Natural arches inspired the engineers who built this highway system – it’s a blend of ancient erosion and modern materials that retains the scenic atmosphere of the area.
Story by James Stoness
Utah may bring thoughts of wild, rocky ledges of sandstone and magnificent colour you can only experience in a Technicolour John Wayne movie. Without a doubt, Utah’s sandstone desert is truly awesome. It’s hot in summer, but it is a magnet that attracts RV travellers. And why not? If you are looking for red rock, deep sheer walled canyons, and far vistas, then southern Utah is for you. Add to that endless vistas with magnificent cliffs flaming in the early morning sun, miles and miles of coloured sandstone liberally sprinkled with verdant green junipers and top it off with a deep blue sky filled with snow-white cumulus clouds, and the scenery alone is worth the trip!
This spectacular visual appeal was noticed not only by movie makers, but also by governments, resulting in five National Parks that preserve these magnificent areas for you to use for hiking, camping, and for phenomenal scenic drives.
By starting the Utah tour at Flagstaff, Arizona, you can couple it to a trip to both the South and North Rims of the Grand Canyon. Heading north on US-89 you will pass through comfortably cool areas flanked by Humphreys Peak, 12,633 feet, the highest point in Arizona. Soon the scenery becomes a bit bland until you climb out of the lowland after crossing the Colorado River.
The junction of Ariz-67 can take you 42 miles south to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. I’ve always found it a quieter area than the South Rim portion of the park. It has about 1/10 of the visitors. It’s usually cooler, and has several promontories whose roads take you out to abrupt canyon edges.
Continue northwest to Mt. Carmel Jct. and follow Utah-9 into Zion National Park. This highway is crooked, and slow, as it winds around stark, bare outcrops of sandstone to eventually descend through a mile long tunnel. The Virgin River has carved a gash hundreds of feet deep through the sandstone and it presents a great view as you emerge from the tunnel. In the bottom of the valley you drive through small groves of green trees as you parallel the small river which chortles and splashes over the rapids. Soaring high above are the sheer cliffs of red sandstone. Here and there narrow side canyons penetrate the wall sometimes offering a cliff-hanging trail to the rim.
There’s good camping and some great hikes in this valley. Be aware that the hikes usually involve a lot of uphill work, except for the return trip. A hike to Angel’s Landing will take you to a narrow pinnacle top that has an exceptional view of the valley, and a scary view when you look straight down 1,500 feet, to the river. It can be daunting for those who don’t like narrow trails, nor heights.
Head out of the park to I-15, and north to Kolob Canyon using a 5 mile road that leads from I15 near the town of Kanarraville into the Kolob Fingers region of the park. You can hike from the valley in Zion to Kolob Canyon, but this is quicker.
Once again heading north on I-15, turn east at Cedar City and begin a long driving climb from an elevation of 5,800 feet to Midway Summit at 9,900 feet before arriving at Cedar Breaks National Monument. This is a huge cirque, whose amphitheatre-circular shape consists of red rock, masked by evergreen trees. Standing erect within the eroded cirque are many erosion carved figures, of all shapes.
Head east and follow US-89 north to the road into Bryce Canyon. On the way you pass through beautiful Red Canyon. Again, here, as in so many places in this country the red rock stands out among the darker green evergreens. It’s a nice place to camp among the trees and perhaps plan to take one of their hiking trails. A Visitor Centre is across the road from the campground. If you are heading for Bryce NP in the afternoon, I suggest you stop at the campground. Bryce Campground often fills up quickly. It’s better to arrive there in the early part of the day.
Bryce Canyon National Park is a fairyland of statues and strange, sometimes grotesque, figures carved into the side of the Paunsaugunt Plateau by erosion. As you drive among the evergreens at the top of the plateau you can look across the dry valley to the east. Below the rim of the plateau are many places where the erosion has created cities of stone. Here your mind can conjure up castle walls complete with notches and windows. The rocks are multicoloured, with shades of reds, whites, and pinks predominating.
The best way to see the great variety of colours and rock formations is by driving the park road and stopping at the viewpoints along the 20-mile rim drive. There are 12 amphitheatres, and each contains its own special kind of magic. At the end of the plateau you view across the Grand Staircase, a series of great cliffs stepping their way down to the Grand Canyon. There are several trails leading down off the top of the plateau so that you walk along the bottom of the cliffs. Bryce NP is a great place to camp. The air is fresh, and brisk, and it usually doesn’t feel too crowded.
