A Dream Trip to Utah to (Not) See the National Parks

Utah state parks overview
Oh, the wide open spaces!
Twenty years in the making, on September 29, DH and I left home for the trip of a lifetime. Thanks to my parents, who watched the boys and pup, and several friends who helped with carpools back home, DH and I set out to explore the national parks of Southwest Utah- Capitol Reef, Escalante, Bryce and Zion. When our plane took off, I turned to DH with amazement, admitting I hadn't been sure our trip was actually going to happen due to some family issues. I confessed that since 9/11/01 I've never really felt anything was certain anymore. And yet, here we were headed on a trip for out 20th anniversary! It was time to start believing again.

Erm, sort of. You've probably heard that on October 1, major components of the federal government, including the national parks, shut down. So although my general outlook remains cynical, that didn't stop me, us, from having a fantastic time in Utah. It was an amazing trip and thanks to the state park system and other federally managed lands that didn't lock their doors (though they did lock their bathrooms) we got up close and personal with a variety of the Utah's geological gems, just not on the grand scale of the national parks.

It's no surprise that Utah's state parks have been hosting record crowds since the federal government closed. In fact, I just read that they will currently honor national park passes, though their typical state park entry fee is only $6 per car.

The government shutdown stinks on so many levels. I'm not going to get into here, but I will say that there are thousands and thousands of international tourists who come to see the area stretching from the Grand Canyon in Arizona to Arches National Park up in Utah. We were disappointed after traveling just a few hundred miles. Can you imagine booking a two to three week trip from halfway around the world only to find out your tour was cancelled? We talked with a handful of such tourists, apologizing for and embarrassed by our government.

We also talked with locals concerned about what the shutdown means for an area thick with services catering to such tourists, not to mention the number of folks who work directly with the federal lands in some capacity. We're talking rural towns too small for stoplights in some cases, let alone a McDonald's or Starbucks. (We saw more stoplights than fast food joints, for the record.) These communities lost on out the last weeks of their big tourist season and they're hurting.

On a related note, if you're planning on touring this area of the country either make sure you have Verizon phone service or a plan that includes roaming allowances. Out in the country, our Sprint phones wavered between roaming service and no. service. at. all. It was kinda nice in some ways, but I did miss texting my boys, which I couldn't do in roaming mode (thank goodness we didn't bring the children with us; can you imagine the horror of no texting to internet service?).

I did grab some photos on my phone, though, so it had some use. DH got some shots on his, too, and we brought a camera, but I don't have access to those photos right now. Still, this gives you a taste of the trip.

We arrived at Capitol Reef National Park around 4:40 PM on 9/30/13. We didn't realize we'd lose an hour driving from Nevada. We stopped in the visitors center where rangers warned us about the likely shut down. We had about 15 minutes to explore the exhibits before the park center closed its doors OR to run down the park's scenic road to the Gifford Homestead and grab some pie. Pie from the homestead was on my bucket list of this bucket-list trip. It's a testimony of my husband's love that we hurried into the car to pick up a pastry.

Only two or three pies from the day's supply remained when we got there. I bought a small pumpkin pie and, honestly, it wasn't spectacular, but the view while eating it couldn't be beat. We drove along the scenic route during sundown as the light reflected beautifully on the walls of the water pocket fold.

Indeed, on October 1, the pie shop, the visitor's center and the scenic drive were all closed. However, an early morning drive indicated that some of the hiking trails off the state highway remained open. DH and I pulled into the Chimney Rock Trail parking lot around 8:15 AM and hoped that the rumor we'd heard about trails near public roads staying open would be true. Alas, from our view atop Chimney Rock, we saw a park ranger blockading the parking lot.

After our hike we returned to our car, a fellow traveller moving the barricade for us. While debating Plan B, we drove through Capitol Reef, passing the eastern boundary without realizing it. We were so mesmerized by the scenery that we didn't care. Also, with the park closed, we had spare time on our hands. We stopped in at the Mesa Luna Cafe, which is pretty much in the middle of nowhere (seriously, Google it). The site apparently sees its share of international travelers, and to hear the proprietor tell it, some intergalactic ones, too. She convinced us to head out the 1/2 hour or so (wound up being close to an hour) it would take to get to Goblin Valley State Park. We took a short, hot, walk among the red "goblin" rocks, formed by erosion surrounded by international tourists who also followed their Plan B routes.

 Little Wild Horse Canyon is just outside of Goblin Valley State Park. Despite the sign, the parking lot was packed and we encountered several sets of hikers during our short journey into the slot canyon. We were later told that federal lands under the Bureau of Land Management jurisdiction were open for hiking, but that amenities like visitor centers and restrooms were closed. I think the restrooms at LWH Canyon were among the few that were actually unlocked.

