The Natural Wonders of Utah
Story and Photos by Al P. Manlangit
“So what else shall we see in Utah aside from the Mormons?” asked the son as I spread the road atlas on the hood of the Durango in front of the Caesar’s Palace parking lot in Vegas. “A lot”, I said as I plotted our route on the map. “The parks there will knock your socks off!” But somehow, he seemed unconvinced.
And so we drove straight to Zion National Park 280 kms away through undulating landscapes of bare Nevada desert that skirted a corner of Arizona as well. But what was supposed to be an easy 3-hour drive turned into a 6-hour ordeal for it started to rain hard as we ascended the mountain passes. The heavy shower turned into sleet which then became a heavy snowfall that slowed us down to a crawl. Nonetheless, the stark beauty of the mountainous landscape blanketed in white became a great subject for photography even if we arrived at our hotel dead tired and shivering from the unexpected wintry conditions!
Early next morning, the sky was clear and sunlight filtered through the towering mountains in plain view of our bedroom. We loaded up and headed for the park entrance 25 kilometers away paying the requisite $10 entry fee for the car. It was the most beautiful and breathtaking drive I’ve ever had where every curve seemed to open up into new vista that was better than the last. The scenic route which had many tight switchbacks was surrounded by sky-high cliffs, multicolored sandstone rock formations and 3,000-foot high canyon walls. Contrasting against these were deep-green pine trees, cottonwood groves and moss-filled crevices. Every now and then we had to stop to take pictures and breathe in the fresh air that made the entire experience quite heavenly. No wonder when the Mormons discovered this place, they called it Zion – meaning “place of refuge”.
We parked at the Visitor’s Center and took the shuttle bus that traverses the park’s many geological wonders with names like the Grotto, Weeping Rock, The Great White Throne, the Sentinel and the Temple of Sinawava. You can get down at any of these places and take a hike among numerous trails that branch out into several directions with varying lengths and degrees of difficulty.
Hiking through the 2 km long Lower Emerald Pool trail was a moderate exercise which started from the Virgin River and meandered upwards for several meters before leveling off through a dirt path with medium drop-offs. It closely followed the twists and turns of the river before veering off to a higher elevation where the towering cliffs of the rock formations enveloped the landscape. There were several lookout points that enabled you to stop, rest and admire the stunning scenery. Then it opened up to a wide vista that had a waterfall cascading down to a pool below which you passed via an overhang that was naturally carved from rock. Then the trail looped back to where we started and we saw a lot of deer feeding on the thick foliage.
Another easy walk was the Narrows which had a paved trail. What made it interesting was the sheer rock face of the canyon that rose on both sides squeezing you in till there was nothing much to see but the river below and the sky above. It is supposed to be a long hike which requires you to wade through water but we turned back at the point where we had to remove our shoes since there was no longer any dry land! Heading back to the parking area, we had the wind whistling in front of us through the narrow space which made the squirrels scamper for what looked like acorns that were rolling and tumbling along the way blown by the sudden gusts.
Having spent a whole tiring day outdoors, it was a great relief to be back in the cozy hotel for a hearty dinner of local buffalo ribs and huge loaves of bread. Topped with beer at the balcony while watching the pale moon rising from the top of the mountain peaks, it was a superb repast.
Bryce Canyon was our next destination. It was a 137 km drive where, once more, the freakish weather dumped a lot of snow on the road and had us shivering and running straight to the lobby fireplace at the Best Western where we stopped for the night. Miraculously in the morning, we had fine weather as we headed for the park.
There is no place quite like Bryce where the landscape looks otherworldly. You could say it is a natural amphitheater that nature carved from the edge of a plateau whose colorful erosions called “hoodoos” look like sentinels standing in another planetary landscape. Millions of years ago, this part of what is now southern Utah was an inland sea. The sediments deposited at the bottom were exposed when the sea dried up leaving them to be sculpted by ancient rivers and freeze-and-dry weather that cracked the rocks leaving behind these strange and grotesque but also picturesque formations. The process is still going on right now and one day, these formations will all disappear.
In the meantime, it is for us to enjoy this world wonder – a 32 km plateau containing several of these amphitheaters of which Bryce is the largest at 19kms long by 5 kms wide. Compared to Zion where you have to look up, here in Bryce you have to look down to marvel at the view. There are many trails that will take you down to the floor of the hoodoos which is about 250 meters deep but we chose to just walk along the rim for several kilometers. The color and hue of these rocks varies from red to white to vermilion and their shapes vary from castles and cathedrals as well as monks in robes, steeples, spires and even prison walls.
Our imagination ran wild as we sat to rest along the lookout points. It was easy to understand how the ancient Indians have woven stories and legends about this location. The place is also a photographer’s delight. As the day progresses, the light changes and the play of light and shadow gives depth in varying degrees to the different areas of this wonderful landscape.
We went to Salt Lake City for a couple of days and enjoyed Mormon hospitality, culture and history before heading south to Arches National Park. Set in the high desert, it is a geological wonderland with the highest concentration of sandstone arches in the world. Erosion once more played a major role sculpting thousands of formations, giving rise to delicate arches with colossal sandstone fins, massive balanced rocks and spires all hanging on sheer rock cliffs in a setting that looks primeval with its yellowish/reddish color.
There are many things one can do there besides admiring the landscape. Aside from hitting various trailheads and the usual rock climbing, you can also do ziplining, horseback riding and canyoneering then go on Hummer safaris, hot air balloon rides and biking. Not content with that, you can also go paddleboarding and river rafting in the waterways that meander around the 76,000 acres. But for lack of time, we just drove around the park, stopping at designated spots where one can drink in the astounding views.
Our last stop near the border of Arizona was the Navajo Nation Indian Reservation, a sprawling 27,000 square kilometers of semi-autonomous Indian-governed territory. Here, one can visit authentic Indian villages as well as ancient ruins and understand different cultures that are native American before the coming of the White Man. Aside from that, you can also visit Monument Valley located in the middle of the reservation and easily accessible from Highway 163.
A rough, though highly-scenic 17-mile dirt road loops around the major sights starting from the Visitor Center and takes you past eroded buttes and rock spires with descriptive names like Totem Pole, the Mittens and Elephant Butte. They are some of nature’s awe-inspiring monuments standing in the middle of a flat-bottomed valley that have transfixed artists and visitors as well as Hollywood film-makers. John Wayne and director John Ford put this place on the map with classic Western movies like “Stagecoach” and “Fort Apache” – all shot on location here.
As we drove south heading for the Arizona border late in the afternoon, I turned to the son who was doing the navigation for me and asked, “So how did you find Utah?” He smiled and replied, “Superb!” Well, I couldn’t agree more.