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Cedar City Utah: the Gateway to the Great Canyons

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

You’ve heard it time and  again. Location, location, location. It’s an old mantra most often used in business but it applies just as well to Cedar City, Utah, and RVers looking to explore the most spectacular canyon complex in the nation, if not the world.

Nestled among the foothills of scenic southwest Utah, this charming little city sits smack on the doorstep of two premier national parks and a pair of national

This collection of sensational sandstone cliffs, canyons, castles and spires is a grand conspiracy of nature. It all began millions of years ago in a volcanic fury, later cooled by ocean waters. Then the landscape was uplifted and shifted about by underground forces until finally settling down to be more softly shaped through recent centuries by the ongoing effects of erosion. We are talking about Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks and equally eye-popping Cedar Breaks National Monument.

Bryce Canyon National Park is best known for its strange and stunning rock castles, spires, and hoodoos formed by the forces of nature.

Bryce Canyon National Park is best known for its strange and stunning rock castles, spires, and hoodoos formed by the forces of nature.

Clearly, this patch of Mother Earth has undergone a fair bit of torture through the ages. However, driving and hiking this vast expanse of rocky wonderland, fringed by forest and desert is actually quite pleasurable.

RVers will find this network of parks and monuments not only inviting and exciting, but surprisingly easy to negotiate. You’ll encounter some tight, twisting turns, especially in Zion, but there’s nothing a rig or combo of 50 feet or less can’t handle.

There is one real pinch-point – a 1920s vintage tunnel – that affects most larger motorhomes entering or exiting Zion’s east entrance on the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway (Route 9). Vehicles at least 11 feet 4 inches tall or 7 feet 10 inches wide require one-lane traffic control through the tunnel. This will add $15 to your $25 park admission fee. Vehicles at least 13 feet 1 inch tall are prohibited. The control fee thoughtfully provides for two passes.

We kicked off our trip in Cedar City and with a population of about 29,000, is more town than city, but is charming, attractive and hospitable. It is home to Southern Utah University (SUU), which adds some zest with the presence of 7,500 matriculating youngsters. Plus, it brings in a number of sports and cultural events benefiting residents and visitors alike. Our June visit happily coincided with several annual summer events and activities that kept us hopping.

Cedar City is known as “Festival City USA,” and is home to one of the nation’s premier Shakespeare Festivals.

Cedar City is known as “Festival City USA,” and is home to one of the nation’s premier Shakespeare Festivals.

The main attraction here is the nationally regarded Utah Shakespeare Festival, staged at an impressive theater complex adjoining the SUU campus. The festival was just getting underway with its 50th anniversary season, featuring an energetic eight-play schedule running from June through October. We attended a hilarious and very well acted rehearsal performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Adams Shakespearean Theatre. Equally entertaining was the so-called Greenshow, which was a bit of Elizabethan fun and frolic that precedes each play and is performed on an outdoor stage on the lawn behind the Globe-like theater. Admission is free to the public, making these Greenshows the best deal in town.

Major sports festival, the Utah Summer Games, was underway as well bringing together 9,600 athletes from every corner of the state to engage in an Olympic-style competition comprised of several dozen events, ranging from archery to weightlifting. As host city of the festival for 27 years, Cedar City is well prepared for the games. University athletic facilities serve as venues for most of the activity with local parks and recreation facilities taking up the slack.

We watched a couple of innings of action at the city’s pro-caliber baseball complex and paused for a while at a soccer match at SUU. We also looked in on the city’s new world-class Aquatic Center, situated in an upscale residential area southwest of downtown known as The Hills. It features a variety of pools, inside and out, for both competition and leisure use.

Ever-popular Ruby's Inn RV Park & Campground, just minutes from Bryce Canyon National Park.

Ever-popular Ruby’s Inn RV Park & Campground, just minutes from Bryce Canyon National Park.

The Games are a big deal here in the “Festival City USA,” swelling the population by a third but we didn’t find it to be all that crowded. We moved about town with ease, checking out the Historic District along Main Street and strolling the leafy SUU campus. The District’s old-fashioned storefronts reflect back on Cedar City’s history, which dates to 1850 when Latter Day Saints (Mormon) leader, Brigham Young, called for volunteers to colonize the area in order to exploit iron deposits nearby. A blast furnace/foundry was established and the place became a beehive of activity.

The beehive, incidentally, is iconic here. You’ll see it everywhere because it was an early Mormon symbol of industry that soon became the centerpiece of the Utah state flag and state seal. So it’s no surprise that Utah is nicknamed The Beehive State.

