Arriving before the break of day to beat the crowds and the forecast of triple-digit heat, I parked my car near the steps leading to the massive North Window Arch, one of the rock stars in Arches National Park, five miles north of Moab, Utah.
Hiking the Mighty Five national parks in Utah — Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon and Zion — and the canyon country of northern Arizona was my way of celebrating my upcoming 80th birthday.
I drove from my home in Washington, D.C., to explore this unique landscape formed over millions of years, and I had brought a longtime friend, Jane, 72, to travel with me. We were two old ladies on a three-week road trip, guzzling bottle after bottle of water to stay hydrated in a place where the humidity is about 25 percent, compared with 73 percent in D.C. The weather was so dry it took some of the curl out of my hair.
We hiked one to two trails a day as we marveled at the colorful cliffs, mesas and canyons that offer snapshots of earth history, Hollywood tradecraft and pioneer grit.
Geologist Clarence Dutton, who researched the Utah-Arizona region on horseback in the 1870s, was the first to characterize the sedimentary rock layers here as a “staircase,” which rises about 5,500 feet from the Grand Canyon and stretches about 100 miles north to Bryce Canyon National Park.
Dutton identified five layers, describing them as steps and naming them for their colors: Chocolate Cliffs, formed 200 million to 225 million years ago; Vermilion Cliffs, 165 million to 200 million years ago; White Cliffs, 150 million years ago; Grey Cliffs, 130 million years ago; and Pink Cliffs, nearly 60 million years ago. Geologists since Dutton have added more steps.
One highlight of the trip was our tour of White Pocket, an approximately 100-acre recreation area inside the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument near the Utah-Arizona border, toward the end of our trip. Mark Spano, our Grand Circle Tours guide, drove us about 80 miles from our lodge in Kanab, Utah, to White Pocket. Halfway there, we left the paved highway and turned onto an unmarked back road with deep sand and an occasional mudhole. We arrived at 11 a.m. and stepped from Mark’s air-conditioned SUV into stifling heat. But it was dry heat, and we were at an elevation of 6,000 feet with a slight breeze.
Unlike the people-packed parks where we had been hiking, White Pocket was deserted except for the three of us and five other hikers, whom we met during our two-hour walk over slick rock that resembled cauliflower but had a concrete-like surface. I avoided the depressions called pockets, some of which contained rainwater. Standing amid the bands of red, pink, yellow and white on the rock walls around me was like being inside a rainbow. It was so intoxicating that I almost forgot the heat.
Hollywood has been coming to this rugged landscape to make movies since the 1930s. One of the first was “Stagecoach,” released in 1939 and starring a young John Wayne. At Red Cliffs Lodge near Moab, I rode a big, red roan horse named Little Joe on a three-hour trail ride through the valley where the 1950 movie “Rio Grande” was filmed. Moviemakers focused their cameras on the nearby Colorado River — now experiencing a water shortage for the first time — and called it the Rio Grande.
On a Canyonlands backcountry tour, we heard a behind-the-scenes story about 1991’s classic road film “Thelma & Louise.” In the final scene, the pair famously drive their Thunderbird convertible over the edge of the Grand Canyon to escape the police. We learned that the filmmakers faked the scene by using a catapult to shoot the convertible — with life-size Thelma and Louise dummies inside — over the cliffs of Dead Horse Point State Park and into the canyon below. The Louise dummy is on display in the Red Cliffs museum.
Warned against driving my close-to-the ground car along the scenic but scary Moki Dugway, south of Canyonlands, we hired a Navajo guide named Henry Haycock to take us in his high-clearance Suburban. The three-mile Dugway, also known as Utah Highway 261 and said to be among the most dangerous roads in America, was carved from the face of a cliff and has switchbacks and hairpin turns. There are great views — but no guardrails — as the road winds 1,200 feet up from the valley floor to the top of Cedar Mesa.
Henry parked his Suburban on the mesa’s flat top and pointed to the colored walls of the San Juan River canyon in the distance. He played his drum and told us stories of his life on the reservation. On the way down, he pointed out two trucks that had gone off the Moki Dugway and crashed on the rocks below us.
