Tour of Utah’s national parks highlights nature’s colorful palette

Red Canyon is a colorful area that shouldn't be overlooked on the way to Bryce Canyon in Utah. (Fran Davis/
Red Canyon is a colorful area that shouldn't be overlooked on the way to Bryce Canyon in Utah. (Fran Davis/

First in a four-part series about Utah’s national parks

By Craig Davis,

Touring Utah’s three premier national parks in three days — Arches, Bryce Canyon and Zion — figured to be an ambitious undertaking.

Long, leisurely travel is not always an option. This journey showed it is possible to take in a lot in a short period of time and not feel shortchanged.

It led to a fast-paced adventure that not only showcased the features and differences of those areas but provided a panorama of the stunning array of natural wonders in a most remarkable state.

Here are the tales from each of the parks:

Arches only part of the allure of Arches National Park

Bryce Canyon’s unique wonders stir visitors’ imagination

Zion National Park shows other-worldly face on Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway

Story continues below

Arches National Park in Utah is filled with colorful, massive rock formations. (Craig Davis/
Arches National Park in Utah is filled with colorful, massive rock formations. (Craig Davis/

What stood out, along with the impressive rock formations that span the state — you expected to see Wile E. Coyote lurking in ambush of his nemesis the Road Runner at every turn — was the multitude of colors that distinguish the rocks.

The colorful landscape runs the gamut from white-faced cliffs to black rocks with varying hues in between: light and dark grays, but most prevalent the assorted shades of red, orange and brown. Even pinks and golds in some areas.

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The spectrum of colors created a geological kaleidoscope accentuated by the vast area we covered, nearly 1,100 miles roundtrip between Salt Lake City in northern Utah to Zion National Park in the south.

The assorted colors are largely a reflection of varying amounts of iron oxide in the sandstone, or in the case of the white rocks, a lack of iron.

But as you drive through the state the impression is of a master artist at work, mixing and matching colors depending on mood or desire for either subtle or dramatic effect.

The landscape changes rapidly, and there is always another mountain or mesa looming ahead.

In his narration for “National Parks Adventure,” an IMAX production that debuted in 2015 and is now playing on Netflix, actor Robert Redford spoke of the rich array of natural beauty in Utah contained in its 13 national parks and monuments.

“Precisely why I chose to live here,” says Redford, who owns Sundance Ski Resort in the northern part of the state.

Utah’s 13 national park units drew 15,154,285 visitors in 2017, according to the National Park Service.

Tip: Avoid visiting in the busy summer season. Zion had 30,000 visitors during the 2018 Memorial Day Weekend and the wait for the canyon shuttle was an hour and a half. That was just a few days after we were there and got on and off the shuttles all the day without delay.

The three parks we saw were as impressive as advertised — Utah has five national parks, also including Canyonlands and Capitol Reef.

The geological smorgasbord isn’t confined to the parks but rather extends throughout the Colorado Plateau that covers a large portion of Utah (and segments of Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico) and is all part of what is regarded as Red Rocks Country.

Driving between the parks revealed one stunning vista after another. My wife, Fran, shot dozens of spectacular photos from the car as we traveled along the highways.

The photos provide a pictorial of the changing colors on the procession through southern Utah. That was aided by Google Photos taking it upon itself to group photos from the trip in albums for us by regions and counties.

One memorable spot was at a rest area on Interstate-70, Black Canyon Dragon View Point west of Green River where a Native American woman was selling her fine hand-crafted jewelry and pottery. She had a lot of competition from the spectacular backdrop of the canyon and colorful cliffs of the San Rafael Reef, ranging from yellowish-tan to deep red. According to the sign about the area, the sedimentary layers of rocks were deposited more than 250 million years ago.

In places like that, one gains an existential appreciation for the scope of a million years and you feel fortunate for a moment to behold time’s effects.

Each area encountered is a revelation. Approaching Bryce Canyon, there is the bonus attraction of Red Canyon with vermillion-colored cliffs, spires and hoodoos amid Ponderosa pines along a four-mile stretch of Highway 12, which passes through two tunnels in the rock.

With an 80-mph speed limit on 36 percent of interstate highway miles in Utah, it was feasible to cover the vast distances to the parks — it is 248 miles between Moab/Arches National Park and Bryce Canyon; Zion Canyon is 308 miles from Salt Lake City — and still have plenty of the day for exploring each destination.

Those passages provided an appreciation for the ever-changing topography of the state, much of it unsettled and undisturbed except by the roadway.

Many writers and photographers have spent years exploring and identifying new marvels of the earth’s artistry in Utah.

During a lunch stop in Green River the restaurant had a display of work by cinematographer and nature photographer Gary Orono. We weren’t able to browse his Savage Territory Gallery, which is only open from 5-9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. It seems he spends most of his time in the wilderness seeking magical photo locations. Can’t blame him.

Robert Riberia, at, wrote about the late Ward Roylance, who used the term “Art in Stone” to characterize the natural beauty of southern Utah.

In his book, “The Enchanted Wilderness,” Roylance explained his lifelong fascination for the region: “There are cliffs and buttes, mountains and mesas, canyons and valleys, domes and pinnacles, rounded slopes and numberless smaller forms, all painted in a rainbow spectrum of glorious hues, sculptured into shapes-designs-patterns that astonish with strange and endless diversity.”

In crisscrossing the state from Salt Lake City to Moab/Arches, to Bryce Canyon and finally Zion Canyon, we had the same impression of passing through a grand natural gallery.

It sure seemed there was an artistic intent at work in all of that erosion.

An action-packed four days in southern Utah was scant time to say we know the region but enough to spark the desire to return and learn more about it.

The colorful cliffs of the San Rafael Reef in Utah are composed of sedimentary layers of rock deposited more than 250 million years ago. (Craig Davis/
The colorful cliffs of the San Rafael Reef in Utah are composed of sedimentary layers of rock deposited more than 250 million years ago. (Craig Davis/
About craigslegz 108 Articles
Travel is about discovery, and I learn most about a place when I explore it on foot. Craigslegz Travels is about favorite places and people, and advice to aid fellow travelers. My emphasis is on venturing off well-worn paths. - Craig Davis

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