Visiting Utah's National Parks

Introduction   

Well, here we are on Monday night...the evening before we have to get up at 4:00am for a pickup at 5:00am for our 7:00am flight.  Nothing like getting the day started early so you can savor the joys of travel.  It is about 9:00pm…Lila and I finally sit down after attending to all the various details that we had to resolve before leaving for almost three weeks.  Lila even called the airlines at 8:00pm to check on our flights…all’s good for the next morning.

             We have been relaxing for about eight minutes when we get a call from Delta Airlines.  A very pleasant and bubbly voice asks to speak to Mr. or Mrs. Letow.  I think…isn’t this nice…because we are flying first class, a Delta representative is calling to tell us what our meal is going to be for breakfast or maybe they just want to tell us what the weather will be when we arrive at Salt Lake City.  But alas, we are informed that our flight has been cancelled…but they did get us on an early flight that will arrive later and we can now visit Atlanta for two hours…are we lucky or what? 

             After some negotiating we successfully arrange a somewhat later non-stop flight…only two hours later…now why didn’t Delta think of that?  So I immediately call Dave, the man who drives us to the airport…he is not home, but I leave a message telling he can sleep later as we will be leaving the house around 8:30am instead of 5:00am.  Thirty minutes later…it is now around 10:00pm…Dave calls and informs me that he cannot take me to the airport at that time as he has a conflict.  So I immediately jump into action and arrange other transport.  No problem.

             I then decide to call Hertz and tell them not to expect me at the prearranged time, as I will be arriving a little later...easy to do and they proceed to tell me that my rental cost for the period is now $150 higher than I had been previously told.  That was because I made my reservation so far in advance and for that purpose my rate was not guaranteed so they have the right to change it…read increase it.  This is really great since I called six weeks ago to check on my rate and was told that it was still the same…so I ask why was it not guaranteed at that time.  Evidently I did not ask it to be guaranteed…so there.

             Well it is now after 11:00pm…emotionally worn out and cannot wait for our trip to begin.  After this restful evening we go to bed to await the events of the next day.  The next day offers no new exciting issues…we get up and get everything ready, our transport arrives and we are off to the airport.  At the airport an amazing event occurs…there are no people present, no people crowding check in and pressing through security...we are cruising. 

             The night before I make every precaution to remove my pocketknife and my corkscrew and all the other “fighting” instruments from my backpack and leave them in my checked baggage.  Well, I get through security with no problem because of my careful forethought and I am even selected for the secondary hand inspection just before boarding the aircraft.  As I am going through security I am making love to my Starbucks coffee and the inspector asks me to drink some coffee…that was very considerate of her, I thought. 

 I guess that you did not realize that I had two pocketknives…I usually leave one at home…didn’t this time…it was in my backpack (I must really be getting old).  Surprise, surprise …it was not even detected…so much for all this security.   I was very good on the flight and four hours later we were in Salt Lake City, Utah.  With snow capped mountains surrounding the city and a temperature of forty-five degrees, we just barely escaped the ninety-seven degrees settling into Washington, D.C.  We picked up our car and we head south.

Itinerary

            Our trip was planned for visits to five national parks…Utah is blessed with scores of parks, monuments and forest lands managed by the federal government…in fact, ninety-five percent of Utah is federally managed land.  And exceptionally beautiful land it is…a joy to see and to visit…but more about that later.  The parks we planned to visit are as follows:

          Canyonlands National Park     (www.nps.gov/cany)

          Arches National Park                 (www.nps.gov/a

          Zion National Park                       (www.nps.gov/zion)

          Bryce Canyon National Park    (www.nps.gov/brca)

          Capitol Reef National Park        (www.nps.gov/care)  

           From Salt Lake City we drove directly to Moab, Utah as it is located close to both Canyonlands National Park (below right) and Arches National Park (below left) …and is about a four-hour trip.  We planned a four night stay in Moab…two parks to see and many trails to walk and we could have probably used a full week, but as you all know Lila and I are very busy people and could not get away for that long.  Also, this is our fourth visit to these parks so we always get to see some new areas during each of our visits.  From Moab, we headed south through the Valley of Gods to Monument Valley, about a three-hour ride and stayed one night in Kayenta, Arizona.  Kayenta is in the middle of an Indian reservation and we were there during our only spell of bad weather…a terrible wind and sandstorm. 

             It was not only difficult to be outside it was downright impossible.  We had dinner and after driving for so many hours I had really wanted to walk and see the town.  Well, it is very hard to see the town of Kayenta, as there is absolutely nothing to see.  But, I was desperate…I needed to walk, to let off some energy and it was, after all, Saturday night…so after some evaluation of our many options we went to Basha’s.  Now I hate to admit it to you, but we went and we walked.  What is Basha’s…it is the supermarket.   And so we spent our evening’s entertainment on a Saturday night in a supermarket …now can you beat that? 

