- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2003

Driving along a winding, narrow cliff, a 1,300-foot drop on the driver’s side, I clung to my heart, with the rest of me halfway out the passenger-side window.

Hiking slick rock that seemed to be at a 90-degree angle, I came to a visual wonder and understood why so many made the climb.

Gaping at high cliff walls adorned with sharp pinnacles leaping skyward, it looks as if the earth has been splashed with boxes of multihued red dyes, all running together.

Such is life among the five national parks of southern Utah: Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon and Zion. Their uncompromising splendor, history of both the earth and the country, and a sense of personal sanctuary are the givens. Their physical beauty takes many forms, features that make the parks unique among Earth’s many exquisite habitats, and a combination of some or all are what mesmerizes you as you overlook every overlook.

They also share geological terms:

Mesas: large masses of sandstone rock, flat, wider than tall.

Buttes: sharp as opposed to flat, taller than they are wide.

Hoodoos: free-standing rock pinnacles of infinite variety.

Balanced rocks: boulders perched precariously on some outrock to which every passer-by has the same reaction — that the rock is going to fall any minute, despite the many millions of years it has been merely threatening to do so.

These five parks are mystical worlds that have been created over millions of years by the movement of the earth, water and wind, rain and drought, freezes and thaws and, most especially, by their byproduct, erosion. What I find difficult to accept is that these same elements continue to change the face of the parks today. After more than 150 million years, Utah’s national parks are still works in progress.

Aptly named Arches National Park has some of nature’s most intriguing creations, for which no man-made blueprint was ever drawn. With more than 900 such structures, it boasts the largest concentration of naturally occurring arches in the world.

The trail to Delicate Arch, one of the most famous in Arches, is anything but what its name indicates. “Arduous” is the more apt term for the mostly uphill climb over slick rock. Passing 8-year-olds to Medicare cardholders, I forced myself forward, repeating mantralike, “If they can do it …” By the time I neared the top, I was prepared to trip the next person heading down who said, “Oh, but it’s worth it.”

Still, after rounding the final obstacle, the only word that emerged with what I was sure was my final breath was, “Wow.” Leaving Delicate Arch, I was able to focus on the beauty of the surroundings. Going up, I could concentrate only on putting one foot in front of the other.

Nearby Canyonlands, less accessible than Arches, requires a four-wheel-drive vehicle — preferably with a driver familiar with the terrain. At 6,000 feet, the view from Island in the Sky, the most approachable area of the park, looks down at cliffs 2,000 feet tall and rising out of a magnificently gouged and painted landscape.

The panorama at Grandview Point is unequaled in terms of sheer expanse, providing a broad view over the entire park, stretching across countless canyons — and beyond. Seeing the vistas stretching along the perimeter with their ever-changing angles, perspectives and emphasis is like experiencing several overlooks in one location.

Canyonlands is a series of spectacular views strung across hundreds of miles of remote wilderness. The “Scenic Overlook” signs are redundant.

The highlight of the park, for me, was Shafer Trail. The dirt road, rough in spots, very rough in others, is bordered on one side by perpendicular cliffs and on the other by the aforementioned sheer 1,300-foot drop. Riding along the very narrow, bumpy ledge into a headwind, I found myself leaning far to the right in the hope of influencing the car farther in that direction.

Holding my breath — again — around the 180-degree cutbacks, I still managed to appreciate the otherworldly landscape we were passing. I also knew there was no way I would later be able to read the notes I was taking.

As we approached halfway down, the mountain on our right was so high I could barely see its top. On the other side, the drop to the vast valley below was vertigo-inducing. The reality hit me: We’re going to drive down there?

The drive itself — in lowest gear — is slow-going. Bouncing up and down and rocking side to side 2,000 feet above any sane person’s comfort level for four hours, you can lose several pounds without ever leaving the car.

Capitol Reef National Park is even more an amateur geologist’s playground. Although geologic history is stressed in every park, at Capitol Reef, it’s what defines it — ranging from 80 million to 270 million years old. Dana and Milo Breite from Shingle Springs, Calif., with a very vested interest in the history of rock formations, were giddy with delight.

“We’ve been collecting rocks and exploring geologic sites together for decades, and this is one of the highlights of all our excursions,” Dana Breite said.

A 10-mile scenic drive through the park furthers the geologist’s perspective. Mile by mile and layer by sedimentary rock layer, our driver detailed what weather patterns, geographical changes, erosion and other influences coalesced to create the nearly 200 million years of geologic history through which we were passing.

A stroll along the Grand Wash riverbed nearby, so narrow in parts you can touch both canyon walls at the same time, evoked images of the lonely cowboy out on the trail. I visualized horse and rider of many a Western past traversing the harsh trails, picking their way along the rocky paths, the sound of crunching rocks underfoot.

This is Butch Cassidy country. Indeed, he used to ride along this same streambed (though it had water in it then) and hide among the cavernous cliffs overhead — now called, not surprisingly, the Cassidy Arch.

