Friday, April 27, 2012

Travelogue: Southern Utah, Home of Spectacular National Parks

A bentonite hill, which is made up of ash layers from ancient volcanoes
 at Capitol Reef National Park

all photos by Olga Bonfiglio except those marked

Utah is no place for the faint of heart whether plant, animal, or human.  In this land of weathered rock amid sagebrush, yucca, cactus, juniper, cottonwoods and pinyon pine, travelers gain a new appreciation for wind and water’s role in shaping the landscape.

The majestic landforms of the Colorado Plateau will set your imagination on fire—along with the 100-degree dry heat—in Zion, Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef National Parks. 

These parks offer visitors an uncanny beauty and an experience of nature’s “sculptures” that result from tremendous geological changes dating back 2 billion years ago—and counting.  

Rivers, seas and desert winds have shaped this land and you can witness the different geological eras at the canyons’ and cliffs’ outcroppings. 

The Colorado Plateau is a 130,000 square-mile swath covering the intersection of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.  Sixty-five million years ago the region experienced uplift, tilting, and erosion of rock layers to form the Grand Staircase, a series of colorful cliffs stretching from the Grand Canyon to Bryce Canyon and including the Waterpocket Fold in Capitol Reef.

But the landscape of the parks and surrounding areas, which are not crowded at all, will look familiar.  Of course, this was the land of the cowboys that you saw in the movies.  Walk on the land and you hear and feel the crunch of the scrubby plants underfoot, endless dust, the winding paths around the sweet-smelling sagebrush and haunting rock formations that used to be good hiding places for outlaws. 

But the desolation and silence of the desert also allow you to witness its majesty and enchantment as well as to feel an eerie connection to the Western pioneers, Native Americans, and prehistoric peoples who once settled or traversed this land.  It’s really much the same as they saw it.

The national parks in southern Utah preserve this natural landscape for you and millions of visitors, as they have been doing for about 100 years.

Zion National Park
Observation Point -- photo by Zion National Park
The area that became Zion National Park was largely ignored until 1908 when Leo A. Snow, a U.S. deputy surveyor from St. George, Utah, did a general land survey and suggested that the land here be set aside and preserved as a sanctuary for wildlife and natural and cultural resources found nowhere else on earth.  In 1919 Zion became a national park with the Kolob section added in 1937. 

This place got its name, meaning “place of refuge,” from Mormon pioneers who sought sanctuary after being kicked out of Illinois, Ohio and Missouri because of their “strange” religious beliefs.  The Children of Israel are an “Old Testament people,” says author Wallace Stegner, “inheritors of the blessings of the tribe of Joseph.”  Inspired by their prophet, Joseph Smith, and led by Brigham Young in 1846, they moved and settled in this “land that nobody wanted.”

Zion National Park
The biblical names in the park reflect the Mormon influence:  Court of the Patriarchs, the grotto at Angels Landing, Watchman Trail, Mt. Carmel Highway.  But whatever your religion, you’ll marvel at the wondrously high cliffs and deep valleys which have been cut by the slow-moving Virgin River—and God’s hand in nature. 

A single road through Zion’s canyons takes you on numerous switchbacks and a long dark tunnel through a mountain.  You’ll see yellow, red, white and green striped mesas (flat-topped mountain tops), long fingered rock formations, summits, and cathedrals.  Slickrock, huge blocks of smooth-surfaced, flat sedimentary rock (sandstone, mudstone, and siltstone), comprises the high cliffs and deliciously cool overhangs that shield you from the hot sun.  This rock is so soft you can rub it off with your finger.  Large, weather-beaten boulders will tickle your imagination into seeing animal and human shapes. 

Zion National Park
Indeed, human habitation on the Colorado Plateau has been sparse.  The earliest records of human life go back 10,000 years when the Paleo-Archaic Indians roamed this land.  The Anasazi People, the first permanent settlers here 2,000 years ago, lived in small, scattered farmsteads but left around 1300.  The land was not occupied until the Paiute People came 800 years ago.  On July 24, 1847, Brigham Young and the Mormons arrived

To get an overview of the park, take the road leading through it or the free shuttle that takes visitors on a 90-minute scenic tour stopping at trailheads, the Museum of Human History, Zion Lodge.  The shuttle goes in some places where cars may not go.

Bryce Canyon National Park 
Hoodoos at Bryce Canyon
In mountainous areas you generally look up at the scenery.  At Bryce Canyon, you look down—at the hoodoos, those pillars of rock that look like whimsical earthen obelisks. 

Sculpted by wind and nightly freezing desert temperatures, the hoodoos got their name from Native American lore where the coyote turned the evil people to stone.  The “painted” pink, white and red (iron), purple (manganese), and white (limestone) “faces” serve as evidence of the myth.

