Utah History

THE MIGHTY 5

Southern Utah is home to some of the most spectacular geologic features on earth. Some of the best of the best among those features are the five national parks dubbed “The Mighty 5”: Bryce, Zion, Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands. Each and everyone one of those units was recognized as having values so important to our society that they should be preserved and protected in perpetuity for the enjoyment of the people. Congress did so by designating each a national park.

Bryce Canyon National Park rises to an elevation of 9,100 feet above sea level and is found at the southern end of a large plateau. You will not see a canyon, but an abrupt erosion of the east side of the plateau exposing the brilliant Pink Cliffs geologic layer. Sunrise and sunsets from the commanding vistas presented in the park are world renowned and are a Mecca for photographers. The eroded geologic features are as countless as the images they invoke in one’s mind. Be they caricatures of birds, animals, mystic creatures of the ancient peoples or something not from this earth, it can probably be visualized in the colorful eroded landscape of Bryce Canyon.

South and west of Bryce Canyon, is Zion National Park and its awe inspiring half-mile wide by seven mile long Zion Canyon, described by some as a Yosemite Valley with color. Navajo sandstone cliffs rise 2,500 feet above the North Fork of the Virgin River that cut the canyon as easily in geologic time as a knife goes through butter. And what a neck-craning canyon it is. During heavy rain events, multitudes of waterfalls cascading over 2,000 feet can be seen that make the canyon experience even more dramatic and dynamic than it is when dry. The Virgin River makes Zion Canyon an oasis in the desert. Mule deer, desert bighorn sheep, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, and cougars, along with multitudes of smaller mammals roam the canyon environs. Peregrine falcons, golden eagles, several owls species, and dozens of other bird species are found in the multitude of canyons within the park, and the adjacent plateau country.

There is, in the south-central part of the State, a 100 mile long geologic obstacle running north and south named the Waterpocket Fold, part of Capitol Reef National Parks. It is of such magnitude that it can be seen from space. The innumerable pockets and depressions eroded into the sandstone layers captures and holds water in the fold which provides the namesake. The early Utah pioneers travel found it to be a dominant barrier to their movements west to east, or vice versus, thus the reference to it being a reef. They found only three breaks in the reef in which they could cross. The major crossing of the reef is the canyon cut by the Fremont River flowing west to east. That corridor now holds Utah Highway 25 which provides access to the park headquarters complex, an area surrounded by towering Navajo Sandstone monoliths reminiscent of capitol building domes. Pioneers who settled in the canyon found fertile soil and abundant water to grow crops, especially fruit trees. Historic orchards still produce fruit that is available to the public at harvest time.

Due east of Capitol Reef National Park one will find both Arches and Canyon lands National Parks. Situated within a few miles of each other along the Colorado River, the two parks are similar in geologic form, yet entirely distinct in their own right.

Arches National Park was set aside for protection of its staggering number of natural arches as a national monument by President Herbert Hoover, via presidential proclamation, on April 12, 1929. In 1971, Congress changed the monument status to a national park. More than 2,000 arches have been cataloged to date. There may be more to be found! The arches are found in the Entrada Sandstone layer. Water, wind, and gravity combine to dissolve, grind and collapse the rock, essentially sculpting the arches from standing fins of geologic form. Although it is the geology that draws visitors to the park, the high desert environment is home to many species of wildlife, both big and small, mammals and reptiles, birds and insects. Sometimes the greatest photo found at the end of one’s visit is one that does not depict an arch.

Twenty miles downstream on the Colorado River from Arches National Park is Canyonlands National Park. Established by Congress in 1964, it was enlarged to its current size of 337,000 acres in 1971. The Park is trisected into three very distinct geologic units by the Colorado and Green Rivers which merge close to the center of the park. Captured between the two rivers is the large plateau call the Island in the Sky District. It looks down, from its elevation of over 6,000 feet above sea level, onto the Needles District east of the Colorado River and the Maze District west of the Green River; both average an elevation above sea level of 4,000 feet. The three units are isolated from each other by the two rivers. Road access from one unit to another may take several hours, to the better part of a day drive. Many of the land marks along the Green and Colorado Rivers, were named by John Wesley Powell during his historic 1869 river expedition from Green River, Wyoming to current day Las Vegas. The park is home to the largest concentration of desert bighorn sheep in the state of Utah, with a population estimate of 400 plus animals. Canyonlands is a Mecca for outdoor recreation. It offers opportunity for flat and white water river running, mountain biking, rock climbing, backpacking, hiking, ’jeeping’, and wildlife viewing, among others.

The “Mighty 5” are most notable for their stunning geologic presentations, but each offer a history of man in the country as well. That pre-history can be found in the rock art, cliff dwellings, and artifacts that permeate the southern Utah landscape, parks included. Early explorers, pioneers, and settlers left their mark on the land as well, as can be found in the rock ‘art’ inscriptions, cleared and cultivated lands, structures, and implements of the age left behind. The “Mighty 5” national parks are an integral and invaluable part of the mighty spectacular southern part of Utah, USA.

~ Larry Van Slyke