Entering the state of Utah from Nevada’s eastern border, much of the initial landscape remains the same across the border…until it suddenly is not. Utah’s five national parks, referred to as the Mighty Five, spread across southern Utah, highlighting a seemingly never-ending expanse of red rock mountains and canyons. Where rivers and streams run through these red rocks, the water picks up the same red color. When residents use watering sprinklers for their lawns, the water spews in the same red color. If you hike through these red rocks, it won’t be long until a red dust has transferred itself to any clothes and shoes in its path.
This landscape; nonetheless, is breathtaking. Driving through the area, each turn of the road (and there are many!) yields another intake of breath…then another breath held for the unexpected surprise sure to be around the next turn. While all five of the parks contain some version of this red rock backdrop, there are differences highlighted by each. We chose a small town named Escalante as our base camp in Utah, making day trips to each of the parks over the course of six days.
The first park we visited, traveling from West to East, was Zion National Park which gave us our first glimpse into the enormous expanse of red rock canyons and some of the terminology we would become very familiar with as we traveled Utah which is rich in mountains, canyons, buttes, mesas, monoliths, rivers, slot canyons, natural arches, hoodoos, amphitheatres, plateaus.
This led us, next, to Bryce Canyon, which has to be the area that caused my jaw to drop in awe most often in all of our travels. The best way I can think to describe this place is that it’s like seeing a cavern without a roof. If you’ve been to any caverns, you know there are stalactites growing down from the ceiling and stalagmites growing up from the ground. Well, Bryce Canyon is like a place where the stalagmites are made of red rock (or Navajo sandstone) and there is no ceiling. You can openly see the intricacies in the stalagmites, so to speak, and they’re in varying shades of red, white, pink, orange. It looks like canyons and canyons full of intricate and lacy formations made out of rock. It’s absolutely beautiful and special.
Our next visit was to Capitol Reef which is filled with the most amazing and enormous rock formations in all shapes, sizes, and colors. It’s just amazing to me how and why some of the rocks don’t fall right on top of cars as they pass by. They seem to be suspended in space by some unknown force. Pretty unsettling, actually.
The Canyonlands National Park came next which is another enormous collection of red rock canyons and valleys. The main road through the park is named the Island in the Sky Road which makes so much sense after having been there. At one point, you find yourself on the top of a mountain where the canyons have dropped off on both sides and the road curves so dramatically in front and back of you that you can’t immediately see the road either in front of or behind you, so it feels like you’re actually on an island in the sky. Such an amazing feeling of freedom and awe with the beautiful scenery all around.
Finally, the Arches National Park was equally as amazing as the rest. We always tried to sit through the short video the park management had running at the visitor centers in all of the parks we visited so we’d understand what each park had to offer and a little of the history behind them. This one was so interesting as they explained that, depending on when you visit the park, you’ll likely see different landscape because the rain and weather wears arches down until they break, but at the same time, other stones/mountains are being worn down into new arches, so it’s a rotating kind of landscape, very fragile in its makeup.
At the end of the day, although much, if not all, of southern Utah is classified as ‘desert’ territory, it has so much character in the form of its mountains and canyons, I find it hard to think of it as a desert. I stand, as always, in awe, feeling very small and blessed.
NOTE: I did try picking up a rock for my hot stone massage collection in Utah, but ended up throwing it away because no matter how much I scrubbed it, it still colored everything in its path red/orange…just not what I had in mind. Sorry, poor rock.