Heading toward a small opening between two huge canyon walls, I felt caught within a giant vise that I could only hope would not close until I was well past. In the journey through Capitol Gorge, the park’s geologic drama peaks in some of the starkest handiwork of erosion’s ongoing performance.

A park away, Stan Weintraub of St. Augustine, Fla., said he could spend hours in Bryce Canyon just looking at the hoodoos and assigning them different imaginary configurations. “You can write books about what you think you are seeing,” Mr. Weintraub said.

Bryce Canyon is synonymous with hoodoos — phantasmagorical images emerging from weird and wonderful rock formations. — thousands of the little (and not so little) guys in all shapes, colors and sizes. The park’s unique rain and ice patterns sculpt these fanciful spires of rusted limestone, showing the work of erosion at its most imaginative. More than geologic oddities, hoodoos cast a spell on all who return their stony gaze.

I recommend driving to taking the newly available shuttle; it covers just five of the 14 overlooks, thereby overlooking, in a negative way, Natural Bridge, Aqua Canyon and Rainbow Point, among the most memorable of the observation points. Of all the U.S. national parks, Bryce has been rated No. 2 for clean air and low pollution, second only to Yellowstone. On a clear day, forever equals 100 miles. At Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, visibility is about 16 miles.

The color-intense view from Aqua Canyon — vivid coppers glowing in ochers and vermillion, vying with slashes, thick-brushed, of oranges and invading magentas — challenges the most expensive of cameras to reproduce it accurately. The Pioneer Woman with bustled skirt and Mad Hunter With Hat sandstone statues reign as king and queen over a hoodoo chessboard.

Hiking brings an intimacy with surroundings impossible to experience from an observation ledge. Hikers way below negotiating in, around and through the hoodoo pillars resemble colorful, marching toothpicks.

Alan and Lesley Baker, from Northampton, England, also were mesmerized. “Absolutely spectacular,” Mrs. Baker gushed. “There’s nothing like this in Europe. The Alps are wonderful, but nothing like this.”

Arriving at Zion reinforces the idea that each park is different — in this case, a sharp change. At the other parks, your line of sight extends out toward the horizon as well as down into the canyons. At Zion, you look straight up — and up — and up. Towering cliffs — some of the tallest in the world — flank you on either side.

Unlike viewing the spread-out mesas from their tops as before, I was now on the canyon floor, looking up at straight, sheer masses of sandstone unencumbered by frilly outgrowths and hoodoo pillars. They meet the sky at a point that strains the neck and the imagination. Ribbons of color coalesce into eye-pleasing mosaics of reds, grays, greens and tans.

Trees — the first I had come across in any number since our prowling of the parks had begun — were a new addition to our journey. Lots and lots of green trees. It seemed a world totally alien to my experience of the past several days. Admittedly, the foliage provided a welcome respite from the unforgiving sun of the other parks.

Water was another anomaly here. The soft-running Virgin River, which accompanied me on many of the hikes throughout the park, is the responsible party for creating the huge rock gorges that encircle the park — and it took only five million to 16 million years to do so. Undeterred, it’s still at work today.

At Bryce, riding the shuttle is optional; at Zion, it is mandatory — the only way visitors may tour the park. Running at six-minute intervals, it takes you to eight stops that are simply starting points for further exploration by foot.

Because you’re so close to the canyons, “towering” replaces “expanse” as the word of the day. Viewing options at Zion are more underlooks than overlooks. The park is second only to Yosemite in appeal to rock climbers, and they look as tiny halfway up the mountain as the hikers do going into the canyons. For those who are afraid of heights — Zion is the park.

Hiking along any of the trails provides even greater connection, and several of the paved trails are traversed easily. A short, uphill stroll leads to Hanging Gardens, where small waterfalls fed by springs high in the cliffs above tease plants and flowers directly out of the rock.

Resting on a nearby ledge, remaining dry despite the continual spray of water flowing down before them, Susan Shannon and her 13-year-old daughter, Benya, from Johnstown, Pa., acknowledged Zion as their favorite park.”I like the information given by the shuttle drivers,” Mrs. Shannon said. Benya, who preferred being more “in it, than looking over it,” said she felt “so very small.”

The Riverside Trail hike passes through surprisingly lush vegetation to streams where you can cool your feet; skip stones with the children; picnic or simply sit upon a rock and get lost in the scenery. The Virgin River makes its run through and over rocks, emitting self-satisfied sounds as a backdrop to the reverie. The trail offers rushing water, colorful rocks, trees — a lovely sort of hike available in many places — and vertical canyon walls that press in upon you from all sides.

Visitors to the parks, depending upon personal preference, can start in Zion and head north for increasingly spectacular views (my choice) or begin at Arches and drive south to save the best for last, as many consider Zion to be. Either way, it is impossible not to be enthralled by the unimaginable replay of expansive beauty and irreproducible scenic motifs that present themselves in so many ways from one park to the other.

For more information, call the Utah Travel Council, 800/200-1160, or, on the Internet, utah.com.

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