The Canyons of Southern Utah

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Bryce Canyon, Zion Canyon, Arches, and Grand Staircase-Escalante Parks

The three-mile, mostly level trail to Lower Calf Creek Falls in southern Utah's magnificent Canyon Country is not difficult. But I was getting plenty hot from the sun's burning glare, which radiated ovenlike off the red rock cliffs overhead. So when I reached the slender falls, which spill 126 feet into a large, deep pool at the trail's end, I didn't hesitate. Off came my shirt and hiking boots, and I plunged into the clear, frigid water. Brrrrr! Later, fully refreshed, I dried out on a large, flat rock, eating the picnic lunch I'd packed and listening to the cheery serenade of the splashing stream. A terrific day, I remember thinking at the time. And the fun had hardly cost me anything. Etched by deep, sinuous slick-rock canyons and shadowed by forested mountain peaks, southern Utah ranks as one of America's great outdoor playgrounds - a surprisingly inexpensive vacation destination that is as awesomely beautiful as it is geologically chaotic. From this compact region of multicolored rock formations - graceful arches, towering spires, soaring cliffs - five national parks, three national monuments, a sprawling national recreation area, and several state parks have been carved. Many people come to Canyon Country simply as sightseers to gaze in awe at the natural spectacles. For others, the parks mean exciting wilderness adventures, a place where they can hike, bike, kayak, raft, or rock climb beneath a dazzling blue sky.

On Calf Creek Trail, a popular hike in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, study the ancient pictographs of humanlike figures painted in red on a smooth cliff side. At Capitol Reef National Park, venture into a deep red rock canyon so narrow you can almost touch both sides with your extended arms. On a high, pinon-shaded plateau at Escalante State Park, examine fine deposits of petrified wood, including brightly hued tree trunks polished by the ages to the shiny gleam of giant marbles. At Bryce Canyon National Park, descend the steep switchback path called the Navajo Trail that leads into a fantastical wonderland of eerie pink rock pillars and pinnacles called "hoodoos." At Arches National Park, climb the scary cliff's-edge trail to snap a photo of Delicate Arch, the park's majestic emblem.

There is a frontier look to this rugged, unspoiled land, as well as easy-on-the-wallet prices that hark back to an earlier era. If you plan ahead, you can easily find good economical lodges and motels - often in a scenic setting. Expect to pay $7.50 for a hearty chicken-fried steak dinner, less than $8 for a burger-and-beer combo (big enough to satisfy a hungry ranch hand). Like my Calf Creek hike, most of what you will want to see or do costs little or nothing. Indeed, Canyon Country - or "Color Country," as it often is promoted - could just as appropriately be dubbed "Budget Country."

Trivia pause: On this trip, it's useful to know the difference between a natural bridge and a natural arch - which look exactly alike. Both are formed by erosion. A bridge is carved by a rushing stream or waterfall; the weather-wind, rain, snow, heat, cold-shapes an arch.

Getting there

To get you on your way, I've plotted a budget traveler's itinerary to what I consider the highlights of Canyon Country. In a hurry, you could cover the route in a week (as I describe it), but two weeks are better. If time is short, plan to visit only one or two of the parks described here. On my last trip, I spent four memorable days hiking and sightseeing just at Grand Staircase-Escalante. Summer is the busy season; spring and fall are quieter and cheaper. In winter, the parks remain open but many budget-priced tourist facilities close.

You can begin and end this circle route at either Salt Lake City to the north or Las Vegas to the south. Or begin in one city and end in the other. Both are served by budget airlines. A search of the Internet suggests summer car rentals are cheaper out of Las Vegas. Dollar recently quoted a weekly rate for mid-August 2001 of $108 for a four-door compact with unlimited mileage. From Salt Lake, the lowest rate I could find for the same car/same week was $167 at Payless.

No matter which city you pick, your vacation begins with a five-to-six-hour drive to Kanab, the inexpensive gateway to Utah's canyon parks. But this is not as tiring a slog as you might imagine, because the scenery is eye-catching almost every mile of the way. At the first park you visit, buy a $50 National Parks Pass. It covers entrance fees for you and everyone in your car at all national parks and monuments for a year. Seniors 62 and older can purchase a lifetime Golden Age Passport (good for a carload) for $10. Room rates below are for two people per night during summer high season.

Zion National Park

About 40 miles west of Kanab, Zion National Park (435/772-3256) makes a dazzling introduction to Canyon Country. Carved by the rippling Virgin River, Zion Canyon is a deep, narrow gorge of vividly colored sandstone walls rising 3,000 feet. The approach from Kanab on Utah Route 9 provides a panoramic view before the road takes you on a heartstopping, zigzag descent into its depths.

Only recently, park officials have banned most vehicular traffic on the seven-mile Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, which threads the canyon past Zion Lodge to the road's end at the Narrows. Now you must board a free shuttle at the Visitor Center or you can walk all or part of the way beneath willows and cottonwoods lining the Virgin River. A number of side trails from easy to strenuous ascend the canyon walls. The short but steep climb to the Emerald Pools (two miles round-trip) is a favorite of mine because it rewards with more lovely pools and cascading falls. Unless you're an avid hiker, plan to spend no more than a half day in the park, and then move on.

