Utah's entry into the state-parks program was slow. In fact, Utah is said to be the last state to have recreational land falling under state control.

During the first three decades of the 20th century, Utah's natural wonders became recognized on a national level as parks or monuments. Zion became a national park in 1916, then Rainbow Bridge in 1910; Dinosaur in 1915; Hovenweep and Timpanogos Cave in 1923; Bryce Canyon in 1928; Arches in 1929; Cedar Breaks in 1933; and Capitol Reef in 1937.

There were other sites, equally as spectacular, that had not yet been preserved.

The decision was made to develop state parks in the 1950s, and in 1957 the Utah State Parks and Recreation Commission was established and immediately took under its control three sites — Wasatch Mountain, the Territorial Statehouse and This Is the Place Monument.

Two years later, park officials presented to the Utah Legislature 118 potential park sites.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Utah's park system. And, thus far, between those identified earlier and new ones recommended, Utah has 42 state parks. Recreational opportunities at those parks range from golf to water sports to simply pitching a tent and camping.

Comforts cover everything from hot and cold running water to electrical and sewer hookups to shaded picnic tables. Some parks even offer history lessons, in some cases going back more than 4 billion years.

For the cost of a daily entry fee — more for overnight stays, golf and hookups — people can enjoy whatever the park has to offer.

A few years back, Mary Tullius, director of the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation, submitted a "vision" projecting out to 2010.

"Every organization needs a road map to follow," she explained. "In this case, every staff member is involved in making the plan come alive and meeting assigned objectives."

Those main objectives being, of course, places people can go and relax and enjoy themselves. And, at the same time, enjoy a few of the comforts and recreational opportunities the parks offer.

And what the parks have to offer is, of course, all those things a visitor would expect in a state park, like parking places, picnic tables, restrooms and a comfortable setting. All 118 potential sites listed had comfortable settings, but not all came with that extra little kick that gains them entry into the park system.

A lot of the original focus was on Wasatch because it was in a beautiful alpine setting, and people love mountain settings, and it was close to populated cities, thus easy to reach. It also offered a full range of recreational opportunities, including hiking, horseback riding, hunting and eventually golf. Wasatch Mountain State Park is, today, recognized as one of the most popular courses in Utah.

Looking down the list of parks, it should be noted that each has its own distinct personality or special feature.

As examples, Antelope Island has its buffalo, Coral Pink Sand Dunes has acres of soft sand, Goblin Valley has hundreds of odd formations, Dead Horse Point has one of the most beautiful views anywhere, This Is the Place has its history and Deer Creek, Rockport, East Canyon, Scofield and Piute, to name a few, have reservoirs.

On the list of America's "Top 100 Family Campgrounds," six of 3,000 reviewed were Utah parks — Antelope Island, Bear Lake, Dead Horse Point, Red Fleet, Wasatch Mountain and Willard Bay.

The list was compiled from information gathered from park rangers, regional park managers and campers who took the time to write in testimonials and ratings.

Selection was based on "family-friendly criteria" ranging from educational programs, visitor centers, camping amenities and overall beauty and scenery.

Antelope Island has long been considered one of Utah's true gems. It is the largest island in the Great Salt Lake and the most accessible.

On the island there is the historic Fielding Garr Ranch, located on the eastern shores. It is also home to some of Utah's largest wildlife, including more than 600 buffalo, along with antelope, deer, coyotes, bighorn sheep and thousands of shorebirds and waterfowl.

Bear Lake offers a range of activities, including camping, water sports, golfing and touring. Located on the Utah/Idaho border, the three state-owned facilities in Utah provide boating access, camping and day-use opportunities. The sandy beaches near camping areas have added to the overall popularity of the lake.

Dead Horse Point, located northwest of Moab, is perched on a plateau rising some 2,000 feet above the Colorado River. Along with a new visitors center there is a remote but popular campground.

