Utah: On the rocks

By Elizabeth Zach

Utah's national parks are just as grand in the off-season, writes Elizabeth Zachrocks.
Arches National Park in Utah. Photo / Getty Images
Arches National Park in Utah. Photo / Getty Images

Among the many photos I have from a recent vacation to Utah, one shows me at Canyonlands National Park, cupping my hands around my eyes and peering into the Island in the Sky Visitor Centre. It was closed for the winter, and I was forlorn that I could not get a stamp in my National Parks passbook, an obsession of mine born this year as the park service marks its centennial.

I say I was forlorn, and I was, but only partly: a winter visit to the dreamy deep-red caverns and arches that stretch across eastern Utah had been something of a gamble. My boyfriend and I love hiking, but we knew rough weather could easily ruin the vacation.

What we found, however, is what travellers often do when they head somewhere off-season: smaller crowds and cheaper airfares and accommodation. We flew into Salt Lake City, rented a car and drove to Moab, where we had booked a room for four days. Yet even in this popular town, within spitting distance of two national parks, we found mostly silence and, luckily, an intense blue sky that made the outsize and precipitous boulders and ravines even more mind-blowing.

Driving on from the shuttered visitor centre, we debated which trail to hike, knowing we wanted to be at Grand View Point Overlook to watch the sun set.

Rather spontaneously, we parked at the Shafer Canyon Overlook, crossed the road to the west with our hiking gear and descended amid the brush along the 14km Neck Spring Loop, which one of my guidebooks designates as the most secret trail in the park. We had prepared for chilly weather, with jackets, gloves, caps and heavy socks, so we were delighted to find sunny skies and warm temperatures, a perfect day to be out there.

With our gear, we were warm enough to take breaks along the trail to admire the views.

We had the place to ourselves as we skirted lush carpets of cryptobiotic soil and clusters of cedar and pinyon-juniper, along with patches of snow and even an abandoned hitching post, a reminder that cattle and horses had once grazed here.

Then, as we approached a canyon, I saw a meagre waterfall.

We walked toward it, but came to an abrupt halt as we glimpsed an icy curtain woven around the base, giving off the surreal appearance of an earthen amphitheatre. We carefully trod away from the trail, sidestepping the marsh and mud until we reached the icicles, and then we slipped behind them, looking out of our private cove toward the rest of the sunny ravine, a stellar view. After we had our fill, we turned back for the trailhead and continued by car to Grand View.

It was shortly before sundown when we pulled up to the overlook, where, save for a friendly tourist from Montreal lugging around his enormous telephoto lens, we were alone, the solitude emphasised by the vast canyon below us. Driving back to the interstate, we watched the heavens morph into a warm rosy hue and could see silhouetted buttes off in the distance.

Afterward, back at the Gonzo Inn in Moab, we performed what had, on this trip, become our evening ritual, racing from our room through the frigid night air in our bathing suits for the Jacuzzi and gazing up at the stars. And, as on every evening at the inn, we had the tub to ourselves.

The next day, after picking up chicken salad and drinks for a picnic lunch, we drove back toward Canyonlands but hung a left to Dead Horse Point State Park.

Since planning this Utah trip, I had been coming across aerial photos of a gooseneck turn in the Colorado River that weaves among striated cliffs. I thought it was at Canyonlands and looked for it when we drove to Grand View the previous evening, but afterward I realised that the image was from Dead Horse. I was eager to find it - and did.

The viewing platform and surrounding pathways were empty when we reached them and looked out on to parts of the canyons still flecked with snow. The Colorado resembled day-old coffee with cream. With the air hazy, the view to the bottom was striking, well worth the search for it.

A woman rests while hiking on Angel's Landing in Zion National Park, Utah.
A woman rests while hiking on Angel's Landing in Zion National Park, Utah.


Across the parking lot on the other edge of the canyon, we prepared our picnic while perched on rocks overlooking the La Sal Mountains. At the base of the canyons, we could see a glimmering series of ponds with what appeared to be railroads encircling them: the Moab Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action Project, a US Department of Energy effort to move 16 million tons of uranium tailings from the banks of the Colorado to a permanent disposal site near Crescent Junction. But the project site appeared eerily still, almost abandoned, from where we sat.

Another day, we visited Arches National Park, which we found to be much busier than Canyonlands. American writer Edward Abbey was a park ranger here, and his journals from that time would become the book Desert Solitaire, published in 1968 and eventually adopted as a bible for adventure travel to the area.

It's hard to imagine that the collection of sculpted rock at Arches, designated a national monument in 1929 and elevated to park status in 1971, was initially promoted as a destination for tourists who didn't want to leave their cars. In fact, it's possible to glimpse the more than 2000 catalogued arches - the greatest concentration in the world - doing just that.

But nowadays people get out in nature, and we still had fair weather. Before hiking, we stopped at the visitor centre to see which trails were traversable.

None were closed, but the rangers did point to ice and snow advisories. My boyfriend, who had toured Arches before, especially wanted to see the iconic Delicate Arch, which he'd missed on his last visit.

The rangers showed us photos of a seemingly treacherous path toward the end of the trail, but we were still game.

And it turned out that once we got to the parking lot there were plenty of other tourists. When we joined them, we encountered a veritable Tower of Babel - we could pick out French, Ukrainian and Cantonese.

Because about half the trail goes over broad, open rock faces, it didn't feel crowded until we reached the very narrow, icy stretch that rounds a bend and leads to the ridge where Delicate Arch is.

At one point along the trail, we took a slight detour to see petroglyphs depicting bighorn sheep and horseback riders, dating to when the Ute tribe - for which Utah is named - roamed the region.

These aren't especially old; a sign said they were created between 1650 and 1850. However, they are well-preserved and protected and remain sacred to Native Americans of the area.

The trail from the petroglyphs on to Delicate Arch eventually winds through narrow rocky passages and over creeks until the final cautious steps along a precipice, which then opens on to a ridge.

There, with the La Sal Mountains, pinnacles and balancing rocks off in the distance, the solo and soaring arch appears to teeter on the canyon's edge. It has been photographed so often and yet is no less arresting when you see it in person. We first stood on the distant ledge, taking in the spacious vista, and then slowly approached, posing for photos along the way.

Later, I looked up Abbey and his work and realised I was visiting Arches exactly 60 years since he had described this incandescent landscape. Abbey was deeply critical of what he called "industrial tourism" and was conflicted over our liaison with nature, specifically the desert and its indifference to humans.

In this sense, my photos from eastern Utah now feel particularly valuable, for the grand views and solitude we were allowed - and despite the missing stamp in my passbook.

Checklist

GETTING THERE
American Airlines flies from Auckland to Los Angeles from June 23. Return Economy fares start from $1178.97. Its domestic network flies on to many destinations, including Utah. aa.com

DETAILS
The US National Parks Service celebrates its 100th birthday this year. Go to nps.gov for more information.

ONLINE
visittheusa.com

- Washington Post

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