the Needles section of the park.
Arches National Park is more accessible and family-friendly than Canyonlands, with many of its 2,000 iconic arches visible from the road or reachable by relatively short trails. Don’t miss the 1.5-mile hike out to famous Delicate Arch.
Capitol Reef National Park is a delight for hikers and photographers. Straddling the 100-mile-long Waterpocket Fold, the park is rich in history and laced with trails that either ascend sandstone ridge tops or wriggle through narrow canyons. Our favorite hikes include the Frying Pan Trail and the Golden Throne.
Bryce Canyon has the most gaudily colorful rock formations in all of Utah, easily photographed from a dozen awesome viewpoints along the rim. Trails descend and loop among this popular park’s labyrinth of pink and crimson needles and hoodoos. Recommended hikes include the Fairyland and Peekaboo Loop trails. Note: Bryce’s high altitude (reaching over 9,000 feet) means that snow and frigid nights often linger into May.
Zion National Park in the SW corner of Utah may be our favorite of all. Shuttle buses traverse the valley floor with glorious rock walls rising over 2,000 feet on either side. The trails to Observation Point (8 miles RT) and Angel’s Landing (6 miles RT) on opposite sides of the main canyon are strenuous and exposed but highly recommended for their vistas.
In addition to these “Big Five” National Parks, there are dozens of thrilling but less-publicized destinations in southern Utah. Staircase-Escalante National Monument, east of Bryce, is riddled with amazing slot canyons, unusual rock formations and ancient rock art. Cedar Mesa, south of Canyonlands, is noted for its wealth of cliff dwellings, dating back over 1,000 years. The trail around the base of the soaring Fisher Towers east of Moab is very picturesque. Dead Horse Point, Goblin Valley, Kodachrome Basin, and Snow Canyon State Parks are strongly recommended as is Natural Bridges National Monument. And if boating is your thing, enormous Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area afford great opportunities to combine water sports with amazing sandstone scenery. Once you get to southern Utah, many of these points of interest are quite close together, making for short and easy hops from one campground (or motel) to the next. Even after two month-long visits, we feel there is plenty yet to be discovered in the red rock country of Utah.