Utah is no place for the faint of heart whether plant, animal, or human. In this land of weathered rock amid sagebrush, yucca, cactus, juniper, cottonwoods and pinyon pine, travelers gain a new appreciation for wind and water's role in shaping the landscape.
The majestic landforms of the Colorado Plateau will set your imagination on fire -- along with the 100-degree dry heat -- in Zion, Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef National Parks.
These parks offer visitors an uncanny beauty and an experience of nature's "sculptures" that result from tremendous geological changes dating back 2 billion years ago -- and counting.
Rivers, seas and desert winds have shaped this land and you can witness the different geological eras at the canyons' and cliffs' outcroppings.
The Colorado Plateau is a 130,000 square-mile swath covering the intersection of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Sixty-five million years ago the region experienced uplift, tilting and erosion of rock layers to form the Grand Staircase, a series of colorful cliffs stretching from the Grand Canyon to Bryce Canyon and including the Waterpocket Fold in Capitol Reef.
But the landscape of the parks and surrounding areas, which are not crowded at all, will look familiar. Of course, this was the land of the cowboys that you saw in the movies. Walk on the land and you hear and feel the crunch of the scrubby plants underfoot, endless dust, the winding paths around the sweet-smelling sagebrush and haunting rock formations that used to be good hiding places for outlaws.
But the desolation and silence of the desert also allow you to witness its majesty and enchantment as well as to feel an eerie connection to the Western pioneers, Native Americans and prehistoric peoples who once settled or traversed this land. It's really much the same as they saw it.
The national parks in southern Utah preserve this natural landscape for you and millions of visitors, as they have been doing for about 100 years.
Zion National Park
The area that became Zion National Park was largely ignored until 1908 when Leo A. Snow, a U.S. deputy surveyor from St. George, Utah, did a general land survey and suggested that the land here be set aside and preserved as a sanctuary for wildlife and natural and cultural resources found nowhere else on earth. In 1919, Zion became a national park with the Kolob section added in 1937.
This place got its name, meaning "place of refuge," from Mormon pioneers who sought sanctuary after being kicked out of Illinois, Ohio and Missouri because of their "strange" religious beliefs. The Children of Israel are an "Old Testament people," says author Wallace Stegner, "inheritors of the blessings of the tribe of Joseph." Inspired by their prophet, Joseph Smith, and led by Brigham Young in 1846, they moved and settled in this "land that nobody wanted."
The biblical names in the park reflect the Mormon influence: Court of the Patriarchs, the grotto at Angels Landing, Watchman Trail, Mt. Carmel Highway. But whatever your religion, you'll marvel at the wondrously high cliffs and deep valleys which have been cut by the slow-moving Virgin River -- and God's hand in nature.
A single road through Zion's canyons takes you on numerous switchbacks and a long dark tunnel through a mountain. You'll see yellow, red, white and green striped mesas (flat-topped mountain tops), long fingered rock formations, summits and cathedrals. Slickrock, huge blocks of smooth-surfaced, flat sedimentary rock (sandstone, mudstone and siltstone), comprises the high cliffs and deliciously cool overhangs that shield you from the hot sun. This rock is so soft you can rub it off with your finger. Large, weather-beaten boulders will tickle your imagination into seeing animal and human shapes.
Indeed, human habitation on the Colorado Plateau has been sparse. The earliest records of human life go back 10,000 years when the Paleo-Archaic Indians roamed this land. The Anasazi People, the first permanent settlers here 2,000 years ago, lived in small, scattered farmsteads but left around 1300. The land was not occupied until the Paiute People came 800 years ago. On July 24, 1847, Brigham Young and the Mormons arrived.
To get an overview of the park, take the road leading through it as well as the free shuttle that takes visitors on a 90-minute scenic tour stopping at trailheads, the Museum of Human History, Zion Lodge. The shuttle goes in some places where cars may not go, so the trip is worth the time.
Bryce Canyon National Park
In mountainous areas you generally look up at the scenery. At Bryce Canyon, you look down -- at the hoodoos, those pillars of rock that look like whimsical earthen obelisks.
Sculpted by wind and nightly freezing desert temperatures, the hoodoos got their name from Native American lore where the coyote turned the evil people to stone. The "painted" pink, white and red (iron), purple (manganese) and white (limestone) "faces" serve as evidence of the myth.
Geologists say that 10 million years ago forces within the earth created and then moved the Table Cliffs and Papunsaugunt Plateaus. Ancient rivers carved the colorful Claron limestones, sandstones and mudstones into thousands of spires, fins, pinnacles and mazes and exposed the edges of these blocks creating the Paria Valley.
Walk the Queen's Way and you instantly get an idea of how the eroding winds work as you cover you eyes and close your mouth to protect yourself against the swirling airborne sandstone.
Get tickets for a horse or mule ride through the canyon at the park's lodge or two-hour or half-day tours through the various levels of the canyon floor and among these giant sand castles.
I only stopped at Bryce Canyon on the way from Zion to Torrey, but you will want to spend more time at this incredible showcase.
If you haven't already gotten a sense of gigantism in southern Utah, you will if you take the blue highways from Zion to Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef National Park. Around the town of Escalante, this 200-mile trek winds through country that either looks like the Flintstone's village or a huge rock garden.
