Utah’s astonishing wild side

From a salt lake island roamed by buffalo to a majestic canyon named Zion, the state’s national and state parks harbour some of the most extraordinary landforms on Earth.

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.

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 southern bank.

The effect 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.

The exposed 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.

Around a 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.

The 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 River.

The Grand 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.

Both here 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.

They still 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 lifespan.

Not that 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 their own.

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 path.

It isn’t 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.

Many 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.