Zion, Bryce, Arches, Canyonlands: views you have met somewhere before greet you at every turn in Utah’s greatest canyons and areas of weird erosion. Stunning, inspiring cliffs, canyons, rock arches and much more.
Zion NP has some of the world’s finest desert-canyon landscapes. Millions of years of erosion of these deep sandstone lands has produced extraordinary scenery of vast, sheer-sided, colourful canyons and an astonishing selection of towers, spires, cliffs and slot canyons cut into high, forested plateau. There is a huge array of splendid and varied walks here, from short canyon-bottom strolls to demanding climbs to remarkable viewpoints, to famous slot canyons, to multi-day yomps.
Zion Canyon from Observation Point
Zion - West Rim Trail, looking towards tops of the main canyon area
Bryce Canyon boasts some of the world’s most extraordinary scenery: an extensive area of brightly hued sandstone carved by wind, water and ice into a series of deep amphitheatres in which sit an unimaginable profusion of spires, towers and other excrescences called hoodoos, and arches and other formations. It is reminiscent of Turkey’s Cappadocia; its scenery is arguably even more amazing. The hoodoos can be 200ft (60m) high, and (unsurprisingly) have a fascinating and complicated geological history. The thrilling weirdness of the scenery is enhanced by gorgeous colour and texture contrasts: the greens of the prevalent ponderosa pines and spruce, and the often-blue sky, compliment the rocks’ oranges-to-pinks beautifully.
From Upper Queen's Garden route
Arches NP has a wonderful landscape of eroded sandstone, including over 2,000 natural rock arches. It contains several areas of extraordinary weather-smoothed rocky towers and rows of narrow-backed “fins” of rock, some sharp and shark-like, many in the form of long, thin, smooth-topped ridges. They are a fine setting for their special glory, a selection of beautiful and magnificent rock arches, including the huge, flat-curved, ultra-slender and all-round amazing Landscape Arch, considered the world’s longest rock arch, and the immaculate, free-standing Delicate Arch. Among these rocks, juniper, pine and an assortment of hardy desert vegetation mellow what would be too harsh, and create a beautiful visual harmony.
Thrilling walking in the Devil's Garden, here on long fins of rock
Massive yet .. er... delicate Delicate Arch
Canyonlands NP lies at the junction of the Colorado and Green rivers, which, over millions of years, have carved a huge area of superb red sandstone mesas, buttes, canyons, spires and arches. Different layers of rock have interacted with the great forces of erosion to produce a series of flat plateaux and cliffs – the Island in the Sky and other mesas at the top of the heavenly ladder, and the wide mid-level table of the White Rim all around it, both protected by harder pale rock from erosion – but each eaten away at the sides by the gnawing at their softer bases. This has resulted in all sorts of special beauties. The distances are huge: you can see for miles from the Island in the Sky in the clear desert air, gazing across the abyss. Immediately below, the White Rim table land is eaten into beautiful shapes, curves and arabesques worthy of Matisse. Further away are the broken jumbles of the Maze and the Needles. And in the north is the other-worldly weirdness of the Upheaval Dome.
Looking east from the Island in the Sky
Across Upheaval Dome
Other delights: do try to fit at least some of these in in passing.
Slot Canyons: Utah possesses probably the world’s finest concentration of slot canyons, deep and often absurdly narrow gashes in the tablelands, their walls brightly coloured and water-smoothed into beautiful shapes. Exploring them is unforgettably exciting.
(Several areas contain some wonderful canyoneeing opportunities. Beyond Walkopedia’s normal remit, but these are wonderful and thrilling experiences, and often combine with walking a slot canyon, so do give this thought. Walkopedia explored wonderful Ephedra’s Grotto on the fringes of Arches NP. Other great options are the Left Fork/Subway and Mystery Canyon off Zion Narrows, in Zion NP.)
Goblin Valley: A truly amazing area, a wide area (valley of sorts) littered with smallish hoodoos, rocky forms composed of sandstone tops, often eroded into beautiful, abstract, Henry Moore, shapes, above weaker mudstone bases which are eroding at a faster rate, resulting in the look of mushroom, or goblins per someone’s fancy.
Capitol Reef : Capitol Reef must be one of the world's thinnest national parks, a very long slice of heavily eroded sandstone along the Waterpocket Fold, a near 100 mile long fold in the Earth's crust. The best known area is the Capitol Reef, around the village of Fruita. Numerous excellent day walks, and overnighters, including to the famous Navajo Knobs and to the Cathedral area.
Grand Staircase-Escalante: This huge area in southern Utah includes sandstone canyons and slot canyons, high plateaux and outlandish formations. Some excellent walking.
Monument Valley – if you must.
You can make an unforgettable 7 day+ circuit here, taking the greatest landscapes, adding a few others to taste.
This can be tough walking in dry, remote mountains with uncertain weather. Come fully prepared, and carry enough water. See detailed pages for some of the risks – flash flood in narrow canyons are a particular problem.
There are excellent books on all these areas. Find relevant books on Amazon.