My friend and I had signed up for the "The Other Half - Moab Half Marathon" several months ago, without making many plans for what the rest of the weekend would hold. She had recruited a few other friends to join in the endeavor, which turned the half-marathon weekend into quite the exploration of Utah's incredible landscape.
While the rest of the race-day crew drove out, I had to fly (due to personal time limitations). I was to meet them in Zion National Park.
The drive from Salt Lake City (the airport I flew into), although long, was hardly a burden given the stunning landscape traversed to get there. It was a challenge not to pull over every 15 minutes to take a photo. The fall light made everything glow, caused all the colors to pop. Forests, grasslands, sporadic aspen stands in the process of dressing themselves in their golden finery - it was rather grand.
As you get closer to Zion the landscape becomes more desert-like with incredible rock formations. Sedimentation visible everywhere and the red is so red you feel you might have departed earth some time ago and gone onto Mars.
The group I was meeting had arrived at the park earlier that day (Friday) and was doing the Narrows. So I asked the ranger at the park pay station what day hike she'd recommend.
The Watchman Trail is a easily accomplished in 2 hours (more likely 1.5 hours or less really) and you can start straight from the visitor center (signs to the trail are easy to follow without a map). It is only 2 miles round trip, and the way up is mostly incline : short switchbacks and stairs. Although not too rigorous, you'll still find yourself pleasantly breathing a bit harder.
It was a bit overcast the day I hiked it, but the site of the canyon and panoramic views from the top of the trail were still spectacular.
After I met up with the rest of the group, we set off to find a camping site. The Zion National Park camping sights were all full, so we camped on BLM land (free!) instead. Apparently this was "the spot" as we had several neighbors.
The next morning (Saturday) my friend and I parted ways from the rest of the group for the day (who was headed back to Zion for a hike) to go to Arches National Park (about 4-5 hours from Zion depending on how fast you drive).
Again it was overcast, but the reds of the rock were still so hue-intense it was hard to believe they weren't colored artificially. We drove around and did short hikes (hardly 'hikes' really, but nice walks around the rock structures). You truly feel you are on an alien planet due to the strangeness of the architecture.
To me the most impressive thing is that the arches are so delicate, held so precariously in balance, and were created to be such all by natural forces (wind, rain, natural erosion, the type of rock they are made from, etc.). It is a sort of engineering genius as all the arches over on the cusp of self-destruction : their inevitable conclusion one day in the future.
Our last stop in the park for the day was Delicate Arch and when we realized that we might miss the sunset, my friend suggested we run up...which we did. And good thing too because we only just made it.
I couldn't think of a better way to see Delicate Arch nor a better way to end the day.
The Other Half - Moab Half Marathon is one of the best organized races I've participated in. We had shuttle buses that took us out to the start from a hotel near our own that left around 0645. It was about a 45 minute drive to start line, and we arrived just after the sun rose. They had fire pits all around for racers to stay warm while waiting to start the run and the started promptly at 0830.
The course is gorgeous. Much of it is run along the Colorado River shaded by the high canyon walls surrounding. You feel as if you are running through an old western movie: flat desert land to your immediate right and left, but impressive mesa-top rock formations in the distance and on the far horizon are mountains, blue with distance. If I would have had a camera, I would have been hard pressed not to stop several times to take a picture, but it was good I did not - sometimes even the addicted-to-documenting (*cough) among us simply need to be in a place.
The course is pretty forgiving, mostly flat but with some steady hills of a not-unnoticeable grade. At the end you get a medal (to go with your long sleeve race shirt - complete with thumb holes - that you got at the expo the day before), a beer class (which you can get up to 3 free beers with), and watermelon (among other post-race food they provide).
After catching the bus back to the area near our hotel, my friend and I again parted ways with the group (who were staying in Moab to do some swimming) to go to Canyonlands National Park.
We had pretty low expectation of the park, neither of us having heard much about it previous, but once we got there we were rather blown away. It is certainly an undersold park, but you certainly should not pass it up.
It's been a long while since I've been to the Grand Canyon, but I think Canyonlands is a good rival for breathtaking views.
After a too-short hour in the park, we had to leave and drive back to Salt Lake City as I had a flight that night to catch.
Conclusion - Utah is an incredible place to visit, and a repository of red rock riches, and an excellent place to explore.