Sunday, September 25, 2011

Three Small Desert Parks Not to Miss

Now is the time of year to head into the desert regions of the southwestern U.S. With the monsoon season coming to an end and temperatures beginning to moderate, there is no better place to hike than in the circuitous canyons, red rock mazes, and open mesas of Nevada, Utah, and Arizona.  The majority of visitors to the area will stick to the centerpiece attractions of the so called Grand Circle Tour:  Zion, Bryce, and Grand Canyon National Parks.  And, for good reason.  The boundaries of these three park units enclose spectacular rock formations, breath taking canyons, and soaring walls.  But, for the traveler with a bent for places that remain off the beaten path, several smaller parks tucked between the headliners should not be missed.  Three such gems are Cedar Breaks National Monument (Utah), Valley of Fire State Park (Nevada), and Kodachrome State Park (Utah).  All of these parks are easily added into a tour of the region.
Cedar Breaks amphitheater

This postage-stamp sized park, located just 22 miles east of Cedar City on Utah SR 14, is perfectly situated for a day or overnight visit on the way to or from Bryce Canyon National Park.  Because of its size, the fact that it requires a side trip (albeit a very short side trip), and its chilly high elevation (over 10,000’ at the visitor center), far fewer visitors compete for camping and trail space.  A mere 500,000 people stop by Cedar Breaks annually compared to over 4,000,000 to the Grand Canyon, over 2,000,000 to Zion, and just over 1,000,000 to Bryce.  The monument’s main attraction is a deeply cut amphitheater with walls decorated elaborately with auburn and gold hoodoos.  The best and longest hiking trail leads from the rustic Civilian Conservation Crew era visitor center to Rampart’s Overlook.  This four-mile (round trip) trail keeps hikers close to the rim of the canyon most of the way, drops into a cool forested valley for just about ½ mile toward the end, then leads back to the edge for expansive views across and deeper into the canyon.  An added bonus of this route is the presence trailside of ancient Bristlecone Pines, including one wizened and dramatically contorted grandfather which dominates a sandy viewpoint about half way down.

The campground, at over 10,000’ elevation, is chilly at night, so bring adequate clothing and sleeping bags.  With just 28 spaces, it’s small compared to other parks, but we had plenty of spaces to choose from when we pulled in around noon.  Other benefits include a low entrance fee ($10/car) and daily and nightly ranger programs all held at locations within easy walking distance from the visitors center, campground, and trailheads.  Be aware that facilities and road access close starting around mid-October.

Recommended:  If you have a bit of extra time, drive north through Cedar Breaks and take the dirt road up to the summit of Brian Head.  At 11,296’ elevation, visitors get an eagle’s eye view of three states—Utah, Nevada, and Arizona.  Wildflowers abound in the spring and summer on this drive. 
One of many chimney forms in
Kodachrome SP

This park borders the vast backcountry enthusiast’s Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument and is just a few miles east of Bryce Canyon National Park’s entrance.  Its shocking sandstone chimneys rise individually from the earth like tree trunks, a broad wall of eroded rainbow colored sandstone forms a backdrop, and an array of arches and other desert formations are eye candy for hikers and campers.  A small campground provides beautiful views, but fills up early.  While visiting the area, we hiked segments of the Panorama Trail (5 miles) which leads to a number of pipes and gives views across the valley floor, allowing hikers to see the spiny backbone of red sandstone.  Sunset creates a spectacular show as the colorful rocks change hues minute-by-minute.

Recommended:  Sunset yoga session atop the plateau on Panorama Trail

Campsite in Arch Rock campground
Unexpectedly beautiful, unexpectedly quiet, and unexpectedly close to Sin City.  That’s how I experienced Valley of Fire.  My husband had picked up the name and general location of this park from a recent Backpacker Magazine article, but it wasn’t on our radar, so to speak, until the weather turned bad in Grand Canyon.  Seeking desert sun, we wandered south to Williams then turned west and overnighted along old Route 66.  Eventually, we made our way to Lake Mead and followed the enticingly dubbed Lakeshore Drive to the entrance of Valley of Fire.

The park, just 55 miles (about one hour) north of Las Vegas fits into a canyon vacation as either the first or last stop.  Find a tumble of vermillion sandstone lumped in the middle of the russet desert like a batch of cookie dough poured out onto waxed paper.  The formations, though not towering, are warped, water-pocked, voluptuous, and fascinating enough to hold one’s attention for at least a day.  Two immaculate campgrounds are tucked privately into the formations such that you’ll be drawn to probe the cubby holes and clamber up domes before setting up your tent. 

Hiking is limited to short jaunts, but the features, which include petroglyphs and more bizarre mars-worthy rock formations make this a must see.

Arch Rock Campground

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