Utah’s National Parks

Written by Niki D'Andrea Category: Travel Issue: September 2013
Group Mid-Level
Character count 2500

A road trip to three of Utah’s five national parks reveals breathtaking backcountry, hoodoo-filled hikes, and luscious local pies.

After three hours of canyoneering in Zion National Park (nps.gov/zion), our feet look like they’re bleeding through our socks.

Thankfully, it’s just pulverized red sandstone flowing between our toes – a sign of a sated adventurer. “If you don’t leave Utah with red sand in your shoes, you didn’t have fun,” says Gerard, one of two guides from Zion Adventure Company (435-772-1001, zionadventures.com) leading our team of six on a hiking, climbing, and rappelling foray into the heavily forested vermilion cliffs of Utah’s most visited national park.

Located in the southwestern part of the state, the landscape at Zion lends itself to meditative meandering and nature-bonding: Hiking trails traverse patches of prickly pear cactus and kaleidoscopic wildflowers, leading to rippling peridot pools framed by titanic rocks and woolly stands of ponderosa pine. Fremont cottonwood trees blanket the forest floor with snowy drifts, and uprooted trees near the water splay their roots across the bank like dried veins. The oldest sediment rock here dates back 265 million years, and time has ground it at points into a beachy powder. Above us loom hoodoos shaped like Jabba the Hutt and Navajo sandstone that takes the form of gnarly, pockmarked rocks with alkaline white streaks resembling dried toothpaste, and boulders spotted with green and black lichen. Peregrine falcons, deer, and desert bighorn sheep are well adapted to this vertiginous landscape; we, on the other hand, need helmets and harnesses.

We’re fastening ourselves with ropes to deeply epoxy-anchored hooks high up in slot canyons and dropping down the sides of 100-plus-foot, smooth and mostly vertical cliff faces. It’s clumsy slow-going and white knuckle-scraping for a first-timer like me, but the satisfaction of abseiling and being “on belay” at the bottom for my companions is immense.

Hoodoos in view from Rim Trail in Bryce Canyon National Park

But not as immense as the post-rappelling banana split shared by seven people and still left unfinished at Switchback Grille (1149 Zion Park Blvd., Springdale, 435-772-3700, switchbackgrille.com) in nearby Springdale. The entrées at this lodge-like fine dining restaurant frequently feature fresh fish such as sushi-grade ahi from Hawaii with prawns, and swordfish with avocado salsa. But the banana split would give Goliath a sugar rush. The sandstone playground outside may be a haven for active types, but this is, after all, Utah, where hospitality comes in the form of homey treats like five-pound banana splits, brownies the size of baseball gloves, and flaky fruit pies. Should you lapse into a sugar coma, the brand new Hampton Inn & Suites (1127 Zion Park Blvd., Springdale, 435-627-9191, hamptoninn.com) has some pretty plush pillows and dreamy views. The hot tub set amidst the red cliffs of Zion beneath an endlessly starry sky isn’t bad, either.

Stock up on snacks like locally made caramel corn and blueberry bagels at regional market Sol Foods (95 Zion Park Blvd., Springdale, 435-772-3100, solfoods.com), perfect for road-tripping across Utah’s scenic byways, which we’re about to do.

Bryce Canyon
Between US Route 89 (through the east side of Zion) and Bryce Canyon lies Thunderbird Restaurant (junction of Highways 9 and 89, Mount Carmel, 435-648-2203), home of “Ho-Made Pies,” big ol’ gooey pastries advertised via roadside neon signs featuring a black-bobbed waitress in red and white checkers proffering said pie (so-named to save room on the sign) with a smile. Nothing pairs with a hike across Mormon-pioneered plateaus quite like a Thunderberry Pie, a sinfully delicious amalgamation of – we think – blueberry and blackberry.

Stone Canyon Inn

A good place to rest up like a rock star in cowboy paradise before exploring Bryce is Stone Canyon Inn (1220 W. 50 South, Tropic, 435-679-8611, stonecanyoninn.com), a B&B tucked down a dirt road in stunning backcountry, where Dutch oven cookouts around roaring campfires are accompanied by cowboy poetry from owner Mike Burbidge, who runs the property with his wife, Dixie. A collection of stunning cabins – complete with fireplaces, large flat-screen TVs, multiple rooms with private bathrooms, and patio hot tubs – are also available to rent. 

Bryce Canyon National Park (nps.gov/brca, brycecanyoncountry.com) sits at a much higher elevation than Zion (over 9,000 feet in places) and is not a canyon but a spate of great amphitheaters, best known for breathtaking hoodoos – rust-and-flame rock outcroppings carved by eons of erosion, jutting up toward the big blue sky like gnarly sunburned fingers. Some of the hoodoos (also called “goblins”) have mythical-majestic monikers like Thor’s Hammer, The Hunter, and Queen Victoria – apropos in this otherworldly land where rocky crags look like they’re melting in the sun and giant junipers grow right out of rocks.

