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Fyllis: Southern Utah's National Parks
Breath-holding beauty. Harrowing 4-wheel drives.
Unique geologic formations.
History of the earth and of the country--
Utah's National Parks

Story by Fyllis Hockman

riving along a winding, narrow cliff, a 1300-foot drop on the driver’s side, I clung to my heart, with the rest of me halfway out the passenger-side window.

Hiking slick rock at seemingly a 90-degree angle, I came to a visual wonder, and understood why so many made the climb.

Gaping at high cliff walls adorned with sharp pinnacles leaping skyward, it looked like the earth had been splashed with multi-hued red dyes, all running together.

Such is life among the five national parks of southern Utah. Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce and Zion share many commonalities, including uncompromising splendor, history of both the earth and the country, and a sense of personal sanctuary.

These five mystical worlds have been created over millions of years by the movement of the earth, water and wind, rain and draught, freezes and thaws and, especially, erosion. Even today, these same elements continue to change the face of the parks. After more than 150 million years, they are still works in progress.

Aptly named Arches National Park is a Mecca of some of nature’s most intriguing creations: architectural designs that span space and confound logic for which no man-made blueprint was ever drawn. With over 900 such structures, it boasts the largest concentration of naturally occurring arches in the world.

Delicatee Arch at sunset, Arches National Park, Utah
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The trail to Delicate Arch, one of its most famous, is anything but. Arduous is the more apt term for the mostly uphill climb over slick rock. By the time I neared the top, I was prepared to trip the next person heading down who said, “Oh, but it’s worth it.”

Still, after rounding the final obstacle, the only word that emerged with what I was sure was my final breath, was “Wow.” Leaving Delicate Arch, I was able to focus on the beauty of the surroundings. Going up, I could concentrate only on putting one foot in front of the other.

Nearby Canyonlands requires a 4-wheel drive vehicle –- preferably with a driver. At 6000 feet, the view from Island in the Sky looks down at cliffs 2000 feet tall, arising out of a magnificently gouged and painted landscape.

view of Canyonlands from Island in the Sky
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The panorama at Grandview Point is unequaled in terms of sheer expanse, providing a broad view over the entire park, stretching across countless canyons -– and beyond. Indeed, Canyonlands is a series of spectacular views strung across hundreds of miles of remote wilderness. Suffice it to say, “Scenic Overlook” signs are redundant.

The highlight of the park, for me, was the Shafer Trail. The dirt road, rough in spots, very rough in others, is bordered on one side by perpendicular cliffs; on the other, the afore-mentioned sheer 1300-foot drop. Riding along the very narrow, bumpy ledge, I found myself leaning far to the right in the hopes of influencing the car further in that direction.

Even so, I managed to appreciate the other-worldly landscape we were passing. Halfway down, the mountain on our right was so high I could barely see its top. On the other side, the drop to the vast valley below was vertigo-inducing.

The drive itself -– in lowest gear -– is slow-going. Bouncing up and down and rocking side to side 2000 feet above any sane person’s comfort level for four hours, you can lose several pounds without ever leaving the car. A plus, as I saw it.

Chimney Rock, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Photo courtesy of Utah Tourism

Although geologic history is stressed in every park, at Capitol Reef, it’s what defines it –- ranging from 80 to 270 million years old. Dana and Milo Breite from Shingle Springs, California, were as giddy as two kids in a video game store. “We’ve been collecting rocks and exploring geologic sites together for decades, and this is one of the highlights of all our excursions,” exclaimed Dana.

Expanding on the theme, a 10-mile scenic drive through the park furthers the geologist’s perspective. Mile by mile, and layer by sedimentary rock layer, our driver detailed what weather patterns, geographical changes, erosion and other influences coalesced to create the nearly 200 million years of geologic history through which we were passing.

A stroll along the Grand Wash River bed nearby, so narrow in parts you can touch both canyon walls at the same time, evoked old western film images of the lonely cowboy out on the trail. Here cinema meets cinema verite. This is Butch Cassidy country. He used to ride along this same stream bed (though it had water in it, then) and hide among the cavernous cliffs overhead –- now called, not surprisingly, Cassidy Arch.