Details: Within the park, Zion Lodge (303/297-2757) is lovely but somewhat pricey. Instead, stay in Kanab, once favored by Hollywood as a dramatic setting for westerns. I like the rambling old Parry Lodge (435/644-2601), an 89-room motel with an outdoor pool that has decorated its rooms with photos of the movie stars who came to town. Rates begin at $50 per double room. Dine at the inviting Parry Lodge Restaurant, where the prime rib plate costs $14, the chicken-fried steak just $7.50.

Alternative digs, if Parry Lodge is full, are found just down the street at the 31-room Aiken's Lodge (435/644-2625) at $47 per double. A bit pricier, the 119-room Shiloh Inn (435/644-3562) charges $85, which includes continental breakfast for two. And you'll find more choices in Springdale at the western entrance to Zion. Consider the 41-room Pioneer Lodge (435/772-3233), $59 per double room. From Kanab, convenient day trips are possible south to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona and east to Wahweap Marina (on the Utah/Arizona state line) for an escorted boat trip on Lake Powell to Rainbow Bridge National Monument, the world's largest natural bridge.

Bryce Canyon National Park

One of America's oddest national parks, Bryce Canyon National Park (435/834-5322) looks like something out of a fairy tale. Formed by erosion, pink stone pillars in fanciful or bizarre shapes - the hoodoos - soar like the towers of a castle or ancient cathedral. Here and there, a natural tunnel pierces the rock or an arch leaps overhead. From the canyon's rim, you can peer into this chaotic jumble. But better yet, don sturdy boots and descend into its maze of narrow passageways.

The 1.5-mile (round-trip) Navajo Loop Trail is my favorite. Starting from Sunset Point, it drops rapidly into the canyon in a series of 29 switchbacks and then squeezes through a narrow, high-walled passage dubbed "Wall Street." Climbing out, it skirts the Pope, Thor's Hammer, and other aptly named rock formations. Plan on a half day in the park.

Details: Bryce is about 85 miles northeast of Zion. Here, too, is Bryce Canyon Lodge (303/297-2757), beautifully located but expensive. I recently stayed just outside the park at Bryce Canyon Pines (800/892-7923), a pleasant 52-room motel where the rate is $75. Prices are cheaper about 15 miles west in the town of Panguitch. There, the 55-room Best Western New Western (800/528-1234) charges $65 with continental breakfast. At the 13-room Hiett Lamplighter Inn (800/322-6966), $55; at the 16-room Horizon Motel (800/776-2651), $49. Or try one of the motels in the town of Tropic, seven miles east of Bryce. The rate at the 65-room Bryce Valley Inn (435/679-8811) is $55 per double. And a minor note: a T-bone steak at Bryce Canyon Pines costs a too-high $16.50. But the dinner special (just $9.95) features thoroughly acceptable baked chicken or porkchops.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

The immense emptiness of Grand Staircase-Escalante (435/826-5499) is intimidating. Indeed, rangers regularly warn inexperienced hikers of the potentially fatal danger of getting lost in this harsh, unforgiving wilderness. But don't let those daunting words keep you away. Much of the huge monument can be viewed - and enjoyed - easily by almost any traveler. And see it you should. Utah Route 12, one of America's most scenic highways, traces its northern edge, and a handful of roads paved and unpaved provide limited access to the interior.

If the name - a real mouthful - puzzles you, join the crowd. In fact, Grand Staircase-Escalante recognizes two very distinct geological features. To the west, the Grand Staircase is a series of cliff-edged plateaus that climb like giant stair steps from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to Bryce Canyon. To the east, the Escalante is the incredibly rumpled landscape drained by the many slender feeder canyons of the Escalante River. Calf Creek, where I took my cooling dip, flows through one such canyon to the river. Both areas are gorgeous, but Escalante is where you're going to want to spend most of your time. Because of its size, allow for a two-day stay.

If one vista in the monument might thrill more than any other - the kind of view where one literally gasps in awe - it comes suddenly at the summit of a low pass about ten miles east of the little town of Escalante on Route 12. Spread out before you for miles around is an eerie landscape of polished yellow rock-as if a hard, shiny pottery glaze had been sunbaked atop the scrambled gorges, domes, ridges, and cliffs. Tour guides call it "an ocean of rock." In a series of steep switchbacks, Route 12 plunges deep into this sandstone sea.

Hike along Calf Creek, marvel at the petrified stumps at Escalante State Park, and then take a detour drive on the 67-mile Burr Trail, which begins in the town of Boulder. At the outset, huge petrified sand dunes, created millions of years ago, soar like giant cones of soft ice cream, right down to the swirls on top. And then the road drops quickly into a landscape turned a dark, rich red. This is Long Canyon, a narrow, seven-mile-long winding valley cut between majestic cliffs. In Utah's realm of many spectacles, the canyon is a glory. And on a recent day in June, my wife and I had it to ourselves.