Touists walk amid the stunning landscape of Bryce Canyon National Park.

Touists walk amid the stunning landscape of Bryce Canyon National Park.

Industrious though it may have been, the colony suffered a downturn in the late 1850s that forced closure of the iron operations. Cedar City survived by turning to agriculture – and eventually to tourism, thanks to its close proximity to the spectacular landscapes embodying the national parks and monument mentioned earlier.

History buffs can learn about the area’s iron mining heritage at the Frontier Homestead State Park Museum, on Main Street near downtown, by viewing a large collection of pioneer artifacts, including a trove of horse-drawn vehicles. Out back there’s an assemblage of historic structures, among them Cedar City’s oldest house. There are similar displays at the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers Museum located in the Iron County Visitor Center, just a few blocks south.

Visiting RVers will find a pair of full-service campgrounds – a KOA and Country Aire RV Park, a Good Sam affiliate, on Main Street a few miles north of downtown. We stumbled across another park tucked behind a Best Western motel just steps from the downtown Historic District called Town & Country RV Park. The park is small with only 10 spaces but is ideally situated next door to the best restaurant in town, the Depot Grill which is housed in a vintage train station.

While we initially came to visit the great canyons, we were pleasantly surprised by all of the things to see and do in Cedar City. Before heading out to the canyons, we encountered yet another annual summer event that we couldn’t pass up, called Groovefest. Lasting for one week, the event at Cedar City Main Street Park celebrates music, art and food. We joined the fun, stuffing our faces with Polish sausage and pizza, and sitting on the lawn for hours watching some pretty darned groovy music.

Kolob Canyons (a section of Zion National Park) remain a little known secret to most who visit southwest Utah.

Kolob Canyons (a section of Zion National Park) remain a little known secret to most who visit southwest Utah.

Our first foray into the wonderlands to the east led us about 15 minutes south of Cedar City on Interstate 15 to Exit 40 for a look at the Kolob Canyons sector of Zion National Park. This is the least visited part of Zion and some say it’s the most spectacular. Kolob Canyon Road twists up the western edge of the massive Colorado Plateau for six miles to Timber Creek Overlook for a breathtaking view of multihued Kolob Terrace. On the way back down we stopped at the Lee Pass viewpoint to stretch our legs on a short hike along La Verkin Creek Trail, which leads seven miles to one of the world’s largest freestanding arches, Kolob Arch.

It was still early morning so we decided to take in Cedar Breaks National Monument and, if we had time, Bryce Canyon as well. Following Route 14 east out of Cedar City, we climbed about 20 miles to Route 148 (the Cedar Breaks Scenic Byway), then headed north five miles to the Cedar Breaks Visitor Center. We learned that the monument is the high point in the region elevation wise and noted as we stopped at several viewpoints along the five-mile route that they all were more than 10,000 feet. We felt as though we were peering down from the heavens as we viewed the striated sandstone walls of the Cedar Breaks amphitheater.

Closed during the winter due to heavy snow accumulation, Cedar Breaks is open early June through mid-October. The monument gets excellent reviews for its fall colors, which suggests that September and October might be an ideal time for a visit.

Brian Head Ski Area offers summer activities, including hiking and mountain biking, near Cedar City, UT.

Brian Head Ski Area offers summer activities, including hiking and mountain biking, near Cedar City, UT.

Continuing north, we wound through a dense forest of spruce and fur for several miles to have a look at Brian Head ski area. Although the area was still fringed with snow, summer activities such as mountain biking, ATVing and scenic lift rides were underway. Brian Head is quite popular with Cedar City skiers for its proximity, pricing and low-key atmosphere.

Backtracking to the junction of Routes 148 and 143, we drove east on the latter (another National Scenic Byway) toward the town of Panguitch destined for Bryce Canyon. Along the way we stopped for lunch at Panguitch Lake, the scene of a first-rate RV resort, Panguitch Lake Adventure Resort. On the way to the restaurant, we passed a string of motorhomes that had great views over the water. At lunch we learned the lake is a nationally acclaimed fishing spot. We watched a couple fish from the shore, hoping they might net a nice one for the camera – but you know how trout are.

Weeping Rock is a popular landmark in Upper Zion Canyon, accessible via the park shuttle or adjacent hiking trail.

Weeping Rock is a popular landmark in Upper Zion Canyon, accessible via the park shuttle or adjacent hiking trail.

