After being wowed by the geology of Valley of Fire in Nevada, we headed into Utah — a state that is completely new to both of us, and which is home to some of the most dramatic rock formations in the US. Our plans take us through all of Utah’s “Mighty 5” national parks, as dubbed by the Utah tourism people, working our way from southwest to northeast.
Zion Train is Coming Our Way
Our first Utah port of call was at Zion National Park, where as usual we stayed in a campground inside the park operated by the National Park Service. This was one of our nicest NPS accommodations yet, because the Watchman Campground offers electric hookups and good internet service thanks to being located immediately adjacent to the town of Springdale. Of course, in typical NPS fashion there were still no showers available for campers, but this was no hindrance during our short stay. We only stayed at Zion for three nights — mostly because we were late in planning our spring travels and that is the only reservation we could get — but it turned out to be enough to explore this relatively small park. And we were perfectly positioned to catch early morning shuttle buses from the visitor center just steps from the campground, which was critical because this park crams a lot of people into a relatively small area.
Unfortunately for us, the relentlessly harsh storms this winter inflicted a significant amount of damage on the park, so very few of the hiking trails were open during our visit. The trails for Observation Point, Hidden Canyon, Kayenta, and the Middle and Upper Emerald Pools were all closed because of rockfalls. Meanwhile, the famous hike up the Virgin River to The Narrows was closed because snowmelt made the river’s flow rate too high for safe hiking (this hike involves trekking IN the river).
On the bright side, our short stop gave us the opportunity to experience just about everything available in the main canyon. Arriving at the cusp of spring, we saw the cottonwood trees and box elders beginning to flush out with tiny lime green leaves, while the trees were still bare enough to provide interesting silhouettes against the dramatic canyon walls. The famous hanging gardens of ferns and other plants that grow vertically on the porous sandstone cliffs were just starting to come out of winter dormancy. The large amount of winter rain and snowmelt meant that the famous water features along Zion’s canyon walls were operating at full blast. Huge amounts of water jetted from the tops of canyon walls and thundered down in impressive displays. Later in the year, visitors might only see a small trickle or seeping.
All the water that flows into Zion’s canyon, from the Virgin River and from the contributing springs and seeping water, makes this place a little slice of Eden in the midst of an otherwise arid desert. We loved the proliferation of wildlife (deer, turkeys, squirrels, and countless types of birds) and it was so calming to see green plants and hear running water after many months in the desert. One day we took the handy shuttle bus to the end of the canyon and returned slowly, stopping at each shuttle stop to check out its offerings and walking between several shuttle stops, for a 7 mile cumulative sojourn on mostly flat trails. Our main vertical hike in the park was the Watchman Hike, which we walked to from the campground. It provided lovely views north up the main canyon and south toward the town of Springdale, all in around 4.5 miles of round trip travel from the campground.
Mama Don’t Take My Kodachrome Away
One other effect of the winter storms in Zion was that Highway 89 (the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway) was damaged and reduced to one lane, with buses and RVs prohibited. This meant that we had to take a much longer route to get to our next destination, adding about 50 miles to the trip. Nonetheless, we made it to Kodachrome Basin State Park without too much trouble and settled in for a 10-day stay. We used the campground as a base for exploring Kodachrome Basin, Bryce Canyon, and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
The next part is a little fuzzy for me, since I managed to acquire a nasty head cold on my whirlwind trip to the East Coast. I spent the better part of a week wheezing, hacking, sneezing, and appreciating the miracle drug that is Nyquil. But this didn’t completely destroy my ability to appreciate the awesome landscape we were in, and the features of our campground.
We owe a serious hat tip to Chapter 3 Travels, who suggested this campground as a good alternative to the busy national park campground at Bryce or the extremely limited private options in the small towns in this area. We absolutely loved just about everything about camping at Kodachrome Basin. The campground was quiet and well laid out, with plenty of foliage considering we are in high desert, and our site featured lovely views of the surrounding red rocks from our rear panoramic windows. It had a clean, functional laundromat that we used not once but twice during our 10-day stay. But without a doubt, one of the highlights of the campground was the bathhouse. With large well-designed areas, stylish “dark wood” tile, chic fixtures, and huge rain shower heads, these showers were some of the nicest we’ve ever used – definitely much nicer than the bland beige-on-white tile and fiberglass in our Miami highrise. To find these luxurious showers in a *campground* in rural Utah was a surprise, to say the least. The promise of these lovely showers helped me struggle through high altitude hikes while popping cold medicines like candy.
When we weren’t making googly eyes at the bathhouse we took time to explore the rest of the park, which is pretty spectacular in its own right. The area was named by a National Geographic Society expedition in 1949, with permission from the Kodak Film Corp, and the vibrant colors of the rocks make it easy to understand the name.
The state park offered several different trails for our hiking enjoyment. The Panorama Trail is the headline trail for the park, winding through 6 miles of diverse geological features. It even includes a cool cave to explore (conveniently named “Cool Cave”) within the surrounding cliffs. Kodachrome Basin State Park is known for its remarkably colored rock formations, especially the tall “pipes” that jut up into the sky with no obvious explanation. The park guide suggests no less than three separate theories for how these unusual rock formations came to be. We just enjoyed seeing the mind-blowing diversity of colors and shapes in the rock formations ranging from jagged peaks to sheer cliffs to rounded, melted-looking shapes. The park even features one large natural arch called the Shakespeare Arch, which looks out over the remarkable landscape.
