USA: UTAH

Visit Utah to be amazed by the world’s best concentration of colorful desert canyon scenery, as illustrated in the following galleries by nature photographer Tom Dempsey. As of 2015, Utah has attracted me to visit 16 times, more than any other area in the world! Related articles: Southwest USA (Arizona, ColoradoNew MexicoNevada, Utah) and Texas.

Utah favorite images

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Parks of Utah

Galleries below include photos with detailed captions from the following impressive parklands:

  1. Zion National Park
  2. Bryce Canyon National Park
  3. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
  4. Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park, near Moab
  5. Arches National Park
  6. Moab area: BLM land
  7. Natural Bridges National Monument
  8. Goblin Valley State Park and nearby BLM slot canyons
  9. Newspaper Rock State Historic Monument, and nearby Shay Canyon on BLM land
  10. Goosenecks State Park
  11. Lake Powell and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, in Utah and Arizona
  12. Capitol Reef National Park
  13. Dinosaur National Monument
  14. Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area, in Arizona and Utah
  15. Southwest USA favorites from Arizona, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada
  16. Recommended Utah guidebooks

1. Zion National Park

Photos from Zion National Park, Springdale, Utah, by Tom Dempsey: The Court of the Patriarchs tower over the North Fork of the Virgin River. Hike the West Rim Trail to Angels Landing, Scout Lookout, and beyond, with snow on ground. A seasonal waterfall plunges from Weeping Rock. West Rim Spring plunges in a seasonal waterfall over desert varnish on a Navajo sandstone cliff seen from the Temple of Sinawava. Lichen grows into polygons. Snow melts on Checkerboard Mesa. Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja) flowers bloom.
Unusually diverse plants and animals congregate at Zion, where the Colorado Plateau, Great Basin, and Mojave Desert meet. A free shuttle bus greatly improves park ambiance with quieter roads and less crowding.

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2. Bryce Canyon National Park

Sunrise and sunset make great photo opportunities in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah. For example, sunset spotlights eroded hoodoos in the Queen’s Garden (one appears like a profile of Queen Elizabeth with gown). Bryce is actually not a canyon but a giant natural amphitheater created by erosion along the eastern side of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. The ancient river and lake bed sedimentary rocks erode into hoodoos by the force of wind, water, and ice.

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3. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is a large, wild park with great hiking in desert and slot canyon scenery in southern Utah. Approach most sights via dirt roads (often impassible when wet), or some on paved roads. These photos by Tom Dempsey are from recommended hikes to Lower Calf Creek Falls, Zebra & Tunnel Slot, Willis Creek slot canyon, Bull Valley Gorge, Cottonwood Wash Road & Narrows, and Rimrock Hoodoos.

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4. Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park, near Moab

Photos from Canyonlands National Park, near Moab, Utah, by Tom Dempsey include: Mesa Arch, sunrise, White Rim Road, Grand View Point Overlook on Island in the Sky, Colorado River canyons, Orange Cliffs Overlook, Green River in Stillwater Canyon, snowy Henry Mountains, Intrepid Potash Inc. Cane Creek Facility, snow on La Sal Mountains, Needles Outpost Campground, Lost Canyon to Peek-a-Boo Trail, Needles District, Echinocereus triglochidiatus (common name Claret Cup Hedgehog, Mojave mound cactus, or Kingcup cactus), Cave Spring Trail, and Historic Cowboy Camp. Nearby, Dead Horse Point State Park provides a dramatic overlook of the Colorado River and high mesas and cliffs of Canyonlands National Park.

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Arch View Resort makes a good base for visiting both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, Utah

My wife Carol and I enjoyed staying in our Volkswagon Eurovan Camper at comfortable Arch View Resort, an RV park 10 minutes north of Moab on Highway 191, halfway between Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Arch View Resort has a quieter setting than busy Moab, pleasant views, and full services (unlike nearby National Park campgrounds): 14 cabins, 42 full hook ups for RV water and electricity, 20 tent areas, tree lined spaces, hot showers, general store, laundry, Shell gas station.

Starting an hour before sunrise, we drove from Arch View Resort up to photograph Mesa Arch in Canyonlands NP. Standing room for the best photographs at Mesa Arch viewpoint is limited to about a dozen people looking through the arch to distant sandstone buttes. On Palm Sunday April 9, 2006, Mesa Arch was crowded with other photographers until an hour after sunrise when I could finally move in my tripod. If you want the best tripod spot and fewer photographers, try arriving 40 minutes before sunrise, midweek, and avoid Easter week.

