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Utah Color Country

Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Capitol Reef national parks will rock your socks off.

Photo caption
Southern Utah delivers gorgeous red rock country and, in fall, spectacular autumn foliage.

Until I took my first tentative steps into the Virgin River, travel for me had always been about broadening my horizons. But not so in the ‭Zion Narrows, a water-carved slot canyon in the heart of Zion National Park, where 2,000-foot-high sandstone walls squeeze the river so tightly that there is no room left for even a shoreline, to say nothing of a horizon. Hiking upstream meant exactly that—wading up the stream.

I had rented a walking stick, neoprene socks, and sturdy river boots from a local outfitter, but even with the right gear and a favorable weather report to ensure against flash flooding, there was one thing I wasn't prepared for: the sheer beauty within that keyhole-shaped world. For two hours I sloshed past enormous natural grottoes, boulders as big as summer cabins, and Wall Street, a passageway only 20 feet wide, framed by walls that tower nearly twice the height of the Empire State Building.

Many people travel to Europe's cathedrals for this sort of grandeur. All I had to do was visit southern Utah. There, a trio of national parks in Utah—Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Capitol Reef—present scene after scene of unparalleled splendor. The parks are just a morning's drive from each other and from the nearest major airports, so in eight days I had ample time to explore them all, allotting three days for Zion, two each for Bryce and Capitol Reef, and a day for traveling from place to place. Visitors in a hurry could knock a day off each park and still see an eyeful—or spend an enjoyable long weekend at any one of the parks.

Though the scenery is phenomenal all year, the ideal times to come are mid- to late spring or mid- to late autumn, when the summertime throngs aren't around and the weather turns balmy (versus sweltering in the summer and snowy in the winter). During the colder months, many area restaurants and motels reduce their hours or close altogether.

Of the three parks, Zion is closest to a major airport—a 2½-hour drive from Las Vegas—so I headed there first. (If you start at Salt Lake City, Capitol Reef is the first stop, 4½ hours away by car.) From Las Vegas I drove northeast through a stretch of gray Nevada desert, then up the side of the geological layer cake known as the Colorado Plateau, which is home to all three parks. During the past 300 million years, a shallow ocean, the world's tallest sand dunes, and immense volcanic eruptions swept across this region, each onslaught laying down a vivid carpet of stone. Seismic spasms then hoisted the topography as high as 12,000 feet. Thanks to this turbulent history, the landscape bleeds color as readily as Texas bleeds oil. Rivers and streams whittled out deep canyons, their walls spackled red, pink, chocolate, black, and purple by iron and other minerals and by the microscopic bacteria that grow on the rocks.

But the beauty of this tie-dyed land arises as much from its strange light, crystalline air, and Gothic contours as from its many hues. "When you see photographs of the slot canyons," says Utah watercolorist Roland Lee, "you think, 'Oh, that picture is enhanced somehow.' But it isn't. The light bounces from one surface to another, making the rocks glow like neon." Couple that, he says, with the clear air and the texture of the rocks—with their striations and stains—and the effect is spectacular. Many artists who try to paint the landscape are overwhelmed.

Within Zion, many of the best trails start in Zion Canyon, a six-mile-long river valley squeezed by staggering cliffs until it eventually becomes the Zion Narrows. From April through October, the canyon is accessible only by free shuttle bus; private vehicles are not allowed unless you're staying at the Zion Lodge. Leery at first about giving up my wheels, I quickly grew to love letting someone else drive so I could enjoy the views. Because the shuttles make stops in the neighboring town of Springdale, brimming with lodging and restaurants, all I had to do to catch a ride was step outside my motel.

Wherever I hopped off within the canyon, nature seemed ready to swallow me whole. An easy quarter-mile paved trail led me into the yawning mouth of Weeping Rock, a natural alcove as colorful as the inside of a kaleidoscope. Above me a hanging garden of columbines, monkey flowers, and shooting stars clung to the arcing roofline. Behind me a Navajo blanket of umber, black, and green stripes spilled down the stone.

Elsewhere in the canyon I pinballed up Walter's Wiggles, a dizzying stack of switchbacks built into an otherwise impassable cliff. The hike had me huffing and puffing, but it came with a big reward at the top: the chance to stand at Scout Lookout, a rocky precipice with eagle's-nest views of the surrounding mountains and the abysses in between. From Scout Lookout, the truly intrepid—I'm not one of them—can hike another half mile along a narrow trail with sheer drop-offs on both sides to Angels Landing, a vantage point that turns Zion Canyon into your own personal relief map.

As I drove out of the park, Zion looked no less magnificent through my windshield. I followed the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway east, past cliffs so big they make Hoover Dam look like a schoolkid's science project. The road disappeared into a mountain tunnel for more than a mile, then emerged into a slanted world of slickrock ravines and wind-etched mesas that eventually delivered me to Bryce Canyon National Park, 86 miles away.

