The Natural Wonders of Southern Utah

Southern Utah offered an astounding wonderland of national and state parks and monuments. The hikes we took are manageable for even a novice hiker and provide life-changing vistas and experiences.

Just think of it – Linda Caudell-Feagan camping and hiking.  For those of you who know her well, I know I will need incontrovertible proof so I’ll provide photographic evidence and an ode to our hikes across ten (yes 10) national and state parks and monuments.

What I offer here is a phenomenal itinerary through the natural wonders of southern Utah.  While I’ll highlight our hikes, the vistas were astonishing throughout our journey.  Many of the highways are officially labeled “scenic” but it seems to me that every road in southern Utah deserves that designation.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t offer a shout out to our drives through Glenn Canyon National Recreation Area and Dixie National Forest, as well as our rafting trip down the San Juan River near Bluff Utah.

Now on to the hikes.  While experienced hikers may discount some of our choices, I can highly recommend those we chose.  You can never see every nook and cranny of the parks but the 45 miles of charted trails and all of the overlooks and stops throughout the parks certainly impressed us AND Linda kept up every step of the way.  Here are our recommendations.

Arches National Park was our first stop after settling in with our inspiration and spirit guide, Lauralee Green.  Lauralee was a life changing teacher for both of our daughters in elementary school.  She was not only our gracious host in Moab but also helped plot out each step of our adventure.  Arches was a wonderful start with more than 2,000 natural red-rock stone arches and hundreds of pinnacles, fins and giant balanced rocks.

Windows Loop and Turret Arch Trail offered our initiation.  Don’t fail to climb behind the arches and take the “primitive” trail.  You’ll escape the crowds and get great photos.  Double arch is also right across the parking lot.

Landscape Arch Trail was likely our favorite. This huge spanning arch threatens to collapse as part of the natural evolution of arches that continually form and fall.  We were glad it waited for us.

Delicate Arch Trail leads to the iconic image on Utah license plates.  Since the day was ending, we were only able to get to the viewpoint but next time I’d love to take the three-mile round-trip hike to the summit.

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Canyon Lands National Park is one of the five national parks in the high desert of southern Utah where erosion has crafted an amazing landscape (we hit them all).  It is divided into four separate districts by the Green and Colorado rivers and we were in Island in the Sky.  Much of our visit was stopping at each viewpoint immediately off the park road but we did fit in two official hikes.

The Mesa Arch Trail offers a spectacular sunrise hike to an arch perched on the edge of a cliff.  It perfectly frames your photos of the canyonland that plummets 1,000 feet below

Upheaval Dome provided a fun hike to an overlook of a three-mile wide 1,000 foot deep crater that defies any clear theory for its origins.

In comparison to the national parks, Goblin Valley State Park was miniscule and while I resist ever anointing a favorite, it was top of my list because it is so strange and the small campground was idyllic (I’d highly recommend campsite 10).  The landscape is covered in sandstone goblins and formations that are often compared to Mars.

Carmel Canyon Trail – A 1.5-mile loop through the desert floor gave us an array of different perspectives on this wonderland.

Natural Bridges National Monument was not even on our itinerary but we had time so we drove in to see its three grand bridges named “Kachina,” “Owachomo” and “Sipapu” in honor of the Native Americans that once made this area their home.  We only took advantage of the viewpoints but already have scoped a hike at Owachomo for our next trip.  (For those of you who don’t know, a national park is established by an act of Congress while a national monument can be designated through executive order, hence why President Trump could unilaterally roll back the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante.)

Capitol Reef National Park was our third national park and our second night of camping.  The campground is set in the middle of fruit orchards originally planted by the early Mormon pioneers so we enjoyed apples off the tree.  We knew little about Capitol Reef but came away impressed by the canyons, cliffs, mesas and petroglyphs.

Hickman Natural Bridge offered an early morning hike (most of our hikes started early to avoid the heat of mid-day) but my favorite was –

The 4.5 mile Grand Wash Trail.  It has my favorite attributes for hikes in this region – long enough to stretch your legs thoroughly with high canyon walls that offer splendor and shade much of the day.  “A Desert dry wash is a North American desert biome occurring in the flat bottoms of canyons that lack water at or near the surface most of the year, and are subject to periodic severe flooding events.”  Fear not – we checked the weather so we knew we were safe from rain and the flash floods that follow.

