Essential Summer Guide '14: Rocks And Roll Through Canyon Country

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Time-weathered bristlecone pines rise above Cedar Breaks National Monument/Patrick Cone

For mind-blowing scenery, vast vistas of eroded stone, and rugged topography, Utah is the place. The Beehive State is home to five national parks (Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Zion) and five national monuments (Cedar Breaks, Grand Staircase-Escalante (managed by the BLM), Rainbow Bridge, Natural Bridges, and Hovenweep) for good reason. It’s the greatest earth on show.

You can spend a week, a month, a summer, or a lifetime exploring this landscape of deep chasms, forested peaks, and rushing waters. For 200 miles and over a few days, you can take this quick tour to get a taste of this place, and visit some gems of the National Park System. It’s a desert like no other.

Start your tour in St. George, Utah (120 miles northeast of Las Vegas). Once a Mormon outpost, this is now a tourist, golf, and retirement community in what is called Utah’s Dixie. Red cliffs and pine-top peaks ring the valley, and a white-washed Mormon Temple stands like a sentinel against the blue sky.

Your adventure starts with a quick (42 miles - less than an hour) drive along the Virgin River to Zion National Park. Think of this as Yosemite in sandstone. It’s a magic kingdom of canyons, waterfalls, desert pools, and sheer walls. Take a misty walk up the Virgin Narrows Canyon, or scare yourself with a hike up the classic Angels Landing Trail.

From Zion, head north 60 miles up Interstate 15 towards Cedar City and Cedar Breaks National Monument (with a 5-mile sidetrip to the Kolob Canyon section of Zion). Cedar Breaks is a half-mile-deep amphitheater of stone etched out of the colorful Markagunt Plateau, dropping from the forested rim at 10,000 feet. Take a hike along the Spectra Point Trail through wildflowers towards the ancient bristlecone pine groves. Bring your spotting scope, or borrow a look at the dark skies, at the park’s Saturday night Star Parties. Highway 148 is open from late May through October, once the deep snowbanks have melted.

Heading east across the forested plateaus along Highway 143 you’ll find your way to Bryce Canyon National Park 40 miles away. Scenic Byway Highway 12 winds its way up through crimson rock tunnels through Red Canyon on the way up again to high altitude.

Descriptions of Bryce fail to describe it, but the red and orange limestone pillars (called hoodoos) resemble a forest of stone. Hiking trails drop maze-like through them for a few-minute stroll, or an all-day hike. On most any day you can see 200 miles in any direction from atop the scenic drive. There are shuttles, campgrounds, and lodges up on top as well.

From Bryce Canyon head south again on Highway 89. This road was once the main north-south route for travelers decades ago, as evidenced by the many relic gas stations and motels. It’s a slower paced trip back towards Zion 84 miles down the road. After entering the park from the east you’ll drive through the Navajo sandstone domes and drainages of Checkerboard Mesa. Drive through the mile-long Mount Carmel Tunnels, carved through the sandstone landscape, and back towards St. George once again. There’re dozens of interesting stops all along the way, including the ghost town at Grafton down river from the park, made famous by a bike-riding Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Next time, add another week to take it all in.