Details: On two trips in recent years, I made my headquarters in Boulder, about 85 miles east of Bryce Canyon. The 20-room Boulder Mountain Lodge (800/556-3446), perched on the edge of a bird sanctuary and pond, is perhaps the finest lodging in Canyon Country. Rates begin at $69. A block up the road, the 13-room, family-run Pole's Place Motel (800/730-7422) is basic but spotlessly clean, and cheaper at $49. Dine five minutes away at Boulder Mesa Cafe, featuring a $14.95 New York steak dinner or a $9.95 roast beef plate. You can also find good, inexpensive lodging and dining in nearby Escalante, another Route 12 gateway to the park. A newly refurbished room at the 12-room Padre Motel (435/826-4276) begins at $40, while the same at the 50-room Prospector Inn (435/826-4653) is $57. Just down the street, the Circle D Restaurant serves up a full grilled chicken dinner for $7.95.

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef (435/425-3791) is the national park almost nobody knows. And maybe we should keep it our secret. Traffic jams can clog Zion and Bryce in summer, but it's not a problem here. Stretching in a slender, 100-mile, north-to-south strip, the park preserves a rare and mighty fold in the earth's crust known to geologists as the Waterpocket Fold. The name comes from the numerous pockets and potholes in the rocks that capture rainwater. To the uninitiated, the fold most resembles an oddly tilted ridge or reef thrusting into the air, its broad face tinted in reds and oranges and wrinkled with the weathering of ages. The "Capitol" pays tribute to many rounded grayish-white domes.

A nine-mile scenic drive links several of the major rock formations. But to really see the park, plan on a hike or two. As a starter, go for a two-mile journey into the Grand Wash, a rock-filled gully that winds beneath towering red cliffs. It's an easy trek that gets more intriguing as the high, water-polished canyon walls narrow into a winding tunnel barely the width of outstretched arms.

Details: Stay in Torrey, just outside the park's west entrance. At the lovely ten-room Capitol Reef Inn & Cafe (435/425-3271), the room decor and the menu reflect the local southwestern style. A room is $44, a nine-ounce ribeye steak $12.95. Other less romantic options: the Torrey/Capitol Reef Super 8 Motel (435/425-3688), $58; and the 39-room Days Inn (435/425-3111), $79. You could also stay in Boulder and make a day trip to Capitol Reef. The 32-mile drive via Route 12 climbs the shoulder of 11,000-foot Boulder Mountain, offering spectacular views.

Arches/Canyonlands National Parks

The 1.5-mile trail that climbs to Delicate Arch in Arches National Park - one of nature's most graceful rock sculptures - is steep, tough, hot, and just a little scary as it edges a sheer drop-off. But the payoff, as the narrow path swings abruptly around a soaring red bluff, is a spectacular vista. The massive arch, which leaps into the sky with the muscular agility of a ballet dancer, frames majestic cliffs, canyons, mesas, and mountains. At first sight, I gasped both to catch my breath from the ascent and from wonderment at the panorama spread for miles before me.

Arches (435/719-2299) and Canyonlands (435/259-7164) are neighboring parks outside the Old West town of Moab. By far the larger of the two, Canyonlands is a rugged wilderness most suited to the hardy, experienced, and well-prepared - although the 12-mile drive to Grand View Point shouldn't be missed.

For the rest of us, however, little Arches actually offers more in the way of interesting rock sculptures, scenic drives, and easy-to-moderate hikes. Arches boasts more than 1,500 catalogued arches, the greatest density of them in the world. Many can be seen from the park's 28-mile scenic road. But short trails lead to many more.

Overwhelmed by their numbers, I almost missed Delicate Arch. But a ranger I met in the visitor center on my final day there all but ordered me to make the climb or regret missing one of Canyon Country's greatest views. So I obeyed and was bedazzled. What a grand, spirit-boosting way to end my trip.

Details: Give yourself at least two days in Moab to see both parks. Moab is about 150 miles east of Capitol Reef via Utah Routes 24 east and 95 south and U.S. 191 north. En route, stop for two or three hours at Natural Bridges National Monument.

Moab's lodging rates tend to be a little higher than elsewhere on this tour. Stay at the 50-room Red Stone Inn (800/772-1972), $59.95; the 40-room Bowen Motel (800/874-5439), $70; or the 50-room Best Inn (435/259-8848), both $75. All three have pools. On a tighter budget, try the Lazy Lizard International Hostel (435/259-6057), $8.72 in a bunk room for four (women) or eight (men). About 50 miles north in Green River, the 105-room Motel 6 (435/564-3436) charges $56. In Moab, dine at Smitty's Golden Steak, the town's bustling favorite. Full dinners-hamburger steak, ham steak, liver and onions - cost just $6.95.

To complete your Canyon Country tour, return to Salt Lake City or Las Vegas via I-70 and I-15 - perhaps with a detour to Cedar Breaks National Monument - another red rock spectacular.

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