Utah Sights - Exploring Southeast Utah
Arches, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef Come Shining Through
Southeastern Utah is a traveler's wonderland. As a state, Utah is rich in a wide variety of national parks and monuments, and the names Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Lake Powell are common among seasoned road warriors. However, tucked away in Utah's southeastern corner is a trio of sparkling jewels in the national park system: Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef.
As part of a cross-country trip, we had planned to visit this area of Utah to fully explore what these parks had to offer. The trip was actually a follow-up to one we made many years ago (back then, we were camping in a Toyota Pickup with a camper top). This time, we had the advantage of quite an upgrade: our rugged F-250 Power Stroke, pulling a 29-foot fifth-wheel Komfort trailer. While Moab, Utah, is a favorite destination for many travelers of the area, we chose instead to camp at Green River, a small picturesque town that, like Moab, is centrally located to the trio of national parks we planned to visit.
While in Green River, we stayed at the Shady Acres RV Park and Campground, which offered nearly 100 full-hookup sites in a scenic setting. Since we arrived at Green River in the late afternoon, it was a bit late to dash off to the national parks, so we decided to take in the John Welsley Powell River History Museum, located just down the street from our campground, instead. In 1869, explorer John Wesley Powell and his crew undertook an expedition down the wild, uncharted waters of the Green and Colorado Rivers. Today, the museum honors these brave explorers. The museum is packed with river memorabilia, an exhaustive history of Powell's expeditions, and enough facts about the memorable river trips to satisfy even the most jaded Powell enthusiast.
The next day, we were anxious to visit two of our favorite areas: Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. These two parks dramatically illustrate the great beauty and the great power of Mother Nature. Carved out by a long history of rushing water, relentless wind, and natural erosive forces, Arches and Canyonlands stand as mute testimonies of what eons of natural weathering can achieve. Arches is a magnificent collection of towering stone monoliths, sweeping stone arches, dramatic fire-red canyons, and precariously perched boulders. Canyonlands, on the other hand, looks like the devil himself gouged out gigantic rugged canyons with his massive sharp-shearing talons.
The very names of the incredible formations at Arches give you an idea of what sights there are to behold: Park Avenue, Balanced Rock, Delicate Arch, Devils Garden, Double Arch, Turret Arch, and Dark Angel. Water and ice, extreme temperatures, and underground salt movement are responsible for the sculptured rock scenery of Arches National Park. There are more than 2,000 cataloged arches in the park, ranging in size from a three-foot opening to the longest one, Landscape Arch, which measures 306 feet from base to base. Arches can be seen in a day (although we don't recommend spending that little time), or you can happily explore this area over the course of a week. There are numerous hiking trails, a couple of mild off-road areas, a beautiful campground tucked into the confines of the park (no hookups), and enough adventure to captivate even the kids.
Probably the most well-known sight in Arches is Delicate Arch, which is pictured on the Utah license plate. Delicate Arch is perhaps one of the most photographed rock formations in the world. The last time we visited Arches, we hiked up to within touching distance of Delicate Arch and will never forget the experience. This time, however, we opted to hike to a dramatic viewing area of the Arch, looking across an impressive canyon at the formations perched a quarter-mile away. Delicate Arch is definitely not to be missed, and you'll come away from the experience a changed person.
The next stop on our southeast Utah itinerary was Canyonlands National Park. Canyonlands, like Arches, has been dramatically shaped by the forces of nature. Water and gravity have been the prime architects of this land, cutting flat layers of sedimentary rock into hundreds of canyons, mesas, buttes, fins, arches, and spires. A great way to see the Canyonlands is driving to the Island in the Sky, which leads to awesome viewpoints looking into the depths of the canyon itself. Views from the Island in the Sky reach from the Green and Colorado Rivers to the mountaintops and above. They stretch across canyon after canyon to the horizon 100 miles away. This area, a broad mesa wedged between the Green and Colorado, serves as Canyonlands observation tower. Down below, the canyons fan out in a remarkable display of Mother Nature at work-the view has to be seen to be believed.
We went with the Island in the Sky route the last time we visited Canyonlands. This time, however, we decided to drive into the depths of the canyon itself to achieve a different view. Seeing Canyonlands from eye level is, indeed, a dramatic experience. Rather than seeing these magnificent formations from afar (which is more than worthwhile), driving through the canyons puts you on a different plane-you become part of the scenery. From the bottom, you can go on numerous hikes, explore 4x4 trails, or simply drive the paved road that winds through the area. Whatever you choose, you are rewarded with dramatic views around every corner.
Our last stop in this corner of Utah was Capitol Reef. While not as widely visited as Arches or Canyonlands, Capitol Reef still stands as an epoch of time. A giant sinuous wrinkle in the Earth's crust stretches for 100 miles across this area. This impressive buckling of rock, created 65 million years ago by the same tremendous forces that later uplifted the Colorado Plateau, is called the Waterpocket Fold. Capitol Reef National Park preserves the fold and its spectacular, eroded jumble of colorful cliffs, massive domes, soaring spires, stark monoliths, twisting canyons, and graceful arches. Again, paved roads, hiking trails, and off-road routes take you to the preferred spots, and to fully explore the area you need to travel on all three. We highly recommend the unpaved Scenic Road, which follows the west face of the Fold and leads into Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge-two deep, twisting, water-carved, sheer-walled canyons. Allow at least two hours for this 25-mile, round-trip excursion. In addition, there are miles of unpaved roads leading into remote areas of the park, including Cathedral Valley and Halls Creek Canyon.
Naturally, this area of Utah holds many more surprises than this trio of national parks. Other worthwhile areas to visit include Goblin Valley State Park (with its Goblin-like rock formations), Dead Horse Point State Park, the petroglyph-strewn Newspaper Rock, and the ever-popular Hole in the Wall.
With its ever-impressive array of stone arches, towering rock monoliths, red-lit canyons, and sheer hard faces, southeastern Utah is a nature-lover's paradise. And even though we faced 90-plus degree heat during our stay, all that dramatic scenery was definitely a cool experience.