Five National Parks, a twelve-pack, and one really big blister.
Some states get excited about things like fruit that grows exceptionally well, or trees that block out the sun. Others hype things like historical monuments or an impressive mineral supply. Sure, every state has something unique to offer. But none are as drool-worthy and marketable as Utah’s Mighty 5. Not only is Utah the state with the most awesome National Parks (it comes in at number three for most plentiful), it’s also the one with the coolest ad campaign. And for good reason.
Long before I exercised bragging rights with the Mighty 5 bumper sticker, I found myself with the perfect opportunity to take a week to get as dirty as possible and max out my annual National Park pass. I had been wrangling horses on a dude ranch in the Colorado Rockies all summer long, and I figured I had to go out with a bang. After looking at a map to try and spice up the haul from Colorado to Las Vegas, I immediately realized there was a whole lot of green. The trip home, I decided, would be an epic journey through the National Parks of Utah. Here is what happens when you attempt a half-baked adventure you penciled on a map in 30 seconds.
First stop across the border, Arches National Park. Little did I know that a mid-morning in mid-week September was peak visiting season. But despite the hordes of rent-a-car driving foreigners, I soon found myself lost on the primitive Devil’s Garden loop. The novices had been filtered out pretty effectively, as the trail follows cairns placed strategically along ginormous red-rock fins and dips down into sandy basins. I pretended not to think of 127 Hours, but really that only added to the fun. Although an aspen-loving explorer at heart, the loop was a blast. You don’t get that tromping around in the mountain mud this time of year.
Next up, Canyonlands National Park. Let me tell you, the thing is wildly breathtaking. With a backdrop of the La Sal mountain range to the east, watching the sun set here is the fastest way back to reality I can think of. And to top it off, the road along the west rim is relatively ballsy, upping the adventure and your chance of being alone. I snapped the required selfies and peered over the edge, wishing I had a belay partner holding me down. The thousand-foot drop made the view even sweeter, sweaty palms and all.
Day two, the plan was to hike Canyonlands in search of Aron Ralston’s cremated arm. It ended up being more like, “hike like hell in order to fit five National Parks into three days”. Truth be told, I’d already hit one in Colorado, too. At this point I began to wonder if showering is against the spirit of the gritty, all-American road-trip. Would Kerouac or Hunter S. Thompson have succumbed? And about thirty seconds later, I decided to screw it. My legs were beginning to look like Alexander SuperTramp’s face. The hunt was on for a water-pocket big enough to bathe in.
After the park ranger at Canyonlands informed me that the Syncline Loop Trail, my planned route, takes an average hiker seven hours and a topographical map, I lowered my sights. Two hours later, I had a nice tee-tan and burning calves from a six-mile trek along a canyon wall. But the highlight of the day? The Riverside Oasis, just outside of Moab. A five-dollar public shower never felt so good.
After failing to find a recommended café in Moab, and settling for another spot just as quirky (and with the ever-elusive power outlets my electronics desperately needed), I lead-footed it to Capitol Reef National Park. With the windows down and Tom Petty blaring, I wondered if I might be on the real Loneliest Road in America. That is, until I ran smack into the most impressive desert thunderstorm most Seattleites (myself included) will ever see. A word to the wise; flash flood warnings exist for a reason. Another word to the wise; don’t go anywhere without at least a half-ton truck. The previously deserted road suddenly became a bottlenecked mess at the sight of a newborn river, raging across the highway and several feet deep. Two cars were lodged in the red goop with more rushing up over their windshields. Game-face on, Petty paused, and camera rolling, I gunned it. This whole incident somehow left me with mud in my mouth, but otherwise unscathed and on my way to park number three, just in time to nab the last campsite.
Capitol Reef was a rainy, rainy place. It gave Seattle a run for its money. I spent my time there wedged in between two parked cars, fogging up my own windows while trying to stay entertained. I should mention that when you’re camping alone as a blonde female just out of college, you don’t wander around at night. This leaves you stuck in your truck for the entirety of sun-set to sun-up – some eleven hours in early fall.
Surprising about the Reef were the Mormon fruit orchards located sporadically throughout the park; lush, well-irrigated fields below the sandstone and petroglyph covered cliffs I was now finding home. A two mile hike in the morning drizzle had me rearing to hit the road, and off my half-ton and I went to destination numero cuatro, Bryce Canyon National Park.
Just before reaching the green spot on my GPS, I considered the very real possibility of falling sound asleep at the wheel. Blame it on my irrepressible belief that all one needs while outdoor-adventuring is beer and power bars, or the fact this would be night number five truck-camping, but I was worked. Fortunately, Bryce Canyon was the perfect wake-up call. Easily the most staggering of the parks I’d conquered so far. Busting my butt to hit the eight-mile Fairyland Loop and make it back before dark, I practically ran to the trailhead. And then, the miraculous happened. Somewhere along the route, winding between the orangey hoodoo rock formations, I began to like the desert landscape. Utah started to grow on me. Or maybe my diet was taking its toll. Meanwhile, I’d made friends with a gun-happy air force member who decided to share his campfire and the most delicious peanut butter and jelly sandwich I had ever tasted. And tomorrow night, I was going to hit Las Vegas and a king size bed. Things were looking up, with one bad boy left – Zion.
Angels Landing. This is the hike of all hikes, or at least the one with the most bragging rights. I don’t care how cool the hoodoos were – this thing is what I still find myself telling people about. The landing is a jut of rock extending only a half mile out into the middle of Zion Canyon, and in sections it is only several feet wide with over a thousand foot drop on either side. As an absolute wuss when it comes to heights, I decided I’d be making the scramble one way or another and got to work. And it was absolutely worth the pain. My palms start to sweat even at the memory. Toasted the day with a local brew on the bed of a creek, which is probably totally illegal in a National Park, and gunned it for Sin City, taking half the sand of Utah with me.
The verdict? This desert blitz isn’t for the desk jockey. And it might not be for a self-declared athletic twenty-something, either. But it’s a trip of a lifetime. Would I do it again? Hell yeah. But not for another five years. That’s about the time it’ll take to clean my truck out, anyway.