Spring Adventures in Southern Utah
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If you want to explore a variety of scenery and climate conditions, I highly recommend visiting Utah in the spring. If you enjoy hiking, climbing, driving back roads, outdoor photography, or sitting on a rock high above an alpine or desert valley contemplating the meaning of life, I’ve got some recommendations or maybe even an agenda you can reference. Utah is one of the most geographically diverse areas on the planet earth. Combine the diverse geography with the potential swings of spring weather and you’ll have an adventure you will long remember. In a single day, one can start the day brushing the snow off the car in one of the many alpine areas within the state, then within 4 or 5 hours you could be hiking in shorts in a desert in full spring bloom. So where do you start, and what’s the plan:
Day 1 – Salt Lake City and Surrounding Sites: If you are arriving in Salt Lake City, take some time to explore the city and particularly the surrounding outdoor adventure options (of which there are many). The following are just two of the many possible full or half day adventures:Bonneville Salt Flats: A favorite destination, outside of Salt Lake City, is the Bonneville Salt Flats. The salt flats are approximately 120 miles (estimated 2 hours one way) due west on I-80 from Salt Lake City. It is not a very notable drive in terms of scenery and there are few options for adventure or services along the highway to the flats. You can experience the salt flats from the I-80 rest area bordering the flats or enter the partially paved race course side road that takes you out into the flats. You will likely experience water mirages as you approach or arrive at the flats, no doubt like the early settlers who attempted to cross this inhospitable terrain. The stark visual desolation of the salt flats is spectacular, but once there your options are limited. Yes, you can drive or walk on the salt flats – but remember this is “salt” – and extended exposure will cause damage to a car and/or shoes. Do not attempt to drive on the salt flats if it looks the least bit damp or wet (as it likely would be in early spring). You can easily get stuck and/or your car will sink down to the base and the corrosive salt will imbed in the wheel wells and brakes of your vehicle. Be certain to thoroughly wash your vehicles under carriage (particularly if it is a rental) and your shoes or any article of clothing exposed to the salt as soon as possible.
Provo Canyon and Beyond: Heading south on I-15 (to Provo), look for exit 272. Depending on traffic, from the center of Salt Lake City it is about a 30-45 minute drive to the exit. Driving into the canyon on US-189 you will note a variety parking areas for hiking trails that climb into the adjacent hills and steep cliffs. Bridal Veil or Battle Creek Falls are easy fun hikes and worth a couple hours when in full flow. Pull offs along the Provo River provide an opportunity to watch fly fishermen demonstrate their skill at hooking native trout. The Alpine Scenic Loop (U-92) will take you up into the hidden alpine paradise of Sundance Resort and the Uinta National Forest. The U-92 loop may not be fully open in early spring, depending upon the winter’s snow fall. There are parking lots adjacent to Mt Timpanogos (just past Sundance Resort) that offer great hiking (or snow shoe) trails with great views of the mountain and canyons below. Be sure to check weather conditions before heading out on U-92.
Day 2 – Kolob Canyons (Zion National Park): My favorite National Park for many reasons. It provides as big of a hiking/climbing adventure as you are willing to attempt, with spectacular scenery and wildlife at every turn. It is one of this countries true hiking utopias. I highly recommend adding this to your “bucket” list if you haven’t been, and if you have visited before I recommend getting off the popular trails (such as Angels Landing, Emerald Pools, etc.) and venture out into the back side of the park off of Kolob Terrace/Reservoir Road (permit required for many of these trails):
Kolob Canyons (Zion National Park): Approximately 280 miles south of Salt Lake City (4 ½ hours) , 17 miles south of Cedar City, and 40 miles north of the main entrance to Zion National Park is the less visited extension of Zion National Park known as Kolob Canyons (Exit 40 off I-15). This is a unique unconnected (by vehicle) extension of Zion National Park. Don’t let the view (or lack thereof) fool you as you pull into the visitor’s center. Just pay the fare and venture on. Kolob Canyons provides an opportunity to hike within a designated wilderness area without the crowds that can occupy the most traveled trails within the main park. Hiking trails can take you deep into box canyons, where you can touch 2000 foot sandstone cliffs, cross canyon streams, and feel the spray of snow melted falling water along the way (in early spring). Kolob Canyons give you the opportunity to slowly break in those new hiking shoes or to stretch out your leg muscles before attacking the more difficult trails of the main extension of Zion National Park. It also provides beautiful views along the very short drive within the park. Take a 2-4 hour hike within this park before stopping for the night (recommend spending your second night in Cedar City…this will be explained below); you’ll have those visions in your head as you drift off to sleep.
Day 3 – Zion National Park (back door, side door, or front door): Why stay night #2 in Cedar City instead of heading directly to Zion National Park/Springdale you ask? Well, first off it will save you about $100-150 in the cost of lodging and meals. In addition to the savings, spending the night in Cedar City gives you two options for venturing into Zion National Park proper.
Option #1 (Back Door): If conditions permit – please check conditions before attempting this route – is to head out on U-14 towards Cedar Breaks National Monument. This is a much more time consuming drive that takes you through an ever changing geographical region as you climb above 10,000 feet into the alpine Markagunt Plateau around and beyond Cedar Breaks. Early spring is not normally a good time to plan venturing off to see views of the terrain below from high elevation. You may not be able to drive within 2 miles of the entrance depending upon the winters snow accumulation and spring melt rate. If you are fortunate enough to venture into the “breaks” you might be able to view down on Zion National Park from 11,000 feet. If you can’t venture into Cedar Break, keep driving. There many other trails and lakes off of U-14. Also, you may see Yellow Bellied Marmots, Mule Deer, Elk, or Pronghorns…all of which will look at you as if they belong here and you don’t.U-14 will end at the intersection of U-89. Turn right towards Mt. Carmel Junction (left heads you towards Bryce Canyon National Park) and follow U-89 until you reach the Mt Carmel Junction intersection of Scenic Highway U-9, the “back door” east entrance into Zion National Park. It may take between 25-35 minutes to reach the park entrance heading west on U-9.After entering the park from this less used entrance you will see numerous turnoff points with many notable trails such as Checkerboard Mesa. One of the most popular short, easy trails along this route is Canyon Overlook Trail which provides one of the most spectacular views of the valley below.Scenic Highway 9 twists and turns its way down to Zion Valleys floor.
Option #2 (Mesa Road to Smith Mesa Road to Kolob Terrace): Recommended for 4 wheel (all wheel) drive vehicles only. This is a very rugged way to get into Zion. The roads are narrow, often dirt and there are no services of any kind along the way. If you choose this route you’ll need a good GPS system or detailed map, plenty of water, and any other necessities should you break down or get stuck. The roads here are travelled by ranchers and other adventure seekers, so you will not be totally isolated.Having said the above, is it worth it, in my opinion – yes.To get there, go west of the town of Virgin, Utah on Highway 9. At Mile Marker 17, turn north (left) on Mesa Road (1250 West). The road intersects at N 37 12 330 W 113 12 620. You will climb on a narrow (paved “sort of”) roadway with views of Zion to your right and the desert valley below. After navigating through changing terrain, rock over hangs, and (potentially) cattle and wildlife, at approximately 3.4 miles you will reach a fork in the road. – travel forward on Smith Mesa Road. As you travel forward you will have very unique views of Zion National Park and one of beautifully vast mesa areas surrounding the park.
to be continued…