Boulders mix sparingly with vegetation and the mesas resemble altars to the gods. You'll suddenly notice that there are few traces of humanity in these parts except for a single power line or the road you're driving. You'll feel humbled by your own smallness amid these open and desolate spaces and realize that Western-style individualism has been greatly mythologized. No one could have survived these lands unless they worked together, which is what the Mormons did.
Construction engineers who built these winding roads over immense expanses of sedimentary rock must have marveled at these mountainous scenes, too. (Some roads climb 300 feet at six- to eight-degree grades.) They have left a few scenic turnouts for travelers to stop and gaze at the yellow rock that looks like a moonscape with trees and sagebrush.
Huge stone piled onto stone offers a vista of endless scenery, one view more beautiful and more magnificent than the other. Halfway to Torrey, you'll see what look like gray beehives. No, these landforms are not the origin of the state's nickname, the symbol of the industrious Mormons. These landforms are part of the Grand Staircase/Escalante, named after Fray Silvestre Velez de Escalante, a Spanish priest who accompanied Fray Francisco Atanasia Dominguez. They traversed southwestern Utah in 1776 searching for a passable trail to Monterey, California.
Drive further north and you see one more surprise: Dixie National Forest. This area features unusual green vegetation nestled among the yellow rock mountains. You'll see ranches with wire fences for cows and horses as well as signs for uniquely Western-style names: Hell's Backbone, Salt Gulch, Circle Cliffs and Burr Trail.
Nearing the 9,400-foot summit, you pass pine, spruce, Douglas fir and aspen trees and get an overview of the "staircase." So much greenery after all that rocky wilderness even inspires a few bicyclists to brave the steep heights.
Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef allows you to interact with millions of years of geologic history and thousands of years of human history at the same time.
The 100-mile long Waterpocket Fold formed when the Pacific Ocean plate bumped into the North American continent about 65 million years ago and created the Rocky Mountains. About 200 million years ago, the ocean layed down red and later gray sediments.
Other remnants of geologic activity are the black boulders scattered over the land 20 to 30 million years ago. They came from the lava flows of the volcanic Boulder Mountain 50 miles away. Glaciers later eroded them.
Round holes of many sizes line the rock walls. This "honeycomb weathering" formed by the circular motion of tidal flats, sometimes gouged out caves due to the uneven density of the rock.
The park features layered multi-hued cliffs, soaring spires, twisting canyons, graceful arches and stark monoliths that inspired the Native Americans to call this area the "Land of the Sleeping Rainbow." The white sandstone domes (prehistoric sand dunes) resemble the dome of the Capitol Building in Washington -- hence, the park's name.
The geologic history of Capitol Reef provides an unforgettable experience of the land. However, to gather the unique spiritual quality of this place, take the unpaved road to Cathedral Valley where you'll find the Temples of the Sun and Moon. These stately, stone monoliths give you a feeling of permanence in much the same way cathedrals do in a city. Their awesome power amid the dense quiet of the desert puts you in an altered state of mind as you gaze on the dry and dusty world around you. The bumpy road to get there allows you to move only 20 miles an hour and requires a high-clearance or a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Tours on the road are available in Torrey.
Dinosaurs once roamed this area, and you can easily find traces of them in the gastropods scattered around the Morrison rock. Gastropods are smooth, round rocks the dinosaurs ingested and excreted much like the chickens do with their gizzard stones.
You will find Devil's toenails, too, which provide more evidence of the ocean that once covered the land. The "toenails" are petrified seashells much like fossils only without the rock around them. However, park rangers ask that souvenir hunters pick up these geological gems only outside the park. And there are plenty of them.
One exciting link to the human history at Capitol Reef is through the petroglyphs etched and the pictographs painted on canyon walls. They give you a glimpse of the Fremont People who lived here from 700 to 1,250 A.D. Their mainstay was bighorn sheep, which they proudly displayed with trapezoid-like images of themselves. The park provides free interpretive tours of this ancient artwork but make friends with the locals who can take you to see other groups of them outside the park.
"Hobbit Land" is another place outside the park that the locals can show you. In sight of Boulder Mountain, the largest flat-topped mountain in the United States, these globular red rocks are good for climbing for experts and novices alike. Moving about them invites you to "commune" with the land by becoming a part of it -- literally. Wear your old clothes, though, when you climb these rocks. The soft Entrada sandstone that rubs off on you is impossible to remove.
Capitol Reef also features a look into the Mormon culture that was established in 1879 along the Fremont River (also called the Dirty Devil). First known as Junction and nicknamed "the Eden of Wayne County," the Fruita settlement flourished through irrigation of sorghum (for syrup and molasses), vegetables and alfalfa. The orchards which were famous 100 years ago still stand today with a variety of apples, apricots, peaches, pears, plums, English and black walnuts and almonds. Eight to 10 large families sustained this community until the late 1960s when the Park Service purchased Fruita property.
Travelers can visit Fruita's one-room schoolhouse, which also served as a town hall and church from 1884 until 1941. In 1900, the public schools adopted the building until it closed in 1941 due to lack of students.
If you go:
You can best get to Utah's national parks by flying to Las Vegas or Salt Lake City and renting a car.
Warning: Drink a lot of water, bring sun block and wear a hat. There is little cloud cover in Utah to provide protection from the hot sun. The mornings and evenings are cool enough for a light jacket.