Five National Parks in five days was the mission when I visited Utah.
It begs one of the many questions that go through your head when you are on a mission to visit five of America’s most spectacular national parks in five days, what exactly was I driving through have until now?
The viewstops are crowded and the sense of stadium tourism (it was barometer-high June) detracts only a little from the experience. But even on the Navajo loop trail (where you can view the must-see at Bryce, a rock called Thor’s hammer) you can get a sense of the beauty of the landscape.
Drive over a hill and everything changes. You still get the red scrub bushes, Utah juniper, rabbit bush, snake weed, black rush pinyon pine, single leaf mountain ash, but it is flat and simple now, rather than the sculpted tall cakes and bread rolls of rocks, and there are blue mountains dancing in the hot sun far away on the horizon. I am in Bryce Canyon, second most famous on the continent after the Grand Canyon.
I have a steak in the Bryce Canyon Pines with my charming hostesses, Joneal Barton and Falyn Owens, who tell me of their idyllic childhoods on a desert farmland. They name the rodeo stars like other girls would name sports heroes.
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Red is the colour. My tour of Utah’s national parks (only Alaska with seven and California with six have more national parks than Utah) begins in Moab a thriving town with 3846 tourist beds and a big repeat business of sporty visitors.
“When you come you need to stay at least two to three nights,” my hostess Marian DeLay says, “if you stay less it is just like anyplace else on the world.”
The Arches national park is a taster of what I have to expect. Thirsty desert hills extending off in every direction, tall buttes and flat mesas, all implausibly beautiful. When you come from somewhere green and lush like Ireland the desert really ties your boot laces. Or butte-laces, perhaps?
Moab has another national park in its neighbourhood, Canyonlands, so big I can only stick the nuzzle of my Elantra into one of its four quarters, take a picture and continue down the desert road. The scenery slightly different from the other side of the valley, and the bushes seem familiar – but are they? This state has more scenery changes than a Gaiety pantomime.
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Monument Valley is one of the most familiar landscapes I have ever seen, thanks to John Ford and all those John Wayne movies. Arid makes this place. Heavy rain and all those grandiose buttes would be just a few stumps.
Turn another corner and the red turns into yellow, like you are driving through half dug quarries. I enter Capitol Reef, the quietest of the five National parks in Utah. The air is as clear as I have found anywhere in the lower 48 states. You can see forever.
The energetic Ty Markham hosts me in the restored schoolhouse at Torrie, and regales me with tales of Butch Cassidy’s local connections. She offers a world class guesthouse in one of the most isolated country towns in the USA.
The fifth park, Zion. This time I have more time to spare so I take the short but strenuous hike to Angel’s Landing, 1,400 feet over the canyon floor. It has a precarious finale, involving a climb along the top rocks clutching a chain that they inserted in the rock to prevent tumbles. It is also very crowded, considering the sheer drop to each side. Six people have been killed in falls here since 2004, a sign says near the top. I am determined not to make this seven.
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It has been a lot of driving, over and back and around and back, occasionally retracing my steps. The LDS state who planned this were on LSD when they devised my schedule. My drive back to Salt Lake City takes six hours. I have the energy to go further, up to Idaho and Wyoming and to see the clear blue waters of Bear Lake.
On my last day in Utah, I drove to Antelope Island to take a ride on the back of a horse called Kevin. Apparently he is a movie star, having featured in many Hollywood westerns. Some of the older horses on Ron Browne’s stable feature in the Tom Cruise movie Far and Away.
In this landscape you forgive them anything.
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Eoghan Corry flew to Salt Lake City with Aer Lingus and Jetblue through their shared terminal, terminal 5 at New York JFK. See aerlingsu.com for fares.
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