Hoodoo of Queen Victoria on the Queen's Way
Geologists say that 10 million years ago forces within the earth created and then moved the Table Cliffs and Papunsaugunt Plateaus.  Ancient rivers carved the colorful Claron limestones, sandstones and mudstones into thousands of spires, fins, pinnacles and mazes, and exposed the edges of these blocks creating the Paria Valley. 

Walk the Queen’s Way and you instantly get an idea of how the eroding winds work as you cover you eyes and close your mouth to protect yourself against the swirling airborne sandstone. 

Get tickets for a horse or mule ride through the canyon at the park’s lodge or two-hour or half-day tours through the various levels of the canyon floor and among these giant sand castles. 

I only stopped at Bryce Canyon on the way from Zion to Torrey, but you will want to spend more time at this incredible showcase.

Grand Staircase/Escalante

If you haven’t already gotten a sense of gigantism in southern Utah, you will if you take the blue highways from Zion to Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef National Park.  Around the town of Escalante, this 200-mile trek winds through country that either looks like the Flintstone’s village or a huge rock garden. 

Boulders mix sparingly with vegetation and the mesas resemble altars to the gods.  You’ll suddenly notice that there are few traces of humanity in these parts except for a single power line or the road you’re driving.  You’ll feel humbled by your own smallness amid these open and desolate spaces and realize that Western-style individualism has been greatly mythologized.  No one could have survived these lands unless they worked together, which is what the Mormons did. 

Grand Staircase -- Escalante
Construction engineers who built these winding roads over immense expanses of sedimentary rock, must have marveled at these mountainous scenes, too.  (Some roads climb 300 feet at 6- to 8-degree grades.)  They have left a few scenic turnouts for travelers to stop and gaze at the yellow rock that looks like a moonscape with trees and sagebrush.

Huge stone piled onto stone offers a vista of endless scenery, one view more beautiful and more magnificent than the other.  Halfway to Torrey, you’ll see what look like gray beehives.  No, these landforms are not the origin of the state’s nickname, the symbol of the industrious Mormons.  These landforms are part of the Grand Staircase/Escalante, named after Fray Silvestre Velez de Escalante, a Spanish priest who accompanied Fray Francisco Atanasia Dominguez.  They traversed southwestern Utah in 1776 searching for a passable trail to Monterey, California. 

Grand Staircase -- Escalante
Drive further north and you see one more surprise:  Dixie National Forest.  This area features unusual green vegetation nestled among the yellow rock mountains.  You’ll see ranches with wire fences for cows and horses as well as signs for uniquely Western-style names:  Hell’s Backbone, Salt Gulch, Circle Cliffs, and Burr Trail. 

Nearing the 9,400-foot summit, you pass pine, spruce, Douglas fir and aspen trees and get an overview of the “staircase.”  So much greenery after all that rocky wilderness even inspires a few bicyclists to brave the steep heights.

Capitol Reef National Park

"Dome" formations look like U.S. Capitol Building -- photo by Planetware
Capitol Reef allows you to interact with millions of years of geologic history and thousands of years of human history at the same time. 

The 100-mile long Waterpocket Fold formed when the Pacific Ocean plate bumped into the North American continent about 65 million years ago and created the Rocky Mountains.  About 200 million years ago, the ocean layed down red and later gray sediments. 

Other remnants of geologic activity are the black boulders scattered over the land 20 to 30 million years ago.  They came from the lava flows of the volcanic Boulder Mountain 50 miles away.  Glaciers later eroded them. 

Round holes of many sizes line the rock walls.  This “honeycomb weathering” formed by the circular motion of tidal flats, sometimes gouged out caves due to the uneven density of the rock. 

The park features layered multi-hued cliffs, soaring spires, twisting canyons, graceful arches and stark monoliths that inspired the Native Americans to call this area the “Land of the Sleeping Rainbow.”  The white sandstone domes (prehistoric sand dunes) resemble the dome of the Capitol Building in Washington.  Hence, the park’s name

Temple of the Moon (L) and the Sun (R) in Cathedral Valley of Capitol Reef
The geologic history of Capitol Reef provides an unforgettable experience of the land.  However, to gather the unique spiritual quality of this place, take the unpaved road to Cathedral Valley where you’ll find the Temples of the Sun and Moon.  These stately, stone monoliths give you a feeling of permanence in much the same way cathedrals do in a city.  Their awesome power amid the dense quiet of the desert puts you in an altered state of mind as you gaze on the dry and dusty world around you.  The bumpy road to get there allows you to move only 20 miles an hour and requires a high-clearance or a four-wheel-drive vehicle.  Tours on the road are available in Torrey.

Dinosaurs once roamed this area and you can easily find traces of them in the gastropods scattered around the Morrison rock.  Gastroliths are smooth, round rocks the dinosaurs ingested and excreted much like the chickens do with their gizzard stones. 

