The drive to Cedar Breaks National Monument along Utah Highway 148 is a beautiful jaunt through meadows and woods, but en route there is not a clue as to what you’ll be seeing at the end of the road. Ancient peoples and early explorers must have been amazed as they walked or rode through the high-elevation landscape in southern Utah’s mountains, and happened upon the grand amphitheater of multihued rock known today as Cedar Breaks National Monument. I know my husband, Mike, and I fully knew what we’d be seeing, but we were still amazed as we walked to the edge of the rim and peered over it.
The amphitheater at Cedar Breaks is shaped like a massive coliseum, only this basin is filled with hoodoos, fins, stone spires, arches and columns—intricately designed sculptures that have been formed by wind, ice, rain and streams. More than 2,000 feet deep and 3 miles in diameter, the huge bowl is situated along the steep west-facing side of the 10,000-foot-high Markagunt Plateau.
Two trails made exploring the area fun, though there are no trails leading down into the maze of astounding colors. A mixture of iron and manganese grants the rock its potpourri of various shades of red, yellow and purple.
Cedar Breaks is located at an altitude of more than 10,000 feet, and oxygen, or rather a lack of it, can be a problem at high elevations. Many people tire easily and get winded at high altitudes, so when you arrive you may need to relax and enjoy the scenery for a while. Experts recommend drinking plenty of water and staying well-hydrated. If you get a headache, a pain reliever such as ibuprofen may help. If you have a persistent headache, become nauseated, have a cough, weakness, and/or difficulty sleeping, you should descend until you feel better.
Because of the elevation, some roads in the area have steep grades that may be difficult for large motorhomes. There are two recommended routes into Cedar Breaks. If you’re approaching from Panguitch/U.S. Highway 89, take State Highway 143 west from Panguitch to Cedar Breaks National Monument, or take State Highway 14 west to Highway 148. If you’re approaching from Cedar City, take State Highway 14 east to Highway 148. The entire length of Highway 148, all six miles of it, is a designated Scenic Byway.
Cedar Breaks Monument was established in 1933 and celebrated its 75th anniversary last August. Although a small preserve, it has plenty to offer. There are glorious wildflower-filled meadows in late June through mid-August and animal life year-round, including about 39 species of mammals and 100 kinds of birds.
The August day we arrived we set up camp and then ventured out for an afternoon of photography and exploring via the Spectra Point Trail. While hiking the trail we stood in awe of ancient bristlecone pines, saw a yellow-bellied marmot napping on a rock overlooking the grand vista, and watched the shadows and light on the formations themselves.
As we gazed at the trees and Cedar Breaks, I thought of the Southern Paiute, the region’s original residents, who called this place u-map-wich, “the place where the rocks are sliding down all the time.” Later, the name was changed to Cedar Breaks for the trees that grow in the area, with “breaks” serving as another term for badlands. The following day, we spent time hiking the two-mile trail to Alpine Pond. We bought a trail guidebook and learned about everything from lichens to a beetle epidemic that is killing many of the trees here and throughout the West. We also learned about some of the animals that live in the area. We found tree bark peeled back and discarded on the ground and wondered if a bear had been exploring the trail before us. We watched as juvenile yellow-bellied marmots rested in the sun on some lofty rocks, gazing out at the abyss. We searched Alpine Pond for animal life and found mating dragonflies.
After our hike, we went for a drive along the Cedar Breaks Scenic Byway, which leads into and out of the monument. We stopped at all four overlooks and enjoyed the different perspective we got from each one. No two are the same so it’s best if you stop at them all.
From the North View lookout we headed east on Highway 143 for 9.5 miles, and then turned right (south) on Mammoth Creek Road (Forest Road 68). We moseyed along the road for a little less than nine miles, and then turned left at the sign for Forest Road 064 and Mammoth Cave (this side trip is only suitable for dinghy vehicles). We followed the dirt road for 1.5 miles, and then turned right on Forest Road 950. It was another mile on dirt to the cave parking area and restrooms.
Mammoth Cave is an ancient lava tube. If you go, be sure to carry two flashlights if you go alone, or one light per person if you go in a group. A gate covers the main entrance to the cave (there are five entrances; the main entrance is the largest tube), but it has an opening to squeeze through. The cave is closed from October through April because it serves as a winter refuge for hibernating Townsend’s big-eared bats.
After visiting the cave, we went back to the main road, and headed south for another six miles or so to Utah Highway 14. We made a right (west) on Highway 14 and drove 5.7 miles to a sign for Cascade Falls. From there we turned left on the dirt road to Navajo Lake/North Fork. After less than a half-mile, we turned left again on Forest Road 054, which is another dirt road, and drove another 2.8 miles to the Cascade Falls Trailhead. There are good views from near the parking area, but the trail itself is about a mile long. It winds along a mini-Cedar Breaks with similar orange/pink formations. The falls originate from Navajo Lake, but are underground until they emerge through the pink rocks. After our visit to the falls, we drove back to the highway and headed to our campsite for dinner and some relaxation.
The campground at Cedar Breaks National Monument is open on a first-come, first-served basis from June through mid-September. Expect cool daytime temperatures, with highs in the 60s and 70s; nighttime lows dip to the 30s and 40s. The campground has picnic tables, fire grills, water and restrooms. There’s an amphitheater for evening programs, and the visitor center offers exhibits, books for sale and information. Call (435) 586-9451 or check out www.nps.gov/cebr for more information.
Donna Ikenberry is a writer and photographer who lives in South Fork, Colorado.