Utah is an amazing destination for people who like the outdoor fun. My trip there started actually in the urban jungle of the metropolitan Los Angeles. It is simple much cheaper to fly there than anywhere in Utah itself.
It was all great until I left the car rental company depot at the airport. The first moments of driving on the notorious LA freeway network can be intimidating, frightening but also exiting in the same time. It takes a moment or two to get used to drivers totally ignoring the road rules, indicators or speed limits. And all this on roads with 12 or more lanes of bumper to bumper traffic with cars going well over 80mph, overtaking on the inside and on the outside, changing lanes just inches in front of you and so on. The only way to survive, is to behave in the same way. Fortunately it comes easier than you might imagine. It was Friday before the long memorial weekend, when half of the Americans travel somewhere, so the situation was particularly bad. Fortunately my local friend, using highlighter pen and a road atlas of California, showed me a route which avoided the main highways and went through the local desert roads instead. Thanks to him, in just a few hours, I was able to move from the densely populated metropolis to the open desert landscapes. In one and half day I blasted through deserted parts of California, Nevada, some short stretch of Arizona and arrived to southern Utah.
And what a great state it is. I started exploring it from the Zion National Park. The main attraction there is a canyon which the river Virgin carved through the multicoloured sandstone formations. I won’t be describing all the geological details here. First because it is boring for most of the people, and second because I forgot the details of my geology classes a long time ago. But even if you can’t say the difference between the sandstone and the granite you will still be stunned by all the wonders of Zion. There are plenty of good hikes for everyone. For the lazy or not very healthy ones I recommend the Riverside Walk which is no more demanding than a stroll in the London’s famous Hyde Park but offers close contact with the narrow section of the canyon. Unfortunately it also offers close contact with the hordes of tourists. Fortunately, there are some short but steep hikes leading away from the crowd, like for example Weeping Rock Trail.
If you are fit and don’t have agoraphobia I strongly recommend the Angels Landing Trail. It is a steep and strenuous walk where you gain 1500 feet of elevation in the distance of 2.5 miles. First you fight the many switchbacks which you think will never end and then you arrive to the best part of the trail. The last few hundred feet of it are formed by chains, steps cut into the rocks, and ridges as narrow as three feet. I love this sort of trails offering extra adrenalin. Views from the top are well worth all the efforts, but remember to take plenty of water (not available anywhere on the trail), sunscreen and start early. Zion NP is quite low and can get unbearably hot during the midday.
The cheapest form of accommodation around is camping, which also allows you the closest contact with nature. Try to get your spot early. Park campgrounds fill up quickly and you might end up like me, camping somewhere on the public lands out of the park, which is OK, except for the fact there are no facilities.
Zion NP is one of the most popular parks in the National Parks system and because it is also one of the smaller ones, it can get very crowded. Fortunately it is also the only park in the US which bans individual cars (at least in the summer season) and offers public transport instead. Anyway try to avoid weekends.
The next great national park of my trip was the Bryce Canyon. It is just a short (about two hours) drive from Zion NP but the landscape there is completely different. Bryce lies at 8000-9000 feet above the sea level, which places it over 3000 feet higher than Zion, and makes it a much cooler park covered in large parts by the pine forests. Like in Zion, the main attractions of the Bryce Canyon NP are the geological formations. These are called Hoodoos, a kind of rock pinnacles formed by specific erosion processes. Again, lets skip the detailed geology classes (as you know my memory by now). They form landscapes which looks like from the fairy tales. It is all the most impressive around sunrise or sunset, when the long shades and warm sunlight form a magical atmosphere. I recommend to hike down to the formations early in the morning using the combined Navajo and Queen’s Garden loops. It brings you close to hoodoos, slot canyons (some of them just few feet wide but over 100 feet deep) and other less known wonders. Beware that even if the trail is not difficult (combined ascent and descent of just 800 feet) due to the high elevation you will get tired much quicker than you might think and hope. Morning light is the best for taking pictures. In the afternoon you can drive the rim drive, stopping at the various viewpoints to admire the whole park. Unfortunately camping in Bryce means freezing cold at night. It was one of the reasons I got up early enough to see the sunrise. It was simply too cold to sleep. Again, this is all due to the high elevation. Even if the days are warm a and sunny the nights will get very cold very quickly.
