Utah during the US Government Shutdown

Travelling through Utah during the US Government Shutdown (with a side-swipe at American Politics)

We awoke in Las Vegas to the news that the Government had shut its National Parks, due to petty political wrangling over their budget. Further, the dogmatic rhetoric being traded by both Republicans and Democrats suggested that a solution wasn’t imminent. This was, potentially, a trip-destroying action, for we were to drive from Las Vegas to Salt Lake City, and were to spend the majority of the time visiting Utah’s five big tourist attractions, the National Parks of Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches and Canyonlands. We included a side trip from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon and its famous “skywalk”, a glass walkway which extends 20 metres out into the Grand Canyon itself and offers unique views over and into the Canyon.

Grand Canyon Sky WalkThe first action then was to re-confirm the trip out to the Grand Canyon West, or, more precisely, check to see if it was still on! Luckily, unlike the National Parkland of Grand Canyon North and South Rims, the West Rim – and Skywalk – is owned by the Hualapai Indian Tribe and the Indian Tribes, it transpired, had more sense than the National Government and weren’t about to cut off lucrative revenue streams in a bid to “save money”!

Having established this, then, we had discovered the first way to beat the shutdown:

Beat the Shutdown Tip 1: visit Indian Tribal Lands

This came in useful later on, when we visited Navajo Tribal Lands to walk through Antelope Canyon. Just over the state border, in Arizona, Antelope Canyon is the most visited slot canyon in the USA. The Upper canyon is approx 250 metres long and is only six to eight feet wide. Its sandstone sides have been carved, curved, shaped and smoothed by flash floods.

Utah Horseshoe BendDuring the summer months, when the sun is directly overhead, shafts of sunlight beam through and illuminate parts of the walls and floor. It’s a photographer’s delight and can only be visited with a Navajo guide. On the same day we visited Horseshoe Bend, where the Colorado River bends 270 degrees through the sheer cliffs and the Glen Canyon dam.

On Day 3 we were to leave Las Vegas and begin the Utah journey. The intention had been to make our first foray into a National Park at the Kolob Canyons section of Zion, on the way up to our first week’s accommodation in Duck Creek Village, equidistant from both Zion and Bryce and chosen specifically for us to visit both those parks and also Cedar Breaks National Monument (also closed!).

It was time to get out the maps, guide books and access the internet in order to find an alternative. This led to the second way to beat the shutdown:

Beat the Shutdown Tip 2: Visit State Parks

The State parks, being financed by the individual states, were still open. They are smaller than the Nationals but still magnificently scenic. One Utah resident told us,
“Our state parks are so good, they would be classed as National Parks in any other state.”

On the way north, we visited Snow Canyon State park. For a ridiculously small entrance fee of $6 – that’s $6 for a car of four – we were given a trail leaflet showing short trails to slot canyons, huge petrified sand dunes and volcanic lava fields.

Utah Goblin ValleyLater on in the trip we used this tip to great advantage, visiting Kodachrome Basin, Coral Pink Sand Dunes, Escalante Petrified Forest, Goblin Valley and Dead Horse Point State Parks. All could be accessed for similarly small fees ranging from $6 to $10 per vehicle and this included parking! (Where in England can you park for less than £4 a day and spend the day in a scenic wonderland?)

In the course of hiking in Snow Canyon, we came across a group of four American citizens who were doing the same and, as hikers do, engaged in conversation. On discovering that we were British and had intended to visit the big National Parks, they uttered what was to become a universally familiar response. “I can only apologise for the actions of our Government. They’re an embarrassment.”

But they then went on to give us what was to become:

Beat the Shutdown Tip 3: Talk to other travellers

This lady told us that, although Cedar Breaks National Monument was closed, the road past it was not. And from the road and its parking areas it was possible to see the colourful canyons, mesas and hoodoos. Furthermore that this was one of many “scenic byways” in Utah and that the Aspens were looking lovely in their gold and yellow fall colours.

On Day 4 we took this advice and found the first of many wonderful drives with scenic overlooks and short hikes. Later on, we visited the Cedar Breaks overlooks to witness our first sunset of the trip, where the sandstone glows crimson and the sun picks out those rocks, which are of a slightly different hue.

The following day we decided to visit Kodachrome Basin State Park, just past the entrance to Bryce Canyon. The road there takes route 12, a scenic byway, and one we were later to learn had been voted the second best scenic road in the world. (Apparently the number one is in New Zealand, but that’s for another trip.) As we drove towards Highway 12, the roadside sign read “Welcome to Garfield County. Get your cameras ready”.