Landscape of rocks
The Utah-Arizona landscape is dominated by rocks of every imaginable shape and size. Arches has more than 2,000 arches and the 55-foot-tall Balanced Rock sitting on top of a 73-foot pedestal. In Goblin Valley State Park, I passed twisted formations that looked like giant mushrooms. Capitol Reef has a huge gray sandstone dome that reminds some people of the U.S. Capitol, although that requires a leap of imagination.
On the steep Navajo Loop leading down into the heart of Bryce, the pink shafts of rocks known as “hoodoos” seemed to resemble the soaring spires of a cathedral. Zion’s Riverside Walk along the Virgin River felt cool on a hot day, but I shivered as our shuttle bus took us past the peak called the Altar of Sacrifice, with red stains streaking down its face.
The rock buttes in Monument Valley, near the Utah-Arizona border, are so distinct that they have names. Rooster Rock really does resemble a rooster. Elephant Butte looks like an elephant. And the Thumb appears to be just that.
Mormons led by Brigham Young arrived in Utah in 1847 and overcame harsh conditions to make this their homeland. The charming town of Panguitch, about 25 miles northwest of Bryce Canyon National Park, has a memorial honoring the “Quilt Walkers” who saved early settlers in the 1860s when they ran out of food. Struggling in deep snow to reach another community for help, seven Mormon men “knelt on a quilt in a prayer circle,” according to the memorial. “The answer to their prayer was to walk on the quilts,” laying one quilt after another on the snow, enabling them to walk over the snow for many miles, get food and return to Panguitch.
In southeastern Utah, not far from the entrance to Bears Ears National Monument, the town of Bluff celebrates Mormon founders who settled in 1880 after traveling six months over the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail. At one point, the men used dynamite to dig a road out of the cliffs wide enough for their horse-drawn wagons. In one of Bluff’s shops, there is a miniature re-creation of seven teams of horses straining to pull a covered wagon up a steep rocky road — just as Bluff’s founders struggled. Printed on one of the miniature rocks are these words: “We Thank Thee O God.”
Growing up in a refinery town near Houston, I loved our family driving vacations in the 1950s to Western states. Using the printed maps that gas stations gave away, my father drove us to New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and even California — but never to Utah.
A few years ago, I visited Sedona, Ariz., and was captivated by its red rocks. When a friend told me there were even more colored rocks in Utah, I added it to my bucket list. During the shutdowns this past year, I remembered the Utah option and began researching what was there and how to put together a trip to celebrate my big birthday in 2021. Using information from the Internet and with help from Dave Hansford, visitor services and welcome center coordinator for the Utah Office of Tourism, I mapped out where to go and what to do. In February, after my second coronavirus vaccine dose, I started making reservations for June, betting that places would be open by then.
One concern was whether I was physically up for this undertaking. Although I am in reasonably good health, I have trouble with balance and complications from a 2020 foot surgery. I wanted to hike easy paths and avoid difficult trails.
At Arches, I had intended to hike to the famous Delicate Arch, a state symbol featured on Utah license plates. But it seemed a bad choice once I understood the three options. The park ranger I reached by telephone explained that there is an easy 100-yard wheelchair-accessible trail to reach “a view” of the arch. There is also a half-mile “moderately strenuous” trail that ends at a “viewpoint” of the arch, which is on the other side of a steep canyon. To reach Delicate Arch, you must hike a steep, strenuous trail with no shade “and exposure to drop-offs.”
The ranger recommended the hike to North Window Arch instead. Once we got there, the sure-footed Jane rushed ahead while I took my time, watching where I placed my feet and using my walking stick for balance. I reached the summit as the sun lit up the opening of the North Window and its red sandstone rocks. Awesome.
I am home now, intact, and ready to start planning my next big birthday trip.
McCartney is a writer based in Washington.
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted travel domestically and around the world. You will find the latest developments at www.washingtonpost.com/coronavirus
Where to stay
1000 Gouldings Trading Post Rd., Monument Valley, Utah
Founded as a trading post in the 1920s by Harry Goulding and his wife, Leone, nicknamed “Mike,” the lodge has grown into a big business that includes hotel rooms, cabins, campground, restaurant, gift shop and a museum that tells how the pair went to Hollywood in the 1930s with their last $60 and persuaded director John Ford to start making movies in Monument Valley. We signed up for the $79 per person deluxe tour of Monument Valley’s 17-mile loop, with a final stop inside Horseshoe Canyon. Rooms from $263 per night.
