Utah’s 5 magnificent national parks will blow you away

Story and photos by LEE MENG LAI

After landing at Las Vegas McCarran International Airport, I had been waylaid by the seductive chimes of one arm bandits. But I managed to tear myself away, picked up my rental car and headed out into the sunshine.

I headed north-eastwards to Utah, via Interstate 15, en route to an epic outdoor escapade.

My plan was to course through Utah’s national parks, crossing from the deep west, up the so-called Grand Staircase, from the floor of the Grand Canyon to the raised tablelands of southern Utah, and end up at the eastern town of Moab, near the state line with Colorado.

I had six days to cover a road distance of 825km, winging it on my own, with Waze and Google Maps as my constant love-hate companions.

Waterfall oasis

At 4pm, after 230km, I arrived at my first park, Zion National Park. I collected some maps at the visitor centre and hopped on the shuttle that took visitors into the main canyon.

Carved by the Virgin River, Zion remains an oasis fed by waterfalls cascading down red sandstone cliffs. With two hours left till darkness, I walked a short trail up to the Emerald Pools to christen my return to the wilderness.

The trail up Angels Landing, at Zion National Park.

The next morning, I tackled a dizzier hike up Angels Landing (453m high). The sun was strong and the weather was cool (about 12°C) as hikers crossed a stream to start scaling the stone monolith, first along a gravel path, then up winding zigzag concrete steps.

After an hour of casual trekking, I caught sight of Scout Lookout. Reaching it involved traversing an almost vertical sandstone wall, with a metal chain as hand rail. From there, the summit, at the tip of a fin, it’s another 45m up, along a steep and jagged ridge, with sheer drop-offs on either side.

The wind gusted and sand billowed at my face. I was elated enough with the deep canyon views at Scout Lookout and decided to turn back. The signage cautioned that six people have died attempting the summit since 2004. I had no wish to be an angel, not yet.

At Springdale, I rewarded myself with an earthly comfort meal of fish and chips at the Historic Pioneer Restaurant before moving on the road to etch another notch along the Grand Staircase. Leaving Zion, I meandered up the Zion-Mt Carmel Scenic Byway (along Highway 9) at 40km/h, slow enough to take in the rugged scenery streaming by my windscreen, holding my breath as I made each hairpin turn.

Symphony of colours

After two tunnels and a winding road, I arrived in bright afternoon sun at the Bryce Canyon National Park visitor centre. I picked up some leaflets, checked the weather board and drove to the canyon rim.

I clambered up to Sunrise Lookout Point, 2,444m, and what appeared before me stunned me for a long second. There I stood on a balcony presiding over the widest natural amphitheatre I had ever seen, parading a symphony of colours: blazing reds, orange, pink and white.

Lying almost at the top of the Grand Staircase, Bryce Canyon is one face of the Higher Colorado Plateau that has been, and is still slowly being, eroded away by nature, creating haunting structures of spires, pinnacles, and columns called “hoodoos”. Unlike in Zion, where I squinted upwards at monoliths, here, I was scanning from eye level downwards to the far horizon.

I descended (more like ran) from Sunrise Point down to Queens Gardens, hit the canyon floor, burrowed through giant columns, and looped back up to Sunset Point. I bumped into a couple I had met at Zion and we stayed to catch the last rays of sunlight falling on the pinnacles.

Early morning hike in Zion National Park.
Early morning hike in Zion National Park.

Jeep rides between sheer rock walls will get your adrenalin pumping.
Jeep rides between sheer rock walls will get your adrenalin pumping.

After a night at Grand Staircase Inn in Cannonville, I woke up to find the water bottles left in my car had frozen overnight (the temperature was at minus 1°C). But the sun and sky was perfect, so I decided to fit in two side trips.

I spent an hour at Kodachrome Basin State Park admiring its red rock chimneys and white-pink cliffs (looking like chunks of dated cheese). I drove 55km along Scenic Byway 12 and then hiked up Escalante Petrified Forest State Park.

