With the biggest and most beautiful landscapes in North America, UTAH has something for everyone: from brilliantly coloured canyons, across desert plains, to thickly wooded and snow-covered mountains. Almost all of this unmatched range of terrain is public land, making Utah the place to come for outdoor pursuits, whether your tastes run to hiking, mountain biking, whitewater rafting or skiing.
In southern Utah, especially, the scenery is stupendous, a stunning geological freak show where the earth is ripped bare to expose cliffs and canyons of every imaginable hue. The region holds so many national parks, it has often been suggested that the entire area should become one vast park. The most accessible parks – such as Zion and Bryce Canyon – are by far the most visited, but lesser-known parks like Arches and Canyonlands are every bit as dramatic. Huge tracts of this empty desert, in which fascinating pre-Columbian pictographs and Ancestral Puebloan ruins lie hidden, are all but unexplored; seeing them requires self-sufficiency and considerable planning.
Although northern Utah holds less appeal for tourists, Salt Lake City, the capital, is by far the state’s largest and most cosmopolitan urban centre, and makes an attractive and enjoyable stopover.
Led by Brigham Young, Utah’s earliest white settlers – the Mormons or Latter Day Saints (LDS) – arrived in the Salt Lake area, which then lay outside the USA, in 1847 and embarked on massive irrigation projects. At first they provoked great suspicion and hostility back East. The Republican Convention of 1856 railed against slavery and polygamy in equal measure; had the Civil War not intervened, a war against the Mormons was a real possibility. Relations eased when the Mormon Church dropped polygamy in 1890 and statehood followed in 1896; to this day, well over sixty percent of Utah’s two-million-strong population are Mormons. The Mormon influence is responsible for the layout of Utah’s towns, where residential streets are as wide as interstates and all are numbered block by block according to the same logical if ponderous system.
The surface of the earth can hold few weirder-looking spots than BRYCE CANYON, just south of US-89 86 miles northeast of Zion Canyon. Named for Mormon settler Ebenezer Bryce, who declared that it was “a helluva place to lose a cow”, it is not in fact a canyon at all. Along a twenty-mile shelf on the eastern edge of the thickly forested Paunsaugunt Plateau, 8000ft above sea level, successive strata of dazzlingly coloured rock have slipped and slid and washed away to leave a menagerie of multihued and contorted stone pinnacles.
In hues of yellow, red and flaming orange, the formations here have been eroded out of the muddy sandstone by a combination of icy winters and summer rains. The top-heavy pinnacles known as “hoodoos” form when the harder upper layers of rock stay firm as the lower levels wear away beneath them. Thor’s Hammer, visible from Sunset Point, is the most alarmingly precarious. These hoodoos look down into technicolour ravines, all far more vivid than the Grand Canyon and much more human in scale. The whole place is at its most inspiring in winter, when the figures stand out from a blanket of snow.
The two most popular viewpoints into Bryce Amphitheatre, at the heart of the park, are on either side of Bryce Canyon Lodge: the more northerly, Sunrise Point, is slightly less crowded than Sunset Point, where most of the bus tours stop. Hiking trails drop abruptly from the rim down into the amphitheatre. One good three-mile trek, a great extension of the shorter Navajo Loop Trail, starts by switchbacking steeply from Sunset Point through the cool 200ft canyons of Wall Street, where a pair of 800-year-old fir trees stretch to reach daylight. It then cuts across the surreal landscape into the Queen’s Garden basin, where the stout likeness of Queen Victoria sits in majestic condescension, before climbing back up to Sunrise Point. A dozen trails crisscross the amphitheatre, but it’s surprisingly easy to get lost, so don’t stray from the marked routes.
Sunrise and Sunset points notwithstanding, the best view at both sunset and dawn (the best time for taking pictures) is from Bryce Point, at the southern end of the amphitheatre. From here, you can look down not only at the Bryce Canyon formations but also take in the grand sweep of the whole region, east to the Henry Mountains and north to the Escalante range. The park road then climbs another twenty miles south, by way of the intensely coloured Natural Bridge, an 85ft rock arch spanning a steep gully, en route to its dead end at Rainbow Point.