Hiking Bryce’s well-marked trails yields easy eye candy: giant toppled, driftwood-esque trees; verdant spruce-fir forests; and maybe a chipmunk, mule deer or eagle. Shorter scenic trails offer mossy overhangs and waterfalls (Mossy Cave trail), bristlecone-peppered vistas (Bristlecone Loop), and hoodoo-looming views (Rim Trail) in less than two miles. The more moderate Navajo Loop Trail (1.3 miles round-trip) traverses a narrow canyon heavily shaded by giant Douglas firs. Strenuous hikes include Fairyland Loop, an eight-mile roundtrip romp around China Wall and the Tower Bridge, and the steep Peek-a-Boo Loop, a 5.5-mile hike into the heart of Bryce Amphitheater that includes the wondrous Wall of Windows, arches carved into the rocks by frost wedging.

Our next stop is Escalante, a sleepy city of 850 along Scenic Byway 12 partly framed by the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (utah.com/nationalsites/grand_staircase.htm). At Escalante Outfitters (310 W. Main St., Escalante, 435-826-4266, escalanteoutfitters.com), you can fill up on home-cooked calzones, salads, and sandwiches made with all-Utah products in the restaurant; shop for hiking gear and books by environmentalist-adventurer authors Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and Everett Ruess from the market; and stock up on booze at their liquor store – the only one within a hundred miles. You can also book a fishing, mountain biking or hiking excursion (if you have several hours, we recommend the six-mile roundtrip hike through Calf Creek Falls to a 126-foot waterfall), and rent one of their seven cozy log-sided cabins to rest up before departing for Capitol Reef National Park... or to nap off the restaurant’s generous desserts, which include flourless chocolate cake, berry cobbler, and lemon meringue pie.

Capitol Reef
Here we go with the pies again. This time, they’re outrageously delicious cherry and peach pies from Gifford Homestead (435-425-3621) in Capitol Reef National Park, one of the least-visited of Utah’s five national parks (the two we didn’t visit, Canyonlands and Arches, are in eastern Utah, near Moab). But first, stop along the way at Cafe Diablo (599 W. Main St., Torrey, 435-425-3070, cafediablo.net) to get some “real” food. It’s a standout locavore resto featuring herbs harvested from their own greenhouse and local lamb. Unconventional starters like Rattlesnake Cakes (desert rattler patties with ancho-rosemary aioli) and Painted Salmon (chilled prickly pear- and achiote-glazed salmon on pickled red onions, avocado, toasted pine nuts and cranberries) pave the way for entrées like pecan chicken with crispy plantains, and fire-roasted pork tenderloin with a red quinoa and cilantro waffle. And let’s not even get started on dessert. Seriously. We have one more national park to play in.

“The Castle” crag at Capitol Reef National Park

Brimming with buttes, monoliths, and ruddy ridges, Capitol Reef National Park (nps.gov/care) stretches for a hundred miles in a warped upheaval of rock known as the Waterpocket Fold. The park takes its name from a white dome of Navajo sandstone said to resemble the United States Capitol Building. “Reef” is a local term for a barrier to travel. The Fremont River provides a valley of fertile farmland, where Mormons established the settlement of Fruita in the 1880s. Fruita’s orchards still produce citrus (which goes into Gifford Homestead’s pies), and there are horse stables and a public campground nearby, but the homesteads have been empty since 1947 and now constitute the Fruita Rural Historic District.

The park itself seems wild and unexplored compared to Zion and Bryce. Many trails are well-marked, but unpaved roads lead to remote backcountry flush with saltbrush, cacti, and kangaroo rats. Frequent patches of Indian paintbrush splash magenta along the white, sandy washes. Keep your eyes peeled for equally colorfully named fauna like mountain bluebirds, yellow-bellied marmots and golden eagles. Capitol Reef is mostly desert and receives less than eight inches of rain a year, but flash floods can strike anytime. Park rangers warn people to be careful hiking the washes under precarious gray-blue skies. Many hiking trails are marked by cairns, including the moderate Fremont River foray (three miles round-trip, skirting the river and orchards, followed by a more strenuous climb to a valley overlook).

Camping is allowed anywhere in the park, so long as camps are not within site of hiking trails. The park is open year-round; rangers say if you come in the winter, you’ll pretty much have the park to yourself – except for the desert bighorn sheep. But you don’t have to share your pie with them.

phm0913 ge5 mdBeers of Utah
In 2009, Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr., a member of the LDS church, pushed for the reform of the state’s traditionally strict liquor laws, believing it would boost tourism. It worked. Today, you can visit establishments like The Beer Hive Pub (128 S. Main St., Salt Lake City, 801-364-4268) in downtown Salt Lake City and try one of several dozen Utah beers on draft, within view of the Mormon Tabernacle and Salt Lake Temple – even on a Sunday. Local craft beers are served at many local restaurants and sold in stores, as well. Here are a few Utah brews to try:

Cutthroat Pale Ale (Uinta Brewing, Salt Lake City): Light and refreshing, with a slight citrus accent and a mellow, molasses-kissed malt-hop mix. 4% ABV.   

Uinta Hoodoo
(Uinta Brewing, Salt Lake City): A golden kölsch-style ale with crisp hops and a dry finish. 4% ABV.

Provo Girl Pilsner
(Squatters Pubs & Beers, Salt Lake City):
German variety Magnum hops give this golden pilsner a mellow Bavarian brew-style edge. 4% ABV.

Double Skull
(Epic Brewing Company, Salt Lake City): This copper-colored doppelbock lager tastes sweet, malty, and slightly bready. 9% ABV.

Polygamy Porter
(Wasatch Brew Pub, Park City): A slightly nutty, dark but medium-bodied porter with subtle chocolate
undertones. 4% ABV.