Daring to easy, Utah’s trails are a hiker’s paradise


The US desert state’s unique geological diversity lends every surface to hiking and trekking

There is just one legal lottery in Utah. The reward is the chance to explore The Wave, a gorgeous sandstone rock formation on the Utah-Arizona border, revered for its streaks of vermillion and warm colours. It’s a fragile space and entry requires a permit, 40 of which are given using a lottery system. As the saying goes in this desert region, “even if you lose that lottery, you still win”. During my week in Utah, I didn’t win that lottery but I certainly did win. All I needed to do was take a hike.

In the heart of the state lies the Zion National Park, Utah’s oldest, and a cluster of canyons, cliffs, sandstone and impressive views. Perhaps the most unique hike here is The Narrows, the narrowest part of the Zion Canyon, where the placid Virgin river is bound by walls that are a thousand feet tall. Hiking The Narrows is a pleasurable activity in summer, a way to cool off from the intense heat. In winter, it becomes an adventure sport because temperatures hover around the zero mark. Wading through the water is a daring, fairly difficult task. Despite being armed with a dry suit, neoprene socks, water boots and a sturdy stick, my feet are numb within minutes. The numbness comes with a payoff. The Narrows are a pleasing sight in winter, with clear waters falling gently over smooth stones, and soaring sandstone canyon walls that seem to reach out to the sky, some decked with icicles. It is enough to make you gape in awe.

Sometimes a good travel memory involves frozen feet. Other times, it features a majestic sand castle. On another placid morning in Kanab, a city in Utah, I find myself close to the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, the country’s largest no-kill sanctuary. I am not there to see the animals, but to embark on another adventure. Strapped in the backseat of 4×4 ATV, I listen to our guide from Roam Outdoor Adventure Co. talk about the trip (“hold tight”, “sand will go everywhere”, “remain strapped in”). It’s advice I hold dear because the next half hour is a hair-raising off-roading ride through deep sand, and over frequent road bumps into the heart of Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument. We stop at what looks like yet another sandstone mountain, and are told we have to embark on yet another hike.

This hike is a short one, on an incline and through slippery sand. Two steps ahead, one slide down. Rinse and repeat. Our calves definitely feel the stretch. A few turns later and we reach the top. The sudden silence is deafening. I can almost hear people’s jaws drop. Ahead of us is the 200-foot Cutler Cove or The Great Chamber, whose name belies its outwardly beauty. A tower of sand sits beneath a cove, shaped by its time in the desert into a grand arch. All around are textured, striated walls of compressed sand, crumbly to the touch, which envelopes the cove in a natural, tan hue. The arch and the sand dune framed against the sky is a photographer’s dream. It’s a sand creation unlike anything I have ever seen.

I get similar lessons in geology in Utah. Home to five national parks, the state is a tangle of mountains, red rock canyons, sand dunes, basins, glacier- and river-eroded canyons, rocky landscapes that look like Mars, and lava-filled trails. Every surface can be hiked, and each hike makes for a unique adventure.

Beyond The Narrows, Zion National Park has less-daring hikes. The Canyon Overlook Trail, considered by many to be the beginner’s introduction to Zion. It’s about a mile long and fairly gentle on the knees. I climb over sandstone steps, walk under shaded alcoves, and past ferns and vegetation growing out of walls. A simple but sturdy railing is what separates me from the rocky depths of the slot canyons. Every corner and turn offers views of canyons and sandstone walls. At the end is the most beautiful, and certainly, fairest of them all. The narrow path opens to a wide expanse with views of the lower floor of the canyon, with its snaking switchbacks, sparse vegetation, and impressive rock formations. It’s windy at the top and though I cannot see it, it feels surreal to be standing atop The Great Arch, a blind Navajo sandstone blind arch formed from springs eroding the rock from underneath.

In Utah, sandstone structures are everywhere and yet, I do not get bored of them. They stand tall and imposing. It is hard to imagine that many of these structures, like the Great Arch, are the longstanding side effects of erosion. Structures like the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon National Park are rock spires, formed by wind, water and snow erosion, and certainly live up to their name. Clothed in crimson, they are like totems of different shapes and sizes. Bryce Canyon isn’t actually a canyon but a collection of natural amphitheatres. The Bryce Amphitheater is the most visited section of the park, and quite a sight in the evening when the setting sun lights up the frost-covered peaks, framing them against a dazzling pink sky. And of course, it is best explored via a hike. I choose the easiest one, the Queen’s Garden trail, which descends into Bryce Rim. It’s a fairly easy trail on the way down, over frost covered portions, past sandstone doorways, along narrow paths and up many inclines, finally ending at the regal-looking aptly named Queen Victoria hoodoo. The journey back up is tiring, and involves the shedding of many clothing layers otherwise needed for the cold.

Nearby, Kodachrome Basin State Park lacks the majesty of Bryce’s hoodoos. Instead, it is a vast expanse of multi-hued sandstone spires and red rock mountains. A short hike gives me a chance to view these spires from the top, and admire how, when framed against the blue sky, the landscape shows off the colours of the American flag.

On my last day, I visit another lesser known park, Snow Canyon State Park. This trek introduces me to a different kind of rock, lava. I walk over uneven gravel and black basalt on the Lava Flow Trail, which passes by lava tubes, ancient natural caverns formed by cooled molten lava. Being inside these tubes gives new meaning to the phrase, pitch blackness. Outside, in the light, the desert landscape is stark with pockets of vegetation. It is on this lava trail that I, a gin-drinker, finally get to see the juniper shrub that gives the drink its base ingredient.

In Utah, I have many wins beyond the lottery: my step count is impressive, my legs feel toned, and I see some stunning natural wonders.

Joanna Lobo is a Goa-based journalist.

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