Red Fleet is not as well known as the other parks, which makes it truly a hidden gem. It is located in the red-rock country 10 miles north of Vernal. Along with a beautiful campground and reservoir, there is a 1.5-mile hiking trail that leads past dinosaur tracks and interpretive sites.

Wasatch Mountain in Midway is Utah's most popular, and now it has a sister — nearby Soldier Hollow. Between them there are four golf courses, cross country and biking trails and nearby parks like Jordanelle and Deer Creek.

Willard Bay, located on the shore of the Great Salt Lake, features a 9,000-acre fresh-water reservoir for fishing, boating and swimming.

It is also possible to learn a lot by visiting one of the parks. The Utah Field House of Natural History, Anasazi State Park, Camp Floyd/Stagecoach Inn, Iron Mission and, of course, the Territorial Statehouse and This Is the Place hold museums dedicated to Utah's past.

Among the newest is the Field House located in the center of Uinta Basin. It is one of the few places in the world where the Earth's entire history is exposed, starting with the newest formations and going back to the Precambrian Era, which dates, some believe, to when the world was first formed — 4.5 billion years ago.

The museum is intended to show visitors what is unique and exciting about the basin from paleontological and geological perspectives.

Two of the lesser visited parks are located along one of the country's most scenic sections of road, Highway 12: Kodachrome and Escalante parks.

Within Kodachrome there are 10 miles of marked trails, the longest being a five-mile loop. Within Escalante there is a one-and-a-half-mile hike, called "Trail of the Sleeping Rainbow," so named because it leads through a ground-level forest of petrified wood, and a small reservoir that is routinely planted with catchable rainbow to go with a resident population of bluegill and largemouth bass.

The museum at Iron Mission is focused on the early iron foundry that pioneers built in the mid-1800s near Cedar City.

Not necessarily Utah's biggest park, Rail to Trail park is certainly the longest. It runs from Park City to Echo, is the width of a couple of railroad tracks and is popular with runners, bikers, hikers and equestrian owners.

Often overlooked are the parks tied in with fishing. Several, including Deer Creek, Rockport, East Canyon, Piute, Willard Bay, Starvation, Red Fleet, Quail Creek and Sand Hollow, offer excellent year-round fishing opportunities for a range of fish, including trout, bass and even the prized wiper, a cross between two bass species.

The division currently has a program in place where visitors can show a valid Utah fishing license and receive a discounted entry fee.

Going down the list of parks, it's not hard identifying the unique personality of all 42 parks. And with each, one visit is usually enough to understand just why it falls under the protective umbrella of the state.

STATE PARKS LIST

• Anasazi State Park Museum in Boulder: Museum of Ancestral Puebloan culture, special exhibits, events and programs, day-use

• Antelope Island State Park in Syracuse: Camping, day-use, wildlife viewing, mountain biking, hiking

• Bear Lake State Park in Garden City: Camping, day-use, water recreation

• Camp Floyd/Stagecoach Inn State Park and Museum in Fairfield: Museum, Civil War demonstrations, day-use

• Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park in Kanab: Camping, day-use, off-highway vehicle riding, hiking

• Dead Horse Point State Park in Moab: Camping, day-use, hiking

• Deer Creek State Park in Midway: Camping, day-use, water recreation

• East Canyon State Park in Morgan: Camping, day-use, water recreation

• Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum in Blanding: Museum of Native American culture, special exhibits, events and programs

• Escalante Petrified Forest State Park in Escalante: Camping, day-use, water recreation, hiking

• Flight Park State Recreation Area in Draper: Day-use

• Fremont Indian State Park and Museum in Richfield: Museum of Fremont Indian culture, camping, day-use, petroglyphs, access to Piute ATV Trail

• Goblin Valley State Park in Hanksville: Camping, day-use, hiking

• Goosenecks State Park in Mexican Hat: Primitive camping, day-use

• Great Salt Lake State Marina in Salt Lake City: Day-use, marina, water recreation

