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Canyonlands National Park

5 national parks you need to visit now

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posted June 14, 2019

Selective erosion.

The Natural Arch and Bridge Society says an arch is formed over millions of years “by the natural, selective erosion of rock,” and I can relate. As a writer, “selective erosion” resonates. For example, this story started with 3,137 words, then I whittled out the ones that needed to go. And I did it in less than a million years.

But the selective erosion of Utah’s sandstone and other sedimentary rock that I saw in Utah’s national parks—in the form of mesas, arches, canyons, bridges … even hoodoos and goblins—put my wordsmithing to the test.

I joined a Southwest Adventure Tours’ excursion at the end of April, and eight of us embarked on a six-day tour that took us to five national parks and several state parks in southern Utah. We explored nature the way I prefer, spending every night in a comfortable hotel and greeting each morning with a loaded breakfast buffet.

Our days were filled with one jaw-dropping scene after another. Vanning from park to park, we were driven by our guide, Phil Douglass, a 32-year veteran of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. When Phil talked, I listened.

And while I’m no expert in geology and I lack Phil’s knowledge of the state’s flora and fauna, I am an expert on how I felt whenever I turned a corner to see more of Utah’s outrageous rock formations.

Every day I was moved to write down my impressions. Twice I even committed poetry. I’ll spare you the poems, but I will share my photos, thoughts and feelings from this fantastic experience.

Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park
Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park 

Canyonlands National Park

I learned a lesson at Mesa Arch: When a highlighted feature in a park requires a walk or hike from the parking area, each step on the trail adds to the sense of anticipation.

I also learned that positioning your companions or yourself in a prime photo-op spot requires patience. You have to wait your turn to snap a family pic or a selfie. And really, you might as well reset your brain: Rather than lose your patience, latch onto the happiness in the smiles of others.

Moab, Utah

At 7 a.m., Moab is moving. Groups of fleece-clad hikers—young and old, fit and … me—gather up and board vans. Skateboarders and cyclists flash by. A school bus lumbers by, a big yellow reminder that this is a real-life town, too. Breakfast cafés see a steady exchange of diners. Delivery trucks make their rounds up and down Main Street. It might be early in Moab, but this town is moving.

Double Arch, Arches National Park
Double Arch, Arches National Park

Arches National Park

As we entered the park, the van was quiet. It wasn’t because of the early hour, as we had been chatty on the drive from town. But that talk changed to awed silence when we cruised past soaring sculpted walls, some bulbous and some sheared—all awe-inspiring.

The 1.5-mile hike to Delicate Arch made me mindful of my own delicate condition (age and weight). The hike requires real effort, but it’s rewarding. Completing a difficult hike—and enjoying the view at the end—is more than sightseeing. It’s more than bucket-listing. It’s prevailing.

On Monday, when we drove for half the day before hiking a bit, my step-counter watch buzzed at 10,000 just before I turned in for the night. On Tuesday, Delicate Arch day, I hit 10,000 steps by 10:30 a.m.

I chatted with Phil as I began my descent. “I don’t believe there should be roads everywhere,” he said. “There are some places you want to see that you should work for.”

And then I met a marvelous, friendly Utahan who welcomed me to her state and asked me where I came from. After I told her, we discussed the horse-dotted fields of my Kentucky home. “It’s so beautiful,” she said. I replied with something I say often: “Every place has a story.” Her comeback was, “Yup, that’s why you’ve got to visit them all.”

Goblin Valley State Park
Goblin Valley State Park

Goblin Valley State Park

These wacky sandstone statuettes, sculpted by wind and water, are like dribble castles I used to make on a Florida beach.

Wandering among the goblins, I felt completely alone … and I loved it. I walked on firm, dusty red ground where there were no footprints. Although I knew other people had been there, and their tracks were washed clean by rain or blown away by wind—as my footprints would soon be—I couldn’t help feeling like I was the first human to walk on that surface.

Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park

We took two hikes. One was an easy, downhill stroll through a dry creek bed that’s surrounded by soaring canyon walls. Seeing chunks of rock at the base of a wall makes the effect of gravity obvious here: Huge sheafs, loosened by water and wind erosion, fell off a decade ago—or maybe a millennia. The second, to Hickman Bridge, was more rigorous. It wasn’t the length of the hike, but what Miley Cyrus sang about: “It’s the climb.” I had to summon the old runner in me to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and I reveled in crossing the finish line.

When we drove away from Capitol Reef the next day, we encountered an early morning cattle drive, complete with four cowboys and two dogs. We were in high country and drove past aspens embedded in deep, April snow. And on Hell’s Backbone, a ridge just wide enough for Scenic Byway 12, the views (and the drop-offs) were breathtaking.

Sunrise at Bryce Canyon National Park
Sunrise at Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park

Queens Garden is a tale of two trails. The downhill walk was my introduction to hoodoos—incredible rock spires and pillars—and each vantage point was better than the last. The hike back up is strenuous, though. I suggest that you gauge your ability to return up the trail as you’re heading down. Even if you walk downhill for only five or 10 minutes, you’ll see some spectacular formations, and your uphill climb will be tolerable.

Shuttles—rather than cars or buses—take you to trailheads. We did use our van to get to Sunrise Point early in the morning, though. And as marvelous as the eastern sky was, when I turned my back to it, I saw the early sun cast a magical light on the colony of hoodoos.

Rock layers at Zion National Park
Rock layers at Zion National Park

Zion National Park

When we hiked Riverside Walk, the roaring waters of a raging Virgin River added to a symphony of busy park sounds: birds calling, mothers calling and footsteps shuffling down the sand-dusted sidewalk. I paused from time to time: Here to stare at a soaring red cliff in the same way a Midwestern kid would behold a New York City skyscraper. And there to catch some shade and savor a super-cool breeze coming off the snow-fed river. Many people, many sounds … and unforgettable sights.

The weather we experienced was ideal: low 70s every day except in Zion, where temperatures approached 80. If I return to Utah’s parks, I might read up on geology beforehand and learn more about selective erosion.

Or heck, maybe I’ll take a creative writing class and get better at whittling words.

To learn more about this and other programs offered by Southwest Adventure Tours, email Jason Murray or visit

Top Photo: Canyonlands National Park
Photos by Bob Rouse


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