Having spent every weekend of my teenage years rock climbing, I had seen many pictures of the brilliant red cliffs of Moab and the soaring sandstone walls of Zion. So as one of the architects of our itinerary through the US, it is no surprise that I chose a path that would involve lots of rocks and cliffs and that this would bring us into Utah. I had envisaged lots of red rocks and true there are lots of red rocks in Utah - but I was not prepared for the huge variety and immense beauty of the five National Parks that span the state.
All the National Parks in Utah share one thing in common: the Colorado Plateau. This huge area (140,000 sq km) covers most of Utah and spans into Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. For over 300 million years the plateau was covered by a vast inland sea which created layers of limestone, sandstone and siltstone. Then 250 million years ago the seas receded leaving a massive desert and enormous sand dunes. These sand dunes over time became compressed into Navajo Sandstone. Then the entire plateau was thrust upwards (scientists are still a little unsure how), creating a high desert environment that was eroded by water and wind to create the unique rock formations we see today.
We started our adventure on the Colorado Plateau in Moab - home to the Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. With Thomas and Karen recuperating, we took it easy for a few days. We had a great time exploring Arches National Park which has an amazing collection of spires, towers, buttes and fins as well as rock windows and arches (not surprisingly). It is hard to capture the scale of these formations. We also had a day trip to Dead Horse Point, which overlooks the mighty Colorado River as it snakes its way through Canyonlands National Park - considered by many as a close second to the Grand Canyon.
To get into the spirit of this real wild west cowboy country, Sienna and I went on a morning trail ride at Hauer Ranch in Castle Valley. Just getting to Castle Valley was amazing - rated as one of the top 10 scenic drives in the US. Hauer Ranch was the location for many of John Wayne's western movies and it was easy to see why, with the iconic red-rock escarpment and spires and towers rising out of the harsh dry plains. Sienna rode Gem and I rode Sassy and with our guide Charlie (an amazing source of knowledge of all western cowboy movies), we headed off. We followed Onion Creek up to a great viewing point and then made our way back to the ranch. Sienna did a great job and really impressed Charlie. Having been eating US food for over 2 weeks, I was very impressed that poor old Sassy didn't have a coronary from having to lug me for over 2.5 hours.
From Moab we headed south to Capitol Reef National Park. The strange rock formations are the result of a 'waterpocket fold' in the earth's crust. The warm temperatures in Moab (reaching low 30s during the day) gave way to low teens in Capitol Reef thanks to a cold front working across the north west of the US. We rugged up and explored the scenic canyons and rock formations. Sienna and I went to an informative ranger talk on the Freemont People (the first inhabitants of the region) and their petroglyphs, which meant Sienna could chalk up her third Junior Ranger badge.
To get to Bryce Canyon National Park we took the scenic State Highway 12. This is one seriously crazy road. We crossed alpine tundra and thick larch forests before weaving our way along the top of a rocky ridge with canyons dropping either side of the road for hundreds of meters. Bryce Canyon was a real surprise - with the white and pink hoodoo rock spires lining the walls of the canyon.
Our last stop in Utah was Zion National Park. Now, you might be thinking that we may have been suffering from national park overload. And true, Sienna and Thomas' enthusiasm for large cliffs was waining. However, the drive into Zion - with a 1 mile long tunnel and multiple switchbacks - got the excitement back. Zion was just mammoth and reminded us of Yosemite in terms of its sheer scale. Zion was also great for wildlife spotting. Sienna and I went on a short hike and spotted mule deer, American dipper birds, rock squirrels and long-horned sheep.
The last stop on our US national park was the Grand Canyon... but that's another post.
Moab: Arches National Park & Canyonlands National Park
Moab Horse Riding
Capitol Reef National Park
State Highway 12: Capitol Reef to Bryce Canyon
Bryce Canyon National Park
Zion National Park