• Green River State Park in Green River: Golf, camping, day-use, boat launch

• Gunlock State Park in Ivins: Camping, day-use, water recreation

• Historic Union Pacific Rail Trail State Park in Park City: Day-use, hiking, mountain biking

• Huntington State Park in Huntington: Camping, day-use, water recreation

• Hyrum State Park in Hyrum: Camping, day-use, water recreation

• Iron Mission State Park Museum in Cedar City: Museum of early Utah, day-use, special exhibits, events and programs

• Jordan River OHV Center in Salt Lake City: Day-use, off-highway vehicle riding

• Jordanelle State Park in Heber City: Camping, day-use, water recreation, nature center and programs

• Kodachrome Basin State Park in Cannonville: Camping, day-use, hiking

• Millsite State Park in Huntington: Camping, day-use, water recreation

• Otter Creek State Park in Antimony: Camping, day-use, water recreation, OHV trail access

• Palisade State Park in Sterling: Golf, camping, day-use, water recreation

• Piute State Park in Antimony: Camping, day-use, water recreation

• Quail Creek State Park in St. George: Camping, day-use, water recreation

• Red Fleet State Park in Vernal: Camping, day-use, water recreation, hiking

• Rockport State Park in Peoa: Camping, day-use, water recreation

• Sand Hollow State Park in Hurricane: Camping, day-use, water recreation, off-highway vehicle riding

• Scofield State Park in Scofield: Camping, day-use, water recreation

• Snow Canyon State Park in Ivins: Camping, day-use, hiking, mountain biking, cycling

• Starvation State Park in Duchesne: Camping, day-use, water recreation

• Steinaker State Park in Vernal: Camping, day-use, water recreation

• Territorial Statehouse State Park Museum in Fillmore: Museum of early Utah, special events and programs, day-use

• This Is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City: Utah heritage, special events and programs, day-use

• Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum in Vernal: Museum of Utah's prehistory, special exhibits, events and programs, day-use

• Utah Lake State Park in Provo: Camping, day-use, water recreation

• Wasatch Mountain State Park in Midway: Golf, camping, day-use, hiking, OHV trail access

• Willard Bay State Park in Willard: Camping, day-use, water recreation

• Yuba State Park in Levan: Camping, day-use, water recreation

STATE PARK RESERVATIONS

• Utah State Parks and Recreation is preparing for a busy summer season. In fact, Coral Pink Sand Dunes, Green River, Escalante and Goblin Valley are booked for Memorial Day weekend.

• Park policy allows campers to reserve individual campsites up to 18 weeks prior to their date of departure from the park.

• For reservations call 1-800-322-3770 from outside the Salt Lake area or 801-322-3770 from within Salt Lake.

• The Utah State Parks Reservation Center can also book group sites, pavilions and boat slips. Agents may also recommend locations for golf tournaments, corporate outings and family reunions.

• Individual campsite reservations must be made at least two days in advance of arrival date. An $8 non-refundable reservation fee is charged for each site reserved. Group site reservations may be made up to 11 months in advance. A $10.25 nonrefundable fee, along with a per-person fee, is charged for group sites and building rentals.

• For more Utah state park information, please visit www.stateparks.utah.gov.

TOP AND BOTTOM VISITATION:

Top 10 visitation:

• Wasatch Mountain 442,069

• Deer Creek 355,003

• Willard Bay 325,933

• Utah Lake 265,271

• Snow Canyon 255,643

• Antelope Island 250,886

• Bear Lake 232,825

• Palisade 211,646

• Jordanelle 198,592

• Sand Hollow 186,685

Bottom 10 visitation:

• Piute 29,609

• Goblin Valley 30,081

• Red Fleet 30,818

• Escalante 40,451

• Goosenecks 40.761

• Steinaker 45,615

• Territorial 46,794

• Huntington 47,848

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• Kodachrome 49,804

• Utah Field House 52,027


E-mail: grass@desnews.com