"Ditch your car" is one of the first bits of advice from author Edward Abbey, for anyone wanting to visit Utah’s vast desert landscapes.
"You can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the ... contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus," he writes in Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, based on his two seasons (1956 and 1957) working as a park ranger in Utah.
Abbey was inspired by the western state’s stunning red rock formations that were shaped into other-worldly spires and dramatic arches by geological forces over millions of years.
Some of the most beautiful can be found at five of Utah’s most popular national park sites, known as "The Mighty 5." National parks traveler Mikah Meyer planned to visit all of them.
Superstar of arches
There are more than 2,000 natural sandstone arches at Arches National Park, making up the world’s largest collection, and Mikah must have been thinking about Edward Abbey as he parked his van and took to the park’s numerous trails by foot.
He says he could see firsthand why it’s one of the most visited parks in the state, with 1.6 million visitors last year.
"Even outside of the park and all around Utah, there are these arches that just naturally form from the rock eroding, but in Arches National Park are some of the most magnificent ... either really large, or there's two or three all clustered together, there's a double arch where you can see through two arches at once, and then of course there’s Delicate Arch."
The massive, red-hued structure is considered by many the most famous natural stone arch in the world. "It's this perfect arch that seems to come out of nowhere," Mikah said, "because it's essentially on its own on top of a hill with a giant vista and mountains behind it." So it’s not surprising that visitors "one by one, take their time running or walking into the arch to take their picture," he added.
After his visit to Arches, Mikah accepted a complimentary boat tour on the nearby Colorado River with Canyonlands by Night & Day jet boat company.
"It gives you a perspective of this land which many people describe as Mars with water because it’s just so arid, and so red and orange looking," Mikah explained. "It's this really cool juxtaposition not only of views, but of the wildlife that survives in the desert."
He saw rattlesnakes, salamanders, chipmunks, frogs and deer in and around the river.
Island in the sky
The massive Canyonlands National Park, the next stop on Mikah’s Mighty 5 adventure, has three distinct districts: The Needles, Island in the Sky and the Maze.
The Needles District is home to a large collection of hoodoos, which Mikah described as "giant rock structures that look like giant fingers sticking out of the earth." Visitors are able to hike around them.
But his favorite was the Island in the Sky district, which he reached just in time for sunset.
"This is where you're able to drive along a scenic road that takes you along all these incredible overlooks that give you expansive views of the canyon and of the rivers, and it's a wow moment," he said. "It's the take-your-breath-away, audibly say ‘wow!’ moment."
Heart of red rock country
From Canyonlands, it was on to Capitol Reef National Park, which Mikah described as "a mix of all the other parks."
"You have some stunning cliffs, some canyon views, some natural rock arches," he said. "Just a nice blend of all the other Mighty 5 parks."
In the coming days, Mikah plans to visit the other two of the Mighty 5 parks — Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks.
In the introductory remarks to Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey noted that many of the places he wrote about in 1967 were "already gone or going under fast."
"This is not a travel guide but an elegy. A memorial," he wrote. "You’re holding a tombstone in your hands. A bloody rock. Don’t drop it on your foot — throw it at something big and glassy. What do you have to lose?"
Mikah has nothing to lose. He plans to continue on his journey to visit all 417 National Park Service sites at full speed, and explore as many of those "tombstones" and "bloody rocks" while he can.