Utah’s National Parks: Permanence and Change

Rock towers at Utah's Capitol Reef National Park

As some of you may have noticed (hey, we’re all busy), it’s the start of October 2011. Ten years ago this week I was off having a grand time with my mom and dad, exploring a remarkable swath of southern Utah.

Looking back on that trip, I’m still amazed at the endurance of love, family — and the Earth itself.

In the month following the shocking misery of September 11th, 2001, I flew out from Los Angeles to meet my parents in Salt Lake City. Adam wasn’t able to take time away from work, so this was my first flight alone since airplanes had been violently smashed across the Eastern seaboard. I was worried for my folks, who had to travel cross-country from Maryland, and uncharacteristically worried for myself; I felt enormous relief upon sweeping over the city’s surrounding salt flats, landing intact and at last, embracing my mom and dad.

Moments after we’d taken a deep breath together, though, we were surprised to find machine gun-toting Green Berets guarding Salt Lake City International Airport. It hadn’t occurred to us that Middle Eastern terrorists might target America’s center of the Mormon faith, and we suddenly felt we’d traveled much farther from home than a few scant hours in the air could possibly take us.

We’d soon find other surprises in Salt Lake City — Eisenhower-era fashions, bars in what we’d thought was a fully dry town, and amidst soaring snow-capped mountains, a small and thriving Afghan community. However, nothing was more exciting than the attractions we’d really come to see: Bryce, Zion and Capitol Reef National Parks.


My parents and me at Zion National Park, October 2001


This 5-day trip had been my mom’s brilliant idea, and she invited me along as a present for my 31st birthday. Eager to sit back and experience rather than navigate, she booked a private van and driver to take us across the state and around the parks. I feel it would be just as fun to rent a car and do this yourselves, but the presence of Alison, our young driver, did provide us with a welcome, unexpected coincidence — she and I shared the same birthday.

In addition to that small-world moment, this trip afforded a series of firsts: it was my first visit to Utah; my first-ever trip alone with my parents; my first time away from Adam on my birthday since we’d met in 1994; and my first time traveling with a digital camera, since Adam had just gifted me with one a few days before.  (The only thing in this list that I’ve since done again is travel with a digital camera…allowing me to illustrate this here site.)

Heading south from Salt Lake City to the parks, we’d pass huge mountainsides carved with high school emblems, explore dusty piles of rocks that hid long-abandoned petroglyphs, and beside dry creek-beds and willow trees, find the former homesteads of Mormon pioneers. There were roadside cows roaming free, whole hillsides of autumn-yellow aspens shivering in the breeze and long expanses of sheer rock snaked with bright green trees wherever a river ran, well, through it.

At Bryce Canyon, my folks and I were deeply wowed by the almost comically endless vistas, the trippy hoodoo spires and pastel gradients of red-pink-peach-brown-green-and-blue. At the rim of the yawning crater, Alison led me over to a pine tree, asked me to take a deep whiff of the sap, and smiled as I grew wide-eyed, amazed to find it smelled exactly like vanilla.


Bryce Canyon


We hauled way out past rocky gray moonscapes to Capitol Reef, which — quite possibly because of its proximity to very little else — we had entirely to ourselves. Climbing out of our van, we found ourselves standing firmly on what had once been the bottom of the ocean. From this vantage point, looking up at amphitheaters of stratified rock we marveled at big holes that had once housed ancient sea creatures…and felt the full and awesome weight of geological time. I tried to imagine this deep, narrow canyon filled with salt water, and suddenly understood (in a thirty-something sort of way) that just about everything that seems permanent is eventually replaced with something else.


Capitol Reef


Our last stop was Zion National Park, a bustling operation with its own eco-friendly bus system and scant opportunity to be alone. A stunning sprawl of slot canyons, mountain-edge views and sun-dappled creek paths, this park manages to attract a lot of tourists and yet still feel peaceful. Standing at the bottom of a narrow sandstone canyon next to a shallow trickle of the Zion River, one of my parents on either side of me, I felt that while a lot of things might change in our lives, we’d always have each other.


Zion National Park


Well, that was a decade ago. I’d love to return to Utah with my parents and Adam, maybe even see Arches and the Canyonlands this time around.

But this year, my dad has pancreatic cancer.

Next week he starts taking part in a special chemo study at NIH, a mere 20 minutes from my parents’ home in Maryland. Since I know my folks would much rather be heading out west on an adventure, though, I offer this post to them as a small consolation and a show of my (now 41 year-old) support. 

My hope is that someday we can all four go to Utah together. ‘Til then,  this amazing landscape seems more than willing to stand by stoically…and wait for us.


My parents, Ron and Suzan Wynne, near Capitol Reef in October 2001


See also
TWT Travel Binders: Utah


  1. I just wanted to tell you, not only have you really inspired me to hit up some great Utah nature that I have been wanting to adventure in for years… but you made me remember treasured moments and trips with my family & how important they all are.

    Thank you.

  2. You know I adore you, Melanie. This is a beautiful post, with beautiful photographs, written by a beautiful person.

  3. Lovely post, Melanie! Bryce Canyon is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been… liked it so much I went twice and would love to go again.. it was also in October!

  4. Utah enchanted me this summer as I drove across the central and northern state along the main east-west routes. My parents have made many trips to the national parks in your piece. I really want to get back and see more.

    Wishing your father the best outcome. Cancer is a fight and the love and care of family and friends during the struggle gives strength during treatment.

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