5. Arches National Park

Photos from Arches National Park, Utah, by Tom Dempsey: Devils Garden trails (Landscape Arch, Broken Arch, Skyline Arch, Partition Arch, Navajo Arch, Double O Arch, Pine Tree Arch), the Windows Section, Balanced Rock, Double Arch, South and North Windows, Turret Arch, Courthouse Towers, the Three Gossips, Entrada Sandstone eroding into arches, towers, buttes, snowy La Sal Mountains.

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6. Moab area: BLM land

Near Moab in Utah, we recommend the following great hikes on BLM federal land. [The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is an agency within the United States Department of the Interior that administers American public lands.]

  1. Corona Arch: Hike 3 miles round trip up Bootlegger Canyon to the half-freestanding Corona Arch, also called Little Rainbow Bridge, which has an impressive opening of 140 feet wide by 105 feet high. Bowtie Arch is a cool bonus en route.
  2. Fisher Towers: The impressive Fisher Towers are eroded from Cutler sandstone capped with Moenkopi sandstone. Hike the Fisher Towers Trail 4.5 miles round trip with 800 feet gain.
  3. Hike Negro Bill Canyon to Morning Glory Bridge, a natural bridge of Navajo Sandstone spanning 243 feet, the sixth largest rock span in the United States.

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7. Natural Bridges National Monument

In Natural Bridges National Monument (near Blanding, San Juan County), walk to three spectacular natural bridges (visited separately from roadside pullouts or connected via a worthwhile loop hike of 6 or 9 miles). White Canyon Creek has cut Sipapu Natural Bridge with a span of 225 feet through a meander of white Permian sandstone of the Cedar Mesa Formation. Kachina Bridge spans 192 feet. Owachomo Bridge spans 180 feet. More photos by Tom Dempsey include: desert varnish coating gorgeous walls; and yellow wallflower (Erysimum asperum) growing in black cryptobiotic soil crust.

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8. Goblin Valley State Park and nearby BLM slot canyons

Admire fanciful hoodoos, mushroom shapes, and rock pinnacles in Goblin Valley State Park, in Emery County between the towns of Green River and Hanksville, in central Utah. The light-colored Curtis Formation caps the reddish-brown suite of rocks called Entrada Sandstone where the park goblins form. On the desert floor bloom vetch flowers, in the pea family. Snow caps Mount Ellen, at the northern end of the Henry Mountains, rising prominently south of the park.

A short drive outside the State Park are some wonderful hikes on BLM land. Hike the memorable 9 mile loop up Little Wild Horse Canyon and back down Bell Canyon. Scramble up and down sandstone ledges, through occasional shallow water holes and fascinating narrow slots. Ding Canyon and the main Wildhorse Canyon are also worth visiting. On the other side of the reef is Crack Canyon, one of our favorite places to see an amazing variety of rock patterns,  4 miles round trip (or longer if you can surpass a rope ascent and more obstacles). The Navajo and Wingate sandstone of the San Rafael Reef was uplifted fifty million years ago into a striking bluff which runs from Price to Hanksville, bisected by Interstate 70 at a breach fifteen miles west of the town of Green River. The San Rafael Reef (and Swell) is one of the wildest places left in Utah

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9. Newspaper Rock State Historic Monument, and nearby Shay Canyon on BLM land

Below are photos from Newspaper Rock State Historic Monument, plus nearby Shay Canyon on BLM land, in Utah, USA, by Tom Dempsey.

  • Newspaper Rock: The cliffs that enclose the upper end of Indian Creek Canyon are covered by hundreds of ancient Indian petroglyphs (rock carvings), one of the largest, best preserved and accessible groups in the Southwest USA. The petroglyphs have a mixture of human (feet, figures), animal (deer, pronghorn, buffalo, horse), abstract and material forms of uncertain meaning. Starting about 2000 years ago, humans have chipped away the dark natural desert varnish to reveal lighter colored Wingate sandstone beneath.
  • Shay Canyon petroglyphs: Nearby on BLM land, an unmarked trail crosses a creek and leads up the wash of Shay Canyon to a remarkable gallery of petroglyphs including flutists, mountain sheep, abstract human figures, and a long-necked bird.

