The National Parks of Utah
The southern half of Utah feels like a time warp—thanks to the prehistoric rock formations at five absolutely breathtaking national parks.
We stopped for lunch at Twin Rocks Café in the one-road town of Bluff. The Navajo fry bread was crispy, puffy, and wonderfully greasy, and a platter of mesquite-smoked barbecued pork ribs and brisket was huge and satisfying. A sign past the town of Mexican Hat announced that we were now in "Navajoland," the Native American reservation, which sprawls across southern Utah and northern Arizona. The only real detail our map showed was a dot labeled Goulding, just north of Arizona. It turned out to be Goulding's Lodge & Tours, a complex with a lodge, museum with memorabilia from movies shot locally, and outfitter that runs tours of the reservation. In an air-conditioned gift shop we picked up some Native American drums and turquoise jewelry.
Stew noticed that the map outlined a little dirt road that headed west, turned south, and rejoined Highway 163 after just a mile or two. Craving a glimpse of the real reservation--anything beyond the gift shop--we took the shortcut.
We immediately spotted a modest home with a dome-shaped ceremonial Navajo mud hut in the yard. Success! Continuing on, we took a left at each fork. But after half an hour had passed with no more signs of civilization, I tossed the map onto the floorboard and declared us lost.
A Navajo couple in a pickup truck gave us some good directions to the town of Blanding, which is along the highway. Our two-hour detour left us short on time, and we still needed to get halfway across the state to Torrey, where I had booked a night at the Cowboy Homestead Cabins. Restaurants were sure to be closed by the time we arrived, so before getting on the road, we made a quick grocery stop. After a good long drive, we checked into our cabin, one of four, and fired up a nearby barbecue. The smell of steaks, pork chops, red peppers, and zucchini lured Greg Daussin, a Utahan from upstate who had been coming here for the past 10 years and was staying in the cabin next door. He and Stew discovered a shared love of rock climbing, and we stayed up until 3:30 a.m. trading climbing stories and slowly emptying the cooler.
- Cowboy Homestead Cabins2100 S. Rte. 12, Torrey, 435/425-3414, cowboyhomesteadcabins.com, from $49
- Twin Rocks Café913 E. Navajo Twins Dr., Bluff, 435/672-2341, twinrocks.com/cafe, pork ribs $8
- Peace Tree Juice Cafe20 S. Main St., Moab, 435/259-0101
- Canyonlands National Park435/719-2313, nps.gov/cany, weeklong car pass $10
- Goulding's Lodge & Tours100 Main St., Monument Valley, 435/727-3231, gouldings.com
Day 3: Torrey To Bryce Canyon
Torrey is the gateway to Capitol Reef, the least well known of Utah's five national parks. Route 24 cuts through it, threading a high valley carved by the little Fremont River. I had planned for us to spend only an hour or so at Capitol Reef--just enough time to take it in and move on--but I liked what I saw. The 10-mile Scenic Drive led us to a long wash (a dry canyon that becomes a river after heavy rain). The walls rise hundreds of feet on both sides as the dirt road twists its way through the increasingly narrow canyon. At the end of the road, we parked and continued on foot for two miles. As we walked, lizards scurried out of our path. It was quiet and eerie, like bandit country. I later learned Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch used Capitol Reef as a hideout.
From Torrey we wound south on Highway 12, through Dixie National Forest. It earns my vote for the country's most spectacular drive. By the time we reached the summit, the road cut through a forest of tall firs and eight-foot-high snow drifts (at the highest points, the snow can stay through late spring). A span of red and yellow mesas and desert lay below. And that was just the first 20 miles. Descending into Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the road follows the top of a ridgeline in a series of tight curves with drop-offs of more than 1,000 feet on both sides.
Once again, we found ourselves racing the clock, this time to get to Bryce Canyon to see the sunset light up the hoodoos, which are spindly, orange-and-white-striped spires of rock. We missed the natural show at the park's Sunset Point by five minutes. But as the crowds dispersed, a photographer stayed planted. "Wait a few more minutes," he instructed, smiling. "You'll see." Soon enough, the snow between the pinnacles glowed a luminous pale purple.