Red Cliffs Lodge
Milepost 14, Highway 128, Moab, Utah
Located 16 miles east of Moab, Red Cliffs Lodge is framed by 2,000-foot-tall red cliffs and boasts cabins with Western-style furnishings. The lodge is part of Red Cliffs Ranch, settled in the late 1800s and still raising cattle and horses. Some of the horses are used for horseback riding tours of up to three hours through nearby Castle Valley. Cabins from $239.95 per night.
236 N. 300 W., Kanab, Utah
Canyons Lodge is conveniently located in the small farming and ranching town of Kanab, a starting point for scenic drives, hikes and tours through deep canyons, rugged cliffs and colored sands. The lodge furnishings reflect the town’s Western history. Rooms from about $100 per night, but depends on room and season.
What to do
Arches National Park
Located five miles north of Moab, Arches has more than 2,000 arches and a 22-mile scenic drive. There is no lodging inside the park and only one 50-site campground. The bookstore is open, but museum exhibits and the theater are closed. Expect delays entering the park during peak hours. Open daily, year-round; check website for holiday closures. Seven-day entrance passes for private vehicles $30 per car; $15 per person without car, children 15 and under free.
Canyonlands National Park
With 527 square miles of desert wilderness, Canyonlands National Park is about nine times the size of Bryce Canyon, about four times the size of Arches, about two times the size of Zion and larger than the 378-square-mile Capitol Reef. As a national park since 1964, Canyonlands is popular for hiking, camping and stargazing. Of its four sections, the most accessible is the Island in the Sky district, about 32 miles south of Moab. The park has no dining or lodging facilities, but there are two campgrounds and a visitor center with rangers outside to help during the day. Open daily, year-round; check website for holiday closures. Seven-day entrance passes for private vehicles $30 per car; $15 per person without car, children 15 and under free.
Capitol Reef National Park
This 378-square-mile park includes hiking trails, one developed campground and two primitive ones. Settlers arriving in these canyons in the 1880s founded communities along the Fremont River and then planted orchards of apples, peaches, pears, plums, walnut and almond trees. Be sure to stop at the historical Gifford House homestead to buy pies and other foods. Hike the easy Sunset Point trail for its panoramic views. Don’t miss the eight-mile scenic drive that starts at the Capitol Reef Visitor Center and winds through stunning rock formations of all sizes and colors. Seven-day entrance passes for private vehicles $20 per car; $10 per person without car.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon City, Utah
Bryce Canyon is famous for its huge concentration of soaring colored rocks called “hoodoos,” for elevations that reach up to 9,115 feet and for winter temperatures that fall below freezing. The park has two campgrounds in addition to a two-story stone-and-frame lodge dating to 1924. The Lodge at Bryce Canyon and its surrounding buildings have 114 rooms that are booked almost as fast as reservations become available. The summer room rate is $223 for the 2022 season. Open daily, year-round. Seven-day entrance passes for private vehicles $35 per car; $20 per person, children 15 and under free.
Zion National Park
To accommodate crowds and preserve the park, Zion now closes its scenic route to private vehicles most of the year. Visitors ride free shuttle buses to reach trails, such as the popular Riverside Walk and Emerald Pools. Prices for accommodations at Zion Lodge, which opened in 1924, start at $229 and include basic but comfortable hotel rooms. Cabin prices from $200. Open daily, year-round. Seven-day entrance passes for private vehicles $35 per car; $20 per person, children 15 and under free.
Grand Circle Tours
This tour company offers guided hiking and photography tours, including of the remote White Pocket recreation area and the nearby Peek-a-Boo canyon. The company also offers guided tours of Buckskin Gulch, North Coyote Buttes and the Coral Pink Sand Dunes. Our three-hour tour of Peek-a-Boo cost $99 per person, and our all-day Vermilion Cliffs tour cost $199 per person.