Located in the southwestern corner of Utah, the three parks of Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Cedar Breaks have much in common. The area’s layer-cake geology was built up over eons as marshes, desert and sea laid down multicolored siltstone, sandstone and limestone. Thrust skyward by earth’s internal forces, the resulting Colorado Plateau was then eroded and sliced by the forces of wind, water and ice into bowls, steep canyons, and fantastical shapes.
The Mormons who settled and shaped the culture of this area are also responsible for the Parks’ names. Zion, named for the Biblical land; Bryce after Ebenezer Bryce who homesteaded the area; and Cedar Breaks, named by settlers who couldn’t tell the difference between juniper bushes and cedar. OK, it was an honest mistake, but the name stuck. This area is still predominantly Mormon and is also ground zero for the infamous FLDS sect/cult. The headquarters of the FLDS is located only about a half hour from our Hurricane, UT campground. Although the sect has been divided and scattered because of recent events, female members in their characteristic ankle-length prairie dresses and long braided tresses were regularly spotted in the local Wal-Mart. I can only imagine what it would be like to grow up in such a repressed, fear-based society — but I digress.
Each park also has its unique differences. The primary feature of Zion National Park is a wide water-carved canyon, still being shaped by the Virgin River flowing through it. The water source creates an oasis effect where wildlife abounds. The tall canyon walls create shade and retains a measure of coolness in the slot canyons. Traversing around the canyon through a long tunnel pops you out into an area with carved sandstone walls and cliffs. You can even see God’s chisel marks.
In Zion, you travel the valley floor, looking up at cliffs 2000 feet high. In Bryce Canyon National Park, you start at the rim of a vast bowl, looking down on the park’s famous hoodoos. One spectacular trail that we hiked wound down to and through the hoodoos, along a verdant valley floor, through a slot canyon, and then back up a dozen steep switchbacks to the rim. So beautiful, it is now one of my all time favorite trails! The colorful hoodoos spark the imagination — you can see castles, people, and all sorts of structures and animal figures in the sculptured rock. Driving along the rim provides additional overlooks, one populated by an unkindness of ravens, caw-ing for attention. (Yes, that’s what it’s called!) We only had one day here, but it is definitely a place we want to spend more time in.
Lesser known Cedar Breaks National Monument boasts another spectacular, carved amphitheater of multicolor sandstone and limestone. The highest of the three parks at over 10,000 feet altitude, we drove through alpine meadows, already fall-tinged by September frosts before reaching the half-mile deep bowl. It has fewer trails, but one takes you along the rim of the bowl to an overlook and some great specimens of the oldest living tree – the bristlecone pine. Yeah, I had never heard of it either. The oldest known bristlecone pines are 5,000 years old, making it the oldest living organism of any species! This modestly sized, twisted and gnarled tree somehow scrabbles a living out of harsh conditions where other species don’t survive. When part of the tree dies, it focuses its energies on the living part, so it can continue to thrive. There seems to be lesson in there for us, somewhere. Sequoia trees may be stunningly impressive, but these unprepossessing trees have my respect for sheer tenacity.
There is more to see in this corner of Utah, so we plan to return — in a cooler season!
Next up: Moab, Canyonlands and Arches National Parks!