With five national parks, seven national monuments and one national historic site, Utah can consider itself blessed with recreational and scenic riches.
During a late-spring drive through the state’s backroad country, I managed to see one of them by swinging east from Panguitch onto Scenic Byway 12, the last major highway built by the state and Utah’s first All-American Road.
The byway wanders through 124 miles of the remote and rugged section of Utah’s Colorado Plateau traversing everything from sagebrush flats and ponderosa pine forests to rocky deserts and stands of aspen.
Altitude-wise, the byway cuts through the tiny hamlet of Escalante at 4,000 feet above sea level and up to 11,000 feet at the top of Boulder Mountain. Before that, it also leads to Bryce Canyon National Park, an eyefull of red, yellow, and pink jagged rock, eroded over the millennia by wind and water.
With all its hoodoos, columns and unusual rock formations, no wonder 19th century Mormon settler, Ebenezer Bryce, for whom the park is named, quipped that it certainly is a helluva place to lose a cow, a phrase that was later turned into a modern melody with tongue-in-cheek lyrics.
More a series of natural amphitheaters than a canyon, Bryce sports an 37-mile scenic rim top drive with several spectacular overlooks with names like Sunrise, Sunset, Rainbow and Inspiration. They say that, from some of the overlooks, visibility can extend to over 100 miles on a clear day.
Come evening, when the pink and fiery red rock dims to black, the night sky comes alive with stars and thrilling meteor activity (especially in season) due to Bryce being one of the darkest night places in the Southwest. Capitalizing on this advantage, the park regularly stages multi-media astronomy programs, telescope viewing, full moon hikes and an annual Astronomy Festival.
From my vantage point atop Bryce’s Inspiration Point, I could see far below some of the 50 miles of hiking trails that wind into the rock formations for an up-close look at the spectacular geology. Bryce is somewhere I’d definitely like to have spent more time, not only hiking the trails and seeing the colors of the rocks change throughout the day, but to take in some of the ranger walks, talks and evening programs.
Beauty-full, I headed east on Route 12 toward Escalante, and passed through an area that was once so remote it was one of the last places in the U.S. to be mapped. Up into the 1940s, the mail was carried into the area by mule, not delivery truck.
Recently, dinosaur discoveries made in the area around the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument have piqued visitor interest even more. Besides the Utahraptor, a swamp-dwelling horned dinosaur, paleontologists have unearthed the giant Gryposaurus monumentensis, or duck-billed lizard, and a bizarre plant eating relative of Triceratops that has upwards of 15 horns.
A new visitor center in the town of Escalante focuses on the ecology of the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and it was at the center that I learned the story of the Mormon Hole in the Rock expedition of 1879.
It seems that in November of that year, 250 men, women ands children along with 80 wagons and 1,000 head of cattle found themselves traveling in impenetrable terrain and hemmed in by the Colorado River Gorge.
After finding a small hole in the rock of the gorge, the men chiseled and blasted the opening wide enough to permit the passage of the wagons and livestock down the nearly vertical 1,800 foot descent to the river.
After safely getting the entire expedition down the bluff, they ferried across the river but still had a two-month, 140-mile trek in the dead of winter ahead of them. They persevered and eventually arrived at their original destination where they established the town of Bluff.
The Hole-in-the-Rock expedition was a journey that was supposed to take six weeks but lasted six months.
Unbelievably, two babies had been born on route and no lives had been lost.
Dave Zuchowski is a travel writer for CNHI News Service. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.