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10. Goosenecks State Park, Utah

Goosenecks State Park overlooks a deep meander of the San Juan River near Mexican Hat, Utah, USA. Millions of years ago, the Monument Upwarp forced the river to carve meanders over 1,000 feet deep (300 m) as the surrounding landscape slowly rose in elevation. (Panorama stitched from 10 photos.) (© Tom Dempsey / Photoseek.com)
Goosenecks State Park overlooks a deep meander of the San Juan River near Mexican Hat, Utah, USA. Millions of years ago, the Monument Upwarp forced the river to carve meanders over 1,000 feet deep (300 m) as the surrounding landscape slowly rose in elevation. (Panorama stitched from 10 photos. Clicking image reaches Add to Cart button for purchase.) © Tom Dempsey / Photoseek.com

11. Lake Powell and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, in Utah and Arizona

Below, view photos from Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Lake Powell, in Utah and Arizona: Willow Creek Canyon, Broken Bow Arch, Llewellyn Gulch, petroglyphs of bighorn sheep chipped into desert varnish, pink cactus flower, frog held in hands, Bishop Canyon, LaGorce Arch, Hite Crossing Bridge (built 1966), and Hite Marina high and dry above the Colorado River in 2015 (at the former upstream limits of Lake Powell). I also photographed an interesting Anasazi kiva (ceremonial room) restored at Three Roof Ruin, on Escalante River Arm of Lake Powell. Just 8 miles outside the park, don’t miss the elegant slot of Leprechaun Canyon in North Wash on federal public BLM land between Hanksville and Hite.

Photos from Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Lake Powell, in Utah and Arizona, include: Willow Creek Canyon, Broken Bow Arch, Llewellyn Gulch, petroglyphs of bighorn sheep chipped into desert varnish, pink cactus flower, frog held in hands, black-tailed jackrabbit (desert hare, Lepus californicus), Bishop Canyon, LaGorce Arch and houseboats. An Anasazi kiva (ceremonial room) was restored at Three Roof Ruin, on Escalante River Arm of Lake Powell.

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12. Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

In Capitol Reef National Park, don’t miss the walk to impressive Hickman Natural Bridge, and optionally onward to Rim Overlook, seeing evocative sandstone patterns exfoliating from fossilized sand dunes. On the Capitol Gorge Trail, walk to the Tanks & Pioneer Register; optionally adding a hike to the Jurassic sandstone monolith of Golden Throne. The gallery below also includes photos of scenic Grand Wash, Petroglyphs Boardwalk, and Fruita Schoolhouse (built in 1896) and Historic Orchard.

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13. Dinosaur National Monument, Utah

Visit the real Jurassic Park at world-famous Dinosaur National Monument. The park’s Carnegie Dinosaur Quarry displays a spectacular logjam of fossilized Jurassic dinosaur bones protected by the huge Quarry Exhibit Hall. Although most of the monument is in Moffat County, Colorado, the Dinosaur Quarry is in Utah near Jenson. Dinosaur National Monument is on the southeast flank of the Uinta Mountains straddling Colorado and Utah at the confluence of the Green and Yampa Rivers. The only Apatosaurus skull in the world was found here because the sand-sized sediment preserves bone in great detail without compressing its fragile bones. Later discoveries of so-called “Brontosaurus” bones are a misnomer, as all bones of this sauropod (long necked dinosaur) should now be labeled Apatosaurus. More photos by Tom Dempsey include: Camarasaurus skeleton, Apatosaurus louisae leg bones, Allosaurus head, stegasaurus plate, ancient American petroglyphs, and Split Mountain Campground’s colorful geologic formations. Not all dinosaurs are extinct, since birds are actually the descendants of small nonflying theropods.

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14. Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area, in Arizona and Utah

Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area overlaps both Arizona and Utah. Fossilized sand dunes have eroded into the Coyote Buttes striated formations such as “The Wave.” Over 190 million years, ancient sand dune layers calcified into rock and created “The Wave” in the northwest corner of Arizona near the Utah border. Iron oxides bled through this Jurassic-age Navajo sandstone to create the salmon color. Hematite and goethite added yellows, oranges, browns and purples. Over thousands of years, water cut through the ridge above and exposed a channel that was further scoured by windblown sand into the smooth curves that today look like ocean swells and waves. For the permit required to hike to “The Wave”, contact the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM), who limits access to protect this fragile geologic formation.

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15. Southwest USA favorites from Arizona, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada

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See related articles: 

16. Recommended Utah guidebooks

Search for latest “Utah travel books” at Amazon.com.

2001: 2010: 2014:
2004: 2015: 2014: 2010:

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