Amidst The Spires And Canyons In Utah

Southern Utah is a kaleidoscope of colours with epic views of iconic red canyons and sandstone spires in a vast, wondrous expanse
Gaze up at massive sandstone cliffs of cream, pink, and red
Gaze up at massive sandstone cliffs of cream, pink, and red Courtesy: Visit Utah

"If Moon and Mars had a baby, it would be White Pocket," says Kieran Corrigan, my guide, as I gaze at the lunar-like landscape that stretches around me. I am standing on massive grey rocks that remind me of a brain diagram. Moving ahead, ribbons of red sandstone mix with the grey to paint swirling waves of orange, pink and rust. I go numb for a minute as I stand in awe of the incredible colours and shapes that seem to belong to another planet.

Corrigan explains how millions of years of geology have created White Pocket, part of the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona, a two-hour drive from Kanab in Utah in the United States. Kanab is a great base for exploring the famed national parks and canyons in the vast sandstone expanse around Utah.

Our guide tells us that what seems like rocks are formations created by Navajo sandstone, known for its red and tan hues. White Pocket is often compared to another sandstone rock formation, The Wave, which shot into fame after Microsoft used it as their Windows 7 desktop wallpaper in 2009. I am content with my encounter with White Pocket as we are the only ones here, and there is nothing between me and a breathtaking slice of nature.

White Pocket in Vermilion Cliffs National Monument  has a lunar-like landscape
White Pocket in Vermilion Cliffs National Monument has a lunar-like landscapeCourtesy: Visit Utah

It is also a delight for photographers. My guide makes me lie down on a rock and takes a picture of me that makes it seem like I am falling off the cliff—it is a point for trick photography.

Mesmerised by the experience, I drive back to Kanab, which has already revealed some of the visual spectacles around it.

The Magic Of Slot Canyons

The charm of Kanab in southern Utah lies in its size. It has a population of 5,000, two traffic lights and two supermarkets. It's also known as "Little Hollywood" because its setting amid dramatic red cliffs became the backdrop for many movies in the 1920s. They are all around—I can see the play of colours from my hotel. The best part of visiting southern Utah in winter is having the place to yourself—the kaleidoscope of colours and epic views are surreal.

Bryce Canyon National Park is a great place for views of both sunrise and sunset
Bryce Canyon National Park is a great place for views of both sunrise and sunsetCourtesy: Visit Utah

Slot canyons are narrow rocks and gorges that have been weathered by water over millions of years, and Utah has the most in the world. A thrilling 20-minute ATV ride over sandy terrain brings us to Peek-a-Boo Canyon. This stunning, twisting canyon is a 1.1 km walk, which widens at some points and becomes narrow at others. I slowly go through it, brushing against the red-hued Navajo sandstone walls. At one point, I could just see a sliver of sky peeping through the giant rocks – the contrast of red rocks and deep blue sky was unforgettable. It ends at a point which is so narrow that I can prop my legs between the two walls for pictures.

Before visiting Peek-a-Boo, I venture to the Great Chamber—a massive dome-like rock formation with a tall, imposing dune inside. Also called Cutler Point, this, along with Peek-a-Boo, is part of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. Reaching here is tricky because it requires off-roading, so a guided tour is necessary. After parking the car, the uphill trek on the sand to the cove involves effort, but it's worth every sinking step. We climb the dune and pose happily for pictures. It's one of the biggest sand coves in North America.

While returning to Kanab, I drove the ATV for a while, a novel experience because I hadn't been behind a left-wheel vehicle before.

In Kanab, one can explore 
the national parks and canyons of southern Utah
In Kanab, one can explore the national parks and canyons of southern UtahCourtesy: Visit Utah

Nature's Grand Amphitheatre

Then, it's time for yet another adventure—the Bryce Canyon National Park. We were told it would be freezing since it was around 9,000 feet above sea level. I don several layers and reach the most popular spot here, the Bryce Amphitheater. It seems as if nature is putting on a magnificent show for me—thousands of thin red, pink and orange sandstone spires in different shapes and sizes dusted with snow jut into the sky. It's a sublime sight. Known as hoodoos, millions of years of geology at play with wind and water erosion, thawing, and freezing have created these gorgeous, slim, tall structures. Many of these hoodoos have a cap, which is the top layer of hard rock and soft rock beneath, which is more susceptible to erosion. Bryce Canyon boasts the largest number of hoodoos in the world.

Out of the multiple trekking options, we choose an easy 1.4 km narrow hike named Queen's Garden Trail that goes inside the Amphitheatre. Initially, it's all downhill, so it is an easy path across the pinnacles and spires whose odd shapes have earned them names like Gulliver's Castle, Queen's Castle and more. The trail ends where a hoodoo is named after Queen Victoria. Walking uphill is more strenuous, but I manage it quite well.

Peek-a-Boo Canyon is a gorgeous slot canyon
Peek-a-Boo Canyon is a gorgeous slot canyonCourtesy: Visit Utah

I leave the national park for lunch and return at sunset to watch the incredible drama of the hoodoos and the sky's changing colour. I watch the scene go from pink to orange and purple for the next hour. I wonder if nature can get any better.

Treading Water

My trip to Utah is about more than just canyons; at Springdale, a small town that serves as the base for Zion National Park, one of North America's most popular national parks for hikes and treks, I also experience the river. As shade and sun play hide and seek, I walk for about 15 minutes along the river before gingerly stepping into the water. I can see icicles on the cliffs, a clear giveaway that it will be cold. I step into the river, and within seconds, ice-cold water seeps into my shoes, wetting my toes and freezing my brain.

ATV ride is an exciting experience
ATV ride is an exciting experienceCourtesy: Visit Utah

I am told that the water will come up to the chest as we move on, but I never reach that point. I misjudge my step and slip into the water. I struggle to haul myself up but somehow manage to slide against a rock and stand up.

Thankfully, I am not soaking wet due to the overalls and am ready to move ahead, but the group decides to turn back. I feel my toes and fingers again when I am in the sun later. I may have slipped, but I feel triumphant at having ventured into the river and vow to give it another go sometime.

The next day, I head out for the Canyon Overlook Trail, the shortest hike in the park and an easy one at an elevation of just 160 feet. There are railings in some parts, but at times, the path carved out of a giant sandstone wall gets narrow with a sheer drop on the other side, so I tread carefully.

The one point I'll never forget is the jaw-droppingly gorgeous open cave where the roof is so low at places that I could easily touch it. That is not the end of the scenic play. The trek culminates at a point from where a bird's-eye view of the soaring red cliffs of Zion Canyon and Pine Creek Canyon gives me goosebumps as I gaze at the vast panoramic sweep of Utah's awe-inspiring landscape.

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