So, in an instant, we had discovered…

Beat the Shutdown Tip 4: It’s just Utah

The camera advice is well heeded. Within a couple of miles on scenic Highway 12 we had ground to a halt. Not because of traffic, which was invariably thin. Allied to long straight roads and unimaginable scenery, driving in Utah is a joy. We had ground to a halt because every mile or so there is a “scenic overlook”, and a hiking trail enabling us to get amongst the curiously eroded cliffs of “Red Canyon”, so named because it is – well – red! And, in the sunset, redder than red!

Utah Red CanyonThis was the first of many places where we had to resort to the maps and guidebooks to see if we were in a National Park or National Monument by mistake, or had strayed into a state park but in fact found that it was none of these. It was “just Utah”.

Continuing along Highway 12 we passed the entrance road to Bryce Canyon and wondered, not for the last time, if the State Parks, Indian lands and scenic byways are this good, what are we missing?

A little further, as Highway 12 weaved through red and white canyons and rock formations, we came across a small parking area by the roadside, already containing three or four cars. As we joined them there was a rope barrier across the entrance to a short canyon hike, to “Mossy Falls”. Attached to the rope was a sign…

“This area is closed due to the Federal shutdown. Failure to comply with this instruction can lead to 6 months imprisonment or a fine!”

Beat the Shutdown Tip 5: Ignore the shutdown!

So we clambered through the ropes and walked to Mossy Falls anyway. As the other motorists followed we had several passing discussions – what law was it we were breaking? The “You can’t walk here today” Act, maybe?!

A few days later we had cause to break the law again. During a trip to the Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, another traveller told us that the road through Zion National Park was open, that you aren’t allowed to stop but that those park rangers who had been retained were taking a lenient view.

To drive Highway 9, which runs through Zion, usually means a charge of $25 per car. A Ranger at the gate said that there was no charge during the shutdown but that to stop could result in a traffic violation ticket. This road twists and turns for 16 miles, through hairpin bends, travels through a long tunnel and gradually descends into the Zion valley, emerging at the small town of Springdale, where there are restaurants, hotels, shops and travel companies, all solely serving the visitors to Zion.

Utah rock formationsAlong the 16 miles there are numerous pull-ins and car parking areas so that visitors could alight and gaze in wonder at the soaring cliffs, valleys, canyons and mesas of Southern Zion. Many of the pull-ins were roped off with the standard sign predicting grave consequences for those who ignored them. But some pull- ins were not and, once parked, there is no possibility of causing a traffic obstruction.
Again ,we wondered, what law could possibly be broken? The “You can’t park in an area designated for parking” Act, this time?

Needless to say, those visitors who had ignored the shutdown and had travelled to see what they could were also ignoring the signs.

At this point I was beginning to wonder at the sanity of the Government in “The Land of the Free”, Political talk was of the Senate passing an Act to ensure that those Federal employees “furloughed” by the shutdown would be given back pay. So this would mean that the same costs were incurred but that the revenue of park entrance fees would be lost. In the meantime those aforementioned businesses dependant upon tourism were suffering in their busiest period; one referred to October as “our Christmas”. Was this fiscal responsibility? I didn’t think so!

By now we were leaving South Western Utah and heading towards the National Parks of Canyonlands and Arches, armed with a variety of tips to ensure a fantastic trip regardless of the mean and petty-minded Government actions, along Highway 12 which stretched on over 200 miles of scenic beauty and we had been travelling for 11 days since leaving Las Vegas.

Suddenly there was a breakthrough. The state Governor had realised that businesses were losing money (11 days to realise the obvious – oh dear, what a country!) and had brokered a deal to temporarily finance the National Parks using State funds.

So, as we entered the small town of Moab and slightly cheating on my definition of “beating the shutdown”:

Beat the Shutdown Tip 6: Outlast the Government

Canyonlands and Arches were open and we were able to see what the National Parks are all about. We visited the much–photographed “Delicate Arch” at sunset and Dead Horse Point at sunrise. We hiked the rim of Canyonlands “Island in the Sky” and trekked six miles through the pinnacles and mushroom-shaped rocks of the Needles district. We walked six miles to the end of “Negro Bill Canyon” and back (“just Utah” by the way). We went fine dining at the Café Diablo in Torrey and the Desert Bistro in Moab. In short, we were finally able to do what we had set out to do.

We had journeyed through Utah with the intention of visiting the National Parks and had barely been able to see three of them. But we had a wonderful journey anyway and reached the conclusion that, had the Nationals been open, we would probably not have seen Antelope Canyon, Dead Horse Point, Goblin Valley and many others. And, most likely, would have considered Utah “done”.

This way, a return journey is now inevitable. What a hardship that will be, to see Utah twice!

Postscript: The day we arrived in Las Vegas, the shutdown commenced. The day we flew home from Salt Lake City, a political solution was reached and all National parks in the USA were re-opened. A masterful piece of timing!

© 2013 All images are the copyright of the author of the article, Ken Langley