OUT: Utah Canyon Story April 08, 2009

Hiking guide to remote areas in Utah

Kathy Copeland hikes along some slickrock domes in the backcountry of southeast Utah. Kathy and her husband, Craig, have recently published a 446-page guide to hiking Utah’s canyon country. PHOTO BY CRAIG AND KATHY COPELAND

THERE IS A SURPRISING AMOUNT of water in the Utah canyon country, particularly in the spring when the hiking and wildflower watching is at its best. The guidebook “Hiking from Here to WOW: Utah Canyon Country” offers tips on safe travel and routes through the desert country. PHOTO BY CRAIG AND KATHY COPELAND

“Where the heck are we?”

Typically that’s not a question you’re happy to hear from your hiking companions. Especially when you’re thinking it yourself, and you’re the trip leader.

But staring in bewildered astonishment is common in Utah canyon country. Not because you’re lost, but because what you see strongly suggests that last bend in the trail somehow transported you to Mars.

Suddenly nothing in sight jives with your conception of Earth.

Your mental wheels spin furiously: no traction whatsoever. And that’s the appeal of this exotic realm.

Exploring Utah canyon country is as close to vacationing on a distant planet as we earthlings
will probably ever manage.

It’s as otherworldly as it gets without requiring a space suit to step out of your vehicle.

Yet a few hours or less behind the wheel is all that separates western Colorado outdoors lovers from southern Utah’s redrock cliffs, ancient ruins, soaring arches and certified massage therapist known as “the desert sun.”

The first hint you’ve arrived on alien soil is the region’s color palette. It’s as appetizing as it is arresting.

Honey, mustard, salmon, tangerine, pumpkin, peach, coffee and chocolate appear in distinct strata representing 300 million years of geologic history.

Next comes the antigravity sensation of walking on sandstone. Known as “slickrock,” it’s frequently underfoot and rapturously liberating.

The rock’s gritty surface (“slick” is a misnomer) grants extraordinary traction, enabling you to negotiate steep pitches with Spiderman confidence.

And it’s rock, so there’s no vegetation to shunt you this way or that. You can follow your bliss.

Wherever your bliss leads, you’ll soon realize you are indeed a stranger in a strange land, because you’ll encounter evidence of the natives who preceded you thousands of years ago.

They carved and painted bizarre, dramatic images on rock surfaces. They built fantastic, multistory, stone-and-mortar structures.

Much of their art and architecture remains remarkably intact. Alert hikers see it constantly.

Then there’s the topography itself. It’s called “canyon country” because it’s cracked open, shot full of fissures.

From airy vantages, gazing across it is like staring up at a clear night sky. The baffling, dizzying complexity of southern Utah is as unfathomable as an infinite, star-filled universe.

And many of the canyons harbor natural wonders—arches, bridges, alcoves, hoodoos, fins, pinnacles, domes, hamburger buns, mushrooms, flying saucers—as if the rock had once been Play-Doh in the hands of an imaginative child.

Some of these geologic anomalies are delicate, intimate. Others are massive, overwhelming.

All look so improbable you’d expect to find them only in a book by Dr. Seuss or perhaps a documentary film about Planet Zenon.

You can of course sample the beauty and mystery of southern Utah without hiking. All the state’s famous, national parks—Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, Arches—have paved roads and convenient viewpoints.

Why shoulder a pack and plod beyond? For the same reason Neil Armstrong didn’t just peer out the window of his Apollo 11 lunar module once he’d landed on the moon.

He came to experience, not just sightsee. So he went for a walk.

You should, too.

Fisher Towers

Location: Colorado River Canyon, northeast of Moab

Round-trip distance: 4.6 miles

Elevation gain: 1,050 feet

Hiking time: 2.5 to 3.5 hours

The Colorado River is a prolific artist. But her most famous work, the Grand Canyon, overshadows her myriad, extraordinary creations. One of them—the Fisher Towers—is a cluster of lofty, rococo monoliths including the 900-foot Titan. The trail winding among them provides a fascinating encounter with the eccentric towers plus sweeping vistas across the Colorado River Canyon and into the La Sal Mountains. Parents herding kids find this an ideal outing.

Corona Arch

Location: Potash Road, west of Moab

Round-trip distance: 3.1 miles

Elevation gain: 560 feet

Hiking time: 1.5 to 2.5 hours

Closer to Moab than any of the arches concentrated in nearby Arches National Park—yet equally impressive and far less crowded—is Corona Arch. It’s mammoth: 141 feet high, spanning 335 feet. The setting is magnificent: on the wall of Bootlegger Canyon, in an amphitheater also containing Bowtie Arch. This very short hike is a fun romp, mostly on slickrock, suitable for families with children.
Angels Landing

Location: Zion Canyon, Zion National Park

Round-trip distance: 5.2 miles

Elevation gain: 1,500 feet

Hiking time: 2 to 3 hours

If angels actually visit us, and they need a majestic place to alight—someplace near to Earth yet close to heaven—this would be it. Angels Landing is a peninsula, a mountainous wall, thrusting into Zion Canyon, forcing the Virgin River to detour around it. A short but very steep ascent culminates atop the slender, airy crest. Here, high above the canyon floor, you can overlook the heart of Zion National Park. Though the trail is quite safe given the vertical terrain, acrophobes should hike elsewhere.

Navajo Knobs

Location: Capitol Reef National Park

Round-trip distance: 9 miles

Elevation gain: 2,500 feet

Hiking time: 4 to 5 hours

Starting along the Fremont River, ending atop a panoramic promontory, you’ll gradually ascend broad, gently-ramping sandstone ledges. This is among the longest, easy slickwalks in the state. Constant, panoramic views allow you to admire the Waterpocket Fold—the 100-mile-long wrinkle in the Earth’s crust that Capitol Reef National Park enshrines. Think of it as a thousand suspended waves—all part of a stone tsunami leaping out of the desert.

Horseshoe Canyon

Location: Canyonlands National Park, Maze District, northeast of Hanksville

Round-trip distance: 7.4 miles

Elevation gain: 700 feet

Hiking time: 3 to 4.5 hours

A long drive on a dirt road, then an easy hike into Horseshoe Canyon, is all it takes to see North America’s premier display of prehistoric rock art. Known as “the Great Gallery,” it’s 15 feet high and 200 feet long. The 75, life-size, phantom-like figures were painted 2,000 to 8,000 years ago by Desert Archaic Indians. The centerpiece is a 7-foot-tall, ethereal presence known as “the Holy Ghost.” It has huge, vacant eyes, a head that appears to waver, and a streamlined, armless, legless body that seems to be rising. The anthropomorphs surrounding it also look like they’re in perpetual vertical motion. Researchers believe the artists were shamans attempting to show their spiritual journey from the human world to the realm of the spirit. Shedding their physicality, they felt weightless, hence the streamlined bodies. Departing for the unknown, they felt they were traveling, hence the skyward trajectory. Perhaps they were saying to the tribe, “This was our experience. This is what is possible for our species.”

Story and Photos by
Craig and Kathy Copeland
Special to The Daily Sentinel


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