An assemblage of orange and white canyons, spires, and columns, contrasted with heavily forested ridgelines form a natural amphitheater that spans nearly three miles wide and ascends depths of more than two thousand feet at Cedar Breaks, near the west end of the Colorado Plateau. At an elevation of well over ten thousand feet, cool mountain air—at just the perfect temperature—blows over the mountaintops during the short-lived seasons of spring and fall, as stunning fall foliage and brilliant wildflowers mark the beginning and end to the long snowy winters of this national monument.
Like other canyons in this region of the country, a complex natural process of sedimentary depositing, uplifting, and eroding created Cedar Breaks over a span of millions of years. About 60 million years ago, a massive ancient lake about 250 miles long, called Lake Claron, covered the entire plateau that Cedar Breaks sits on. As bits of rock and earth crumbled from the highlands surrounding the lake, winds carried their sediments into the lake where they slowly drifted to the bottom, forming thick layers that were eventually cemented.
As the nearby Hurricane Fault became active about ten million years ago, it “uplifted” (or raised) Lake Claron to its current elevation of over ten thousand feet. The lake bed then became exposed to the elements of water and wind, plus the chemical reactions that came with them. Eventually the constant batter of strong winds along with the freeze-and-thaw cycles carved out these geologic formations, and, as the iron in the rock oxidized, the bright hues of red and orange appeared. To this day, the rock continues to tumble from the canyon walls—about two inches per five years. At that pace, the natural evolution of Cedar Breaks is much faster than Bryce Canyon, a more popular national park nearby with similar badlands topography.
The Southern Paiutes originally inhabited the area for thousands of years until Mormon settlers met them in the 1850s. The Paiutes called the area un-cap-i-un-ump, which means “Circle of Painted Cliffs,” the name originally used for the area, until years later when it was officially adopted as a national monument in 1933. However, the name Cedar Breaks is a bit of a misnomer since you’re not going to find a single cedar tree at the park. The name “Cedar” was actually given to the park due to the presence of Utah juniper, which at the time was confused with cedar.
And if you’re wondering where the “Breaks” in the park’s name comes from, it’s just another word for “badlands,” areas of terrain that are very difficult to navigate due to steep canyon walls, spires, fins, hoodoos, and the like. Modern-day visitors and adventurers delight in the aesthetic attraction of otherworldly badlands, but it’s easy to see how challenging and unappealing these locations were to many early settlers and fur trappers of the time. They often described such areas as “bad lands,” and eventually the geologic community adopted the compound term “badlands.”
At Cedar Breaks, you’ll find many of the usual larger animals that inhabit higher elevations, such as elk and mule deer, and, on occasion, you might catch rarer sightings of mountain lions and black bears. Other smaller and more unique wildlife in the park include the pika, also known as the “whistling hare,” due to its high-pitched voice, along with chipmunk, marmot, pocket gopher, porcupine, and badger. The vegetation is also quite diverse, including juniper, ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, and bristlecone pine.
The twisted and gnarled bristlecone pine grows at high altitudes in California, Utah, and Nevada, and is believed to be the oldest individually growing species with some—including the oldest tree in the world found in California’s White Mountains—believed to be over five thousand years old. In the harsh, cold, and windy environments in which they’re found, bristlecone pines grow extremely slowly, and some years don’t even add a growth ring. This slow growth produces dense wood that’s resistant to erosion, decay, and fungi, which helps them grow so old. Another major factor that adds to their longevity is that there’s hardly any other vegetation at the high altitudes and thus less competition and less chance for them to fall victim to forest fires.
Bristlecone pine trees seem to exist on a time scale all their own. Unlike other pine trees which must replenish their needles every two to five years, bristlecone needles remain viable up to an astonishing forty years. Their long lives which stretch for millennia are important for scientists as this data helps them to understand climates of the past and verify radiocarbon dating. While the exact location of the oldest bristlecone in California, known as Methuselah, is kept secret for its protection, one of the oldest bristlecone pines in Cedar Breaks, estimated to be 1,700 years old, can be found along the Spectra Point Trail.
While I always prefer a good hike at a park like Cedar Breaks, sometimes a scenic drive is all you have time for. The scenic drive here is definitely worth your time, especially if you are just passing through. On the drive along Utah Highway 148, you’ll come across a number of picturesque overlooks, including North View, Chessman Ridge, and Sunset View. Just remember to take your time, abide by the low speed limits, and pay your entrance fee at the visitor center. The best time of year to visit may be the fall when the color change makes for one of the most spectacular six-mile scenic drives in the country, and that’s no exaggeration. The scenic drives of Cedar Breaks and the nearby highways have consistently been ranked as one of the best fall foliage drives in the country.
However, if you do have more time to spend in the park, you’ll want to consider a number of great trails. If you are interested in capturing spectacular views, then my recommendation is to make your first hike along the Ramparts Overlook Trail. It’s a moderately strenuous hike (four miles round-trip) and offers sweeping views along the way. You’ll also be able to see bristlecone pines which, as previously noted, are some of the longest-living species on the planet. Also, if you make it here in the fall, you’ll want to look into taking the Alpine Pond Trail, which takes you through some of the most colorful meadows and woodlands you’ll ever see.
In the winter, Cedar Breaks can get as much as thirty feet of snow and offers visitors an array of winter activities. There are plenty of paths for snowshoe hiking, cross-country skiing, and even snowmobiling, so look into those options if you’re passing through from November through March. Just remember to call ahead because many of the roads are closed during the winter, and don’t forget your tire chains because you will likely need them with the steep inclines and high elevation.
If you’re visiting in the summer, then make it on a Saturday night so you can take in the star parties offered at Point Supreme. Park staff and astronomer volunteers provide telescopes (free of charge) so you can view neighboring planets, distant galaxies, and all kinds of night-sky attractions, like shooting stars, nebulae, and constellations. Just don’t forget, with those higher elevations at more than ten thousand feet, you’ll need to dress warmly for the cool nights up there.
Finally camping is available from roughly the middle of June to the middle of September at Point Supreme for $14 per night. Reservations can be made in advance, and campers normally show up on a first-come, first-serve basis.
- On August 12, 2015, around midnight (or generally August 10–13 annually), you can catch one of the best views in the world of the Perseid Meteor Shower, peaking with as many as forty meteors shooting across the night sky per hour! Truly a sight to behold.