Utah is synonymous with scenic canyons. With its trademark Delicate Arch on every state license plate, how can it not be?
Well, call us canyon skeptics. Before our recent visit to the Beehive State, we didn’t even consider ourselves hikers or outdoor enthusiasts, with the possible exception of skiing.
Utah changed all of that.
Our first immersion into canyon world was almost by accident. As we drove south on Interstate 15 between Cedar City and St. George, we spotted a sign for Zion National Park. This was one of the lesser-known access points into Zion, and with a few hours to kill on a recent afternoon, we decided to park at the first trailhead and see what we could.
And see we did. A primitive trail led us deep into Kolob Canyon, over dry creek beds and past two abandoned homesteads, until what seemed like miles later we reached a dead end of twin arches etched into the side of a mountain.
It’s not easy to do the experience any justice with words. Hiking into a canyon like this on a late spring day is a full-on sensory experience. The aroma of clover, marigold and thistle fills the air, which almost vibrates with the low humming sound of bees and other insects foraging for nectar. As you step closer to the canyon walls, you notice their color, a palette of cinnamon and orange hues. Come closer still, and everything starts to glow as the light of the sun reflects off the rock walls.
My kids usually can’t stop talking, but they were spellbound by the experience, silenced by this natural cathedral. Looking back through the pictures, I could tell they were as awestruck as their parents.
The following day, a friend who lives in Cedar City promised to show us another canyon. She made us promise we wouldn’t reveal the exact location, since it wasn’t on federal land and largely “undiscovered” — except by a few in-the-know locals. The path into the canyon was so little-used that we almost lost the trail a time or two (here’s a hint: if you’re lost, head toward the mountain).
I thought Zion, with its almost indescribable beauty, was a fluke. It wasn’t. The secret canyon had everything Kolub offered and less — less people, less traffic, and it was a little less arduous. The kids, the very definition of city slickers tethered to the electronic games and cell phones, pushed forward as if none of that mattered.
Of course, we had to return to Zion again, and we did, this time through the busier southern entrance. It’s definitely worth seeing Utah’s first national park from this angle, even though with its throngs of visitors and shuttle buses it feels more like Disneyworld. But trust me, you’ve never felt so small as when you stand at the foot of the Court of the Patriarchs and gaze up at the massive stone pillars reaching for the blue Utah sky.
And then there’s Bryce Canyon National Park. I almost feel as if I should write nothing and let the pictures do the talking, but what kind of journalist would I be?
Bryce is like another planet, and it was fittingly our final stop on our tour de canyon adventure. Words can never adequately describe this place, with its pink arches and rock formations and hoodoos.
Even a photo isn’t enough. There is a feeling you get from being next to these ancient rocks that you will never experience again. It’s as if you are next to something ancient, wise, even alien. We hiked a few miles into the Bryce Canyon Amphitheater, a natural bowl that contains an almost infinite variety of rock variations. The cameras never stopped rolling, out of respect.
If you’ve ever been to Utah, maybe you know what I’m talking about. Lucky you. But you might not be aware of the transformative power of the great Utah wilderness. My three kids were not hikers before this trip. In fact, my daughter feigned illness or would hide when we said we wanted to take a walk.
After Utah, she stopped avoiding our family walks. When you’ve seen what she’s seen, you get it. Adventure isn’t something derived from a video game or the latest Hollywood blockbuster downloaded onto a tiny iPhone screen. It’s experienced at the edge of a canyon, at the foot of a hoodoo, at the face of a cliff.
We are forever changed by Utah, and for the better.