You will find Devil’s toenails, too, which provide more evidence of the ocean that once covered the land.  The “toenails” are petrified seashells much like fossils only without the rock around them.  However, park rangers ask that souvenir hunters pick up these geological gems only outside the park.  And there’s plenty of them.

Pictographs at Capitol Reef National Park

One exciting link to the human history at Capitol Reef is through the petroglyphs (etched) and the pictographs (painted) on canyon walls.  They give you a glimpse of the Fremont People who lived here from 700 to 1250 A.D.  Their mainstay was bighorn sheep, which they proudly displayed with trapezoid-like images of themselves.  The park provides free interpretive tours of this ancient artwork but make friends with the locals who can take you to see other groups of them outside the park.

“Hobbit Land” is another place outside the park that the locals can show you.  In sight of Boulder Mountain, the largest flat-topped mountain in the United States, these globular red rocks are good for climbing for experts and novices alike.  Moving about them invites you to “commune” with the land by becoming a part of it—literally.  Wear your old clothes, though, when you climb these rocks.  The soft Entrada sandstone that rubs off on you is impossible to remove.

Capitol Reef also features a look into the Mormon culture that was established in 1879 along the Fremont River (also called the Dirty Devil).  First known as Junction and nicknamed “the Eden of Wayne County,” the Fruita settlement flourished through irrigation of sorghum (for syrup and molasses), vegetables and alfalfa.  The orchards which were famous a hundred years ago still stand today with a variety of apples, apricots, peaches, pears, plums, English and black walnuts and almonds.  Eight to 10 large families sustained this community until the late 1960s when the Park Service purchased Fruita property.   

Travelers can visit Fruita’s one-room schoolhouse, which also served as a town hall and church from 1884 until 1941.  In 1900 the public schools adopted the building until it closed in 1941 due to lack of students. 

If you go:
You can best get to Utah’s national parks by flying to Las Vegas or Salt Lake City and renting a car. 

Warning:  Drink a lot of water, bring sun block and wear a hat.  There is little cloud cover in Utah, which provides protection from the hot sun.  The mornings and evenings are cool enough for a light jacket.


  1. It's difficult to find experienced people on this subject, however, you seem like you know what you're talking about!
    Here is my weblog : reseller web hosting free

  2. Way cool! Some very valid points! I appreciate you penning this article and the rest of the website is extremely
    Feel free to surf my blog -

  3. I am really glad to glance at this weblog posts which carries
    plenty of helpful data, thanks for providing these data.
    My web site - schufafreier kredit

  4. Do you have any video of that? I'd want to find out more details.
    Feel free to visit my website ; best online jobs

  5. Do you have any video of that? I'd want to find out more details.
    My webpage > best online jobs

  6. Since the admin of this site is working, no doubt very shortly it will be renowned, due to its feature contents.
    Also visit my web page : krankenkasse Ohne zusatzbeitrag

  7. I've read some just right stuff here. Certainly value bookmarking for revisiting. I surprise how a lot effort you set to make this sort of magnificent informative site.
    Look at my website : Vergleich krankenversicherung Gesetzlich

  8. Heya i am for the primary time here. I found this board and I to find It really helpful & it
    helped me out much. I hope to offer one thing again and help others
    such as you helped me.
    My webpage ... consolidate your student loans

  9. Howdy are using Wordpress for your blog platform? I'm new to the blog world but I'm trying to get started
    and set up my own. Do you need any coding knowledge
    to make your own blog? Any help would be really appreciated!
    Feel free to visit my site :: barbados all inclusive

  10. I blog quite often and I seriously thank you for your information.
    This great article has truly peaked my interest. I am going to bookmark
    your blog and keep checking for new information about once a
    week. I opted in for your RSS feed as well.
    My page - seo expert thailand

  11. Asking questions are actually good thing if you are not
    understanding something completely, except this article
    presents fastidious understanding yet.
    Also see my web page :: student loan consolidation service

  12. Having read this I believed it was really enlightening.
    I appreciate you taking the time and effort to put this article together.
    I once again find myself spending a significant amount of time both reading and posting comments.
    But so what, it was still worth it!

    Also visit my page; beitragssätze krankenkasse
    My page - private Pflegeversicherung

  13. I've been exploring for a little bit for any high quality articles or weblog posts in this sort of space . Exploring in Yahoo I finally stumbled upon this web site. Studying this information So i'm satisfied
    to express that I've an incredibly just right uncanny feeling I came upon exactly what I needed. I so much undoubtedly will make certain to do not overlook this website and provides it a glance on a relentless basis.

    Here is my webpage; finanztest private krankenversicherung

  14. Hi Dear, are you in fact visiting this site on a regular basis,
    if so afterward you will absolutely obtain pleasant know-how.

