Utah’s national parks and state parks harbour some of the most extraordinary landforms on Earth, and embody the spirit of the American frontier.
Antelope Island State Park
In the southwest of the United States lies the Great Basin – a region twice the size of Britain where the little rain that falls never makes it to the ocean. While streams in eastern Utah find their way to the Colorado River and eventually out into the Pacific, water in most of the western half of the state has nowhere to go but to sink into the desert soil or wait to vanish in the sun.
Much of the water in the Great Basin collects and evaporates in the Great Salt Lake, leaving it up to eight times saltier than seawater. Roughly 11 islands are scattered around this shallow, briny expanse, although the exact number changes with the fluctuating water levels.
The largest however is always Antelope Island and, at 15 miles long, it provides a spacious sanctuary for one of the biggest herds of American bison. These symbols of the western frontier, also called buffalo, once roamed the plains of North America in their millions, but with the westward expansion of European settlers, their population was hunted down to a few hundred by 1890. The 600-odd bison on the island today are managed with more care, most visibly when they are rounded up in late October to be checked over and for a partial cull.
The island, now a state park, was named in the mid-1840s, at a time when Mormon pioneers hoped to found their own state in what was then a remote part of Mexican California. Utah was ultimately annexed by the US in 1848. The herds of pronghorn that inspired the name are not actually antelopes, which are not found in the Americas. In fact, the hefty, tank-like bison is a closer relative to true antelopes than the slender, fleet-footed pronghorn.
Arches National Park
Two hundred miles southeast of Great Salt Lake is a landscape that might lead the more suspicious visitor to think that someone has played a giant practical joke. Few natural phenomena look quite as unlikely as a natural arch or rock bridge, and this small corner of Utah contains more than 2,000 of them. Arches National Park has one of the less imaginative names among America’s 59 national parks.
There is a solid scientific explanation behind these gravity-taunting feats of stone. Parallel fissures in a pavement of rock widen over time to create a series of thin walls. If the walls erode quicker in the middle than at the top, hollowing out from either side, two dimples can become one big hole. For every successfully formed arch there must have been countless more collapses, and yet the geology of this layer of sandstone has ensured a greater and more varied concentration of natural arches than anywhere else in the world.
All the same, there are arches at Arches that strain credibility. The most extreme of all is Landscape Arch – 88 metres long but less than two metres thick at one point. Put another way, a ribbon of stone the length of eight buses, and barely thicker than a man is tall. Elsewhere are double arches, an arch like a whale’s eye, a rocky outcrop with the profile of a sheep and a trio of stone turrets topped with giant boulders, nicknamed the Three Gossips.
The symbol of the park however, as seen on Utah license plates, is Delicate Arch. Standing in serene isolation, not bridging any chasm or linking any outcrops, this is a truly decorative arch. In the 1950s, there were discussions about giving the rock a chemical coating to slow the processes of erosion that might rob future generations of this magical sight. In truth though, arches such as these have crumbled for millennia before there were humans around to mourn their passing. All we can do is to enjoy them at their moment of glory.