“Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.”
— Theodore Roosevelt
Utah is blessed with numerous state and national parks, monuments, forests, and preserves. They’re astonishing — and I spent my recent honeymoon trying to visit them all. My wife and I chose that particular journey not because we thought it was unique, but because we wanted to take advantage of the things that truly make the United States great.
It’s a cliche that all Americans think theirs is the greatest country on earth, but what actually makes a country great? Democracy, a free press, and compassion for the disadvantaged are critical, and so is the land upon which those things are established. Humans tend to see themselves as the center of the universe, but the land is what we come from — it’s what we covet, what we place our borders and laws and dreams upon, and in the end, the land is what remains.
In the case of our Utah trip, we were exploring lands that had been set aside for the citizenry — the glorious landscapes and Native American heritage sites that were protected from development by presidents and politicians who recognized the importance of saving them for we the people to enjoy and learn from. Thanks to their foresight, we finished the trip with a renewed faith in our country and the treasures that make it worth fighting for.
Roosevelt’s warning above remains as relevant as ever, so I hope this modest summary of our adventure helps inspire your own encounter with the world’s natural wonders — in whatever country you may find them.
I get a bit nostalgic when I see an old postcard from some famous landmark in the American West. It makes me think of the 1950s and all the promise and possibility of the new interstate highway system. I imagine happy families in wood-paneled station wagons eating their lunches at roadside picnic tables, or grandparents celebrating retirement by driving around the country with their oldest friends, or young couples with windows down and music loud. Everybody going west. Everybody living the dream.
The reality is rarely that picture-perfect, but as we ventured from park to park in Utah — down ribbon highways surrounded by towers of ancient rocks, past boarded up diners and forgotten roadside wreckage, through endless valleys and along the edges of sky-scraping mountains, the entire cloudless country spread out before us — we felt like we were living somewhere within the fantasy of that fading souvenir.
That sounds melodramatic, but it’s not hard to feel a bit theatrical in this particular part of the world. After all, this is the American West, the one immortalized by Hollywood and idolized everywhere else. You repeatedly pass backdrops you swear you saw in a Western — maybe a John Ford production, or something more recent from Clint Eastwood or the Coen Brothers.
The heroes of those films were morally complicated, and the messiness of their character stood out like blood against the cleanliness of the desert. That juxtaposition is a big reason for the popularity of the genre, and it’s reminiscent of the struggle faced by conservationists: the wilderness is remarkably clean and humans are… less so. The purity and natural order of the wild is constantly rubbing up against the march of human progress. For those engaged in the effort, finding a balance between the two is a perpetual challenge.
During our time in the parks we witnessed an unwavering trust in humanity. You hike the Narrows or Angels Landing in Zion National Park at your own risk, trusted to take the necessary care of both yourself and the sensitive surroundings. At Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park — which is exactly what it sounds like — you’re permitted to sled down or ride off-road vehicles on the Middle Jurassic-era sand dunes. Even on the treacherous switchbacks of the Moki Dugway, where the panoramic Valley of the Gods unfolds as one very epic driving distraction, there are no guardrails — just a warning.
In the backcountry you hike unknown, unaccounted for, and out of cell range. In fact, if you go off trail it’s not inconceivable that you’re the first human to ever step where you’re stepping. That’s an extraordinary opportunity and an awesome responsibility. Freedom and exploration are integral parts of the American experience, which is why preserving these lands for everyone to enjoy is so central to the country’s identity.
There is a specific kind of trip that my wife and I prefer, where we fly to some remote part of the country, rent a car, and then take a long road trip from there. We’ve done it a number of times. Living in New York City, we long for the isolation and self-determination of driving through deserts and forests and past signs that promise the next big town is still a long way off. It’s all a gift, including the increased speed limits. Especially the increased speed limits.
