Mighty Utah! Best Kept Secret for a Fly/Drive Vacation!

By Maureen Condon

Bryce Canyon – one of its many amphitheaters full of hoodoos

Surreal National Parks, rugged and delicate rock formations, caves and waterfalls – all will have you raving about Utah for months after your trip.

And, with a nod to the mundane, you’ll rave about Utah’s lodging prices. For under $100 per night, you can stay at some very comfortable motels adjacent to the national parks.

Here’s a sample itinerary for a trip to 4 national parks/monuments, and the scenic highways that link them. I recently took 7 days to do this trip with three friends from college.

Fly in to Salt Lake City. You’ll see breathtaking views of the Great Salt Lake – with vast stretches of white water that look, from a distance, like snow covered frozen bays edging a massive blue gem.

Great Salt Lake

The Great Salt Lake is the largest U.S. lake west of the Mississippi and the 4th largest terminal lake in the world. 75 miles long by 28 miles wide, it covers 1,700 square miles, with a maximum depth of 35 feet. The Lake is actually three to five times saltier than the ocean, and each year the salt industry extracts about 2.5 million tons of sodium chloride and other elements from the lake.

Drive south from Salt Lake City, to the Timpanogos Caves located on Utah Route 92. The 3 ½ mile round trip hike up Timpanogos Mountain to the caves, through the caves and back down again is a real cliff hanger — not for the people who get vertigo looking off the edge of a switchback. Elevation gain for the hike is 1,100 feet, and your starting elevation is 5,000+.

A Park Ranger guides visitors through Timpanogos Caves

However, the path is paved and wide enough for two, and if friends are patient, as mine were, even someone with a moderate fear of heights can make the trip. The cave and the views on the way up and down are worth the effort. You can see a video of what it’s like here: http://www.utah.com/nationalsites/timp_cave.htm

Now, catch your breath, and drive south on Highways 89 and 24 to Capitol Reef National Park http://www.nps.gov/care/index.htm

Beware of animals on the winding highways! We had to stop the car and wait while two bulls fought head to head in the middle of the road. Later that evening, we slowed multiple times for deer crossing the road. It kept the drive interesting.

Capitol Reef National Park boasts “The Waterpocket Fold,” a 100-mile long wrinkle in the earth’s crust known as a monocline, which extends from Thousand Lakes Mountain to the Colorado River’s Lake Powell. The park derives its name from the domes which look like Capitol Domes and the sheer cliffs which resemble ocean reefs. Photographs can’t do it justice, because the colors are intriguingly subtle and the scope of the rift and valley so large.

Capitol Reef Waterpocket Fold

But, this is just an appetizer for the next course in rock eye-candy.

Travel down Highway 12 and pass by magical landscapes that you think should be part of the national parks. As beautiful as these are, nothing on earth prepares you for Bryce Canyon and its amphitheaters of Hoodoos – delicately shaped rock sentries, by the thousands, standing guard over the secrets of time. Water and frost have carved this wonder, not the wind. Bryce Canyon’s hoodoos range in size from that of an average human to heights exceeding a 10-story building.

Hoodoos in Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon is one of the smallest national parks, but by far the most haunting. http://www.nps.gov/brca/index.htm Its 56.2 square miles occupy the eastern edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. It contains more than a dozen amphitheaters, each of which is carved at least 1,000 feet into the chromatic limestone. Looking down on its splendor, you can see why the early pioneers called it “Temple of the Gods.”

One of many trails into Bryce Canyon

There are only a few “easy” trails into this wonderland, and almost a dozen moderate and strenuous ones. Chose carefully. At elevations ranging from 8000+ to 11,000+ you don’t need to be dizzy from exertion. You can find a description of each trail at this site: http://www.nps.gov/brca/planyourvisit/hiking.htm

Archway to wonderland

Now, switch gears and drive from the delicate to the rugged down Highways 12, 89 and 9 and descend into the valley of the Virgin River, which has carved out mighty Zion National Park over the past millions of years.

Zion Canyon

Rugged, craggy, massive towers dominate — 1,000 feet straight up above the road through the canyon. They make everyone feel petite. It’s a totally different experience from Bryce Canyon.

The riverwalk is the most famous and easiest trek – 2 miles round trip – through a small section of Zion. We did it in 100 degree dry heat. The cool part is that you can wade through the Virgin River Narrows near the end of the trail and even jump in and swim in spots.

The Virgin River Narrows

You can also catch a horseback ride – for an hour or a half day. The most fun here was fording the Virgin River on horseback.

Zion National Park

We left the majestic beauty of Zion with reluctance, but the drive on Highway 15 back to Salt Lake City was – though not labeled scenic – also beautiful.

I’ve traveled through 36 of the 50 states – I’ve yet to explore the Northwest and Alaska. Utah gets my vote for the most spectacularly beautiful state I’ve seen so far – and this itinerary doesn’t even include the Moab region with Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Natural Bridges National Monument, and Dead Horse Point State Park, all of which I visited 2 years ago and heartily recommend.

For a map of Utah, visit:

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