Exploring Utah's 5 National Parks

The mountains of Capitol Reef were carved by the greatest sculptors of all: water and time. Photo by Alison Travis.

Sometimes I fall into the fallacy of thinking the earth is a static thing being acted upon, and I forget that it is changing on its own all the time. In November 2017, I spent a week driving through Utah's amazing National Parks, dubbed the "Mighty Five."

I was first confronted by the impossibly-textured cliffs of Capitol Reef National Park, formed by millions of years of weathering and erosion. There was such beauty and complexity in the depths, shadows, and colors all painted by time running its course. Mother Nature reminded me that she is a true artist and that our planet is still a work in progress.

Hiking down into this amphitheater in Bryce Canyon was exhilarating. Photo by Ben Travis.

Bryce Canyon National Park offers vast vistas that in some ways felt like a smaller Grand Canyon. I don't mean to compare the two parks; however, once you start working on a certain scale, you just feel tiny in comparison. Bryce Canyon's elevation reaches 9000 feet, so it is colder than the other parks, which contributes to the most striking geographical features: hoodoos. They are teetering pillars naturally carved out of solid walls of rock. Acidic rain seeps in and dissolves the limestone, then freezes and cracks the wall apart into spires over time.

In Zion National Park, instead of viewing towering walls of layered rock at a distance, they rise up to surround you. Each layer is a snapshot in time of the conditions and location of the land when it was formed, encased like the geologic equivalent of a fossil.


La Sal mountains behind arches in Arches National Park. Photo by Alison Travis.

Speaking of fossils, dinosaurs were on our mind while surveying the red landscapes of Canyonlands National Park. Much of Utah is a treasure trove for paleontologists with active dig sites scattered across the state. It’s exciting for me and my students, to know that below our feet are ancient beasts waiting to be discovered.

Finally, Arches National Park is known for--what else--its iconic rock arches. These have been formed through a careful combination of sandstone, precipitation, underground salt, plate tectonics (no earthquakes here), and luck. Luck because these arches were not yet formed million years ago, and they may be gone in less time - but we get to marvel at them right now. Three large slabs broke off of the thin Landscape Arch in the 1990s; I wonder if it will collapse completely in my lifetime.

I consider Landscape Arch more delicate than Delicate Arch, which graces Utah license plates. Photo by Ben Travis.

This trip reminded me that water, second only to time, is one of nature's most powerful forces. I thought a lot about how different this state must have looked millenia ago, and what it could be like generations from now. We know that human behavior is accelerating natural phenomena and causing new, yet-to-be seen shifts across the globe. During our geology unit, I try to communicate to my students how the earth has changed over time, although it can be difficult for 6 year-olds (and adults) to comprehend billions of years. But equally important to discussing natural weathering is to talk about how it is being changed by us and how our actions have effects. I will use my role to help let them marvel at the mysteries of water and time, and desire to preserve balance on our planet.

Source: National Parks Service