Utah’s largest and most magnificent national park, CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK is as hard to define as it is to map. Its closest equivalent, the Grand Canyon, is by comparison simply an almighty crack in a relatively flat plain; Canyonlands is a bewildering tangle of canyons, plateaus, fissures and faults, scattered with buttes and monoliths, pierced by arches and caverns and penetrated only by a paltry handful of dead-end roads.
Canyonlands focuses on the Y-shaped confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers, buried deep in the desert forty miles southwest of Moab. The only spot from which you can see the rivers meet, however, is a five-mile hike from the nearest road. With no road down to the rivers, let alone across them, the park therefore splits into three major sections. The Needles, east of the Colorado, is a red-rock wonderland of sandstone pinnacles and hidden meadows that’s a favourite with hardy hikers and 4WD enthusiasts, while the Maze, west of both the Colorado and the Green, is a virtually inaccessible labyrinth of tortuous, waterless canyons. In the wedge of the “Y” between the two, the high, dry mesa of the Island In The Sky commands astonishing views, with several overlooks that can easily be toured by car. Getting from any one of these sections to the others involves driving at least a hundred miles.
Canyonlands does not lend itself to a short visit. With no lodging and little camping inside the park, it takes a full day to have even a cursory look at a single segment. Considering that summer temperatures regularly exceed 100°F and most trails have no water and little shade, the Island In The Sky is the most immediately rewarding option. On the other hand, for a long day-hike you’d do better to set off into the Needles.
East of Bryce Canyon, Hwy-12 curves along the edge of the Table Cliff Plateau before dropping into the remote canyons of the Escalante River, the last river system discovered within the continental US and site of some wonderful backpacking routes. The Escalante region is the focus of the vast Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the main visitor centre for which is at the west end of ESCALANTE, 38 miles east of Tropic.
The most accessible highlight is Calf Creek, sixteen miles east of Escalante, where a trail leads just under three miles upstream from a nice undeveloped campground to a gorgeous shaded dell replete with a 125ft waterfall. More ambitious trips start from trailheads along the dusty but usually passable Hole-in-the-Rock Road, which turns south from Hwy-12 five miles east of Escalante. A trio of slender, storm-gouged slot canyons, including the delicate, graceful Peek-a-Boo Canyon and the downright intimidating Spooky Canyon, can be reached by a mile-long hike from the end of Dry Fork Road, 26 miles along. From Hurricane Wash, 34 miles along, you can hike five miles to reach Coyote Gulch and then a further five miles, passing sandstone bridges and arches, to the Escalante River. Under normal conditions, two-wheel-drive vehicles should go no further than Dance Hall Rock, 36 miles down the road, a superb natural amphitheatre sculpted out of the slickrock hills.
Thirty miles beyond Escalante, at BOULDER, the Burr Trail, almost all of which is paved, heads east through the southern reaches of Capitol Reef National Park and down to Lake Powell.
Founded in the late 1800s, MOAB was hardly a speck until the 1950s, when prospector Charlie Steen discovered uranium nearby. When the mining boom finally waned, the town threw in its lot with tourism to become the Southwest’s number one adventure-vacation destination.
Moab still isn’t a large town, though – the population has yet to reach ten thousand – and neither is it attractive. The setting is what matters. With two national parks on its doorstep, plus millions more acres of public land, Moab is an ideal base for outdoors enthusiasts. At first, it was a haven for mountain bikers lured by the legendary Slickrock Bike Trail. Then the jeep drivers began to turn up and the whitewater-rafting companies moved in, too. These days it’s almost literally bursting, all year, with legions of Lycra-clad vacationers from all over the world.
Perhaps the main reason Moab has grown so fast is that out-of-state visitors tend to find Utah’s other rural communities so boring. As soon as Moab emerged from the pack, it became a beacon in the desert, attracting tourists ecstatic to find a town that stayed up after dark – even if it does amount to little more than a few miles of motels, restaurants and bars.