I always assumed the Osmond family owned Utah, but it turns out the state mostly belongs to a headliner even better-known for garish pants: Uncle Sam. Roughly two-thirds of Utah is federally held; the state gave up millions of acres more than a century ago in order to join the Union (though it expected eventually to get them back). Just who rightfully owns Utah’s land today is a fiercely debated issue, and it’s easy to see why both sides are so testy. Utah was probably the original inspiration for the word “awesome.”
The Beehive State is big (at 85,000 square miles, it’s America’s 13th largest) and roomy (only 33rd in population). The rugged, mountainous terrain inspired one tourism board slogan: “Utah: Life Elevated.” The Osmonds and millions of similarly devoted citizens inspired another motto you’ll just as often see in local T-shirt shops: “Utah: 73% Mormon, 100% Sexy.” But the main attraction—and what brought our video crew and me to tiny St. George in the state’s southwest corner—is the Big Five. Utah boasts a quintet of huge national parks, each with its own distinct flavor, each unlike almost anyplace else on Earth. It’s my plan to explore every one of them, on-road and off, up close and hands on. To do so, I’ve brought along a rig tailor-made for the job: Toyota’s all-new 2016 Tacoma pickup outfitted by Toyota Racing Development (TRD) in burly Off-Road trim.
First up: Zion, Utah’s oldest national park—established in 1909—and by far its most popular. It doesn’t take long to realize why. The name “Zion” means “heavenly city,” and as I aim the Tacoma into the first few miles of park, it’s like entering a natural cathedral: serrated peaks soaring straight up from the roadside, flying buttresses of red sandstone. I’m pretty sure I hear choir music too. As I park in Zion Canyon, in the distance I can see climbers halfway up a sheer rock face. Then I meet two more about to head up. “We’re gonna camp halfway,” one tells me. “You just secure your tent to the wall, and you’re all set. I sleep great up there.” And I used to worry about falling out of the top bunk.
For my hike into the canyon, I join Jim Frandsen, general manager of Zion Outfitters and a local who knows the park from top to bottom. “This is what we call a ‘weeping wall,’ ” he says as we halt in front of a dribbling rock face. “The water coming out is more than 1,200 years old. It’s absorbed by the porous sandstone above, then very slowly, over centuries, it filters down until it reaches this impermeable layer of shale, which forces the water out sideways.” It occurs to me to hop over for a sip, but who knows who was doing what in that water way back when.
The staggering beauty of Zion set the bar incredibly high … but in many ways Utah just kept getting better and better and better.
The pathway disappears farther on as the canyon walls constrict into the Zion Narrows. From here on, the only route is right through the shallow Virgin River; a walking stick and proper water shoes (equipment that Jim rents) are required. Also essential is keeping a close eye on the weather. Just before my visit, a party of hikers was killed when a flash flood swept through a slot canyon not far from here.
With the afternoon light fading, I have to leave this beauteous walled wonderland to move on to my next park: Bryce Canyon. The tour buses make the trip by highway, but in my extra-capable Tacoma I opt for the far more interesting, unpaved Cottonwood Canyon Road—even though a sign at its entrance warns: “Not currently recommended for travel.” As night falls, I regularly come across large rocks and washed-out stretches of the trail, but they’re no match for the Tacoma’s four-wheel drive and 9.4 inches of ground clearance. Still, it’s a long haul, and with the sun gone, I can’t see more than a few feet off the road. Watch out for deer, watch out for gaps in the trail, but keep up a decent pace. The pizza joint somewhere up ahead is the only eatery in town. And it closes in 45 minutes.
Arriving before dawn at Bryce Canyon National Park, just 50 miles or so northeast of Zion, our team is treated to a sight for the memory books: sunrise over the hoodoos. Tall, rocket-like spires formed by eons of erosion, hoodoos can be found in many other countries. But Bryce has the largest collection of them in the world.
Designated a national park in 1928, Bryce consists of 56 square miles of staggering geology. You can hike it, ride a horse through parts of it, or simply stand at the edge of an 800-foot abyss and drink in the alien world below. Because Bryce is far less visited than Zion, you’re much more likely to have a perch of rock all to yourself.
Call time the next day: 3:30 a.m. Ugh. For more than two hours, our team winds through a tight, twisting two-lane trail in the pitch dark. Sometime during the night, we cross into Capitol Reef National Park. Up, down, over a river wash, past what looks like a bevy of 50 deer just ready to dart out in front of us, and onward we go. Then, as we round a turn, the horizon ahead brightens with a faint whisper of orange. Above it the slenderest crescent of a moon rises. It’s like an old science-fiction painting of a distant planet.
