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EXPLORE UTAH'S "MIGHTY 5"
 
(2016 - Fall Issue)

Writer: KARIN D. LEPERI



Legendary landscapes and natural scenic beauty are concentrated in the southern half of the Beehive state.

Utah is a state endowed with a profusion of national parks and monuments. (After all, the federal government owns 64.9 per cent of the  land in Utah.) And many of these are concentrated in the southern half of the state where five spectacular national parks arguably offer some of the most gorgeous, yet otherworldly, scenery. They’re called Utah’s “Mighty 5.”

Most visitors come in the summer, when it is hot and crowded. Visit in spring, fall or winter and you’ll likely encounter the serenity of desert solitude. But whatever the season, come you must. For the hoodoos, slot canyons, arches and even the lengthy wrinkle in the earth’s crust. For the nature walks, hiking, climbing, canyoneering, biking and rafting. For the wildlife, birding, photography and plein-air painting. Most of all, for time in the great outdoors.

With more than 80 non-stop flights to Salt Lake City International, you are within hours of driving to the parks. So book your flight, pick your park or see all five.

ARCHES NATIONAL PARK

Highlights: Delicate Arch, Landscape Arch

Considered one of the top national parks in America, Arches National Park is located on the Colorado River in eastern Utah, about 6.5 kilometres northwest of the charming community of Moab. Bare slickrock with scattered pinon pine and juniper largely defines this spectacular landscape, consisting of sandstone features such as fins, towers, turrets, spires, ribs, hoodoos and balanced rocks offering an interesting array of geological oddities.

With more than 2,000 natural arches, including the world-famous Delicate Arch that graces the Utah state licence plate, this park offers more sightseeing opportunities from your vehicle than perhaps any other park. And with many easy hikes available, Arches is one of the top national parks for families travelling with children.

It also has the largest concentration of arches in the world as well as the park’s longest arch measuring 88 metres, Landscape Arch. (It’s the fifth-longest span in the world.)

Behind the visitor centre is the start of the 64-kilometre scenic drive through the park. Check out the Windows Section for some of the largest arches and be sure to drive to the Delicate Arch viewpoint for a distant view. If you have more time, plan on taking a very popular late-afternoon hike to this favoured icon. As always, take plenty of water.

BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK

Highlights: Bryce Amphitheater, Sunset Point, Full Moon Hike

One of America’s smallest national parks at just 32 kilometres long, Bryce is about 75 minutes northeast of Zion. However, unlike the canyons of Zion carved by the Virgin River, Bryce is actually the result of layers of limestone, siltstone and mudstone eroding over eons into amphitheatres.

These colour-striated rock hoodoos are so mesmerizing that, geologically speaking, it’s like the hoodoos have gone psychedelic with their labyrinth of vivid colours and bizarre patterns. From orange and red to pink, purple, beige and white, the hoodoo colours and affiliated spires, fins and windows change hue much like the famous Uluru rock in Australia’s Outback changes its colouration throughout the day.

Keep in mind that you are at 2,438.5 metres when visiting Bryce, so prepare for changing temperatures by layering your clothing. Just a 14-minute drive from the visitor centre, Bryce Amphitheater is easily the most-visited feature in the park and is also the easiest to reach. Sunset point is a popular spot for taking photographs at—you guessed it—sunset. Perhaps one of the most coveted Bryce experiences is the famous bi-monthly Full Moon Hikes, which take place year-round. Lines form early for the 60 tickets awarded for each night’s walk.

CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK

Highlights: Island in the Sky, Mesa Arch, The Needles

As Utah’s largest National Park and yet least-visited, Canyonlands is located a short distance from Arches National Park, southwest of Moab. The convoluted cliffs and carved canyons were created by the Green and Colorado rivers and their tributaries.

The difference from Arches is that Canyonlands is vastly expansive, stretching across 1,373 square kilometres of primitive geological wilderness. And yet this alien-like terrain has four distinct landscapes (Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze and Horseshoe Canyon), each offering different experiences. Only Island in the Sky and The Needles can be reached by two-wheel drive vehicles. The rest consists primarily of unpaved roads and undeveloped trails, some of which are accessible to four-wheel drive vehicles. Be sure to plan ahead.

The northernmost district and most easily accessible is Island in the Sky, a high mesa with phenomenal views and many stupendous roadside overlooks. Here is where the West’s most photographed landform, Mesa Arch, frames the valley and Colorado River. Photographers flock to this arch to capture the magic of early-morning light.

Go to The Needles to view the tall spires of Cedar Mesa Sandstone that overwhelm the area. Be sure to take a map as GPS is unreliable in the area. With only one paved road that leads in and out of this section, many areas are accessible only by foot trails and four-wheel-drive roads.

CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK

Highlights: 160-kilometre Waterpocket Fold, Petroglyphs

More alien than earthly, the sweeping vistas and deep canyons of Capitol Reef offer a more solitary experience to the crowds that congregate at popular Zion and Bryce in the summer. This solitude is further exemplified by the vastly broad and endless landscape of desert rock and blue sky. However, it is this vastness that holds special surprises—secrets ranging from hidden arches and massive domes to a tortured, twisted warp in the earth’s surface, resulting in the 160-kilometre Waterpocket Fold.

No doubt Capitol Reef is Utah’s most isolated national park. A narrow park less than 32 kilometres wide but more than 160 kilometres long, it protects a squiggly S-shaped warp in the Earth’s crust called the Waterpocket Fold. Created over 65 million years ago and part of the same energy force that built the Rocky Mountains, this is the longest exposed monocline in North America.

Besides boasting Earth’s largest wrinkle, the park has many petroglyphs. The most notable are the Fremont petroglyphs on Highway 24, a short walk to the east of the visitor centre and accessed via a boardwalk with viewing platforms.

ZION NATIONAL PARK

Highlights: The Watchman from Canyon Junction, Emerald Pools, The Narrows, Kolob Arch

Zion is the state’s first national park and its most popular. Noted for its varied geological landscapes consisting of slot canyons, mesas, high plateaus and monolithic cliffs, the park’s exquisite beauty is most defined by the 610-metre red and white canyon walls of Navajo sandstone that loom over Zion Canyon.

A place of reverence, Zion is peppered with biblical names such as the Court of the Patriarchs, The Pulpit and Temple of Sinawava. Perhaps the best-known image is that of the Watchman taken from Canyon Junction Bridge. Around the first week in November, the cottonwoods turn bright yellow and add a crowning glory to this majestic setting.

Since the 9.6-kilometre Zion Canyon Scenic Drive from Canyon Junction along the North Fork of the Virgin River to the beginning of the Virgin Narrows is closed from April through October, hop-on/hop-off shuttles are provided along this route. Visitors can visit Court of the Patriarchs, Zion Lodge (hike to Emerald Pools is across the street), Big Bend and the Temple of Sinawava. From here, you can catch the easy Riverside Walk, which leads to the Virgin Narrows. (Note that a permit is required to hike the Virgin Narrows.)

For a less-crowded version of Zion, drive the Kolob Fingers Road Scenic Byway in the northwestern corner on the park. Look for Kolob Arch, once considered the longest arch in the world until it was measured by laser in 2006. At 87.48 metres, it is just 0.91 metre shy of Landscape Arch in Arches National Park.

Travel Planner

For more information about Utah and its five National Parks, visit:

State of Utah: VisitUtah.com

Arches National Park: nps.gov/arch

Bryce Canyon National Park: nps.gov/brca

Canyonlands National Park: nps.gov/cany

Capitol Reef National Park: nps.gov/care

Zion National Park: nps.gov/zion

 
 
 
 
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