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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Dead Horse Point State Park
The water that has
worked its mischief at Arches National Park trickles into the Colorado River,
which flows along the park’s southern boundary. Thirty miles downstream, the
current curves round in an attenuated bend, making a ‘gooseneck’ on its
is only fully apparent from the air, but Dead Horse Point is the next best thing – a
viewpoint that looks down on the Colorado River from twice the height of the
Eiffel Tower. On the far side of the river, the gooseneck juts out. Beyond this
obstinate spine of rock that the Colorado has not yet managed to grind down,
the river enters Canyonlands National Park. In another 300 or more miles, it
will reach the Grand Canyon in Arizona, carving out gorges that are even
deeper, but not quite as wayward as here.
cliffs and slopes, devoid of plant life, clearly show the layers of rock and
soil that have made this region such a geological playground. What is special
about the Colorado Plateau is that it stayed remarkably stable while rocks all
around it were being buckled and tilted during a continental uplift some 60
million years ago. Rock layers here remained nicely horizontal, and the result
has been the table-topped mesas that are some of the most distinctive features
of the American Southwest. Dead Horse Point is the last stage before becoming a
mesa – a peninsula of rock, like the gooseneck below it, but left high and dry.
In one place, the road leading to the point crosses a causeway barely wider
than the asphalt.
hundred years ago, this promontory was supposedly used by ranchers as a place
to corral mustangs – the free-ranging descendants of the horses brought over by
the Spanish in the 16th century. One day, some of these horses were forgotten
by their herders, with consequences sadly apparent from the name. There is
another tragic, if fictional, ending linked with Dead Horse Point – the Grand
Canyon scene from Thelma & Louise was filmed here, on the riverside ledge
below the main observation platform.
Canyonlands National Park
The largest of
Utah’s national parks is also its least visited. At its centre, the Green River
flows into the Colorado River, dividing the park in a Y-shape with tortuous
canyons unspanned by any bridge. Together with the detached enclave of
Horseshoe Canyon off to the west, this means that Canyonlands
often feels like four separate national parks.
northern and most easily accessible part of the park, between the two rivers,
is called the Island in the Sky – a mesa around 12 miles long, branching off in
dozens of spindly fingers. At one fingertip is Upheaval Dome, where jagged
rocks at the centre of a circular void may be evidence of a meteorite strike 60
million years ago. On one of the eastern clifftops, Mesa Arch frames a view
over valleys and sculpted rocks leading down to the recesses of the Colorado
View Point overlook at the end of the Island in the Sky is only nine miles as
the eagle flies from the Needles in the southern section of the park, but 125
miles and three hours by car. Instead of imposing mesas, the scenery here is
more troglodytic, with crowds of hoodoos – columns of worn-down rock capped
with more sturdy boulders that protect them.
and at Horseshoe Canyon are found the remains of cultures that existed here
before the Spanish and ‘Anglo’ settlers, from a stone granary built by Puebloan
peoples to ochre-coloured rock art depicting ancient humans and the animals
they hunted. The lifesize figures in the Great Gallery at Horseshoe Canyon may
be up to 4,000 years old.
Bryce Canyon National Park
In the tales of the
Paiute people of Utah, long ago there lived the To-whenan- ung-wa, or Legend
People, who were animals of all kinds with the power to take on human form.
They were arrogant and misused the land, so in punishment, the coyote god,
known as a trickster by Native Americans, turned them all to stone.
stand in their thousands at Bryce Canyon National Park, as the totem-pole-like rock
formations known as hoodoos. Though Bryce Canyon is one of America’s smallest
national parks at just 20 miles long, the concentration of sunsetcoloured
hoodoos creates a mesmerising effect, as often happens when a shape is repeated
everywhere the eye turns to.
The park is
not so much a canyon as the eastern edge of a great plateau, nibbled into a
series of amphitheatres at a rate of about one metre every hundred years,
through layers of limestone, siltstone and mudstone that give the hoodoos their
segmented appearance. Snow is frequent here, at 2,500m, and cycles of freezing
contribute to the slow fading of the Legend People. In this landscape, just
leaving a footpath to stand at the base of a hoodoo is enough to shorten its
stepping off a marked trail is a great idea anyway in the bewildering
assemblies of hoodoos, such as the Silent City or the Queen’s Garden, the
latter presided over by a white hoodoo known as Queen Victoria. From the right
angle, it’s really possible to imagine the monarch, on a royal visit to the
park, caught in her crinoline and veil by a sudden mudslide. The Scottish-born
Mormon pioneer Ebenezer Bryce, who gave his name to Bryce Canyon in the late
1870s, called it ‘a hell of a place to lose a cow’. Only the park’s prairie
dogs are oblivious to the maze of hoodoos, creating underground labyrinths of
Zion National Park
Even with eyes
closed, Zion National Park overawes with the names of its mountains and valleys
– the Court of the Patriarchs, Tabernacle Dome, the Organ, the Pulpit and the
Great White Throne. Mount Moroni bears the name of the angel who Mormons
believe appeared to the founder of their church in the 1820s, and even the
area’s native religions get a look-in, with the Temple of Sinawava – that
trickster coyote god again.
One test of
faith that many visitors are willing to submit themselves to is the trail to
the top of Angels Landing. A rocky spine less than two metres across in some
parts, with a 400-metre drop on either side, it climbs up to the summit of a
tower of red rock. Angels Landing stands at the centre of the deep and forested
Zion Canyon, embraced by a sweeping curve of the Virgin River, and in the
absence of angelic onward transport, the only way back is the same knife-edge
necessary however to leave the valley floor to sense why Mormon pioneers and
other explorers were moved to such grandiloquence in the names they scattered
around the park. Zion is the midway point on a descent through geological time
known as the Grand Staircase. Bryce Canyon, 40 miles to the northeast, is the
top step – its rocks are less than 60 million years young. The Grand Canyon, 60
miles to the south and into Arizona, cuts into the Vishnu Schist at its base,
laid down two billion years ago.
corners of Zion are rightly out of human reach, though bighorn sheep and
mountain lions might tread there. Highly endangered California condors are
sometimes seen soaring above the peaks. Only they know Zion’s true extent.