This is the second post in a series about spectacular places in Utah based on my recent trip in March, 2019. In the first post, I talked about Zion National Park. This post will focus on two other highlights of the trip: Bryce Canyon and Arches National Parks.
After leaving Zion, we drove north toward Bryce on highway 89, covering a distance of about 75 miles.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon is known for its large concentration of hoodoos, or rock towers, eroded into the edge of a high plateau. Because of its elevation (upwards of 9,000 feet), it was still snow-covered in March, 2019, meaning that all of the trails leaving from the rim were closed. We could still drive about half of the 18-mile scenic drive, enough to see Bryce Point and Paria View. Past these points, the road was not plowed.
Since the rim trails were all closed, we decided to spend part of a day on the scenic drive, and then head for Mossy Cave Trail.
Mossy Cave Trail (.9 miles) – This trail is actually located closer to Tropic, Utah, and can be reached by leaving Bryce Canyon’s main thoroughfare and heading east on highway 12. Mossy Cave is a short, easy trail that takes the hiker into the bottom of the canyon to stare up at the hoodoos and a few arches. We approached the trailhead right around sunset, equipped with headlamps and flashlights. The time of day, the snow still on the ground, and the cooler temperatures made this hike truly memorable. After a short distance, we reached a fork. The left fork goes to the actual Mossy Cave; the right fork takes you to the Sevier River-sourced waterfall resulting from an irrigation ditch dug by early Mormon settlers. Despite its unnatural beginnings, it is a sight to behold. I was hoping we’d see some wildlife here around dusk, but we saw nothing. Unfortunately, by the time we got to the cave and the waterfall, it was too dark for photos.
The next morning, we chowed down on a rather pitiful hotel breakfast and headed for Moab, the closest town to Arches. We took the scenic route, which was about 260 miles, and we made plenty of stops along the way.
Arches National Park
I was super excited to see Arches for the first time. Over a decade ago, a copy of Edward Abbey’s book, Desert Solitaire, found its way into my hands. Abbey, a loved and controversial writer, was born in Western Pennsylvania in 1927. He was drafted into WWII, served in Italy, returned to travel the United States Jack Kerouac-style and eventually attend college on the GI Bill. In the seasons of 1956 and 1957, he took a job as a seasonal park ranger at Arches, living in a trailer near Balanced Rock. It was during these seasons that Desert Solitaire was written. In Desert Solitaire, Abbey shares lots of ideas about public wilderness and what it can and should mean to those who love it. The book changed my outlook on a lot of things, and I still reread parts of it more than a decade later.
Arches turned out to be the most crowded of the three parks — or maybe it just felt that way because of the way the entrance is set up. I had no idea that Arches sits on a high plateau, and to enter it one must funnel in just west of Moab and then ascend a series of switchbacks before reaching the top. We were lucky to arrive in the area just before sunset, so we rushed into the park with the intention of seeing the best things first.
Park Avenue – This is the first thing we saw after entering the park. Huge stanchions of rock, called Wall Street, stand to either side of a short trail. From the parking lot, the 1.8 mile trail travels north and ends at another parking lot. It’s an easy trail suited to all skill levels. We got out just to look around and snap a few photos.
Balanced Rock – Our day had been cloudy and overcast. Imagine our surprise, when, just as we reached Balanced Rock, the sun emerged from the horizon and made everything intensify in color. You don’t have to hike to this, just park and walk up, much to Edward Abbey’s chagrin. He believed people shouldn’t be able to drive right up to somewhere special. Wilderness is not suited to motorized tourism.
The Windows – This stop was a real stunner. North Window, Turret Arch, and Double Arch are the three arches, all walkable from the parking lot, and there’s a lot more than just arches. Many professional-looking photographers had come out to capture the sunset.
Delicate Arch (3 miles round trip) – This one, of course, was a jaw dropper. The arch graces calendars, books, and Utah license plates with its unmistakable shape.It is the largest free-standing arch in the park and earned its name from its delicate appearance. It’s an interesting hike, for sure. Leaving the parking lot, the trail is flat for a bit, passing an old homestead, and then scrambles up some rock, and up, and up. After more rock scrambling, we finally reached the arch, which was pretty crowded. Again, we timed it nicely, hitting the area right around sunset so that the arch was golden red. The Delicate Arch trail is a moderate trail with an uphill climb.
In front of the arch was a large basin that you wouldn’t want to fall into. Utah’s rock landscapes are scary and beautiful at the same time.
Honestly, I felt like there was a lot more to see in Arches. We never made it to Devil’s Garden at all, and I think that’s where a lot of the arches are. The park records over 2,000 sandstone arches contained within its boundaries. I hope to see more of those arches if and when I make it back.
When to Go
I prefer these desert parks in the winter or the shoulder seasons of spring or fall. Summer is just far too hot and unpleasant and crowded. Winter and spring run the risk of snow and snowstorms at higher elevations, but it’s a risk I don’t mind taking. Bryce was beautiful in the snow, and the roads were clear. As you can see, many of these places will be most stunning around sunset, when the golden light makes the stone radiate.
Where to Stay
In Bryce Canyon City, we stayed at Ruby’s Inn. My hiking companion did not love it, because we were on the first floor and there was a herd of elephants above us, but overall it was clean, and there were not a lot of choices in this area.
In Moab, we were pleased to have two nights at the Inca Inn, which initially moved us over to another hotel for the first night when our room had unfinished construction. However, we did not like the other hotel at all, and the Inca Inn graciously took us back for our second and third nights. The Inca Inn had clean rooms, a reasonable breakfast with Starbucks Coffee, and was kind enough to mail me my Darn Tough socks that I forgot in the room.
Where to Eat
Near Bryce, we ate at Bryce Canyon Pines, just a short drive from Bryce Canyon City. It was a cute little place with a love story behind it: some years ago two people met, fell in love, opened this place, and it’s still here.
Interestingly, Moab had an abundance of Thai restaurants. On our first night, we ate at Arches Thai and our third night we ate at Thai Bella. On our second evening, we enjoyed some brews and tasty bar food at Moab Brewery. We also enjoyed a quick midday meal at Moab Garage. All of them get my seal of approval.
While this post focused on Bryce Canyon and Arches National Parks, there’s a ton more to do in Utah. Look for more Moab and other fun Utah activities in my next post in this series, Utah Part III.