West of Bryce Canyon is located one of the best drives I have ever done, the Utah Hwy12. Designated a one of the US Scenic Byways, the road turns and twists through the amazing landscape for well over 100 miles . It is a geology wonder, continuously unfolding in front of your car. I wanted to stop every few hundred yards to take yet another picture but eventually the batteries in my camera ran flat which let me just simply to enjoy the drive. In my opinion this road is as good as the famous Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur, California. But getting to my next destination also involved driving some pretty boring, flat and straight roads while staring at desolated landscapes. Sometimes for hours. Thank God for the satellite radio. It was getting dark and I really wanted to get to Green River to find some cheap motel (after few days of camping, including freezing night at Bryce, I really felt I deserved a normal bed). Fortunately I could easily drive 90-100mph as the road looked like a 40 miles long runaway, completely straight, wide and empty. Did I mention I love driving?
Green River would be absolutely not worth writing about. Just another cluster of gas stations, motels and fast food restaurants with population scattered around. Community which survives thanks to the interstate highway. Somehow I like this sort of places (for a short time of course), where everyone and everything is on the way to somewhere else. It is something you can’t find in Europe, it is part of the American road culture.
But lets move on. The following day I arrived to Arches. It is another small and compact national park but also another one full of geological wonders. Main attractions there are the rock arches formed by complicated erosion processes in the Navajo sandstone. What might strike you first is how red everything is. Rocks are red, sand is red, a bit of soil you can find there is red. Even the tarmac on the park road is red. It contrasts with the few green patches of vegetation. This is a real desert park. Once I got out of the air-conditioned car I felt even my eyeballs drying, so don’t forget to carry plenty of water. The most popular hike in the Arches NP is the one to the famous and picturesque Delicate Arch. It is only 1.5 mile long with less than 500 feet elevation gain but don’t underestimate it. Most of it goes on slippery slick rock, there is no shade on the way, no water, and it gets incredibly hot, even hotter than in Zion. The arch itself is amazing. Many people seen it on pictures or on TV screen but nothing compares to the real thing. I got there about an hour or so before the sunset and many people were already waiting with anticipation, like before some important sport event. Clouds obscured the sunset itself but the changing light made the time I spent there a really magical experience. There are of course other walks in the park, a few good ones are around the Devils Garden area. It let people explore features other than the arches (rock spines, ribs, enormous boulders, in other words: the rocky labyrinth).
There is just one small campground in the park itself but there are plenty of camping opportunities on the BLM lands alongside the Utah Hwy 128 which follows the Colorado river just outside the park boundaries. Most of these sites don’t have showers but they do have the pit toilets. If someone prefers luxuries of the standard bed, town of Moab (also just a few miles outside the park) offers plenty of options. It is a small, attractive, friendly, and a bit funky community dominated by young people in a search of outdoor fun (mostly mountain biking). Not a typical small Utah town and it is a stark contrast with the Green River.
Close to Arches NP and Moab lays Canyonlands NP. This is an absolutely enormous park, made of three districts separated by canyons at the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers. To move from one district to the another you have to drive hundreds of miles. I visited just a small section of the park but even that involved long driving and great vistas. There are a few short trails, but this is really a destination for serious explorers, who have much more time than I had. Anyway, it is still worth visiting just to peep into the enormous labyrinth of canyons from the few viewpoints alongside the park roads. It is also much, much emptier than any of the parks I visited before.
From reading this you might think Utah is all about deserts. Nothing more wrong. Most Europeans don’t realise how big and diverse most of the states are. At the end, Utah is larger than Britain. I realised it when after few days of exploring southern Utah geological paradise I decided to go north and visit Salt Lake City (it was on the way to Wyoming anyway). It was another long but spectacular drive. Gradually the landscape got less desert-like and more alpine scenery started dominating. Just before the Salt Lake City road navigates the mountain passes, almost like in the Switzerland. One thing stays constant: the low density of population. It means that arriving to SLC feels like coming to a great metropolis, which is of course wrong. It is a mid size US city with pleasant downtown and great location at the foothills of the Wasatch Range. It is nice placde indeed (especially after a week camping in the deserts) but you can’t really call it a metropolis.
I skipped the greatest attraction in the city, the Temple Square, heart of the Mormon religion, and went to visit the state capitol instead. It is free and quite interesting. Some of the paintings and sculptures inside somehow are similar to the socrealistic art of the former eastern block. Look at some of the titles: “Immigration & Settlement” or “Science & Technology”, not exactly how Van Gogh or Monet would call their works. Fits more into the Kremlin collection doesn’t it? And how about marble and granite toilets? How cool is that? You can visit the building pretty much on your own, no one even checks your bags, or join tour led by nice retired volunteers. You can also buy a Utah fridge magnet from the capitol store. Only in America.
But it was time for me to move on. Wyoming, another state larger than life, was waiting. I’ll write about it next time.