CEDAR BREAKS NATIONAL MONUMENT If life is "elevated" in Utah, as the new state slogan goes, few places better fit that theme than Utah's loftiest national monument.
Rising to a maximum of 10,567 feet above sea level, Cedar Breaks may be "just" a 7,000-acre national monument, but its spectacular and colorful rock amphitheater, cooler temperatures and blooming wildflowers make it a great mid-summer vacation spot.
This year Cedar Breaks hosted its first Wildflower Festival, which ends today.
"During this spectacular display, visitors to the monument will be able to see paintbrush and primrose, lupine and larkspur, and a spectrum of other flowers in meadows, woods and marshes, said park superintendent Paul Roelandt.
"We have put together a series of special events and will have park rangers, volunteers and other resources available for visitors to learn about and photograph the incredibly beautiful variety of wildflowers to be discovered at Cedar Breaks."
With 600,000 visitors a year, Cedar Breaks is the jewel of the Markagunt Plateau. Shaped like a gigantic coliseum, the monument's natural amphitheater is some 2,000 feet deep and about three miles wide. It took millions of years for uplift, sedimentation and erosion to carve this bowl.
Varying combinations of manganese and iron give the rocks here their different reds, yellows and purple hues.
Roelandt said temperatures rarely hit 80 degrees even on the hottest summer days and snow is often recorded every month of the year at such a high elevation.
"It's a pretty busy little park," Roelandt said, noting that the majority of more than half-a-million yearly visitors comes between Memorial Day and October.
However, early morning and evening (especially after the visitors center closes) can offer chances for solitude at various viewpoints a rarity in today's national parks and monuments.
Roelandt said one of the biggest misconceptions about Cedar Breaks is that it closes in winter. "We're not closed in the winter," he said, stressing the cross country ski trails in the area.
The fall colors in the Cedar Breaks area have been identified by USA Today as one of the nation's top five.
Cedar Breaks is higher in elevation than Bryce National Park. Roelandt agrees there are similarities between the rock formations of the two places. However, Cedar Breaks' formations are much more vertical than are Bryce's and contain fewer hoodoos. Both are of the same rock structure, but in a different location and orientation.
The highlight of the park is Point Supreme, which Roelandt calls the park's centerpiece. However, there are five other official viewing areas. Roelandt also likes Sunset Viewpoint, located a half-mile to the north.
He recommends that visitors allow at least three to four hours inside the national monument to see it all. That includes walks along one of its two high country trails, the Alpine Pond Path (a two-mile loop) and the two-mile, one-way Ramparts Trail, which goes to Spectra Point.
Both trails are family friendly, but children need to be watched on the steep terrain and around the viewpoints, where there are steep cliffs.
For the fit and daring, there is also the Rattlesnake Creek trail, above Cedar City, that leads into the bottom of amphitheater from Ashdown Gorge. It climbs almost 3,500 feet and is 10 miles round-trip.
"This is a spectacular hike," Roelandt said. However, no camping is permitted inside the fragile sections of the amphitheater and some places are off limits to human visitation.
Astronomy is an increasingly popular activity at Cedar Breaks. The high elevation and minimal light pollution help create night sky vistas that attract many an "astronomy camper," as well as the San Francisco Amateur Astronomers Association.
The park hosts star-gazing events throughout the summer, each Saturday at 8:30 p.m. weather permitting at the visitors center.
Utah has five national parks, and Roelandt said there is a push by Iron County to seek designation of Cedar Breaks as the state's sixth. This proposal also includes the Ashdown Gorge Wilderness and its nearby Flanigan Arch.
"It would double our size," he said of this proposal. However, the arch is on private land.
Cedar Breaks has a 28-site campground, open on a first-come basis from June to September.
Roelandt said Cedar Breaks used to have its own lodge and accommodations, but those aging facilities were removed in the early 1970s. The current log cabin visitors center was built in 1937 by the CCC.
Cedar Breaks was made a national monument on Aug. 22, 1933, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Cedar Breaks usually holds special events on that day each year.
What you won't see at Cedar Breaks are cedar trees. Early settlers in Iron County during the 1850s mistook Utah juniper trees for cedars and hence the mistake in its name. (Early settlers found that the Cedar Breaks amphitheater caused a "break" in a pioneer road along the Markagunt Plateau and so the "break" term stuck over time.)
Southern Paiute Indians, who lived in the area, referred to Cedar Breaks as "un-cap-i-un-ump," meaning "Circle of Painted Cliffs."
"Shooting Star Ridge," "Jericho Canyon," "Orange Ridge," "Chessman Ridge," "High Leap Canyon" and "The Bartizan" comprise some of the more intriguing Cedar Breaks names.
Besides Cedar Breaks, the Markagunt Plateau offers mountain biking trails, prehistoric lava flows and bristle cone pines. Navajo Lake, Panguitch Lake and Cascade Falls are also in the area. In winter, Brian Head Ski Resort is open.
Brian Head Peak can be reached by a three-mile dirt road, good enough for cars, and passable from mid-June to late summer. It is one of Utah's few county high points you can drive to without hiking and ranks 13th among Utah's 29 highest county summits.
The town of Brian Head is Utah's highest town, at 9,700 feet above sea level and offers lodging, food and other activities. U-143 out of Parowan to Brian Head is Utah's steepest paved state road, with a 13 percent grade. Cedar Breaks is located along U-148, a side road that connects U-14 and U-143, but is closed in winter.
Normal visitors center hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., but extended summer hours on Friday, Saturday and Sundays are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Geology talks are presented daily at 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.
Cedar Breaks is 291 miles from Salt Lake City, and 22 miles from Cedar City.
Admission is $4 a person, but entrance fees are not charged for holders of valid National Park Passports. Camping fees are $14 per night.
Sources: National Park Service; Cedar Breaks official Web site; park brochures; www.zionnational-park.com.
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