Arches National Park
Visit Arches and discover a landscape of contrasting colors, landforms and textures unlike any other in the world. The park has over 2,000 natural stone arches, in addition to hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins and giant balanced rocks. This red rock wonderland will amaze you with its formations, refresh you with its trails, and inspire you with its sunsets.
Just 5 miles north of Moab on Hwy 191, the park is always packed in summer. Consider a moonlight exploration, when it’s cooler and the rocks feel ghostly. Many arches are easily reached by paved roads and relatively short hiking trails. Highlights include Balanced Rock, the oft-photographed Delicate Arch (best captured in the late afternoon), the spectacularly elongated Landscape Arch, and popular, twice-daily ranger-led trips into the Fiery Furnace, for which reservations are recommended.
As you casually stroll beneath these monuments to nature’s power, listen carefully, especially in winter, and you may hear spontaneous popping noises in distant rocks – the sound of arches forming.
Southeast Utah is part of the Colorado Plateau, a “high desert” region that experiences wide temperature fluctuations, sometimes over 40 degrees in a single day. The temperate (and most popular) seasons are spring (April through May) and fall (mid-September through October), when daytime highs average 60 to 80 F and lows average 30 to 50 F.
Summer temperatures often exceed 100 F, making strenuous exercise difficult. Late summer monsoon season brings violent storm cells which often cause flash floods.
Winters are cold, with highs averaging 30 to 50 F, and lows averaging 0 to 20 F. Though large snowfalls are uncommon (except in nearby mountains), even small amounts of snow or ice can make local trails and roads impassable.
Bryce Canyon National Park
The Grand Staircase, a series of steplike uplifted rock layers stretching north from the Grand Canyon, culminates at this very popular national park. Bryce is full of wondrous pinnacles and points, steeples and spires, and odd formations called ‘hoodoos.’ The ‘canyon’ is actually an amphitheater eroded from the cliffs. During fall rains, the hoodoos peeping out of fog look otherworldly.
From Hwy 12, Hwy 63 heads 4 miles south to Rim Road Dr (8000ft), an 18-mile dead-end road that follows the rim of the canyon, passing the visitor center, lodge, viewpoints (don’t miss Inspiration Point) and trailheads, ending at Rainbow Point at 9115ft elevation. You can whisk in and out in a few hours, but for a richer experience, numerous trails will take you out among the spires and deeper into the heart of the landscape.
From April through October the park’s weather is relatively mild, with pleasant days, cool nights and occasional thunderstorms. Temperatures drop during winter months, with many clear sunny days reflecting off of the deep snowpacks. The park boasts some of the world’s best air quality, offering panoramic views of three states and approaching 200 miles of visibility. This, coupled with the lack of nearby large light sources, creates unparalleled opportunities for stargazing.
Death Valley National Park
In this below-sea-level basin, steady drought and record summer heat make Death Valley a land of extremes. Yet, each extreme has a striking contrast. Towering peaks are frosted with winter snow. Rare rainstorms bring vast fields of wildflowers. Lush oases harbor tiny fish and refuge for wildlife and humans. Despite its morbid name, a great diversity of life survives in Death Valley, partly due to the fact that it’s the largest national park in the continental USA. Covering an enormous area – more than 5000 sq miles – that includes other valleys and mountain ranges to the north.
Created as part of the 1994 California Desert Protection Act, its primary reason for being is conservation, not tourism. Inside this amazing natural playground, you’ll find musical sand dunes, mosaic marbled canyons, boulders that appear to race across the sunbaked desert floor, extinct volcanic craters, palm-shaded oases and dozens of rare wildlife species that exist nowhere else in the world.
The actual valley is about 140 miles north to south and 10 miles to 20 miles wide, with the Panamint Range on its western side and the Amargosa Range on its eastern side. But it’s not a true valley – it’s a basin formed by earthquake fault lines. The valley floor and the mountain range are joined as a single geological structure, which is slowly rotating: as the valley floor continually sinks, runoff from erosion in the encircling mountains fills Death Valley like an hourglass. Around Badwater, the lowest elevation in the continental USA, the sediment layer could be 9000ft deep.
The rock formations you see today were created by geological events that occurred as long as 500 million years ago. Extensive faulting and fracturing allows some of the oldest rocks to be visible on the earth’s surface, when normally they would be hidden deep underground. Limestone and sandstone were formed on an ancient seabed and slowly lifted by movement in the earth’s crust. The rock strata were bent, folded and cracked as converging tectonic plates pushed up mountain ranges. These stresses led to a period of volcanic activity, explosively distributing ash and cinders that provided much of the rich coloring seen in the valley.
Peak tourist season is during the cooler winter months and in spring when the wildflowers blossom, though flash floods are a danger then. Death Valley used to be practically empty in summer, but recently it’s become popular with European travelers who are keen to experience hellaciously hot weather. The highest temperature ever recorded here was 134°F. With a reliable air-conditioned car, a summer trip is possible, but only if you sightsee in the early morning and late evening, spending the hottest part of the day by a pool or at cooler higher elevations. Autumn is quietest.
