MOAB, UTAH — In the winter of 1846, a caravan of Mormon pioneers led by Brigham Young headed to the American southwest in search of the promised land. The nascent Christian sect had faced persecution ever since John Smith founded the Church of Latter Days Saints in 1830. Following Smith’s assassination in 1844, Young believed Mormons would only find peace once they had a territory to call their own.
When Young and his fellow settlers rode over the hills leading into the Salt Lake Valley a year and a half later, he knew they had found what they were looking for: “This is the place.”
While the mountains around the Salt Lake are definitely a sight to behold, Young had no idea that some of the continent’s most unique geological wonders lay just around the corner.
More than 150 years after Mormons first arrived, Utah’s south has become a major hub for nature lovers, mountain bikers, rock climbers and RVing tourists, who flock to the state in equal measures to explore its natural wonders.
Aside from the fact that it is home to the third most national parks in the American states — after Alaska and California — Utah boasts 40 state parks, several scenic driving routes and a half dozen national monuments, including Bear Ears National Monument, which former president Barack Obama dedicated before he left office.
But Utah doesn’t just have quantity, it also has size and diversity in abundance. During a whirlwind five day tour of the state, I had the chance to take in three of its Mighty 5 — a cluster of five national parks all located in the south of the state.
Although all the parks are no more than a few hours drive from one another, each has its own distinct, jaw-dropping characteristics. As the name implies, Arches National Park is known for its red stone rock arches and with good reason: the park is home to more than 2,000 sandstone arches — the highest concentration of such a geological feature in the world.
Like all the state’s national parks, Arches covers an ocean of ground and there are days worth of hikes, climbs and mountain biking routes that one can do without stepping outside the park’s 31,030 hectares. Fortunately for the casual traveler, the park’s most famous photo op is a fairly mild three-kilometre hike from a parking lot off the main road that winds through the park. Measuring 18 metres high, the Delicate Arch, which has been carved out by wind, water and sand over millennia, is well worth the short trek. But be warned, if you go during the high season, you’re likely to have to wait in line to pose for a photo under the surreal formation.
As impressive as the arch is, a brief glimpse of the architecture surrounding red chalk landscape is enough to leave you mesmerized.
“When the Europeans came here, they didn’t have words for what they saw. They’d never seen anything like it before,” Mike Coronella explained during a tour of Arches.
Also on our list for the trip were Canyonlands National Park, Capital Reef National Park and Bridges National Monument. The sheer vastness of Canyonlands 136,621 hectares is enough to make your jaw drop. If you are short on time, there are several view points with short hikes throughout the park that allow you to take in vistas of the sprawling canyons from above.
On our way to Capital Reef from Arches, we took a pit stop at the National Bridges Monument. The park is home to three monumental rock bridges — Sipapu, Kachina and Owachomo — which are much larger and robust than the arches. The two differ by definition in that the former span dried-up river valleys, whereas arches can appear in the middle of the desert like something out of Dali’s imagination. The monument has trails which allow you to climb down into the valley and pass under the bridges. Best of all, the bridges don’t get nearly as crowded as Arches.
You could debate which of Utah’s natural wonders are most worthy of a visit until you’re blue in the face. Coronella, who has made his way across the state on foot several times, swears that the Needles, in Canyonlands, is “the most amazing place in the world.” But even he is quick to concede that Utah has too many natural wonders to be able to rank them.
“Every time you go around the corner, you’ll see something new that will amaze you,” he says.
After just a few days driving along the state’s scenic roads, it became clear I was only going to scratch the surface on this trip. Next time, I’ll have to make sure to bring a mountain bike and some climbing shoes.
Cody Punter was hosted by the State Of Utah and Brand USA, which didn’t review or approve this story.
When you go:
Visit a museum: Utah is well-known for appearing in Hollywood films ever since John Wayne started shooting Westerns down there in the 1940s. The state’s famous red rock has since appeared in dozens of movies from Forrest Gump, City Slickers II and Thelma and Louise, to more recent ones like the new Lone Ranger and 127 Hours. The latter ended up igniting a craze of people who set off in search of the filming location when it was released. The Moab Museum of Film and Western Heritage is free and located at Red Cliffs Lodge Ranch, where you can also rent a cabin just a short drive from Moab.
Eat: There aren’t many places to eat on the road between Salt Lake City and Moab. The one exception is Ray’s Tavern, a greasy spoon just off the highway in Green River. The no frills restaurant first opened in 1943 and has been operating in the same location for 48 years. It has been voted one of the top 10 places to eat in Utah as well as the best pit stop on the I-70.
Stay: You’d never guess it when driving into town but the Desert Rose Inn and Cabins offers luxury cabins with views of the dramatic desert landscape. The Desert Rose is located in the south east of the state and is close to a lot of sites, including the new Bears Ears National Monument. The hotel boasts an indoor swimming pool with large floor-to-ceiling windows, which are perfect for enjoying the view while relaxing after a long day of hiking.
Do your research: visitutah.com, thebrandusa.com