It was a small hill and not particularly interesting, until I was joined by Thea (Greek goddess) and Rosalee (like a rose), two vacationing mountain bikers. Talk about kindling the fire in the petrified soul.

After careening down from the Boulder Highlands (highest point of drive, 2,926m) on roads flanked by snow-covered shoulders, I cruisied waywardly along Highway 24, passing

soaring red rock formations (with names such as The Castle and Capital Dome), petroglyphs (Native American rock art) sites and fruit farms.

I parked and walked into the Grand Wash, a twisting passage about 5km deep, hemmed in by sheer-walled canyons.

It took me about an hour to complete the trail. By the time I checked into the Rim Rock Inn in Torrey, the cold had set in, brought on by a fierce wind. At dinner, I savoured the pan-fried Utah trout, paired with a glass of Merlot.

Fiery Furnace

I woke up at 7am to find my car under a thick layer of snow. I had no idea what it was like to drive some 250km to Moab in wintry conditions.

Snow was drifting down from the sky as I pressed on towards a wall of white on Highway 24. Luckily, the snow abated into light rain as I hit Interstate 70. At a quarter past noon, after three wet hours on the road, I finally rolled into Moab.

The snow-blanketed Canyonlands National Park during an unexpected storm.
The snow-blanketed Canyonlands National Park during an unexpected storm.

Next up was Canyonlands National Park, which is at the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers. It’s sliced by the rivers into three districts named according to their distinct landscapes: Island in the Sky, The Maze and The Needles.

The park is the ultimate backcountry playground and is world-renowned for 4-wheel drives, mountain biking and whitewater rafting. The land is described aptly by Aron Ralston in his book as “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” (the story that spawned the movie “127 Hours”).

The park visitor centres are open year-round. But not on that day. The landscape was almost a complete white-out.

“Nothing much to be seen or done for the day,” said the ranger. I turned the car around and headed back into town, stopping to watch cows cross the road to roam the snow-carpeted range. I thought about the warmth of indoor heating and stepped on the gas.

Ascending through bare rock canyon walls in the Fiery Furnace, Arches National Park.
Ascending through bare rock canyon walls in the Fiery Furnace, Arches National Park.

The next day, I gave up on driving and joined a guided tour of Arches National Park. It was the last of the Mighty 5 I had come to Utah to marvel at but also the ultimate prize of my trip. For here is found the Delicate Arch.

“When the nearby La Sal Mountain range is snowcapped behind this majestic red sandstone frame, and when the sun and sky and clouds act out their roles, the ultimate in nature’s dramatic artistry is unveiled!”, so declared the brochure that first piqued by interest in Utah.

Asked about its whereabouts, David, our capable guide, pointed to a distant object as we rounded a bend after passing Balanced Rock. “We won’t be visiting Delicate Arch on this tour, but, hey, let me take us all on a sizzling hike down into the Fiery Furnace, coming right up ahead,” he announced.

The hike was indeed enthralling and made up for my initial disappointment. Arches National Park contains one of the highest densities of arches in the world, with more than 2,500 catalogued. We climbed naked red rock, squeezed through towering narrows and picnicked under arches, completing a 3.5km loop. The sky was spotless and blue.

The iconic evening scene of Monument Valley.
The iconic evening scene of Monument Valley.

With two days remaining in Moab, and the weather brilliant, I went rafting on the upper Colorado River, mountain biked on Slick Rock, bumped and humped on the backseat of a 4WD Hummer on a sunset ride over Hell’s Revenge, and chilled on the night “sound and light” show aboard a river cruiser.

I drove 262km south of Moab and arrived at the fringe of Monument Valley late on Day 5, catching sight of Wilson Arch, The Natural Bridges National Monument, and Mexican Hat, with the added thrill of drifting down Mokee Dugway, a winding dirt road with a 335m drop off the side. I got back to Moab at mid-night. That was my final “high” of the trip.

In Utah, as the tagline claims, life is truly “elevated”!

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