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BY PATRICK O’DRISCOLL
National Park Service public affairs specialist
If you like national parks, the July 9-11, 2011, meeting of the Outdoor Writers Association of America will be exquisite torture.
For three days in early July, you will be mostly cooped up indoors, within easy driving distance of more than 20 national parks and monuments.
Fortunately, you can spend the weeks before or after the conference reveling in them. You can hike, camp, explore and — yes, OK, if you insist — report, write and photograph in some of the National Park Service’s most iconic — or unexpected — locales.
Where to go first? To the west lies the desert mystery of the 200,000-square-mile Great Basin. To the south are Utah’s fabled red-rock canyons and all those iconic parks. To the north, Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks beckon, a manageable 4-1/2-to 6-hour drive away.
Since you will fly or drive to the conference via Salt Lake City, any national park itinerary begins in the Utah state capital. The state’s 13 national park units all are within a day’s drive or less. Before you make a Beehive State beeline for the really famous ones, consider three closer by.
Just north of the Great Salt Lake, Golden Spike National Historic Site is a landmark in the settlement of the West. The wideopen emptiness of Promontory Summit awaits, as do exact replicas of the steam locomotives Jupiter and No. 119.
As the raven flies, Timpanogos Cave National Monument is barely seven miles from Snowbird. Lacking your own wings or a helicopter, it is still a quick 25-mile drive down Little Cottonwood Canyon. The cave tour’s cool temperature, a mere 45 degrees inside, is a welcome relief when it’s hot outside.
The third is Dinosaur National Monument, about three hours east by car. The Quarry Visitor Center of this original “Jurassic park,” with its wall of 1,500 exposed fossils, is closed for a $7.9 million reconstruction, reopening in autumn 2011. But the rest of Dinosaur is still a scenic wonder. Its Green River canyons figured in a key 20th-century environmental battle: The decision to dam the Colorado River at Glen Canyon instead of the Green River at Dinosaur’s Echo Park. Heat alert: July high temperatures average 91 degrees but can reach 100.
While we’re on fossils, two other ancient bone yards are close.
Fossil Butte National Monument in southwest Wyoming is about the same distance as Dinosaur — and also is on the way to Grand Teton and Yellowstone.
In southern Idaho, Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument is less than four hours northwest of Salt Lake City. The park visitor center in town also has a historical display for another nearby NPS park, Minidoka Internment National Historic Site.
Meanwhile, if you have never visited the southern Utah canyon parks, the temptation to do so next summer will be overwhelming. One warning: In the height of summer, the heat is, well, high.
Daily peak temperatures in July average 100 degrees at Arches, Canyonlands and Zion national parks. The highs in Capitol Reef National Park are in the 90s and occasionally reach triple digits. The vast Glen Canyon National Recreation Area averages 97 degrees away from Lake Powell, where the surface temperature on the water is 78 degrees. Rainbow Bridge National Monument inside the recreation area, and Natural Bridges National Monument near Canyonlands, also average near 100. So does Hovenweep National Monument, an ancestral Pueblo archaeology site on the Utah-Colorado border.
However, you can scramble to higher, cooler ground in two Utah parks which have the same astonishing variety of bent, folded and eroded landscape. Bryce Canyon National Park visitor center sits at 8,000 feet, with an average temperature of 83 degrees in July. Cedar Breaks National Monument, at more than 10,000 feet, averages the 60s and 70s.
If heat is no object, you know what to do: Enjoy the solitude of some of the most sublime, twisted and colorful terrain on the planet. Hike, pedal, or dip a toe (or more) in the Colorado River, the Virgin River or Lake Powell. Ponder the wonders of the Colorado Plateau from the shade of a gnarled juniper, pinyon pine or cottonwood. As Edward Abbey wrote from Arches, “There are no vacant lots in nature.”
Five hours east of Salt Lake City is Colorado National Monument, which marks its 100th anniversary in 2011. Its 32 square miles of sandstone are a monument to the artistic force of erosion. The park also is a laboratory for the effects that a booming metro area, Grand Junction, can have on its own “backyard” playground.
If you head north to Yellowstone and Grand Teton, consider side trips, coming or going, to two more southern Idaho parks.
Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, about four hours north of Salt Lake City, has 60 lava fields, 25 volcanic cones and more than 300 caves. It also was a classroom for Apollo astronauts on the geology of what awaited them on the moon. City of Rocks National Reserve, near where Utah, Nevada and Idaho meet, is a magnet for rock climbers. For history buffs, there are the ruts of 19th century emigrant wagons and axel-grease graffiti on some rocks.
Lastly, consider a bury-the-lede plug for this author’s favorite of all the 393 parks in the National Park System.
Great Basin National Park is just over Utah’s western border with Nevada, about 4 1/2 hours away. Outside of Alaska, it is probably our nation’s most remote park. The former Lehman Caves National Monument (1922) grew from one square mile to 120 when it became Great Basin National Park in 1986.
What the park has: World-class caverns, sagebrush and pinyon-juniper woods, aspen-lined creeks, some of the darkest night skies in America, ancient bristlecone pines, and the Great Basin’s only glacier. That 3-acre rock glacier sits on 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak, Nevada’s second-highest point. The whole park is above 4,000 feet, with warm but not blistering summers.
What the park does not have: Neon, slot machines, or people. It is our ninth least-visited national park site. ♦