We reach our destination with less than 20 minutes to spare—just enough time to set up our cameras. Standing apart on the sandy desert floor, a massive, sail-like triangle of rock soars before us. It’s flat and featureless in this light, but then, quite suddenly, the dawn breaks over the horizon—and the so-named Temple of the Sun alights in a brilliant orange-red glow. Wow. I turn toward my producer, give him a thumbs-up. The early call was very, very worth it.
Prior to coming here I’d never heard of Capitol Reef. And, in fact, this 100-mile-long, narrow wrinkle of 65-million-year-old ridges and buttes only became a national park in 1971. But let me tell you: The place is epic. Forget the tour buses and crowds at Zion. Out here on these unpaved trails, your only fellow traveler is likely to be a golden eagle or a bighorn sheep. To escape like this, I’d get up at zero dark thirty anytime.
The next day, just outside the lively adventure town of Moab in eastern Utah, I reach Arches National Park. Within its 119 square miles, Arches boasts some of the most bizarre and head-scratching natural formations on the planet. The deeper I get into Arches, the more amazing rock formations I come upon. World-famous Balanced Rock is just that: a huge, 3,500-ton boulder perched impossibly atop a narrow spire. Will it topple over? A smaller boulder next to it did just that in the 1940s. To me, Balanced Rock looks like it’s ready to fall the moment some nearby kid yells too loudly.
After making the steep hike up to Utah’s most famous site, what suddenly appears before me boggles my mind. Yes, I’ve seen the so-called Delicate Arch in pictures, and it’s on Utah license plates too, but nothing can prepare you for seeing this 65-foot-tall petrified doughnut jutting up on the edge of a sandstone bowl with the La Sal Mountains off in the distance. As the sun begins to lower in the afternoon sky, Delicate Arch becomes more and more alive, the sandstone reddening against the blue sky. Utah continues to surprise and amaze me.
As I approach the last destination on my five-park tour, I’m predicting this is going to be a disappointment after everything I’ve seen and done so far. But as I enter Canyonlands National Park in southeastern Utah, not far from Arches and Moab, I begin to think: Maybe I ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Picture the Grand Canyon. Now remove the people, the tour buses, the gift shops, and the sightseer-topped donkeys lumbering down the trail. That’s Canyonlands. Enshrined as a national park in 1964 and encompassing a whopping 527 square miles, Canyonlands is Disneyland for off-road adventurers. Within its borders curl both the Colorado and Green rivers. Huge sandstone mesas overlook winding desert canyons that spill into forever. Signs of civilization? Forget it. In fact, audio studies by the National Park Service suggest Canyonlands is one of the quietest places in North America.
You get out here, spend some time on your own in a landscape utterly unique and inspiring.
The drive in is a doozy. I’m working my way down the White Rim, diving through tight switchbacks that fall at least a thousand feet to the valley floor. Once or twice I pass another 4×4 going in the other direction, but otherwise … nothing. I’ve got Disneyl— er, Canyonlands all to myself.
With the sun diving for the horizon, it’s time to set up tonight’s camp. And here’s a spot right out of a Hollywood movie: an empty plateau—no one around for miles and miles—overlooking a monumental valley, the crescent moon rising in the dusky sky as if to tie up this postcard-perfect view with a shiny bow. The staggering beauty of Zion set the bar incredibly high for the parks to follow, but in many ways Utah just kept getting better and better and better. This nearly private macrocosm called Canyonlands may well be my favorite park of them all. For a guy accustomed to the noise and traffic and crowds of Los Angeles, Canyonlands is the ultimate reboot. You get out here, spend some time on your own in a landscape utterly unique and inspiring, and all that muck from your normal daily grind simply washes away.
Cleaning the muck off the Tacoma is gonna be a lot more work.
2016 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road 4X4 Double Cab Specifications
- On Sale: Now
- Base Price: $34,640
- Engine: 3.5L DOHC 24-valve V-6/278 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 265 lb-ft @ 4,600 rpm
- Transmission: 6-speed automatic
- Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, 4WD truck
- EPA Mileage: 18/23 mpg (city/hwy)
- L x W x H: 212.3 x 74.4 x 70.6 in
- Wheelbase: 127.4 in
- Weight: 4,480 lb
- 8.0 sec (est)
- Top Speed: N/A