One of my favorite destinations that I mention to world travelers a lot is the state of Utah in my home country. I can still remember when I was a child, sitting in a dentist office looking at a travel magazine, when I first saw pictures of the geological formations of the American west. I’ve traveled through Utah many times now. Twice by motorcycle and many times more by car.
Millennia prior to today Utah was sea floor where the silica skeletal structures of microorganisms called diatoms piled up and condensed to rock called limestone. Now exposed to rain, the limestone erodes to form amazing sculptural plateaus and standing pillars called hoodoo or fairy chimneys.
Many tourists visit Grand Canyon, the best known of the US national parks. But there are dozens of national and state parks that merit a week long exploration, camping and hiking voyage. The route that connects most of the major parks is called the Grand Circle. I’d like to detail a few of the destinations you may wish to put on your agenda.
If you fly into Las Vegas for your car rental, you can route northeast on highway 15 to get to the Utah border, aiming toward St. George, Utah to start your adventure. Half way to the border, there is a state park called “Valley of Fire” that is worth a stop over. A small two-lane road ventures over fantastic multi-colored limestone deposits.
A half-mile hike from the road takes visitors through some fantastic petroglyphs that are well narrated by local signage and leaflets. Many of the carvings show astronomical observations etched in the stone walls, star and sun positions through the seasons. But some are human, animal or creative expressions of art.
Most visitors to Grand Canyon National Park visit the southern rim of the canyon. In my opinion the more majestic views are from the north rim, from the Utah approach, where hoodoos protrude against the backdrop of the canyon. Though it is considerably more difficult to get to the north rim via highway 67 starting from the Utah side of the park, it’s worth the drive.
Northwest of the Grand Canyon is the long valley gorge called Zion. This park can only be visited by shuttle bus in most seasons because there is nowhere for visitors to park in the valley itself. But a small town near the entrance has a variety of lodging options as well as a camping area in the park itself.
In my view, the exit of the park to the east is even as awe inspiring as the park valley itself. The road ascends to a long tunnel that leads through the mountain to the top of another valley of white limestone hills that lead to the exit of the park.
From Zion highway 89 leading north takes you to Bryce Canyon, the park known for hundreds of vertically-towering hoodoos. A long two-lane road gives visitors different vantage points to watch over the towers. Some of the lodge areas have paths that lead down among the hoodoos.
From here highway 12 leads along the northern edge of Grand Staircase Escalante. There are many dirt roads that head off from the highway to explore various vantage points and hikes along small streams.
Naturally, along the way you’ll be intrigued by the roadside mineral and glass shop that offers refreshments and a fascinating stroll through their natural and un-natural collection. My favorite was the “cow-a-horse-a-saurus” that stands guard over the rock and geode garden. The proprietors say they found this mysterious ancient specimen on the property when they bought it and did their best to re-assemble it to its full grandeur.
Head north to reach the sprawling red cliffs of the highway outside of Capitol Reef National Park. The cliffs on the approach to the park are as awe inspiring as the park itself in my view. Inside the park, Gooseneck Overlook and Capitol Dome are worthy hikes for long hours of staring into the distance.
From here I suggest making Arches National Park the next destination, which requires you to route via Interstate 70 for a short distance. (An alternative route is to head south via 95 through scenic Glen Canyon if you’re allergic to interstate highways, then cutting north via 191.)
Arches is such a large park, that a multi-day visit, using Moab as a base or camping in the park, is the best idea. My wife and I visited over several days to see the vast landscape in different light and weather conditions.
From Moab, a jaunt along highway 313 takes you to Canyonlands National Park. This park can be seen in its entirety in one day. But each vista you view is nearly as grand in scale as the southern rim view of the Grand Canyon. Not as big, but visually as striking.
Natural Bridges National Monument on highway 95 makes a worthy stop for a series of hikes you can do in the area including a few with remains of cliff dwellings that are preserved to this day, though non-inhabited.
Heading south out of Utah there are numerous other amazing parks and geological formations that I’ll cover in a subsequent post.
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Grand Staircase Escalante
Natural Bridges National Monument