Underlying Southern Utah and Northern Arizona are several thousands of feet of layered sedimentary rock. Since these layers tilt downward as you move north, they form a series of gently tilted plateaus whose southward edges form steep cliffs. A series of large steps, called the Grand Staircase, begins rising at the Grand Canyon on the Kaibab Plateau. Heading north you pass through the formations of the red-brown Chocolate Cliffs, followed by the very splendid dark red of the Vermilion Cliffs. Near Zion Canyon National Park you encounter the White Cliffs that form some of the steepest cliffs along the Grand Staircase. Bryce Canyon National Park is located in the uppermost step, that of the Pink Cliffs.
We continue east on Utah-12 which is a crooked, undulating highway giving far away views at times. You could stop near Cannonville at Kodachrome Basin State Park, where a variety of stone pillars appear to sprout from the sandstone. They are very picturesque, standing up against the blue sky with a few puffy white clouds.
The highway continues to Boulder but before you arrive you have to cross ‘The Hogsback’, a skinny crest of land with drops several hundreds of feet almost right at the side of the pavement. The impressive part of this is that it falls away on both sides of the road. In the vicinity of the Escalante River you can expect some very crooked climbing and descending of the canyon walls. The road seems at times to be twisting around until it’s on top of itself. It’s a pleasant and scenic area. There are places as you skirt Boulder Mountain where you can view 100 miles across to the east to the La Sal Mountains south of Moab, where we are heading.
Eventually, we turn east on Utah-24 to cross Capital Reef National Park. Again, there are more astounding geological features. There is the 100-mile long bulge, or fold, in the layers of sandstone called the Waterpocket Fold. Erosion of the tilted rock layers of the Fold forms brightly coloured cliffs, with free standing figures of tall rock, and even spiky shafts of rock pointing skyward. In addition, there are a variety of arches and winding canyons. There is a developed campground at Fruita. It’s a good relaxing place to stay, under big limbed shade trees. You have to imagine how settlers in the 1800’s managed to start farms, and orchards in this almost arid place.
From here we head north to I-70 and then south to US-91 reaching the entrance to Arches National Park. The rocks of Arches NP are underlain by massive salt formations deposited eons ago, when this area was under the sea. Upward movement of the salts have bent the overlying rock causing it to crack into curved fins. As rock falls from the centre of the fins great arches are formed. The park is home to many magnificently curved structures and tall ornate obelisks.
West of Arches NP is the fabulous ‘Island in the Sky’, part of the vast Canyonlands National Park. Far below the rim, a viewer can see the faint outline of the White Rim Trail hundreds of feet below, a 100 mile 4wd tour that overlooks the deeper canyon of the Green River.
In the valley below both of these parks you come to Moab. Moab is a quiet town, centrally located for visits to Arches, and Canyonlands National Parks, and the La Sal Mountain scenic drive. Enthusiasts flock to the area to practise 4-wheel driving on the hundreds of rugged trails nearby.
As you drive in the valley of the Colorado River, you wind along the edge of the river, massive walls of reddish sandstone looming above the green fringe of cottonwoods at the river’s edge. Those who have access to a sturdy 4WD vehicle often continue onward to join the White Rim Trail around the mesa in Canyonlands NP and to climb the tortuous Shafer Trail to the top of the plateau. This trail’s excitement is exacerbated by its steepness, its sharp switchbacks and the sheer drops hundreds of feet to the floor of the canyon just inches from your wheel tracks. The views back into the canyon are perfect.
Utah is a great adventure place for the RV’er. I suggest autumn, when it’s cooler and the leaves are turning. I suggest you make this part of Utah the destination of your trip. To fully enjoy all of these parks takes quite a while, even when it’s just your first reconnaissance trip. Once having been there, you will want to return again and again.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
About Utah: https://utah.com/
Utah Camping: https://utah.com/campgrounds
About the Author:
For more than forty years, James and Sylvia Stoness have been touring the byways of North America. See his website at StonessRVtravel.com to purchase his Touring North America RV travel guides which show a variety of scenic routes to his favourite destinations. These e-books are now available as downloads.