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Ray Grass, Deseret Morning News
Petroglyphs in Arches National Park

MOAB — The flow of visitors to Utah's national parks has started, this year a little earlier than last, and next year, it's expected to start a little earlier than this year.

The feeling is that the so-called "shoulder seasons" or visits in the spring and fall are starting sooner and ending later.

One explanation is visitors are discovering that spring and fall are perfect times to see the natural wonders. The parks are not as crowded, the traffic not as congested, chances of snagging a campsite are much greater and temperatures are more comfortable.

Another reason for an increase in spring visits is the parks change colors. Added to the tones of browns, reds and oranges are colors of whites, blues, yellows and purples.

Spring is a time when the wildflowers bloom, and consensus is this spring's display will be among the best. It's a time for visitors to see large patches of sego lilies, the state flower, and blooming lupine, Indian paintbrush, gentian, bellflower, yarrow, gilia, desert phlox, shooting star and manzanita.

Conditions, explained Paul Henderson, chief of interpretation for the National Park Service out of Moab, "have been perfect. I don't know that a lot of people come just for the wildflowers, but I'm sure some do. Those who do are glad they came when they did.

"In another couple of weeks, depending on weather conditions, we should have a pretty spectacular display of wildflowers ... some early arrivers and some later arrivers. Wildflowers should be in bloom from mid-April to mid-May."

Ideal growth conditions for wildflowers include good moisture in the spring, winter and fall and plenty of sunshine, and this year all the requirements have been met.

How many people will visit one of Utah's parks this year — state or federal — is pure speculation at this point. The general feeling is all parks will be busier.

Visits to Arches National Park were up by more than 30,000 people last year for a final figure of more than 860,000 visitors. Visits to Canyonlands National Park were up nearly 27,000, which is significant in that it traditionally gets about half the number of visitors as Arches.

"Those totals are the highest since 1999," said Henderson. "Between 1985 and 2000, the number of visitors quadrupled. The best years were 1998 and 1999. It appears now we're in an upward growth pattern again, and I don't know what to attribute that to. It does appear, in the 10 years I've been here, that the shoulder seasons have gotten broader and broader. People are realizing that spring and fall are good times to visit."

The typical visitation pattern is numbers steadily grow until midsummer when temperatures are at their highest. At this point the local market is buoyed somewhat by Europeans visitors, along with those touring the country. Numbers start to pick up again in September and October.

The most recognized site within Arches is Delicate Arch. It has been reproduced on license plates and in TV, newspaper and magazine ads.

It is, however, only one of nearly 2,000 arches discovered within park boundaries. And while Delicate is the most recognized, the largest is Landscape Arch, which measures 306 feet from base to base and is recognized as one of the longest natural spans in the world.

The road into the park stretches 28 miles from toll gate to Devils Garden and includes side trips to the Windows Section and Delicate Arch. Round trip, figuring in stops along the way, takes roughly three hours.

Arches has been called a "windshield" park because many visitors see it only through their windshields as they drive through the park. More and more people, however, are starting to leave their vehicles and hike to areas, which include guided tours to Fiery Furnace.

And while Delicate is probably the most photographed, it is not the most popular. That honor belongs to a cluster of arches in Windows area, mainly because of accessibility.

Canyonlands is cut into three pieces by the Y-shaped meeting of the Colorado and Green rivers. In the center is the Island in the Sky District, a broad plateau rising above surrounding canyons. To the right is the Needles District, an area filled with standing rock figures. To the left is the Maze District, the wildest of the areas filled with carved canyons and detached rock figures.

It is a park with some highway views and paved turnouts for visitors to look from, but most of its features can be reached only by hiking trails and backcountry roads. Four-wheeling is the most popular means of travel within the park. These days, too, there is a sharp increase in biking interests, especially in the spring and fall.

The park holds some of the more remembered features within the park system, which would include Devil's Pocket, Angle Arch and the meeting of the two rivers at the Confluence. Also, there is Cataract Canyon, known for its "man-eating" rapids, as told by John Wesley Powell; Standing Rock, a lone figure in a flat desert land; The Maze, a vast area of carved canyons and valleys; Elephant Hill, a rugged hill and a favorite of four-wheelers looking for a challenge; Upheaval Dome, a strand sandstone "blister" cut into a huge natural amphitheater with walls 1,200 feet high; and the White Rim Trail, frequently written up in major publications as one of the most spectacular view trails in the country.

Another of the popular sites is Newspaper Rock. Indians call it "Tse Ha Ni," or rock that tells a story. It is located near the entrance to the Needles area of Canyonlands. If it could be properly interpreted, it would tell the story of this land, for it is truly incredible with its variety of twisting gorges, reaching cliff walls, stone fins, broad mesas and symmetrical arches. It is a landscape as varied as names in a phone book. An area that is a true testimony to how powerful natural forces can be.

Again, with the higher cost of fuel and more demands on time, it is hard to tell at this point just how busy the parks are going to be. The feeling is, however, that visitor counts will be up this year, which makes scheduling trips during the shoulder seasons all the more appealing.

Camping areas within Canyonlands are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Half of the campgrounds within Arches can be reserved, while the remaining spots are on a first-come basis.

There are, of course, a full range of accommodations within the township of Moab.

For information on the two national parks, visit www.nps.gov/arch for Arches or call 435-719-2299, and for Canyonlands visit www.nps.gov/cany or call 435-719-2313.

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