A park away, Stan Weintraub of St. Augustine, Florida claimed he could spend hours in Bryce Canyon just looking at the hoodoos and assigning them different imaginary configurations. “You can write books about what you think you are seeing,” offered Stan.

hoodoos at Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Photo courtesy of Utah Tourism

Bryce Canyon is synonymous with hoodoos -- phantasmagorical images emerging from weird and wonderful rock formations. There are thousands of the little (and not so little) guys in all shapes, colors and sizes. The park’s unique rain and ice patterns sculpt these fanciful spires of rusted limestone; erosion at its most imaginative. More than geologic oddities, hoodoos cast a magical spell on all who return their stony gaze.

I recommend driving to taking the newly available shuttle; it covers only 5 of the 14 overlooks, thereby overlooking (in a negative way) Natural Bridge, Aqua Canyon and Rainbow Point, among the most memorable of the observation points.

The color-intense view from Aqua Canyon -- vivid coppers glowing in ochres and vermillion, vying with slashes of oranges and invading magentas -- challenges the most expensive of cameras or cell phones to reproduce it accurately. Just below, sandstone statues of a Pioneer Woman with bustled skirt and Mad Hunter with Hat reign as king and queen over a hoodoo chessboard.

Thor's Hammer/Mad Hunter, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (Photo by Luca Galuzzi)

Hiking brings an intimacy with surroundings impossible to experience from an observation ledge. Hikers way below negotiating in, around and through the hoodoo pillars resemble colorful, marching toothpicks. Ah, but the stories they will be able to tell as those “who knew the hoodoos” – well.

Arriving at Zion reinforces the idea that each park is unique. At the other parks, your line of sight extends out toward the horizon as well as down into the canyons. At Zion, you look straight up -– and up -– and up. Towering cliffs –- some of the tallest in the world -– flank you on either side. You’re now on the canyon floor, looking up at straight, sheer masses of Navajo sandstone unencumbered by frilly outgrowths and hoodoo pillars. They meet the sky at a point that strains both the neck and the imagination.

climbers at Zion National Park, Utah
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Water is an anomaly here, in contrast to the harsh draught of the other parks. The soft-running Virgin River, which accompanied me on many of the hikes throughout the park, is responsible for creating the huge rock gorges that encircle the park -– and it took only it 5-to-16 million years to do so.

At Bryce, riding the shuttle is optional; at Zion, it’s mandatory -– the only way visitors may tour the park. Running at six-minute intervals, it takes you to eight stops which are simply starting points for further exploration by foot.

Because you’re so close to the canyons, ‘towering’ replaces ‘expanse’ as the word of the day. Viewing options at Zion are more under-looks than overlooks. For those who are afraid of heights -– Zion is the park!

Hiking provides even greater connection, and several of the paved trails are easily traversed. A short, albeit uphill, stroll leads to Hanging Gardens, where small waterfalls fed by springs high in the cliffs above tease plants and flowers directly out of the rock.

The Riverside Trail hike passes through surprisingly lush vegetation to streams where you can cool your feet; skip stones with the kids; picnic or simply sit upon a rock and get lost in the scenery. The Virgin River makes its less-than-virgin run through and over rocks, emitting self- satisfied sounds as a backdrop to the reverie.

Virgin River, Zion National Park, Utah
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Visitors, depending upon personal preference, can start in Zion and head north for increasingly spectacular views (my choice); or begin at Arches and drive south to save the best for last, as many consider Zion to be. Either way, it is impossible not to be enthralled by the unimaginable replay of expansive beauty and scenic motifs that present themselves in so many different ways from one park to the other. For more information, call the Utah Office of Tourism at 800/200-1160 or check the website at

If You Go

How to go. The drive from Salt Lake City International Airport to Arches National Park takes about 3-1/2 hours, and to Zion National Park about 4-1/2 hours. The logical route to take in all five parks is to begin at Arches and drive southwest, or start at Zion and head northeast. An alternative is to fly into Las Vegas and drive about 3 hours to Zion National Park.

When to go. Spring to early summer, and autumn, are the coolest times to visit, especially important for those planning strenuous activity. Many families with children visit in the summer, when the kids are out of school.

Cost. When covering all five parks, an $80 America the Beautiful – National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass is the way to go. It provides one-year admittance to every park in the country for all passengers of a vehicle. A $10 version, for persons 62 and older, provides lifetime access to all the national parks. Individual passes to the separate Utah parks range from $5 to $25 per vehicle.

(Posted 2-17-2012)

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Let Fyllis know what you think about her traveling adventure.

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Feedback for Gullah Culture

I think a lot of the plantation enslaved Africans began with a variety of African languages and little contact with English speakers. Even today some of the speech patterns of modern descents of the enslaved hold onto this language or some of the patterns even after being away from the area for generations. That's what we heard in N Carolina.