The next morning we left Kayenta for Zion National Park via Glen Canyon National Recreation Monument at Lake Powell, Arizona…. about a five hour drive through the southern section of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument (1.9 million square miles) that was set aside by President Clinton in 1996.  Lake Powell, which reveals magnificence in its own right, is a man made lake created as a result of the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River.  The Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument is an exceptional beautiful area that joins many of the parks and during our park visits we pass through Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument multiple times…each time is a special moment as the earth sculptures are all different and just as exciting to see as the parks.   

Four days in Zion National Park and we headed through the famous one-mile tunnel upon arrival and into the beautiful red rock canyon once again.  Upon leaving we again traverse the canyon and after an easy two-hour drive we reach Bryce National Park.  Bryce is at a higher altitude than Zion and is usually quite cool as compared to Zion, which can reach temperatures of 1000F in the summer months.  Three days in Bryce we saw temperatures reaching an average daytime temperatures in the 60s, except for the one-day when it snowed early and left a beautiful white cast on the hoodoos. 

Well, then we are off to Torrey, Utah, which is near Capitol Reef National Park, via a five-hour trip through the northern part of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.  Capitol Reef is not as popular a national park as the other parks and as such Torrey is a quiet little town with few amenities.  But there are some jewels located there…more about that later.  Three days of hiking and we then return to Salt Lake City (a three and one-half hour trip) for an urban adjustment, before heading back home.  

Accommodations and Dining

            A few notes about our accommodations and dining experiences during this trip.  There are only two four-star Bed & Breakfast inns in Utah and we enjoyed both.  The Sunflower Hill Bed and Breakfast Inn (www.sunflowerhill.com) is located in Moab and provides all the amenities that one could expect and hope for in a country type inn.  The interaction with the other guests during breakfast and afternoon tea, as well as in the hot tub after a day of long hikes made our visit just perfect.  Rooms are beautifully appointed and the staff looks after every detail.   

            Moab has become very tourist-wise over the years that Lila and I have been visiting this town…they now have hiker weeks, mountain biker weeks, jeep weeks, etc.  As a result there has been an expansion of stores selling tourist gifts, outfitters taking groups on park trips and especially upscale restaurants.  Two very fine restaurants are the Desert Bistro and the Center Café.   

            Both at Zion National Park and Bryce National Park we stayed in the lodge (Zion Lodge below left, Bryce Lodge-below right)  within the park.  These are generally rustic accommodations, but offer an opportunity for total absorption of the natural park environment.  Especially in the early morning and late evening when the day visitors are not there, well…you have the park all to your self.   In each of these parks there are a very limited number of suites available and we generally make our reservations early so they are available.  But you do not stay in the park lodge so that you could experience fine dining, as this is not possible.  Dining in the park is a mediocre affair and you accept both the service and the menu so you can experience the park…in any event it is better than camping and preparing your own food…well, that is what Lila tells me.   

            Now Torrey, Utah is the site of the four-star Skyridge Bed and Breakfast Inn (www.bbiu.org/skyridge) where we have stayed during our last three visits to Capitol Reef National Park.  With only six rooms, each is furnished in a beautiful Southwest style.  Breakfast is a special treat as is the Hors d’ouvres and sangria that is provided each afternoon when all the guests return from their visits to the park.   Again the opportunity to meet new friends and talk about experiences in the parks is an unequaled time together.  During the summer vacation period, Café Diablo offers up a unique selection of southwestern dishes that will tempt every palate as well as the eyes.   

            And finally, in Salt Lake City we stayed at The Inn at Temple Square, as we have before and which is adjacent to the Mormon Temple Square conveniently located in center city.  Besides its excellent location, the service is first rate and the hotel provides both free continental (read full) breakfast and valet parking.  While visiting Salt Lake City we had an excellent dinner at Bombera’s in the Hotel Monaco and saw Swan Lake Ballet at the Capitol Theatre.  We also had the opportunity to watch the Mormon Tabernacle Choir rehearse for their Sunday morning performance. 

Zion National Park Lodge Bryce Canyon National Park Lodge

Visiting The Parks

            Well, I now provided you with the background detail, but why did we visit the parks, given the fact that Lila and I have previously been to these parks many times.  Our very early visits were usually associated with just visiting the parks and looking around at the beautiful panoramas that they offer.  Since we are city folks, we only then gingerly started to venture forth into the parks by leaving the confines of the asphalt roads and paved walks.  Imagine my amazement that one could begin to enjoy being immersed into the midst of the fauna and the formations…e.g. a desert swamp, a petrified forest, springs, waterfalls, and even the possible appearance of wildlife.  

            A whole new significance to nature began to emerge and heighten my senses about what I could see, hear and “feel” as I ventured forth into this new arena.  All at once, I was dwarfed by the walls of the sandstone surrounding me and then once again startled by the deep canyons that suddenly appear before me.  When I called my grandson, Kevin during the trip, I was explaining the beauty of the parks and the fact that Lila and I had just hiked five and one-half miles that day…. Kevin responded with “How boring!”.   Well, I have to charge that comment to his tender preteen years.   When I remember back to my preteen years, well, if I could remember that far back…I did not even know that there were National parks, nor would I have even cared.  

