Our Grand Circle Tour

The American Southwest is famous for incredible scenery, red rock pinnacles, and formations, brilliant sunsets, and deep canyons. It is uncommon land, for an uncommon experience, and it’s all within a stone’s throw of Utah. Few states can boast of so much!

Autumn arrives early at 9,000-foot Fish Lake. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We spent the month of October completing our version of the Grand Circle Tour.

It was grander than we could ever have imagined. During this time we visited five national parks—Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, Canyonlands, and Mesa Verde; five national monuments—Grand Staircase Escalante, Cedar Breaks, Hovenweep, Natural Bridges, and Aztec Ruins; Valley of the Gods, and Monument Valley; and drove Utah Highway 12 Scenic Byway.

From Salina, Utah, we drove to Fish Lake at an elevation of over 9,000 feet. The area was an absolutely awesome sight with the golden aspens and the blue skies and lake.

The magnificent and ever-changing salmon pink and red colored pinnacles and spires and brilliantly colored hoodoos of Bryce Canyon just may have the most awesome scenery we have seen anywhere! On our fourth visit to Bryce I got my wish—to see Bryce in the snow. When we reached Yovimpa Point at noon the temperature was a chilly 23 degrees with a dusting of snow—over 40 degrees colder than during our first visit just five days earlier. It was even warmer back home in Alberta!

Highway 12 Scenic Byway has been recognized as an All America Drive. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the most spectacular driving highways in the West, Utah Highway 12 Scenic Byway winds along the northern border of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. We found it to be a beautiful drive with numerous interesting places to explore. It twists. It turns. It curves. It climbs. It has been designated an All America Highway.

At Cedar Breaks National Monument we admired the spectacularly colored cliffs, and breathtaking 100-mile views of the Great Basin. The red cliff formation, aptly named the Amphitheater, is a fantastic display of eroded cliffs with all sorts of hoodoos and sculpted shapes. This expansive area of rock walls, spires, and columns spans three miles across and runs over 2,000 feet deep. The temperature at 10,350-foot Cedar Breaks was in the mid-30s with strong blustery winds and blue skies.

Capitol Reef National Park is the over-looked sibling among Utah’s five “national parks.” Centered round a late-19th century agricultural community, the park captures a portrait of settler life as well as an outdoor cathedral of red-rock landscape. Capitol Reef encompasses a 100-mile natural upheaval in the earth’s crust known as the Waterpocket Fold. The Navajo call the area the “Land of the Sleeping Rainbow”, an apt description of the many hues of the landscape here. The “capitol” comes from the white domes of Navajo sandstone that resemble capitol building rotundas, and the “reef” comes from the rocky cliffs that are a barrier to travel, like coral reefs.

One of our favorite national parks, Arches, located five miles north of Moab, is a red rock wonderland containing some of the most scenic and inspiring landscapes on Earth. Although over 2,000 arches are located within the park, Arches also contains an astounding variety of other geological formations. We marveled at the colossal sandstone fins, massive balanced rocks, soaring pinnacles, and spires that dwarf us as we explore the park’s viewpoints and hiking trails.

Canyonlands, Utah’s largest national park, is composed of three distinctive districts: The Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze. Islands in the Sky, the most popular section of Canyonlands, is an elevated mesa where we viewed the canyons of the Green and Colorado rivers 2,200 feet below. Whichever direction we looked, we noticed the incredible beauty of Canyonlands National Park. Since the canyons follow a north-south direction, I found Islands in the Sky fraught with challenges for photography. However, my polarizing filter saved the day!

Highway 129 Scenic Byway follows the Colorado River near Moab. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On another day we visited the Needles section of Canyonlands—only 15 miles south of the Island in the Sky, but 137 miles by road. Here the massive red and white eroded sandstone pillars extend for many miles, forming a jumbled landscape.

Dead Horse Point State Park, on the way to Canyonland’s Island in the Sky District, shouldn’t be missed. Located atop a mesa, the point of the park provides stunning views of the Colorado River some 2,000 feet below and the surrounding cross-section of geology.

The gateway town of Moab with its many RV-friendly campgrounds, restaurants, and shops is powered by muscle—mountain bikers, climbers, river runners. Some of the best mountain biking in the country lies within the Slickrock Mountain Bike Trail system. Take a day off from visiting the parks and instead take a float trip down the Colorado River, or learn how to canyoneer.

The nearby La Sal Mountains southeast of Moab are threaded with a nice loop drive that takes you out of the red-rock desert and up into evergreen-thick forests and turnoffs to lakes and a U.S. Forest Service campground.

To be continued tomorrow…

Worth Pondering…

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.

—John Burroughs

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