I think our favorites trails in the park were those that gave us elevated views of the surrounding area. At only 1.7 miles, the Sentinel Trail was a short trail (though plenty long for a person suffering from a dread disease), but every section of the trail provided breathtaking views over the surrounding basin, including the distant cliffs of Bryce Canyon and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The Angel’s Palace Trail is rated at 1.5 miles, but since it essentially involves scrambling over and around a slickrock formation, it can be as long or as short as the user prefers. Once again, the elevated views of the campground and its surrounding colorful formations, and the long views out along Kodachrome Basin beyond the park entrance, were just spectacular. Climbing around on the sandstone was an added bonus.
Hoodoo you love?
As much as we loved the state park where we camped, we couldn’t miss out on yet another national park just around the corner. Bryce Canyon National Park is quite possibly more dramatic and impressive than the Grand Canyon – but not because of the size. Rather, the vertical eroded “hoodoos” that populate the amphitheater are just so weird and wonderful, unlike anything else we have seen.
These features hug one side of a cliff that drops down into a watershed below, technically making this an amphitheater and not a true canyon. But regardless of the proper name, the views out across the hoodoos are magnificent. The stunning vertical formations are lined up like soldiers in seemingly regular rows, yet upon closer inspection each one has a unique shape and a different configuration of attachment to the surrounding features. The horizontal colors of sediment that made up the original cliff just add to the wonder of it all.
Thanks to the unusually snowy winter in this area, the NPS had only cleared about half of the main park drive during our visit in mid-April. Most of the trails below the rim were also still closed because of snow; the park sits at over 8,000 feet. But all this was no problem, as we had plenty of opportunity to visit the popular overlooks and gape in wonder at the scenery that unfolded below us. Visiting early in the season meant that the park was not particularly crowded and we had little difficulty finding parking at the overlooks. I can imagine in summer that it would be utterly foolish to visit the park without using the NPS shuttle buses to get around.
Stairway to Heaven
The final place we explored from our base in Kodachrome was the western portion of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. This monument is vast, at 2 million acres — or at least, it was until the president decided to chop 860,000 acres out of the monument in December 2017. It includes some of the very last land to be surveyed and mapped in the continental US, so you know this place is remote. The visitor center in Cannonville, the nearest town to our campsite, showcased a map from the late 19th century in which much of southern Utah is simply a blank. The titular “staircase” is a series of massive cliffs of varying colors that rise in a series over hundreds of miles, from the heights of Bryce Canyon (nearly 10,000 feet of elevation) to the lowest cliffs eroded by the Colorado River to form the Grand Canyon. The evocative names of the major formations are the Pink Cliffs (Bryce Canyon), the Gray Cliffs, the White Cliffs (Zion), the Vermillion Cliffs, and the Chocolate Cliffs (Grand Canyon). I was pleased to see that the visitor center sells chocolate bars called Chocolate Cliffs, because that sales opportunity is simply too good to miss.
A staff member at the visitor center in Cannonville offered several great suggestions for destinations within the monument near our campground. Unlike “Kathy” the homicidal ranger from Cumberland Gap, this ranger seemed to have first-hand knowledge of the trails and a realistic assessment of their difficulty. It might be related to the fact that I almost coughed up a lung onto her desk, but she gave us several suggestions for very easy hikes in the monument. We selected the extremely short Cottonwood Narrows trail, knowing that just getting to the trailhead would be half the adventure. Heading 15 miles down unpaved roads that are completely impassable when wet, we set out to find the trailhead and enjoy the views of the monument along the way. Traveling through the monument is like a psychedelic trip, since around each bend a new series of scenes and colors awaits, each one more unusual that the last. Moments after leaving an area filled with deep red soils reminiscent of Georgia clay, we would find ourselves traveling through an area where all the rock and even soil visible between the trees was distinctly green. Plus, there were plenty of escarpments, rocky outcroppings, and even a rare double arch to gape at.
The Cottonwood Narrows trail is a 1.5-mile jaunt through an eroded canyon, with a one mile return trip along the road to complete the loop. We arrived at our destination in one piece, and followed the ranger’s handy tip to park at the south trailhead and hike north, so that our return trip along the road would mostly go downhill. Wandering through the canyon, we were dwarfed by the high walls on both sides and fascinated by the scouring visible along both sides of the steep canyon. Even more impressive were the numerous plants and shrubs that managed to gain purchase and survive by clinging to the seemingly impenetrable rock. We had hoped to also hike the Willis Creek Narrows during our stay in the area, but some rainy days kept us inside and we never made it to this other slot canyon that came highly recommended by the ranger.
Our first few weeks in Utah were an outstanding introduction to the geologic wonders of the state. Our only problem so far has been running out of adjectives. How many times can you say “spectacular?” And while it would be easy to get distracted by the eye-popping colors of the various formations, just the shapes alone are mesmerizing, as evidenced by seeing a few photos in black & white:
Next up: we spend a week at Capitol Reef National Park while we search for new and different adjectives.