Story and Photos by Lee Daley Editor’s Note: This is an update on current conditions for Utah’s parks: Often overlooked for New England or the Smoky Mountains, Utah’s national parks and woodlands–combined with local live performances, museums and galleries–offer not only stunning colors but rich cultural experiences. You’ll find Utah fall color gold throughout Zion National Park, Cedar Breaks and Kolob Canyon. Here, Mother Nature’s paintbrush sketches a brilliant palette of orange, gold and scarlet set against a backdrop of soaring red rock towers, deep canyons and massive monoliths. Another bonus is that Utah fall color gold glitters well into November with most, if not all, trails open and ready for your escape into color nirvana. Here are my top tips for a Utah fall color gold getaway.
Color: A prime starting point is Zion National Park, the state’s oldest and most visited attraction. You can choose the hike that best suits your fitness level, from the easy Riverside Walk with soaring sentinels of sandstone walls or the more difficult, short but steep, Weeping Rock Trail. Here is where you’ll find stunning stands of golden aspen and red maple. Zion generously shares the glory of Utah fall color gold. This year, shuttle service through Zion began on July 1, 2020. Advance tickets are required.
Zion Wings: Up to a challenge and not afraid of heights? Earn your Zion wings with careful navigation up to the peak of Angels Landing. Like an island in the sky, the trail ends at a breathtaking summit high above Zion Canyon. it’s an eye-popping trek along a narrow ridge, often enshrouded in clouds. At the peak, I stood in the mist holding my breath. Looking down on the painterly panorama below. I felt on top of the earth, literally and figuratively. No question, I had earned my Zion wings for the “flight” back down the trail.
Time spent at Zion is never enough for me. Day hikes offer stunning views. If time allows, devote a full day to the East Mesa Trail, just south of Angels Landing. Capture the vista of the 2,300′ Great White Throne, a Navajo sandstone formation perched in the foreground with Red Arch Mountain as a backdrop. No need for Kodachrome. Utah fall color gold abounds at every turn.
Touring Tip: During foliage season, the park service runs a free shuttle along the 12-mile round trip through Zion Canyon. The route highlights Utah fall color gold nestling against Zion’s massive stone formations as they reach for the sky. https://www.nps.gov/zion/index.htm
I noticed the intriguing names of many sites and learned that early explorers gave biblical titles to several of Utah’s monoliths. The monikers include Angels Landing, Great White Throne, Three Patriarchs and Cathedral Mountain. These were named prior to Zion becoming a National Park in 1918. Zion, meaning “promised land,” was named by the Mormons. Native Americans called nearby Cedar Breaks the “Circle of Painted Cliffs” The various titles are almost as awe-inspiring as the sites themselves.
Kolob Canyon: Part of Zion, Kolob is much less developed. For me, that’s its attraction, especially now. Even in peak season, you can usually avoid crowds. Some say the Kolob canyon views of rugged red sandstone rival the Grand Canyon in terms of texture, layers, and color. Like a park within a park, a series of deep, narrow finger canyons juts up along the edge of the Colorado Plateau. A five-mile scenic drive through the canyon ends at a high viewpoint with a short nature trail and views as far as the Kaibab Plateau at the north rim of the Grand Canyon.
Canyon Trek: A rock-strewn trailside creek was our constant companion on a sun-splashed fall day when friends and I hiked through the canyon, During our three-hour escape we saw only a handful of other hikers. Yet, each time we met up with others, there was a feeling of oneness, a shared sense of appreciation for the serenity of our environment. Polite distancing prevailed. The hike culminated at a spectacular site when we reached Kolob’s red-rock double-arch alcove, one of the most photogenic phenomena in the entire park.
Bryce Canyon: Quaking aspens, majestic oaks, and cottonwoods strut their stuff in shades of gold, red and orange during Bryce’s fall season. Although you can plan on “color season” early to late fall, peak foliage varies by elevation. Colors change sooner at the higher elevations whereas lower elevations like Escalante typically peak much later, so this is a good time if you are one of those late-comers to get your hit of Utah fall color gold. Try the scenic drive on Hwy 14, the back road from Bryce to Zion. It climbs to 10,000′, passing Cedar Breaks National Monument along the way. Here, fall colors will run the gamut from newer blooms to blazing hues as colorful as hoodoos. We passed only a few small groups of hikers on the wide trails through the canyon.
