Road Trip to Red Rock

The past year has seen great things for our National Parks. Ken Burns’ gorgeous and inspiring documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, aired last September. Recently, President Obama proclaimed April 17-25 National Park Week and entrance fees at all 392 of our national parks were waived for visitors. What more impetus could one need? This spawned a camping and hiking adventure among the jagged peaks and vibrant red slickrock of Utah’s national parks. I wasn’t the only one taking advantage of National Park Week—campgrounds were full and visitors were out in droves enjoying the first warmth of spring.

Arches National Park

Arches National Park lies in southeastern Utah, an inauspicious turn off I-70 near the small town of Green River. The flat 25-mile road toward Moab belies little of the red rock sandstone, soaring arches, and delicately balanced rocks of this high desert wonderland.

View through the Delicate Arch at Arches National Park.
View through the Delicate Arch at Arches National Park. Photo © Sabrina Young.

Originally set aside as a National Monument in 1929, Arches graduated to National Park status in 1971. It’s soaring namesake arches and rust-colored landscape were made famous in Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, published in 1968 when Arches was still fairly undeveloped. Since then, scenic roads have eased travel through much of the park, opening access to trails and arches, but much of “Abbey’s country” remains invitingly unexplored.

Arches National Park contains more than 2,000 natural arches, sculpted from the Entrada sandstone by water and wind. The landscape silhouette ranges from soaring spires and jagged pinnacles to slickrock cliffs and red-rock balancing acts. Touring the park road provides a brief introduction to these striking structures, but hiking is the best way to explore these features first-hand. The best, and most popular, hikes include stunning Delicate Arch, the 7.2-mile trail through Devil’s Garden, and a ranger-led hike into the labyrinthine Fiery Furnace.

Devil’s Garden is Arches sole campground and while satellite campgrounds in surrounding BLM land and Moab accommodate the crowds, do not deprive yourself the privilege of camping here. Some of the 50 sites closely abut the camp road, but others offer private slickrock playgrounds, a glimpse of the snow-capped peaks of the La Sal Mountains, and epic vistas across Arches 119-square miles of plateaus and canyons. Days can bring scalding heat or sudden thunderstorms, while sunsets set this stunning, isolated moonscape aflame in vibrant oranges and crimson reds. At night, stars lighten the pitch-black skies and even a half-moon is bright enough to see by.

Canyonlands National Park

Nearby Canyonlands joined the National Park system in 1964, preserving one of the last areas of the Colorado Plateau. Encompassing over 337 acres, Canyonlands is divided into four districts; scenic Island in the Sky district is only about an hour’s drive from Arches and is highly accessible for camping, hiking, and biking.

The winding edge of the Island in the Sky mesa as seen from above.
Island in the Sky, a sandstone mesa that rises 1,000 feet above its surroundings. Photo © Bill McRae.

The bucolic 25-mile drive to Island in the Sky features overlooks from sandstone cliffs deep into canyons more than 1,000 feet below. Shafer Canyon Overlook and Grand View Point provide the best perspectives (and views) of how the Colorado and Green Rivers carved and sculpted this landscape. Short hikes like Mesa Arch Trail and the Grand View Point Trail offer an opportunity to stretch your legs. Better yet, camp at the Willow Flat Campground or use the campground at Arches (or at nearby Dead Horse State Park) as a base and really explore this district up close by hiking Upheaval Dome or biking the 100-mile White Rim Road.

Zion National Park

Compared to Arches and Canyonlands, Zion is a grandfather in the National Park system, designated by Congress in 1919. Nestled in the southwestern corner of the state, Zion showcases stunning sandstone canyons dramatically eroded by the Virgin River. Jagged plateaus tower over Zion Canyon Road resulting in neck-stretching peaks such as Court of the Patriarchs, Angel’s Landing, and the Temple of Sinewava.

This is recreation Mecca–trails are popular and crowded, so get an early morning start for the cascades of Emerald Pools and the heart-pounding, gravity defying Angel’s Landing trails. The park shuttle bus, definitely this National Park’s best idea, makes car travel unnecessary and offers a relaxing way to drink in the sights once your legs are done for the day. Reward your efforts with lunch or dinner (reservations required) at Zion Lodge, with tableside views of Lady Mountain and Heaps Canyon.

Zion’s two campgrounds—South and Watchman—make up in convenience what they lack in privacy and solitude. With an extensive visitors center, a movie theater, shuttle stop to nearby Springdale, and even a Thai restaurant all within walking distance, this is hardly getting away from it all (especially your neighbors). But all that is forgotten when you emerge from your tent to see the cloud-encased peak of 6,545-feet Watchman standing sentinel in the early morning quiet. Civilization falls away replaced by wilderness, waiting.

Next year, it will be Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. These National Parks are waiting for you as well, patient as the wind and water that formed them. What are you waiting for?

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