    Also visit my web page ... business from home opportunity work

  15. My relatives every time say that I am wasting my time here at net, but
    I know I am getting familiarity daily by reading thes nice

    My blog post - search engine optimisation adelaide
    Also see my web site :: free seo software

  16. I've learn a few just right stuff here. Certainly price bookmarking for revisiting. I surprise how a lot attempt you set to create such a fantastic informative site.

    my blog - marketing and search engine optimization

  17. Hi there to every single one, it's in fact a good for me to visit this web site, it consists of helpful Information.

    Also visit my website; Affiliate Marketing guide

  18. Hello there! I could have sworn I've been to this site before but after browsing through some of the post I realized it's new to
    me. Anyhow, I'm definitely happy I found it and I'll be book-marking and checking back

    Review my blog: Kredite Auch Mit Negativer Schufa

  19. Hi, i feel that i saw you visited my web site thus i came to return the
    choose?.I'm attempting to in finding issues to improve my web site!I assume its good enough to make use of a few of your concepts!!

    Here is my web page :: gesetzliche krankenversicherungen im vergleich
    my website - beitragsstabilität pkv

  20. Hey just wanted to give you a quick heads up. The words in
    your post seem to be running off the screen in Opera.
    I'm not sure if this is a format issue or something to do with browser compatibility but I thought I'd post to let you know.
    The design and style look great though! Hope you get the issue solved soon.

    Take a look at my site: home entrepreneur ideas

  21. I’m not that much of a online reader to be honest but your sites really nice, keep it up!
    I'll go ahead and bookmark your website to come back later. Cheers

    Check out my weblog :: seo site

  22. My partner and I absolutely love your blog and find a lot
    of your post's to be exactly what I'm looking for. can you offer guest writers to write content for you?
    I wouldn't mind composing a post or elaborating on some of the subjects you write regarding here. Again, awesome site!

    Here is my page; money making business ideas

  23. You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation but
    I find this matter to be really something
    which I think I would never understand. It seems too complicated
    and very broad for me. I'm looking forward for your next post, I will try to get the hang of it!

    My page; Reseller services

  24. Hello, I think your blog might be having internet
    browser compatibility issues. Whenever I take a look at your site in Safari, it looks fine however, if opening in
    IE, it has some overlapping issues. I simply wanted to provide you with
    a quick heads up! Aside from that, wonderful site!

    Here is my homepage :: search engine optimisation birmingham
    my page :: search engine optimization expert

  25. It's a shame you don't have a donate button! I'd most certainly donate to this fantastic blog! I guess for now i'll settle for book-marking and adding
    your RSS feed to my Google account. I look forward
    to new updates and will share this website with my Facebook group.

    Chat soon!

    Have a look at my page;

  26. Incredible points. Solid arguments. Keep up the great effort.

    my web-site:

  27. Appreciation to my father who informed me about
    this weblog, this webpage is really remarkable.

    my blog; digital recorders reviews

  28. Pretty! This has been an incredibly wonderful post. Many thanks
    for providing this information.

    Feel free to surf to my weblog: download voice recorder

  29. This paragraph will assist the internet visitors
    for creating new webpage or even a weblog
    from start to end.

    Look at my web page Personal Voice Recorder

  30. all the time i used to read smaller posts which also clear their motive, and that is also happening with this
    post which I am reading at this place.

    Feel free to visit my web site:

  31. Heya i am for the primary time here. I came across this board and I in finding It really useful & it helped
    me out a lot. I'm hoping to offer something again and help others like you helped me.

    Visit my website: tata sky hd dvr

  32. Your style is unique in comparison to other people I've read stuff from. Thank you for posting when you have the opportunity, Guess I will just book mark this blog.

    Feel free to visit my webpage flat screen televisions

  33. I think that is among the such a lot vital info for me.
    And i am satisfied studying your article. However want to commentary on
    some normal issues, The web site taste is wonderful, the
    articles is actually nice : D. Excellent activity, cheers

    my website:

  34. If you wish for to improve your experience only keep visiting this web site and be updated with the most recent news update posted here.

    My blog; comcast dvr

  35. Thank you for every other wonderful article. The place else may anybody get that
    type of info in such an ideal method of writing? I've a presentation subsequent week, and I'm at the
    look for such information.

    Look into my page:

  36. Неy Theге. Ι fοunԁ уour blоg using mѕn.
    This is an ехtrеmеly wеll written article.
    I will be sure to boοκmark іt anԁ сome back to reaԁ more of уour useful info.
    Thаnκs for the post. I wіll definitеly

    Ηаve a lοоκ аt my page;
    Lloyd Irvin

  37. With Car Rental 8 you can discover the most affordable car rental at over 50000 international locations.