Grand Canyon National Park
With more than 5 million visitors each year, the Grand Canyon is one of the most popular national parks in the US. It’s also one of the most visually impressive; its sheer size overwhelms, up to 1.6km (1 mile) deep, 29km (18 miles) wide at some points, and 446km (277 miles) long. Most visitors see the canyon from their vehicles by driving along the South Rim; the North Rim is more rugged. It is also possible to go into the canyon by mule, foot, or non-motorised watercraft, and many tour groups offer guided excursions for the fit traveller.
The two rims of the Grand Canyon offer quite different experiences and, as they lie more than 200 miles apart by road, are rarely visited on the same trip. Most visitors choose the South Rim, which boasts easy access, the bulk of services and the panoramic vistas for which the park is famous. The quieter North Rim has its own charms; at 8200ft elevation (1000ft higher than the South Rim), its cooler temperatures support wildflower meadows and tall, thick stands of aspen and spruce. If you want to see the more remote North Rim, visit between late May and early October, before heavy snows close the roads. Most people stick to the more easily accessible South Rim, and they don’t regret it.
In 2007, the Grand Canyon Skywalk debuted on a remote section of the western canyon owned by the Hualapai Nation. A fascinating and controversial addition to the landscape, it’s certain to change the way visitors experience the canyon.
With an elevation spanning from around 2000 feet to over 8000 feet (760-2440m), the Grand Canyon area experiences a variety of weather conditions. This weather variety includes cold winters and mild pleasant summers, moderate humidity, and considerable diurnal temperature changes at the higher elevations, with hot and drier summers at the bottom of the Grand Canyon along with cool damp winters. Summer thunderstorms and winter snowfall adds to the weather variety in this region.
Summer temperatures on the South Rim, at 7000 feet (2135 m), are relatively pleasant with high temperatures generally in the 80s (27-32°C) (with temperatures typically warming to over 100 degrees (>38°C) at the river near Phantom Ranch (2400 feet/762m). North Rim summer high temperatures are typically cooler than the South Rim due to increased elevation (8000 feet/2440 m), with highs typically ranging in the 70s (21-26°C). Overnight lows can still drop near to below freezing occasionally on the North Rim, although typically low temperatures range from the 40s and 50s (4-15°C) at the South Rim to the 60s and 70s (16-26°C) at Phantom Ranch. Summer thunderstorms frequently occur during July, August, and early September with the potential for torrential rains, frequent lightning, and sudden flash floods. These thunderstorms are extremely variable in intensity and location and occur mainly between the hours of 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. Some of these storms can reach severe levels, with large hail, damaging winds, and occasionally even a tornado.
The summer heat gives way to a cooler but nonetheless pleasant fall period with average high temperatures gradually falling from the 60s (16-21°C) in September through the 50s (10-15°C) by November along the Rim, and from the 90s (32-37°C) in September to near 70 (21°C) by November along the river. Low temperatures will typically fall below freezing on the Rim, but still remain in the warm 50s and 60s (10-21°C) along the river. The summer rains typically diminish in mid September with a drier fall period the norm with fewer days of precipitation. However, late summer thunderstorms or early winter snow storms have been known to take place during this transition season, making for sudden changes to the weather.
Winter conditions on the South Rim can be extreme. Be prepared for snow, icy roads and trails, and possible road closures. Winter weather typically begins by November and becomes well entrenched by December and January, with frequent light to moderate snows and increasingly colder weather. Low temperatures are generally in the teens along the Rim; however afternoon high temperatures still average in the 40s (4-9°C), due to the amount of sunshine the area receives. Along the river, cold air typically becomes trapped in the canyon leading to high temperatures only in the 40s and 50s (4-15°C) and low temperatures in the 30s and 40s (-1C-+9°C). Even with all of the winter sunshine, significant snowfall can be expected during the winter with an average snowfall of 50 to over 100 inches (1.3-2.5m) per year on the Rim, and occasionally snow will make it even to the river. Between storms, when dry high pressure builds in, winds become light, and fresh snow cover is on the ground, minimum temperatures can plummet, especially on the Rim, with sub-zero temperatures likely. Snow continues to be possible at the higher elevations through April. During the winter and early spring months, fog occasionally forms due to radiational cooling from snow cover on the ground. However, this fog usually breaks up quickly by morning.
By mid-April, winter weather usually begins to break, and although snow is not uncommon in May, warm spells become more frequent. The winter cold gives way to a warming and pleasant spring period with average high temperatures gradually rising from the 50s and 60s (10-21°C) in April through the 70s to 80s (21-32°C) by June along the Rim, and from the 80s (27-32°C) in April to near 105 (41°C) by June along the river. Low temperatures will typically fall below freezing on the Rim in April and May and warm into the 40s (4-9°C) by June, with low temperatures from the 50s (10-15°C) in April to the 70s (21-26°C) by June along the river. Spring is typically breezy to windy with winds occasionally gusting over 40 mph (18 m/s) and dry with little precipitation occurring in May and early June. Due to the very dry airmass typical of the late spring months, late season frosts and freezes are still a possibility, with sub freezing temperatures being recorded as late as July at the North Rim. Snowfall has been reported as late as the middle of June.