Zion National Park, Cedar Breaks National Monument, star attractions in southwest UT.

Hoodoos, the lofty spires along Cedar Breaks red rock amphitheater, are visible and remind us of the hoodoos that make Bryce Canyon such a popular attraction.

Another view of Cedar Breaks lofty amphitheater, offset by cloud formations.
Cedar Breaks National Monument’s red rock amphitheater is three miles across, and almost a 1/2 mile deep. From the observation points on the rim drive, well above 10,000 feet, temperatures can be cool during summer!
View in Zion National Park, where the Virgin River has carved out a lofty canyon full of wonderous sights!
Water cascades from the brow of Zion’s Weeping Wall, just a short uphill hike from the park’s shuttle bus.
Zion tourists huddle under the Weeping Wall alcove, where shade and constant moisture drips keep the temperature well below that in the valley, below.

Zion National Park, Cedar Breaks National Monument, just north and east of St. George, UT.

We’ve been in St. George, UT, the past two weeks (staying at a beautiful home garnered through a house-sitting assignment), touring nearby attractions like old town St. George, the stunning Snow Canyon State Park and taking in the Broadway show Matilda the Musical at the memorable Tuacahn Amphitheater nestled in the red rocks south of Snow Canyon. We’ve hiked daily in the Banded Hills just southeast of the home we are staying in. But our plan is to visit loftier destinations, including nearby national monuments and national parks.

I have long been a fan of our national monuments, often the equal of our national parks. National monuments present monumental views, wildlife viewing and marvelous photography opportunities with more modest entry fees and a fraction of the tourists drawn to national parks.  Our hosts and several other locals tell us not to miss Cedar Breaks National Monument.

Hence, a Friday tour takes us the 75 miles to Cedar Breaks National Monument. Cedar Breaks web site offers a host of information and “what to see” suggestions, noting that two years earlier, the monument feted just 890,000 annual visitors (as we will discover, Zion National Park hosts almost five times that traffic each year)..

A pretty drive takes us through Cedar City and up several canyons to the national monument. We watch the outside temperature drop from the mid-80s at St. George drop to the high 50s – that’s what the park’s observation points will do, ranging from 10,300 to over 10,600 feet in elevation. Take a jacket; many fellow visitors cut their time short, not prepared for cool temperatures.

Cedar Breaks National Monument encompasses almost 7000 acres, centered on a vast red rock amphitheater three miles across and almost a half mile deep. The amphitheater is more eroded but similar to Bryce Canyon National Park and Red Canyon in the Dixie National Forest.

The monument is home to ancient Bristlecone Pine, with some specimens reaching over 1600 years, and sub-alpine meadows spread out from the amphitheater rim. Mule deer, marmots golden-mantled squirrels, porcupines and other animals make this home. At this elevation, the air is usually clear, you can see 100 miles and nighttime stargazing is a big attraction. On the amphitheater wall you’ll find excellent examples of hoodoos, those tall, spindly spires created by erosion, which make Bryce Canyon such a compelling experience.

Clark’s nutcrackers, violet-green swallows and ravens are birds frequently seen. Wildflowers generally blanket the canyon rim beginning in June, and we saw larkspur, Colorado columbine and scarlet paintbrush along our short hikes. Longer hikes are also available, decending into portions of the red rock amphitheater.

It’s the amphitheater that generates the “wow” factor. Located at the west end of the vast Colorado Plateau, it covers the west side of the smaller Markagunt Plateau, the same rock that forms part of Zion National Park. Earth’s uplift, followed by erosion, formed the canyon over millions of years from the shale, limestone and sandstone once part of the lakebed of ancient Lake Clarion that once inundated this area.

Early the next Monday (thinking we would beat summer crowds), we were off to Zion National Park, just 44 miles from St. George. Zion is noteworthy for its vertical cliffs carved by the Virgin River in shades of red, white and blue hues, owing to iron and manganese shading the limestone. Lush valleys fed by the river make an other-worldly contrast; unlike Cedar Breaks NM, where you are mostly looking down, in Zion, you are usually looking skyward. Craning-your-neck-skyward, that is.

Alas, approaching from the park’s south entrance, we found the park’s parking lots posted “full”, with visitors queuing up at the park entrance through Springdale. Hence, we parked just outside the park, walked through the pedestrian entrance where our America the Beautiful Senior Pass (now, just $20 for life) saved us the entry fee. We then waited about an hour to get on the free shuttle that takes you up into the valley carved by the Virgin River and the park’s main attractions.

From the shuttle, we disembarked and hiked the Lower and Middle Emerald Pools Trail, steep with several hundred vertical feet elevation gain, but fairly short, then the Grotto Trail above the Virgin River, then back to the free shuttle. Another short ride and we hiked the short trail to Weeping Wall, a pleasant, misty and drippy respite on a day that pushed temperatures into the upper 80s by Noon.

If you have the time and energy, don’t miss the hike to The Narrows.  This section is the narrowest of the canyon, with walls towering thousands of feet, in places only 20 to 40 feet wide.  Choices of hikes range from short to long, much of the hike wading through the generally placid Virgin River. But, heed weather forecasts and potential for flash floods; days after our first visit two years earlier, violent thunder storms created flash floods in Zion, killing six tourists who were trapped in a slot canyon.

We finished our day at the brew pub near the South Visitor Center, where a snack and cold drinks quenched our thirst. What else can we explore in Utah?

For more info: For St. George, visitstgeorge.com; for Utah, visitutah.com; Cedar Breaks National Monument, nsp.gov/cebr/; Zion National Park, nps.gov/zion; camping can be booked through www.recreation.gov.

Read more from Tim’s travel blog, follow him on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter; or, email him at tviall@msn.com. Happy travels in your world!

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