Passing through Panguitch, we turned south on U.S. Highway 89, and drove a short distance to Route 12 (yet another National Scenic Byway) leading to Bryce Canyon National Park. The beauty of Bryce is complemented by the towering spires of Red Canyon, which flank the roadway and appear as a welcoming gateway to the national park.

We noticed a flurry of activity as we drove into Bryce Canyon City, a bustling commercial enclave just outside the park entrance. Most of the action centered on Ruby’s Inn, a sprawling motel, restaurant and RV park. Checking out the place, we learned that it’s a local landmark, founded by rancher Reuben (Ruby) Syrett as the Tourist Rest in 1919, just a few years before Bryce Canyon became a national park. Set in a patch of forest, the RV park looks to be tip-top and it is the closest campground to Bryce. There’s a pair of campgrounds inside the park as well.

With 14 viewpoints strategically located along Bryce Canyon’s 18-mile scenic one-way drive, this park is an easy one to visit. It attracts fewer visitors than Zion so it’s generally not that crowded. You can view the very best of the park’s scenery within a five- to six-mile stretch from the entrance, the Bryce Amphitheater Region, that takes in Fairyland, Sunrise, Sunset, Inspiration and Bryce points. There’s ample parking at each viewpoint, or you can park your rig and take advantage of the free shuttle service that makes the rounds daily from 8 a.m. to 7:40 p.m., stopping at each of the Amphitheater viewpoints.

To keep pace with our whirlwind schedule for the day, we elected to drive, stopping at each Amphitheater to enjoy the sights and take photos. These overlooks are well-placed and the perspective from each of them is quite different. The geology at Bryce varies from that of Zion and Cedar Breaks and is noted for its wildly shaped, multicolored limestone hoodoos rising up from the canyon floor. So limestone, more than sandstone, is the star attraction here. You’ll see a mix of white, gray and pink formations that aren’t very common elsewhere in the region.

With the late afternoon light casting a soft glow on the colossal canyon named in the 1870s after pioneer settler Ebenezer Bryce, we settled in for a fine dinner at Bryce Canyon Lodge, relishing the comfy mountain lodge atmosphere of this 1925 landmark. In little more than and hour and a half, and well before dark, we were back in Cedar City (via U.S. 89/Route 14), concluding one of the most incredible days of sightseeing in our mutual memories.

Route 9 is a great way to see the canyons without going far from the RV.

Route 9 is a great way to see the canyons without going far from the RV.

Since we’d explored the attractions along Route 9 during our drive through Zion National Park on the way to Cedar City, we devoted our final morning in Utah to joining a shuttle tour along Zion Canyon Scenic Drive.

When annual visitation at Zion soared to 2.4 million in 1997, the National Park Service introduced the shuttle system to help alleviate parking and traffic problems. With private vehicles banned April through October from entering the seven-mile-long canyon, Zion’s star attraction, the shuttle system serves as a mandatory but highly practical and efficient means of moving large numbers of people in and out of the narrow canyon.

You also can hike or bike into the canyon along Scenic Drive, always on alert for approaching shuttles, or join an organized hike/bike tour. A top local outfitter, Zion Adventures (435-772-1001) leads cycling tours through the Canyon from nearby Springdale. A basic half-day Zion Hike and Bike Tour seems fairly priced at $139 per person.

Piling on a 7 a.m. shuttle at the park’s Visitor Center, we found it to be a convenient and comfortable conveyance, not to mention that it’s free. We took full advantage of it, hopping on and off to hike about some of the key beauty spots – Court of the Patriarchs, Weeping Rock and Temple of Sinawava – rounding out our morning with a quick lunch at Zion Lodge, which nestles about mid-Canyon on the Scenic Drive. It is a 1966 replica of the 1925 original that perished in a fire. Dining before a dazzling redrock view, we once again enjoyed the rustic mountain lodge atmosphere that is so in keeping with the surroundings, plus our salmon burgers were quite good as well. Grabbing a shuttle back to the Visitor Center, we were on our way home shortly after noon.

All in all, Zion’s propane-powered shuttles have proven a nearly perfect solution to a problem that had long plagued the popular park. The system serves as a shining example of excellence from our National Park Service. The Park Service not only keeps 394 National Parks (covering 84 million acres) and 77 National Monuments open every day of the year for all Americans to enjoy, it also serves to protect and preserve our priceless public lands for future generations.

We all should serve up a snappy salute and a hearty thanks to the next park ranger we encounter or perhaps a tip of our imaginary campaign hat – one of those broad-brimmed ones with a nifty four-pinch top – for a job well done.

national parksTravel DestinationsUtah RV Parks

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