For this trip we drove about 2,000 miles in 10 days. We covered a good deal of the state, from above the Great Salt Lake to down into Arizona, criss-crossing east to west. It sounds like a lot, but we broke our itinerary into manageable bits and made sure to stay on as many scenic routes as possible (like the unforgettable Scenic Byway 12). Never once did we feel like we rushed through an attraction. You could spend weeks in a park like Zion and still not come close to seeing it all, so we made no attempt to. We picked the things we most wanted to see and we went to see them.
In many cases we eschewed the big names for the backcountry. What we might have lost by not seeing every iconic attraction we made up for by not seeing every tourist. We chose hikes that were taxing but not time-consuming. We drank in the beauty of a spot for as long as we wanted, and when we were ready to leave, we left. No regrets, just forward movement. On to the next.
We get asked all the time which part was our favorite, but we saw so many spectacular sights that it’s hard to pick just one. Expectations play such a huge role in how you remember vacations, and it was no different here. Arches and Bryce earned their reputations and their National Park designations, but my strongest memories are from places where we weren’t exactly sure what to expect.
We’ll never forget the fun we had at the enchanting Goblin Valley State Park, which looks like a playground for baby dinosaurs. Or our relief upon reaching Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, a piece of land art in the Great Salt Lake that required one of our more annoyingly circuitous drives to access. It was worth it. Island in the Sky at Canyonlands is a must-see, but the Colorado River overlook at nearby Dead Horse Point State Park might be the most staggering vantage point in the state. And the various Native American cultural heritage sites we encountered, like the Sego Canyon petroglyphs, stared out from the past to remind us how brief our moment is.
But if I had to pick a single highlight it would be the Moon House Cliff Dwellings, a delicate Anasazi ruin in the Bears Ears National Monument. Bears Ears has been in the news lately as a sort of ground zero for the battle between protecting lands and leaving them open to possible economic development. The debate is contentious, but it’s not controversial to acknowledge how special Bears Ears is and how much visitors benefit from what it has to teach us. The past is prologue, and Bears Ears is a goldmine of archaeological and geological history.
Reaching the Moon House requires a slightly harrowing drive (4WD is recommended) and a challenging scramble up and down steep canyon walls. It’s not an easy task, but it pays off. Once you arrive you’re likely to be alone with nothing more than the sound of the wind and the moon-shaped pictographs that give the site its name. This was what we traveled across the country for: solitude, antiquity, communion. I don’t know enough to say if the whole of Bears Ears should be reserved as federal land or not, but I do know that any country worth defending would defend precious sites like Moon House. We’re only as good as the things we care for.
As a rule, we always leave our itinerary as open as possible, leaving ourselves available to last minute changes. That flexibility is how we were able to sneak a stop in Park City at the end of our journey. It wasn’t part of the original plan, but after a week in the wild it was nice to get a small taste of urbanity. Most of us can’t leave a trip totally unplanned, though, so it helps to have some of your hotels booked in advance, especially when they are the type of in-demand accommodations featured on Tablet.
If you’re in southern Utah, you absolutely owe it to yourself to spend at least one night at Amangiri. It’s expensive, but it’s an extraordinary hotel experience that holds its own against even the most spectacular natural attraction. And if you’re in the north, the Washington School House Hotel in Park City is precisely the type of charming little boutique that the world can never have too many of.
We didn’t want this trip to be relaxing. We’d considered more traditional honeymoon destinations — and will surely visit them in the future — but decided instead for something where we could give as much as we took. Nature needs ceaseless advocacy, and visiting the parks is one of the best ways to lend your support.
As we flew home, we felt all at once more full and more insignificant than ever. We explored landforms that were millions of years old and we studied the ancient echoes of past civilizations. It put into perspective the fragility of our own lives and the mere speck we occupy on the arc of the universe. We are so small in the grand scheme of things, yet our collective influence can be so destructively big. The land might outlast us, but in what shape will we leave it? Hemingway wrote, “the world is a fine place and worth fighting for.” Let us never lose sight of that.
Antelope Island State Park
Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park
Dead Horse Point State Park
Escalante Petrified Forest State Park
Kodachrome Basin State Park
Goblin Valley State Park
Goosenecks State Park
All photos by Mark Fedeli and Ellie R. Levine