Wandering the West
September 22, 2009
With five national parks in southern Utah already, equally great places on the Colorado Plateau don’t get as much attention or as many visitors. Tourism promoters now are pitching the notion of upgrading Cedar Breaks National Monument to Cedar Breaks National Park, which would take an act of Congress.
Those in Iron County’s tourism business think that, if the same place was called "Park" instead of "Monument," another million people might drop by to see the exact same things that already exist in the monument’s relatively small acreage.
I don’t know about that, but I do know Cedar Breaks is spectacular, and overlooked. It’s 14 miles east of Cedar City on Highway 12 through Cedar Canyon, then left another four miles on State Road 148. That puts you at the top of the Colorado Plateau at over 10,000 feet, where you can scan the horizon or look down on the effects of erosion, which have worn a chasm down 2,500 feet. No wonder it’s called the "miniature Grand Canyon." The red limestone (not sandstone) was once the bed of a prehistoric lake on the valley floor. Over time lots of time the lake drained and the lakebed uplifted to 10,000 feet, with the help of the hundred-mile-long Hurricane Fault.
Enough of the Mr. Wizard stuff. Cedar Breaks offers more of what southern Utah has in abundance red rocks eroded into wild, weird, wonderful shapes that you just don’t see anywhere else. I’m reminded of Bryce Canyon National Park when I look down at the eroded hoodoos. With a pine forest, blue sky and puffy white clouds passing, it’s a postcard come to life.
It would be easy to dismiss Cedar Breaks as a windshield park, with little to do but scan out from the rim and keep driving, but that would be so wrong. Instead, drop by the visitor center, a National Historic Register log-and-rock lodge built by the Civilian Conservation Corps men in 1937. They’ll tell you how to find the Spectra Point-Ramparts Overlook trail, a four-mile round trip with views in all directions. You’ll walk past a number of gnarled old gray bristlecone pines, one of which is 1,600 years old.
There’s a mellower Alpine Pond trail, which offers views of the breaks and a cool walk through the forest to the pond. For the more ambitious hiker, there’s the Rattlesnake Creek Trail just outside the north entrance. It drops 2,500 feet into the gorge and Ashdown Creek, which carved it. Ashdown Gorge is in a federally protected wilderness area. Just remember that anyone who hikes down must come back up.
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Right now fall color at nearly two miles high is at its peak, and there are plenty of quakies turning gold and shimmering against the sky. On October 12th, the Visitor Center will close for the season, but the roads will stay open until snow closes them until May. The state doesn’t plow the four-mile road to Cedar Breaks, but you’re still free to visit. On a full-moon night once, my photographer and I cross-country skied to the rim. That was more than twenty years ago, but I can still remember how clear the sky was that night. The four miles is a gentle upgrade. Knowing we were the only ones on the rim and taking in the moonlit rocks painted with snow was pure magic. Gliding the four miles back down to the car was equally exhilarating. I almost think a winter trip is better than a summer trip, but hey, it’s southern Utah it’s all great.
The Southern Pauites who passed through here call it "u-map-wich," which roughly translates to "the place where the rocks are sliding down constantly." That’s what rocks do along the Hurricane Fault, and that’s a good thing.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
Park City to Cedar Breaks — 266 miles
Insider tip: Stop afterwards halfway back down Cedar Canyon at Milt’s Stage Stop. It’s one of southern Utah’s best steak and seafood restaurants. (It’s a little spendy, though.)