Wandering the West
March 22, 2011
We’re approaching magic time on the Colorado Plateau of Southern Utah. Here are two classic trips, best taken as three-day weekends, or two if you get an early enough start Friday afternoon.
Summers get so blasted hot they’re not as much fun then unless you’re near, or on, water. But for perfect hiking, I’ll take April and October for these two.
Park City has Moab on the brain each spring for hiking and mountain biking. You can hit two national parks, scenic byways and some lonesome back roads along the way. If you are a new Utahn, and have just moved to Park City, you must make the Moab pilgrimage in the spring. Moab is to desert Utah as Park City is to mountain Utah. We are kindred spirits, one leaving our tracks in snow, the other in red dirt.
Here’s a perfect Moab weekend: Drive nonstop and just get there. Stop outside town to camp along the Colorado River in one of several BLM campsites, reserve ahead at one of a dozen chain hotels, or nose around the Internet for something funkier. Try the brew pubs (Eddie McStiff’s or Moab Brewery) or, for a noisier night, try The Rio, a block off Main on 100 West, with a dance floor and occasional DJ.
Arise Saturday morning and head out to Arches National Park for some serious hiking. The rewards at the ends of trails here are sandstone arches, a more concentrated number in this small park than anywhere else in the world. Utah’s iconic Delicate Arch is an easy walk up 400 feet of gentle vertical on a well-worn trail over smooth rock that will take two or three hours. It’s almost a rite of passage for being a Utahn, so knock it off before it gets too hot.
Other great Arches hikes include Devil’s Garden, a 7.2-mile round-trip with one of the world’s largest arches, 290-foot Landscape Arch, as the reward. Or for another long one, try the Fiery Furnace, which is ranger led and requires a reservation and a small fee, but is worth it for the weird sandstone shapes and the narrow passages to squeeze through. Finish the day with a road trip out to view Canyonlands National Park from its northern rim, both at Deadhorse Point State Park and at Grand View Point.
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For the Sunday return, pack a picnic and take the Colorado River Scenic way northeast out of town along the mighty river and the sandstone cliffs it carved. Stop by Professor Valley, scene of John Wayne westerns, and snap pictures of Fisher Towers. You can’t miss them, there on the right. The road will end at Cisco, location of "Thelma and Louise" movie scenes including that gas-tanker explosion. Hit I-70 and roll into Green River. The John Wesley Powell River History Museum makes a nice stop before hunkering down for the ride home.
Another weekend, try the Dixie Loop. Drive down Provo Canyon to I-15 and lead foot to the Highway 17 Toquerville exit. Mosey along to Hurricane, Virgin, Rockville or Springdale for lodging. Nose around the ‘net for lodging, from bland motels to cute B & Bs in Rockville and Springdale. Several Springdale getaways are quality retreats, like the Desert Pearl, Zion Park Inn, the Cliffrose and Flanigan’s.
In the morning, see Zion Canyon in its spring glory. Park your car outside the park gate before crossing the Virgin River to the new Visitor’s Center, where you’ll pick up shuttles for a car-free day in the canyon. Private driving in the park was banned several years back and the results are relaxing. Shuttles will drop you at all trailheads and points of interest. The many hikes of Zion are all winners, although a few of the longest ones, like Cable Mountain and Angel’s Landing, are closed until the snowmelt is done and the trails are dry. One of my favorites is Hidden Canyon, reached after traversing across sandstone cliff faces on narrow trails where embedded chains along the trail are clutched very tightly by hikers.
After a second night of unwinding at the mouth of Zion Canyon (or inside the canyon walls, if you stay in the park lodge), return via the Zion tunnels, carved through a sandstone mountain leading out to Mount Carmel Junction and Highway 89. The return on 89 offers the best of small-town Southern Utah, with Mormon settlements all the way up to Spanish Fork just south of Provo.
There is a vast south central section of the Colorado Plateau you must visit as well, anchored by Capitol Reef and the Grand Staircase. So much plateau country, so few column inches to describe it all.
Writer, filmmaker and author Larry Warren has made the West his beat for the past three decades. He is the general manager of KPCW.
Insider tip: Moab and Springdale in the spring require advanced lodging reservations. If you’re camping, try http://www.recreation.gov for campground reservations nationwide.