            But it does raise the issue of how these national parks can go unnoticed by so many for so long.  That is not to say the parks are lacking for an audience, quite the contrary…they are being flooded with visitors each year.  But many still do not understand or appreciate the beauty and excitement of being submerged into the rock formations and sculptures that rouses the imagination and awakens the mind.  The geological realities of these parks represent the immense beauty and the mystery of their origin.  Below left is the Virgin River in Zion National Park and on below right is the La Sal Mountains in the back ground in Arches National Park.

Geology in your Face

            I refer to it this way because it is how the Park Ranger began his lecture of the geological narrative of the parks.  I would like to give you some of the highlights of that talk…not to impress you with my note taking ability, but rather to provide you with their historical impact.   First we need to look back about 200 million years…some of us can remember back then when life was simple, the roads not so crowded and …Oh, forget it.  Anyway the geological order can best be described by four periods that explain this cycle…sedimentation, lithification, uplift and finally, erosion.  How about that second part of the cycle… it took me ten minutes to just be able to pronounce it…it means compression, compression of the sediment into a hard substance.  

            The surge of rivers and streams deposited iron-based substances into a freshwater lake system.  The reddish color is rust and has built up over millions of years; horizontal compression of this sediment over these millions of years has formed the plateaus upon plateaus of sandstone; the formation of the Rockies deformed these “rocks” and as the earth pulled apart, these sandstone rocks were moved, tilted and uplifted and displaced vertically by several thousand feet.  Then with time, erosion from weather and water has continued to chemically scour the surface; get into cracks and expand, breaking apart the sandstone and washing it away.  And hence a new cycle begins.  

            I would love to tell you much more about the geological composition of the Utah plateaus, but I do not know much more.  The myriad of colors that we see as we move through the parks is made up of different rock layers deposited at diverse points in time.  As an example the earliest formations are called the

          “Kaibad Formation”, which appear as cliffs. Then, there is the

Moenkapi Formation, chocolate cliffs with white bands;

Chinle Formation, purplish slopes;

Moencave Formations, red slopes and ledges;

Kayenta Formation, rocky slopes;

Navajo Sandstone, red steep cliffs to 2200 feet thick iron oxide color;

and, Carmel Formation, limestone and gypsum cliffs.  

            If I could effectively use words to describe the complexity and innate beauty of this area, I would have avoided this descriptive attempt to talk to the geological structure of southern Utah.  I offer the picture shown below; I submit words of description and this limited geological synopsis to hopefully provide some “picture” of what these parks offer the visitor.

Why Now!

            I am not sure that I stated the full answer of why Lila and I returned for this fourth visit to the parks.  Yes, it was to revisit the natural beauty, but it was also to test ourselves, to clarify our ability and stamina to continue to hike and venture deeper into the parks.  It has been seven years since our last visit, we were still working and by definition we were still “young”.  Now retired for over six years, we would have to ask ourselves the question, “Could we still master some of those trails”.  

One trail in particular in Arches National Park, the one to Delicate Arch is quite significant to us.  It is three miles long (round trip) with an elevation of almost 500 feet.  Not too bad, but the trail takes you over a dirt trial, up over slip rock formations and along a ledge to the arch.  Delicate Arch is extremely well known, recognizable as the symbol for Utah on their automobile license plates and can only be seen close-up via this trail.   Could we still do it…that is what we asked ourselves especially as we have become a little older.  So that was our challenge and we accepted it. 

Well we arrived in Arches National Park with much anticipation…actually we visited Canyonlands National Park the first day, but more on that later.  We set off for the trailhead and took out our trekking poles…Oh, I didn’t tell you about our trekking poles.  You see we bought the trekking poles to use on our China trip, as the outfitter for that trip advised their use during the daily two and three miles walks that we would be making to various sights and shopping markets.  We never did make that trip and our friends, Peter and Barbara who did, told us that they never really had to walk much more than ten feet from the bus anyway.  

So what would become of our trekking poles, we could have used them in the supermarket, but the floors there are pretty level, well, maybe at the gym---not too good there.  Then we thought why not use them on our hikes…and so it was.  They actually proved themselves to be very useful and we looked very authentic as well.  Seemed to steady us as we climbed up and down the trails. 

Anyway, the trail to Delicate Arch (shown below)--- we did it and it was relatively easy, certainly easier than what we had conjured up in our minds…easier than we had remembered.  So with that success, we then started to try even more complex trails, which I will describe shortly, and these were trails that we had not even attempted in earlier visits.  And we did these trails…. this is not to say that we hiked straight up these trails with no stopping…. in fact, Lila and I shared many moments of heavy breathing during these hikes, such that we had not experienced in recent years.  It certainly did bring back some very fond memories.  I actually was very grateful to be able to be able to see these national parks, to walk the trails we did and to share once again the memorable experiences that these  National Parks offer.

Visiting Utah's National Parks (continued next page)