Editor’s note: Our resident national parks expert takes us to a less traveled one in Utah. For all of Christian’s posts here on The Royal Tour, click here.
When I travel alone, I have a habit of showing up at dusk to a town I’ve only known existed for the last few hours, and parking on the edge of town while I decide which cheap motel I’m going to stay in that night. My visit to Cedar City was no different.
I spent the day exploring Lake Mead National Recreation Area, and timed out my travels to arrive at Cedar City just as the sun was setting.
When I checked in at my budget motel, the Magnuson Hotel, I got checked in by a ten year old boy. Behind the boy, his father stood, helping guide the kid through the transaction. The boy who checked me in was exceedingly polite, and at the end of our transaction he smiled broadly with his father.
I really like family-run hotels, and told the owner as much. “Amir” – I don’t remember his real name – introduced himself to me, and I told him he must be proud of his son, and how he’s managed to turn the hotel around (based on online reviews). Amir and I talked for awhile, and then he called me thirty minutes later to make sure the towels and pillows were fluffy enough.
Not fancy, but it worked for me!
By the time he called me I was already settled in for the night watching Survivorman, drinking a local beer, and writing postcards to friends and family (aka my happy place).
On the morning that I went to Cedar Breaks I got up before the sun, and bought myself a coffee from a local coffee shop. Coffee in hand, I drove my rental car east up through winding mountains; the road was carved into forested hills, stony sandstone walls, snowy meadows, and the occasional frozen waterfall.
A frozen waterfall
I got as far as the Chessman Ridge Overlook, the trailhead of one of the park’s main trails. The trail was frozen over with a crust of slippery November snow, and wasn’t conducive to hiking alone in the predawn light. Even so, looking down on Cedar Breaks from the overlook was an awe-inspiring experience.
In the rich, even light, the overlook offered up a view of a 3 mile wide amphitheatre filled with hoodoos. A hoodoo is a tall, thin spire of rock that protrudes from the earth, and Cedar Breaks is full of them. For those who are familiar, it looks like a smaller version of Bryce Canyon.
What a view!
The Southern Paiute used to call the area “u-map-wich,” roughly translated to “The place where the rocks are sliding down all the time.” Based on the name the Paiute gave this place, it’s reasonable to speculate that the Native Americans understood the formation process. Hoodoos are what remain when the surrounding land erodes, leaving spires of rock behind. Ice, rain, and snow consistently erode the rock. The rain erodes cracks into the stone, and the overnight temperature is below freezing most nights out of the year. As the rainwater freezes in the cracks, it expands, often acting as a geological crowbar.
When settlers came to the region, they misidentified the juniper trees as cedars. They also described the steep eroding landscape as breaks, and thus gave it the misnomer it still carries today – Cedar Breaks.
For me, the most astounding thing about Cedar Breaks isn’t the striking form of the hoodoos. To me, the most astounding thing Cedar Breaks has to offer is a radical juxtaposition. The striated rock ranges in color, and although its elevation is around 10,000 feet, some of the older rocks have oyster and gastropod fossils (yes, the seafaring creatures!). For about 10 million years, the nearby Hurricane faultline has been raising Cedar Breaks (to the faultline’s east) and lowering the nearby town of Cedar City (to the faultline’s west).
At this altitude, standing in marked contrast to the striated rock, there is a subalpine forest. Though I was there in the snow, those who make the trek in mid-July can find meadows abounding with larkspur, lupine, columbine, scarlet paintbrush, and wild rose. There are bristlecone pine trees here that aren’t especially eye catching, but certainly deserve mentioning. The bristlecone pines thrive in the thin soil and windy cliffs, and the National Parks system believes at least one of them is up to 1,600 years old!
Cedar Breaks in just a bit of snow
Standing in the predawn light, as awe-inspiring as Cedar Breaks was, I didn’t stay long. In sub-freezing temperatures, there’s a limit to how much beauty I can soak in. So, while the sun was still rising, I left. After leaving the park I went back to my motel, said good morning to Amir, and enjoyed a continental breakfast of off-brand Cheerios.
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3 thoughts on “Cedar Breaks: Hoodoos, Fossils, and My Favorite Two-Star Motel”
So, is November the best time to go?
From Christian: I would say no. The visitor center was closed and it was really cold! It wasn’t snowing when I was there, but based on all the snow on the ground, it probably does snow at that time of year. That said, it depends on what you’re looking for. If you want a quiet park and don’t mind potential snow it’s great. For me, I prefer dry, warm weather and despise driving in rough weather, so I wouldn’t necessarily recommend November
It depends on your preferences. If you don’t mind the possibility of snow, and you like cold weather and quiet places, then November can be great! The weather happened to be clear for me, but I truly despise driving in snow and definitely would have turned right around had it started snowing. The park is at a pretty high elevation, so it gets pretty cold up there. I would probably recommend late early fall and late spring personally.