-- Barbara, Mill Creek, WA

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Thank you for your extensive and accurate story of a remarkable, resilient culture!

-- Marlene O'Bryant-Seabrook, Ph.D. – Charleston, SC

And Marlene – thank you so very much for your comment. Nothing makes a writer feel better than hearing something like that!!!


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Nice story thanks, however there are also Gullah speak in southern Belize and Honduras coast to Trujillo, been all over both thanks.

-- Michael Johnson – Myrtle Beach, SC

Hi Michael,

Thank you so much for your comment. However, I think what you're referring to in the Belize/Honduras region is more accurately characterized as the Garifuna culture and language, which somewhat parallels the Gullah. If you'd like more information about that, please read my November 2011 story in about the Garifuna.


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Toooooooo cooooooool Now I want to go to Florida!!!!

-- Kathy Marianelli – Columbia, Maryland

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Feedback for Ha Long Bay in Vietnam

I'm a Vietnamese and I can't help but went through all of your pictures. They are beautiful, both the couples and the natural sceneries. Vietnam is such a beautiful place, I love it. I have been to Ha Long Bay once, in fact, I have been too all places that you took pictures of. I love your pictures and certainly will comeback for more. Thank you for these wonderful images of Vietnam and its people.

-- Quyen

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Feedback for Family Magic in Orlando

Great article!!! Makes me want to go back and experience it ALL all over again.

-- Ariane – Chicago

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Feedback for Mohonk

I love your signature and the writing (in "Mohonk: Sumptuous Old-World Flavor Tastefully Wrapped in Casual Elegance")... but the place is a bit expensive... more like the Romney types! Is Vic a "photographer" or does he just take pretty good pictures?

-- John Strauss – Campton Hills, IL

Hi John,

Thanks so much for your kind comments. Much appreciated! Yes, I do know Mohonk is expensive -- as is true for so many of the fine resorts -- but it is a historical structure that has been in operation for so many years and offers so many activity options for the whole family without nickel and diming the guest, that for those who can afford it, it actually is somewhat of a bargain.

And no, Vic is not a "real" photographer as much as he is a travel writer in his own right, but sometimes, as he says, he does get lucky.

Again, thanks for your feedback.


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Feedback for the Road to Hana

We enjoyed seeing the Road to Hana from a helicopter! After you get to Hana you've still got to make the return journey. Thanks but no thanks!

-- Betsy Tuel – Rosendale, NY

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Feedback for Dominican Republic

Thank you, Fyllis, for this engaging tour. For years I thought the Dominican Republic was all-tourists, all-the-time. You just made me want to go there! (those waterfall adventures look like great fun)

-- Richard F. – Saugerties

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Feedback for Traveling the Canadian Rockies

We (our family) also took The Rocky Mountaineer (gold leaf) in early June 2011. Great memories! Great food! Great service! I am sorry to hear about this labor dispute, as clearly, the attendants were a HUGE part of the experience. They felt like friends by the end of the trip. Good luck to all employees!

-- Susie – Hana

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Hi Fyllis,

I am one of the locked out onboard attendants. I enjoyed reading your lovely writing based on the trip you took with the level of service that was delivered until June 22, 2011. It is misleading to share this review at this time. Many current guests are dismayed when they experience the low level of service which does not live up to what this blog post boasts. The company is not even responding to the complaints of their guests who have paid top dollar, and are now consistently ignored when they write to ask for a refund. If you do not believe me, go to Trip Advisor and read the recent reviews. There are a few good ones, and they are almost all from pre-lock out dates. Many of those are from complimentary trips and the company seems to be pressuring them to post positive reviews. If you are unaware of what is happening, please consider visiting a site which has many news stories and letters of support from guests and local politicians.

--- City: onboard – Vancouver

Can I ask when this article was written? One of the managers onboard would have been travelling on it for more than 6 years by now...last I heard Shauna was in Edmonton.

--- tnoakes – Edmonton, Alberta

Dear Whomever --

I am so very sorry to hear about the lockout and the bad feelings that have been engendered between management and employees. It was not a situation I knew anything about and realize the timing of my article indeed was unfortunate.

What I wrote about was based totally on my personal experience and only reflects my trip at that time. Please accept my apologies for the difficulties current and former employees are now experiencing and the apparent disparate levels of service experienced by me and more recent guests. It was not something I had any knowledge of.

Fyllis, TravelingBoy

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