Notes from An American Road Trip: Southwestern Utah
Tripping Content Manager Katy Birnbaum
is currently on a 2 month road trip across the country, and we will be getting dispatches from her as she makes her journey. Here is the first one!
Why everyone isn’t flocking to Southwestern Utah is beyond me. Just seeing two of the major destinations, Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon, has gotten me hooked. With only two days in each, I had to leave much of both massive parks unexplored, not to mention Capitol Reef, Arches National Park, Canyon Lands, and Monument Valley—just to name some of the more known scenic destinations.Shortly after I passed the Utah state line from Nevada, the terrain and architecture began to change. While raveling east from the flatter, rutty desert land to the west, each mile marker into Utah seemed to push up another sunset colored mesa, tops all flat with the iconic orange and red streaking down the shear faces. Coupled with the high baseline elevation, the mountainous scenery is aptly suited for a recently coined tag line for Utah—’Life elevated.”
Overall, the man-made structures throughout this region are more Southwestern Chic than in Nevada. The few small communities that I saw tucked in among the rising canyon lands were comprised of homes that managed to look unique, luxurious, yet unobtrusive—a difficult combination to pull off, especially when competing with the dramatic landscapes.
My first destination was Zion National Park. Unfamiliar with the area, I had stopped in Cedar City for groceries and gas only to discover that the city right at the doorstep to the park, Springdale, was actually quite developed with plenty of stores, restaurants, and shops that seemed worthy of exploration in themselves—much more impressive and less touristy than any other National Park sapling of a city that I have seen thus far.
I arrived just in time to see the sunset crank the color of the mountain faces to an even brighter orange-red. The Watchman Campgrounds were well maintained and close to the beginning of the park’s shuttle loop, but the bathroom placement was awkward from my campsite, forcing me to either walk around the entire loop or tromp through somebody’s campsite every time I went to them.
Unfortunately, the dish washing situation was also sub-par. But on the upside, the most dangerous animals I had to contend with were squirrels that had been known to bite humans, which were easily thwarted by a locked car, ultimately leaving me with no bear boxes to struggle with.
The shuttle system in Zion is absolutely superb, with buses running every six minutes or so right up until 11:00pm. Running along the main canyon, the shuttle stops at all of the major destinations, many of which are within a half mile of the road. Even though I know there were many sites that I was not able to see, including the western Kolob Canyon area, I was surprised at how much I was able to take in during one moderately long day.
Starting out with a two to three mile hike up the Virgin River (literally in the river) into the Narrows at the top of the canyon, I was able to see many of the overlooks on the way back. Although none of the stops afforded me the solitude and quiet that the majestic vistas deserved, the massive sandstone formations inspired every once of inspiration and awe that they are supposed to.
With names like the Altar of Sacrifice, the Court of the Patriarchs, and the Temple of Sinawava throughout the park, it’s easy to see that people have been moved by this place for thousands of years. Weaving through the towering formations of earth’s millennia, I felt incredibly proud to have this be part of my national heritage. Yet, with each surge in my sense of pride and ownership, there was an equal, if not greater sense that no people could own this place, that as a country we could surely claim it, protect it, and even admire it, but never truly possess such a wild and profound creation.
The trip to Bryce Canyon was one of complete surprise and wonderment. After driving up and out of Zion’s desert mesas, the scenery quickly changed to vast open plateaus and prairies lands full of lush greens and yellows with creeks running through alpine meadows.
From the high ridges, the vastness of the valleys seemed incomprehensible, especially with the stoic flat-topped mountains stretching up on the other side, equally as incomprehensible in their size and distance, all capped by a tumultuous sky of baby blue, lightning storms, and massive, yet docile plumes of cumulus clouds.
Storms come on fast and sporadically in the mountains. Almost always at a enough of an incline to see scores of miles into the distance, I could watch the rain racing across the meadows, a gray haze reaching down from the vaulted clouds.
Bryce Canyon National Park instantly endeared itself to me. Encompassing both the idyllic meadow scapes and the improbable forest of orange sandstone spires known as Hoodoos, it did not cease to take my breath away. The cool, clean mountain air instantly lifted my spirits and made it much easier to hustle the camp together.
It also had fabulous campgrounds that are first come first serve. I was worried about getting a spot and rushed to get there by around 12:00. To my surprise, there were vacancies late into the night, even on Friday. The only drawback to the campgrounds I stayed in was that there was only one set of bathrooms. That being said, it was a great bathroom—impeccably clean with hot water and a nice sized dish room with double sinks. There were even laundry facilities and showers at the general store, making Bryce Canyon one of the most well equipped and least trafficked National Parks that I have ever visited.
Although I didn’t need more reasons to love my stay in Bryce Canyon, the morning of my departure definitely offered a few. While packing the rooftop bag, a friendly and intrigued woman chatted me up about the gear and the park. She was camping all throughout the region by herself on a little personal retreat. Happily taking my advice about different trails and activities in the region, she let me feel like an expert on place I had only experienced for a few days. It felt good to pass on whatever information I had gathered and connect with another person out on a journey.
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I met two more fellow travelers at the water spigot as we took turns filling our various mismatched jugs. They seemed to be in their late fifties or early sixties, and I was surprised that they were as interested in talking with me as they were, but as it ends up, I talked to them for the better part of an hour. My personal reservations quickly fell by the way side as I learned that they had met each other in a Zen meditation center and were practicing Buddhist on an extended trip through the National Parks. After talking about family, spirituality, India, the internet, and Tripping
, we exchanged information and hugs and will hopefully meet again.
TIPS FOR SOUTHWESTERN UTAH
- Ideally give yourself at least one week to explore the region. Considering my itinerary, I was unable to see many of the other parks, but can assure you that Southwestern Utah has gone on my list of worthy destinations that I will return to many times in my life.
- Although Zion was amazing and is well worth the visit, I would recommend staying in Bryce Canyon or one of the other smaller, less popular parks in the area and planning a day trip to Zion.
- If staying at Bryce Canyon, try to stay in the Sunset Campgrounds, as they are only a ten minute walk away to the main viewing area for the Hoodoo amphitheater. Also, try to secure a site as close to the set of bathrooms as possible, as they are the only ones for both loops.
ROAD TRIP TIP
Do not pack bottles of rubbing alcohol or peroxide in your first aid kit, as changes in elevation and the heat in the car will indefinitely make them leak. Instead, pack alcohol and/or disinfectant wipes.