My husband, Mike, and I fashioned a trip to three of our favorite southern Utah destinations—Arches, Bryce Canyon, and Capitol Reef national parks. We went around the Thanksgiving holiday because we like cooler temperatures, knew crowds would be light and were hoping to see some snow at all three destinations. Although we barely saw a dusting of snow during our adventure, we found amazing rock formations, uncrowded trails and—most importantly for photography and happy hearts—beautiful light.
Arches National Park has much to offer, including 2,000 cataloged arches. An arch is defined as an opening in the rock that measures at least three feet. Landscape Arch, which is the largest arch, measures 306 feet from base to base. Arches are formed as a result of the dissolving action of water on rock—freezing and thawing—and gravity.
Although you can see much of the park by vehicle, hiking is the best way to see it. There are short, easy trails leading to many of the arches and to Balanced Rock. The longest trail in the park leads 4.2 miles round-trip to Double O Arch. If photography is your thing, pick up the parks’ Visitor Guide. Inside you’ll find a list of arches with tips on when they are best photographed—in early morning or late afternoon.
We hiked almost all of the trails during our stay. One of our favorites, and certainly the least crowded, was the trail that looped around from the campground. We hiked it one morning and found three arches—Tapestry, Broken and Sand Dune—during our short journey.
The park is a kingdom of arches within a land of pinyon pine and gnarly juniper trees. From April through July, when conditions are just right, wildflowers bloom and brighten up the landscape. Look for animal life year-round. Although most of them are more active at night, you may see jackrabbits and cottontails, kit foxes, mule deer and bighorn sheep. There are also small reptiles, including the collared lizard. Birds, such as noisy pinyon jays, flock together, while a lone golden eagle may glide by.
This area was once the home for Archaic people, and later ancestral Puebloan, Fremont and Ute people. With a little exploring, you can find evidence of their existence in the pictographs (images painted on rocks) and petroglyphs (images carved or pecked into the rock surfaces).
Camping is a real treat at Devils Garden Campground (877-444-6777, 30-foot limit on RVs), with sites set amidst boulders and rocks. Skyline Arch is even visible from some campsites. Open year-round, it has 52 sites, flush toilets and water.
In between Arches and Bryce Canyon is Capitol Reef National Park. Drive through it and you’ll see part of the Waterpocket Fold, an enormous, twisting wrinkle in the earth’s crust stretching for 100 miles across south-central Utah. In addition, you’ll find the Fremont River, massive domes, a rainbow of cliffs, heavenly spires, winding canyons and natural arches and bridges. There are also ancient pictographs and petroglyphs, art made by the Indians who hunted and farmed corn, beans and squash. Also, there are historic buildings built by Mormon pioneers who settled in the area. The settlers lived in the small community of Fruita, known for its productive orchards. The orchards remain and in the summer they are open to those who want to collect fruit. You can pick and eat peaches, cherries, pears and apricots to your heart’s content. Better yet, there is no charge for fruit consumed at the orchard, though there is a nominal fee for bulk fruit.
Although you can drive quickly through the park, the best way to see it is to take the Scenic Drive. On the 25-mile round trip, you’ll see dramatic scenes and trails leading to overlooks, remote canyons, slickrock wilderness and natural arches. In addition to the paved Scenic Drive, there are miles of unpaved roads just waiting to be explored. Self-directed guides are available at the visitor center bookstore.
Even if you’re just passing through, be sure to stop and hike the one-mile trail to beautiful Hickman Natural Bridge.
The national park provides 71 campsites at the Fruita Campground. It has restrooms, water and a dump station. The Cathedral Valley and Cedar Mesa primitive campgrounds offer free campsites, but no water.
Mule deer abound in Capitol Reef, and there are other animals to search for as well. Look for bighorn sheep, bobcats, yellow-bellied marmots, mountain bluebirds and migratory ducks along the river.
Top Scenic Drive
One of the most beautiful drives in the world is on Utah Highway 12 between Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon. Along the way you’ll pass through some of the unique features of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. En route you’ll endure short sections of 14-percent grades, but the view is worth it.
If you have a small RV (no longer than 25 feet) you can camp at the Calf Creek Campground (435-826-5499), 15 miles east of Escalante. This site is also the trailhead for a terrific hike to 126-foot-high Lower Calf Creek Falls. The hike is six miles round-trip, with a minimal change in elevation. The trail is sandy, however, and hiking can be strenuous, especially in summer. It’s an interpretive trail, so be sure to pick up a trail brochure so you can learn all about the plants and animals that live in this area. You’ll also see the remains of a granary (storage structure) built more than 800 years ago by the Fremont people. Also, pictographs are easily visible from across the canyon. As you hike along, look for wild turkeys, deer, coyote and porcupines, and in the spring and fall see an amazing number of migratory birds.
Hiking Amid Hoodoos
Bryce Canyon is one of my favorite places. Not really a canyon, it’s a string of amphitheaters etched into the edge of a lofty plateau. At first glance, it’s easy to see that Bryce, formed about 50-60 million years ago, is composed of “cities” full of orange, yellow, pink and purple rock spires or pinnacles, also called hoodoos.
Although the canyon is awesome when viewed from the rim, especially from points with names like Sunrise and Sunset and Fairyland, it is even more intriguing when you hike the trails among the hoodoos.
The park was named for Ebenezer Bryce, who came to the Paria Valley to live and harvest plateau timber. It received national park status in 1928. Visit the area, and you’ll be reminded why we need to protect places such as this.
Before hiking down among the hoodoos, I recommend driving the 18-mile park road along the plateau rim. Be sure to stop at all the overlooks for different views of Bryce Canyon and beyond to more of southern Utah and even northern Arizona. On clear days expect to see as far as 100 miles.
There are about 50 miles of hiking trails to explore. One of my favorite trails is the Fairyland Loop Trail, with its ability to make me ooh and aah as I round each corner. Sometimes I just have to stop and catch my breath because the views are so amazing. Other favorites include the Peekaboo Loop Trail, Queens Garden Trail and the Navajo Loop Trail. Although you won’t see a lot of hoodoos, a pleasant trail leads to some bristlecone pines on the Bristlecone Loop Trail. Exposed to harsh conditions, these hardy trees live for thousands of years.
Elevations in Bryce range from 6,600 to 9,100 feet. That means there’s a lot of variety at the park, with forests and meadows supporting diversity. Mule deer are the most common large mammals in the park, often seen browsing in meadows beside the road. There are also mountain lions in the park, and elk and pronghorn were reintroduced nearby. Sometimes they are seen within park boundaries. Marmots and ground squirrels spend the winter months hibernating.
More than 160 species of birds, such as swifts and swallows, visit the park each year. Although most species migrate south in the fall, visitors may see ravens, jays, nuthatches, eagles and owls in winter. In addition to animals, there are more than 400 plant species.
There are two campgrounds at Bryce, one open year-round. If you’re looking for full hookups, check out the campground at Ruby’s Inn, located just outside the park, or the Bryce Valley KOA in Cannonville, just 12 miles from the park entrance. Ruby’s closes for the winter on October 30. The Bryce Valley KOA is open from March 15 to November 15.
For more information on Arches National Park, call (435) 719-2299 or check out nps.gov/arch. Contact Capitol Reef National Park at (435) 425-3791 or go to nps.gov/care. For additional information about Bryce Canyon National Park, call (435) 334-5322 or check out nps.gov/brca.
Donna Ikenberry is a writer and photographer who lives in South Fork, Colorado.