Wandering the West
September 29, 2009
As Americans sit mesmerized by Ken Burns’ latest PBS film about America’s national parks, it’s hard not to brag about those within an eight-hour drive of Park City. I can’t think of a better place in the United States to reach such a diverse range of spectacular places.
You can hop into your car after breakfast on Main Street and arrive at parks as different as the Grand Canyon deep in Arizona’s desert or Yellowstone high in the Rockies before dinnertime. (Okay, to get to the Grand Canyon in eight hours you’d have to go the North Rim. The South Rim takes longer because you have to drive around the canyon.)
The point is, if you confine your leisure time to making laps between Park City and Moab or Jackson, you’re missing the best of the West. The difference in the parks is stunning. When you go to these places, you’ll hear German, French, Spanish and Japanese and more at nearly every viewpoint. Go to those countries and you see one or two kinds of scenery. Start from Park City, drive eight hours, and you can see everything from the world’s largest intact geothermal geyser basin to red-rock-desert rock formations twisted into all sorts of fantastic shapes. Foreigners love the Western parks. Talk to them and they can’t get over the feeling of open space the fifty-or-more-mile views with no signs of civilization before them.
At the edge of an eight-hour drive, south-central Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park offers the continent’s tallest sand dunes, set against some of the tallest of the Rockies. Near the southwestern corner of Colorado you’ll find some the country’s oldest signs of human habitation. While Europeans were building the great cathedrals, ancient puebloans were building villages from rock and mud. In Mesa Verde National Park they left behind 4,700 archaeological sites and more than 600 cliff dwellings.
In Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, man had nothing to do with what you see the heart of the Rocky Mountains high peaks, mountain lakes, cold streams. That’s just the Colorado sampler. Head south to Arizona and you can take in the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, higher and cooler than the more heavily populated South Rim with its IMAX theaters and rubber-tomahawk stores.
Cruise around the Colorado Plateau country of southern Utah and you’ll see Canyonlands with its pristine views of canyons eroded down by the Green and Colorado Rivers. You can get out of your car, look at the expanse, take a few pictures and leave, or spend a few days feeling the heat on a bike trail or in a Jeep, or feel the power of the water on either the Green River or the Colorado. They are placid floats until the rivers join at the confluence, when the full power of the snowmelt of the Rockies join forces for a wild ride through the whitewater of Cataract Canyon.
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Arches National Park contains more sandstone arches than anywhere else on earth, and arch hunters discover more every year. Delicate Arch is the icon of Utah, and one of the images prominent in the opening of Burns’ series.
Up the road, Capitol Reef is much intimate than Canyonlands, featuring erosion on a more human scale. Here, instead of horizon-stretching canyon views, the canyons are tiny slots in the hundred-mile-long Waterpocket Fold, a geologic uplift full of small depressions, or pockets, each with its own mini-ecosystem.
To see Bryce is to see another side of erosion on sandstone. Here wind and water have formed uneven spires of all sizes and descriptions, like some mad sculptor was at work. It’s another park that’s easy to dismiss with a few short walks to the viewpoints. But to hike below the rim, and look to the sky with the spires as your foreground, is to see Bryce in a whole new and better way.
Head to Jackson and the Tetons will drop your jaw, no matter how many times you round the bend north of Jackson and see them revealed in the windshield. If you have only hours to spend, at least take the boat ride across Jenny Lake and hike up to Hidden Falls.
Of course there is no more famous national park than the first Yellowstone. Already in the 1870s Congress knew it was unique enough to set aside, even if it didn’t yet grasp the big picture of a national park system. Between fantastic steaming geysers and bubbling mud pots and wildlife-filled natural vistas, there remains no place on earth remotely similar to Yellowstone.
Visitors save their money to make once in a lifetime trips here. For us, it’s all there, within a mere eight hours of home. How many among you have seen even half of them?
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.