Now that local temperatures are soaring into three digits, our hearts seek the highlands when we plan a summer getaway. Some of the most agreeable and accessible highlands are in Cedar Breaks National Monument in southern Utah. The park lies on the Markagunt Plateau at an elevation of more than 10,000 feet, almost guaranteeing cool weather for hiking, wildflower viewing and star gazing.
The park is best known for its half-mile-deep natural amphitheater filled with colorful stone columns called “hoodoos” for the supernatural creatures some people imagine in their haphazard shapes. But it’s also a great place for a whole program of outdoor summer activity, with good hiking trails, campgrounds, star parties, a wildflower festival and lots of ranger-led programs to take part in.
The Markagunt Plateau is blessed with fertile sedimentary soil, and the snows of winter are soon followed by a glorious plenty of wildflowers. But a happy coincidence of geography prolongs the glory here. In summer, moist, hot air from the Pacific rolls inland over the Mojave Desert, which helps the air retain its heat. But once it encounters the cooler plateau, the air cools, and water condenses into rain, refreshing the natural bounty of beauty. So the Cedar Breaks are one of America’s prime spots for wildflower viewing.
In mid- to late June, you might find cushion phlox, aspen bluebells and kittentails. The wildflower show in the park usually peaks in mid-July, when meadows are often carpeted with color, and scarlet paintbrush, lupine, columbines can be found along the rim trails.
At that time of year, the Alpine Pond Trail is one of the best for freelance flower viewing.
But if you’d like to view the flora in a more organized fashion, the park’s annual Wildflower Festival is set for July 8-23. During that time you can join a ranger for one of the guided wildflower hikes, which set out from the visitor center daily at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.
On July 14, the Zion Canyon Field Institute is offering a Cedar Mountain Wildflower Workshop, an all-day affair in which botanist Matt Ogburn will lead short hikes to see and learn about different wildflowers. Class size is limited, so advance reservations are necessary through the Zion Canyon Field Institute, 800-635-3959, www.zionpark.org.
Cedar Breaks has recently been designated an International Dark Sky Park, the first in southwestern Utah. (Utah now has seven such parks, more than any other state in the nation.)
Star Parties take place every Saturday night through Aug. 12, from 8:30 to 11 p.m. Join the group at Point Supreme and park rangers will present a night sky program and telescope viewing when the weather is clear. They’ll bring the park’s telescopes, but feel free to bring your own if you have one. Flashlights are also useful, but they should have red filters to avoid compromising people’s night vision. Dress warmly. Call 435-586-9451 if you have questions.
The park also offers 15-25 minute geology talks every day through Oct. 9, starting at 10 a.m. and again at 4 p.m. Learn how this natural amphitheater was formed and interesting facts about the unique weather the park experiences. Meet at Point Supreme to participate.
The park has a 25-site campground for tents and RVs. Some sites are available by reservation at www.recreation.gov, but most are first come, first served. Restrooms and showers are available.
Many of Deborah Wall’s columns have been compiled in the book “Base Camp Las Vegas, Hiking the Southwestern States.” She is also the author of “Great Hikes, a Cerca Country Guide” and a co-author of the book “Access For All, Seeing the Southwest With Limited Mobility.” Wall can be reached at Deborabus@aol.com.
From Boulder City, take U.S. Highway 93/95 north to Las Vegas. Merge right to Interstate 15 north and drive 162 miles to exit 57, Cedar City, Utah. Go north on Utah Route 14, taking a right after 2 miles, which continues Route 14. Drive 15.4 miles farther and go left onto Scenic Byway 148. Drive about 3 miles to Cedar Breaks National Monument main entrance.