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The Grand Canyon is widely regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World. Yet the geology of this extraordinary region has also carved out lesser-known natural sights in the vicinity that are just as impressive. Ute Junker explores the dramatic and mystical landscapes of the grander canyons of Arizona and Utah.
There aren’t many places in the world where you can feel thousand-year-old rainwater on your face, but the Weeping Wall at Zion Canyon in Utah is one of them. Every time rain falls, it pools on top of this high sandstone cliff, permeating slowly through the stone until it hits a layer of non-porous rock. Scientists say this process takes around 1,200 years. With no other way to escape, the water is finally pushed out through the rock face. Delighted visitors are showered with an endless spray of ancient droplets.
The Weeping Wall is just one of the wonders of the south-western USA. Few regions of the world offer as many epic landscapes. The land is shaped by a series of dramatic geological events and resembles a playground of the giants. It’s scattered with monuments of a scale and grandeur that leave mere humans feeling awed and insignificant.
The best known is, of course, the Grand Canyon, a gash in the ground that amazes by its sheer size — 445km long and 1.5km deep. It is the area’s biggest attraction, drawing vast numbers of visitors: the size of the car parks alone is impressive. However, not too far away are equally startling natural wonders that attract far fewer visitors. Add some of these gems to your itinerary, and be amazed once more by the power of nature.
The cliffs and canyons of Zion National Park
Zion National Park is a good place to start, with its soaring red rocks and hanging gardens, as well as the Weeping Wall. The park’s defining feature is Zion Canyon, a 24-km-long cleft that’s up to 800 metres deep in places. The Virgin River runs through the canyon, its tranquil surface belying the power, which, over thousands of years, has been responsible for carving it out. The river’s steep path drops more than 20 metres for every 1.5km it travels; a cascade that sends up to 300,000 tonnes of water per second gushing along, eroding the stone it passes through.
This erosion exposes the various layers of stone that have accrued over millennia; reading the layers is like taking a trip back in time. At the top is the white Navajo sandstone; far beneath are older, darker layers of Kayenta mudstone, some of which still contain dinosaur tracks.
The park has many hiking trails. The Kayenta Trail offers some of the best views in the park, looking over the sheer canyon walls and across the lazy curves of the river. The memorable walk to The Narrows takes you along the riverbed itself; be prepared to get wet and wear sturdy shoes, as the underwater rocks can be slippery. An easier option is the 3.5km loop of the Riverside Walk.
Hoodoos and views aplenty in Bryce Canyon National Park
Even more enticing than Zion is Bryce Canyon National Park, a surreal landscape that could have been lifted from a Dr Seuss book. The canyon is actually a natural amphitheatre filled with hoodoos, skinny pinnacles that come in a bewildering array of shades, from yellow to pink to purple and brown. Thousands of these hoodoos stretch up to 45 metres high — the same height as a 10-storey building.
Most visitors take in this startling sight from the Rim Trail, a paved pathway that skirts the top of the canyon, with a number of scenic lookouts. A shuttle bus runs between the lookouts, so you can hop aboard whenever you tire of walking. The canyon is at its most impressive at sunrise and sunset, when the hoodoos seem to glow from within.
To really appreciate these other-worldly sights, however, you need to get among them. The hike down into Bryce Canyon puts you up close and personal with these remarkable formations. Along the way you pass strangely twisted rock formations and stands of Ponderosa pines, a startling green against the red backdrop. Although the path descends 900 metres, the incline is gradual, and most moderately fit people will complete the hike in around two to three hours.
Small is beautiful
Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park are in the State of Utah and within easy reach of each other. Over the border in Arizona lies a lesser-known gem that is well worth the half-day drive. Close to Lake Powell — an astonishing man-made lake that stretches for 3,000km — is Antelope Canyon, a tiny but utterly breathtaking slot canyon. Slot canyons are crevices, much deeper than they are wide. Follow the narrow path through the canyon walls, which soar above your head in strange patterns that glow like alabaster. Carved by wind and water, the curvaceous forms make you feel like you are standing within an ornate stone sculpture.
Antelope Canyon is on Navajo land, and the only way to visit is on a guided tour. However, this treasure should be considered an essential stop, if only to prove that amid some of the mightiest sights in the United States, bigger is not always better.