LWH Canyon. Always eager to reach our next destination before sundown on the dark twisty state highways, we only hiked about a mile in. Most excitement was at the beginning of the hike as we had to scramble over rocks in order to avoid soaking our boots in the large puddles on the path.

The view from our front porch at Red Stone Cabins on property at Kodachrome Basin State Park. We did three challenging hikes here (see one below), saw a coyote, and ogled an amazing sky full of stars at night. We counted three shooting stars, a satellite and the cloud-like Milky Way in the night sky.

Similar to Bryce, but not gated off, was Cedar Breaks National Monument. Perhaps the ranger didn't lock the front gate out of sympathy for anyone who'd bother driving out to the isolated spot in 28-degree weather with light flurries. That said, the park ranger wasn't totally sympathetic; the bathrooms were locked and the ranger station was closed. Did I mention we visited after lunch and the bathrooms were locked and it was snowing and we were in the middle of nowhere?

Red Canyon provided a Bryce Canyon-like setting in which to hike. It's one of several sites in the area favored as a hideout by Butch Cassidy and his gang back in the day.

After stopping at a rock shop (one of three) in the town of Orderville, we headed out to a nearby slot canyon at Red Hollow. The hike was recommended by a friendly, sympathetic rock shop owner. We saw a small group of hikers leave as we started our hike. They advised us which fork of the dry river bed led to the canyon. As we finished our hike, we ran into another pair of hikers and passed on the same advice.

We loved hiking in relative isolation, and near complete silence, two things that are hard to find in the suburbs of a major city. Our hikes were exciting and invigorating, except when I mentally paused to imagine what would happen if one of us twisted an ankle--or worse-- out in these isolated areas with few others (and no rangers), spottily marked trails and, at times, no cell phone service.

On a related note, remember the movie 127 Hours? As my boys say, if you watch the film in reverse, it's an uplifting story about a guy who finds his hand in a Utah canyon. The real-life story behind the movie took place about an hour or so from Little Wild Horse Canyon.

Due to our national park detours, we visited sites that we'd previously considered touring, but didn't make it onto our official itinerary like the Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park (and Goblin Valley above)

To reach Springdale, Utah, we had to drive though Zion National Park. The brief car tour made me wistful. The park is magnificent. (By contrast, the peek into Bryce Canyon from private land on the rim left me cold. Literally. Snowflakes were falling and winds were blowing hard at around 10,000 feet above sea level.) 

The scenery along Route 9 was just so grand, the scale so very large. Driving along, cars stopped to view wildlife and the scenic vistas, despite warnings from the rangers. At one point, a ranger driving the road stopped, flashing the police-like lights on his car instructing people to move along. There were rumors of written warnings, license plates being photographed for ticketing and even $75 per person fines for hiking or illegal parking, but we didn't meet anyone who had been served one.

We stayed in Springdale, a touristy, but charming town just east of Zion, at a surprisingly nice La Quinta Inn. It was new, modern, and clean with a stunning view from our window. Nestled by mountains on either side of town, I think every hotel in Springdale offers its guests a lovely view. The town has restaurants, shops and galleries that stayed open late (as in 9 PM) keeping the bustle of tourism going well past sundown.

The folks at La Quinta preempted their guests' disappointment over the park closure by handing out a list of alternate hikes just outside of Zion. We took an old wagon route near a 19th century cemetery. The printed information we were given said the trail has not been maintained for nearly a century. The trail was so rocky and steep, it was hard to believe an wooden-wheeled wagon powered by a team of mules or horses could possibly navigate the route. Or maybe we took a wrong turn? It was another fairly isolated hike, with the only glimpse of other people being a group up on the mesa. That said, the route is known as one of the premiere area trails for technical mountain biking and we saw plenty of tire tracks (400 or more vertical feet up on the trail!) to prove it. I'm pretty sure that sport is more dangerous than skydiving.

Our last stop in Utah was Snow Canyon State Park on the outskirts of St. George, near the Arizona border. We visited on a Sunday and it was quite crowded, at least compared to our earlier hikes. Snow Canyon has it all- volcanic rocks (which we also saw on our drive out to Cedar Breaks), red hoodoos and spires, pink sand, scenic view points, and a couple of slot canyons, to boot. What the park lacked in isolation, it made up for in variety.

All in all, it was a fantastic, memorable trip! These photos don't do the scenery justice. The sense of scale is lost, the colors not as vibrant, etc. I've love to visit Yellowstone and Glacier National Park next, but I'm not sure if I'm willing to plan a trip around national parks after this experience. Would you?

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