Surreal Landscapes

Exploring Utah's impressive national and state parks.

Photo courtesy of Goblin Valley State Park

The state parks of Utah are prolific—jarring stone formations jut into blue skies; kaleidoscopic canyons entrench lush valleys; and alabaster columns loom spectacularly in the distance, culminating in an ethereal ecosphere. It’s a world unto itself. I traversed this land methodically, stemmed from a raging case of cabin fever, first touching upon Goblin Valley State Park (just six hours West of Denver) and then Capitol Reef National Park and Kodachrome Basin State Park, before reaching Bryce Canyon National Park— my final all-in-one road trip destination.

Goblin Valley State Park

The vast Martian-like valley is populated with soft sandstone, deposited 170 million years ago and eroded into legions of rock formations; many resemble goblins, gnomes, and mushrooms. On the first morning, dawn’s rays haloed red Entrada sandstone columns, called hoodoos, which the Paiute Indians believe were once creatures that gods turned to stone. Beyond them, dream-like and veiled by dust, were monoliths that thrusted skyward, resembling the mythical fortresses of fanciful fairytales.

Five miles west of the entrance sits Little Wild Horse Canyon, the perfect hiking locale with tight, twisting passages and 75-foot sci-fiesque walls. Trails in this area range from easier treks like the 1.5-mile-long Curtis Bench to the strenuous 1.5-mile Goblin’s Lair, which leads to a hidden 70-foot natural cave that many visitors rappel down (with permit in hand).

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Goblin State Park is also one of Utah’s many International Dark Sky parks that offer optimal stargazing due to minimal light pollution. Celestial eye candy shines brightly above its campgrounds, which provide yurts embellished with stoves and bunkbeds.

Capitol Reef National Park

Just 1½ hours Southwest of Goblin Valley, its white, bell-like formations, which resemble Washington D.C.’s Capitol dome, inspired the park’s name. The area houses a segment of the Waterpocket Fold, a spiny warp in the Earth’s crust. It’s the park’s centerpiece, but not its only distinction.

Capitol Reef’s 7.9-mile scenic drive starts in bucolic farmland. Fruita, a town settled in the 1880s offers harvestable orchards of apples, cherries, and pears.

Trek easily on the one-mile Capitol Gorge Trail or elect for an arduous 1.7-mile climb to the top of Cassidy Arch, which spans a gaping chasm at 6,350 feet. Views are multitudinous— color-streaked cliffs, volcanic crags, and precipices that lance the air. The hike at Hickman Bridge Trail stretches toward the summit and loops through an amazing 133-foot natural arch.

Kodachrome Basin State Park

This incredible high-mountain desert was named Kodachrome after a popular Kodak color film. Its 67 sedimentary pipe formations erupt from the ground—and it’s blissfully isolated and stilled.

The best way to see the structures, and hear stories about Old West outlaw Butch Cassidy, is on a horseback ride guided by Steve Beagley of Red Canyon Trail Rides. Travelers can also make a nine-mile side trip to Grosvenor Arch or hike the moderately difficult Panorama Trail, a six-mile double loop. Energized by fragrances of juniper and sage, I hiked a 1.5-mile trail to the roof of Angel’s Palace, a monolith with 360-degree views.

The campgrounds offer tiled showers and a laundromat—a few down-to-earth features in an otherwise otherworldly setting.

Bryce Canyon National Park

You’d have to be a rock not to be moved by the sight of Bryce Canyon’s horseshoe-shaped amphitheaters, where the forces of frost-wedging and rainwater have shaped colorful limestone and mudstone into stunning fins, slot canyons, and hoodoo spires.

The park’s relatively easy Rim Trail (ranges from one to eleven miles) encounters the world’s largest concentration of hoodoos. Verdurous evergreens and yellow rubber rabbitbrush grace the path, which ascends to 8,300 feet at Bryce Point. The 1.5-mile Navajo Loop winds down from Sunset Point, a popular overlook with sweeping vistas. From there, the path enters Wall Street’s thrillingly tight passage, which traverses through soaring rock fins.