Perched 9,115 feet above sea level at its highest overlook, Bryce sits in the nosebleed seats of the Colorado Plateau, where views stretch for more than 100 miles (versus less than 15 miles in San Francisco and 50 miles at Yosemite), thanks to some of the clearest air in the nation. The absence of urban smog stems from the absence of urban anything. In this ultrarural part of the state, the closest town with motels and restaurants is Tropic, 11 miles from the park. Next are Panguitch and Hatch, 24 miles away. Additional motels and private campgrounds border Highways 12 and 63 in the Bryce vicinity, and the park itself has two campgrounds and Bryce Canyon Lodge, whose rustic stone-and-timber main building dates to the 1920s. (Unfortunately, none of that woodsy quaintness filtered into my guest room, which resembled generic motel accommodations you'd find near any off-ramp.)

Private vehicles and trailers are allowed inside the park year-round. Parking is extremely limited at many popular overlooks. From mid-May until the end of September, the easiest option is to ride the free shuttle buses.

The best part about staying at the lodge was that it put me within walking distance of the park's namesake feature, a geological amphitheater that bites into the side of the plateau. There, countless sherbet-colored pinnacles, arches, and columns called hoodoos rise as tall as 10-story buildings from the amphitheater floor. Ice and snowmelt, repeatedly thawing and freezing for centuries at this nippy altitude, have sculpted out these fairyland shapes. Their fantastical color—a confectionary mixture of orange, pink, and cream—comes from the brilliant band of limestone found there.

An easy paved trail runs along the rim. Still more trails plunge into the canyon and worm between rock formations resembling sphinxes, turreted castles, and pagodas. The park's 18-mile-long scenic main road passes a succession of other weather-whittled cliffs. Following it to the end, I arrived at Rainbow Point, an overlook sided by wind-whipped bristlecone pines upwards of 1,700 years old.

Coming right after the mind-altering scenery of Zion and Bryce, Capitol Reef National Park would have had to do backflips to be anything but anticlimactic. The backflips began en route. Cutting through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Dixie National Forest, Scenic Byway 12 rolled past red rock canyons, sheer drop-offs, and aspen and pine forests, an appetizer before the main course.

Surrounding the Waterpocket Fold, a nearly 100-mile-long wrinkle in the earth's crust, Capitol Reef National Park brings all the best features of the other Utah national parks together in one place. It has multicolored monoliths to rival Zion's and hoodoos as precarious as those of Bryce, plus soaring arches, rotunda-like sandstone domes, twisting canyons, and the remnants of Mormon pioneer and pre-Columbian communities. The most striking rock formations reminded early settlers of a coral reef and the U.S. Capitol, hence the park's odd name.

Far from roughing it pioneer style, I could count on first-class pampering in the adjacent small town of Torrey, home to some truly high-caliber inns and restaurants. At the SkyRidge Inn, a delightful bed-and-breakfast just minutes from the park's main entrance, my room's private balcony even came with its own hot tub.

Capitol Reef lacked just one thing: crowds. Declared a national park in 1971, it encompasses nearly 100,000 more acres than Zion yet gets only one-fifth as many visitors. "Even in the peak season, you can get close to nature with little effort, and you may be the only one there," said Riley Mitchell, formerly Capitol Reef's chief of interpretation. "That kind of solitude and intimacy with the outdoors is really hard to find in our national parks anymore."

The no-shows don't realize what they're missing. Hiking the mile-long Capitol Gorge Trail, I rambled along a steep canyon inscribed with the dated signatures of Mormon settlers (the oldest was written in 1871) to a chain of "tanks," pools of water tucked into stone ledges. That same day I walked on the mile-long Hickman Bridge Trail, past domed mountains, stone benches sprinkled with volcanic boulders, and a natural bridge some 130 feet wide.

Throughout the park, natural beauty and man-made beauty intersect. More than a century ago, Mormon farmers established the community of Fruita, named after their orchards. Maintained by Capitol Reef employees, it's now the largest orchard in the national park system, with 2,500 trees that produce apples, peaches, pears, cherries, apricots, mulberries, and other fruits, including heirloom varieties. The harvest season runs from June to mid-October depending on the crop, and any fruit you eat on the spot is free (there's a $1-per-pound charge for fruit you take away with you).

The startling juxtaposition of hulking cliffs and Edenlike groves also offered a visual feast. When I looked closer, those cliffs turned out to be an indigenous Louvre. The Fremont Indians lived here for about 600 years, beginning around a.d. 700, and during that time they chiseled abstract squiggles into the rock as well as images of bighorn sheep and human figures wearing antlerlike headdresses. In many parts of the West, petroglyphs lurk in remote, inaccessible places. But here, I wandered past a whole gallery of artwork that adorns the base of a sandstone cliff 1½ miles east of the park's visitor center.

This mysterious tribe disappeared from the area around 1300 and scientists are still wondering where they went. My three-park spree left me with a question just as tough: Why would anyone leave this rainbow-colored paradise in the first place?

This article was first published in July 2004 and updated in March 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.