Alice Peacock explores Utah's grand canyons and natural monuments

New Zealand has national parks and Utah has national parks, but these two things are not the same. The type you'll find in Southern Utah - Zion, Arches, Bryce - are equally as beautiful, but instead of our lush green forest, we're talking towering red-rock cliffs, miles of sprawling desert and prickly looking cacti.

We were touring the area in March, meaning spring had technically sprung. Nothing about the temperatures reflected this though, so we were bundled up in parkas and double-layered socks.


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We encountered a full-on snowstorm on our road trip from Park City - Utah's home of ski fields - down to the bottom of the state. We soon discovered that Americans navigating monster four-wheel-drives through a blizzard move slower than Aucklanders on a rainy weekday morning.

Snowstorms aside, it's a long drive. We stopped for a night to hit refresh in Moab - a great little town with an even better old-school diner, Milts. I'd recommend a visit. If you haven't tried a root beer float, this is a great place to pop that cherry.

Overlooking Monument Valley, Navajo Tribal Park, Utah. Image / Alice Peacock
Overlooking Monument Valley, Navajo Tribal Park, Utah. Image / Alice Peacock

Arches National Park

Before visiting Southern Utah, I wouldn't have picked myself as the type to have a favourite type of rock. But here we are, and after a four-day tour of an area with many, many rocks, my pick of the lot is the arches.

Inside the national park, we began the winding journey to the starting point for the walk to Delicate Arch. The terrain looked a little like you'd imagine Mars would: red and rocky with craggy rocks breaking the horizon. As we drove further in, the famous arches rose into view, creating a majestic skyline.

We parked up, and layered up, in preparation for a hike to the park's main attraction; Delicate Arch. It's a moderate trek - perfect to warm us up in the chilly weather but with the potential, we were told, to wipe out unprepared tourists during peak season.

Delicate Arch is staggering, a hollowed-out rock form that seemed to defy the forces of gravity simply by staying upright.

Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah. Image / Getty
Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah. Image / Getty

Monument Valley

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Some tourist attractions need to be visited, no matter how many Lonely Planet guides, documentaries and Instagram posts you've seen illustrating their beauty.

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park - to use its full name - is one of them. The park, located in Arizona but accessible from Utah, is a popular setting for old Hollywood movies - hits such as Stagecoach and Fort Apache were filmed here.

We were shown around the park by a local, Robert. The place is huge (371 square kilometres to be exact) and Robert seemed to know the history of every nook and cranny. He pointed out and named each of the major rocks on our drive; like Mittens and The Totem Pole.

Our journey was punctuated by pit stops: we ran up huge sand dunes to get a better view of the buttes (tall, flat-topped towers of rock), then lay on the floor of a cave, trying to make out the shape of a giant bird Robert insisted was imprinted into its ceiling.

Deep into the valley, the silence was almost shocking. It is a wonderful place to sit and think - you can almost guarantee you'll find a spot to call your own for an hour or two.

Arches National Park, Utah. Image / Alice Peacock
Arches National Park, Utah. Image / Alice Peacock

Capitol Reef National Park

We'd scrambled over craggy rocks and up sand dunes, but we hadn't yet experienced the canyons Utah is famous for. To get a taste of canyoning, we visited Capitol Reef, a national park that's a little off the beaten track.

The drive to the start of the Grand Wash Trail took us through Fruita - a small settlement inside the national park. Historically a Mormon community, Fruita sits in a lush valley full of orchards. These days, few live there. It is, however, home to the Gifford homestead - now a retail store selling locally made jams, and fresh-baked pies. Perfect for a bit of pre-canyoning sustenance.

Our canyoning was hampered by the weather - high water levels brought on by the rain meant a limited experience - but we managed a hike some way down one of the trails. It was impressive in a different way from Monument Valley - the trails were narrow and ran between towering walls of light rock, rather than the open expanses we'd become used to.

On first inspection, this alien landscape was almost entirely barren. Made up of various shades of brown and red, it bore no comparison to the lush vegetation of Abel Tasman.

But I soon gained a new kind of appreciation for the hardy vegetation, which survived through the seasons to provide a hint of green for us, and even the occasional flower.

They're experts in endurance and adaptation; surely something to be admired.

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