Cedar Breaks. A little out of the way but well worth exploring, Cedar Breaks resembles Bryce Canyon on a smaller scale. Called the “Circle of Painted Cliffs” by Native Americans, its huge amphitheater of pinnacles, arches, and stone spires radiates reflections, shadows, and light in shades of purple, yellow, coral and red. At 10,000′ elevation, the three-mile wide canyon drops 2,000 vertical feet to its floor. and is three miles from rim to rim.
One high point for me is always Cedar Breaks National Monument. Last time, I drove north along the road through the Monument stopping at observation points. Point Supreme near the entrance affords a panoramic view of the amphitheater. Carved spirals with dazzling multi-colored ridges and rock formations march up the walls. From each of the overlooks, you’ll see across Cedar Valley, over Antelope and Black Mountains into the Escalante Desert. Watch for swifts and swallows soaring overhead. Bring those binoculars.
Touring Tip: Cedar Breaks Visitor Center features park information and interpretive activities. https://www.nps.gov/cebr/index.htm
Hoodoo Heaven: The Point Supreme outlook in Cedar Breaks National Monument is hoodoo heaven. Because they are weird looking spires, hoodoos are sometimes called “fairy chimneys” or “goblins.” Freezing and thawing cycles throughout the year produce rock spires that rise up from the canyon floor, often seeming to march skyward in group formation. Hoodoos vary in size and color depending on their location. If you’re a hoodoo hunter, be sure and visit each park to see these enchanting earth pyramids.
Fall season in southern Utah’s national parks is an incredible oasis for leaf peepers. Native trees create brilliant hues of red, orange, yellow, and purple (Sometimes all on the same tree!). A cascade of color comes from canyon maple, quaking aspen, scrub oak, Douglas hawthorn, evergreens, and more — each turning in succession. Utah’s wide array of forests, national parks and scenic byways are all located at different elevations and receive varying amounts of rainfall. This creates a multitude of peak viewing times so you can come early or late in the season and still spot breathtaking vistas.
Culture: See even more Utah fall color gold at the Tony Award-winning Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City at Southern Utah University. Plays by the bard are complemented with Broadway hits and backstage seminars. A refreshing counterpoint to a day spent outdoors in nature, the festival season continues into late October with something on the bill for just about everyone. Ticket prices can be purchased for as low as $10 for some productions but it’s always best to plan ahead.
Artful Pursuits: Artisans Art Gallery in downtown Cedar Breaks showcases a wide selection of paintings, photographs, ceramics, sculptures, jewelry, metalwork, stained glass and much more. For an outdoor experience, try the Southern Utah University Sculpture Stroll. The University campus features one of the finest displays of classic and modern sculpture in the state. A self-guided “Sculpture Stroll” brochure is available at various campus locations or at the Cedar City Visitor Center, 581 N. Main. Free to the public.
Where to Stay: A haven for lovers of the arts and outdoors, Cedar City provides an excellent base for exploration. Not only are you within easy driving distance to the area’s highlights, but the prices in this great little area tend to be more reasonable than higher-end resorts. Kolob Canyon lies about 20 to 25 miles south of Cedar City. Cedar Breaks National Monument lies about 23 miles to the east. The Cedar City website listed below is a great resource for current openings and specials.
If you Go: Visit Cedar City- Brian Head Visitors Bureau, 581 N. Main St., Cedar City, UT 84720. Telephone: (435) 586-5124. From the San Francisco Bay Area, flights into Las Vegas Airport provide economical access to car rentals for the scenic drive to Southern Utah.
Please double-check all openings and conditions in this challenging time. Getting outdoors is one of the best things you can do for your health and wellness. Respect the environment so it can continue to support you and the planet.