Bryce Canyon National Park was phenomenal.  I use so many superlatives in the descriptions of our journey but Bryce . . .  Bryce . . . Bryce.

Queen’s Garden Trail and Navajo Loop – We combined two trails to hike to the canyon floor to get close to the hoodoos.  A hoodoo is defined “as a column or pinnacle of weathered rock” but that definition fails to convey the magic.  The truth is you just have to see it for yourself and this hike which includes both Sunrise and Sunset points is my recommendation for the experience.

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Kodachrome Basin State Park was our next stop.  It contains 67 monolithic stone spires, called sedimentary pipes, and multihued sandstone layers on the canyon walls that “inspired a National Geographic Society expedition to name the area Kodachrome, after the popular color film, in 1948.”

The Angel’s Palace Trail offered a 1.5 mile stroll to get our legs warmed up but wasn’t my favorite hike.  Down the road however were two highlights.

Grosvenor Arch Trail in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument was down a dirt road from Kodachrome.  I knew nothing about it but Linda had fallen in love with arches so off we went.  It is actually two sandstone arches towering 150 feet over your head.  The largest is 100 feet in diameter. I thought they were spectacular.

Cottonwood Canyon Narrows was one of my favorite but most stressful hikes.  It had been suggested by a ranger at the Grand Staircase Escalante regional office.  I knew nothing about it.  I had no trail maps.  I only had its location and a regional map that showed it had a north and south entrance.  But it was a narrow canyon so if offered adventure and shade.  It was another ten miles down that dirt road from Grosvenor Arch.  Fortunately, we didn’t read the description since the ranger assured us we could get there in Blueberry but according to descriptions I’ve read since – “This road is infrequently maintained and subject to washouts. Throughout much of its course, this undulating winding road traverses bentonite clay, which when wet can become impassable and, at best, is very dangerous to drive. A high-clearance vehicle, preferably with 4WD, is recommended, though not required unless runoff has damaged the road.”  The road wasn’t the problem.  The challenge was the fact that most people hike the canyon narrows as an in-and-out experience.  Not knowing that we hiked the entire canyon from the south parking lot and then exited at the north parking lot and started down the road.  It was doable, but it was a long hike on the dry and windy road and we had no idea when it would end.  It did end and we are still married!

Zion National Park reminded me of Yosemite with its towering vertical walls and striking formations.  It also had my all-time favorite hike.

Weeping Rock Trail is a short hike to one of the distinctive features of Zion – hanging gardens of ferns and wildflowers fed by water that filters through the Navajo sandstone and Kayenta shale forming a steady slow rain at overhangs.  Quite a change from the normally arid landscapes.

Watchman Trail offered a switchback up to tremendous vantage points up the canyon with plenty of wildlife and other entertainment.

But the Zion Narrows was the showstopper.  Linda joined me as far as the Riverside Walk when I plunged into the river that cascades down the canyon.  While it often goes up to your chest, it was only up to my knees on the three-mile trek I took.  It was fabulous

The Grand Canyon North Rim was our final national park and final night of camping.  We returned to the Grand Canyon after our trip to the South Rim in December to take another moment to absorb its all-encompassing vista.  I’ll have to admit that after the parks in southern Utah, I wasn’t enthralled but I also have a fear of precipices so that could offer an explanation.  We did take two short hikes on the Bright Angel Point Trail which offers a great vantage point but one that terrified me and on part of the North Kaibab Trail.  Camping was beautiful in the cool forested campground but we were ready the next morning to head back to Salt Lake City and enjoy an airport hotel before Linda flew home and I started the final stage of my year-long ramble.

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All in all our travels were fabulous and we are already planning a trip back with our children.  I’d highly recommend it to any reader and would be happy to go into even more excruciating detail if you have the patience.  It took a great deal of discipline to limit the number of photos so feel free to visit for a full slide show.

I’ll leave you with some of our favorite restaurants just in case you have read this far and plan to follow in our tracks.

3 thoughts on “The Natural Wonders of Southern Utah”

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