On Tuesday, September 13, we left Zion National Park for a day trip back up the Grand Staircase to the Pink Cliffs at Cedar Breaks National Monument on the western edge of the Markagunt Plateau. The Pink Cliffs here are the same geological layers as at Bryce Canyon National Park, but at Cedar Breaks, uplift has caused the rim of the amphitheater above the cliffs to soar 2,400 feet higher to an average elevation of 10,400 feet. That was also some 6,400 feet higher than the elevation of the floor of Zion Canyon where we’d slept the previous night.
Cedar Breaks National Monument was established on August 22, 1933 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It protects just over 6,100 acres of the subalpine edge of the Markagunt Plateau and the spectacular Cedar Breaks amphitheater plunging 2,000 feet below the plateau rim and spanning three miles across. Despite its close proximity to some of the most famous National Parks in the country, Cedar Breaks National Monument is lightly visited, averaging fewer than 500,000 visitors per year.
Although Cedar Breaks is similar to Bryce Canyon, its cliffs are steeper, deeper, more immediately dramatic even as it is considerably smaller in area. There are two maintained trails above the rim and one trail that descends from the plateau in and out of the Monument and the adjacent Dixie National Forest, but it mostly skirts the amphitheater on its northern side. There are no maintained trails down into the hoodoos, walls, formations, and canyons of the amphitheater itself, which gives Cedar Breaks an aura of inaccessible beauty different from Bryce Canyon. A friend who used to work for the National Park Service told us it was one of her very favorite units in the entire system, and we were grateful we took her advice not to miss it on our trip.
We departed from Zion at about 10:15 for the hour-and-a-half drive to Cedar Breaks. Our route took us through Springdale, and we noted that there was already a line of cars at the entrance to Zion. We drove out Highway 9 through the tiny towns of Rockville and Grafton and then through the slightly larger towns of La Verkin and Toquerville until we got to I-15 and got on it heading north.
When I was a youth, my family would fly from Detroit to Orange County, California every March to my aunt and uncle’s house. From there, we would road trip up I-15 to Salt Lake City to go skiing for a week in Park City, Utah. Those trips were formative in my love for the West, particularly the deserts of California and the Rocky Mountains of Utah. Twenty-five years later it felt good to be back on I-15 headed north with a bank of mountains on the right-hand side of the Jeep.
As we passed the exit for the Kolob Canyons area of Zion National Park, we gazed at the cliffs, but we did not stop. We exited the Interstate at Cedar City and began the scenic drive up, up, up onto the Markagunt Plateau. The scenery was stellar as we wound through gorges and up ridges, the pine forests growing more lush the higher we climbed. It was the first mountain scenery feel we’d had on the trip. The Paunsaugunt Plateau of Bryce Canyon felt like a plateau. The western side of the Markagunt Plateau felt like we were climbing into the Black Hills or even the Sierra Nevada.
Up on the plateau proper, as we approached Cedar Breaks, we passed through high country sheep pasture, complete with shepherd and sheep dog.
We arrived at Cedar Breaks at about 11:45am.
The first things we noticed at the main parking area near the visitor center was that it was super windy and people were bundled up. We stepped out of the Jeep, and sure enough, it was a blustery 50 degrees. So we immediately began adding layers.
The wind was strong, and it pushed the clouds quickly across the sky, leading to alternating light and shadow, which combined with the wind to create a dynamic, watchful sensation.
We paid the entrance fee at a little walk-up booth and then headed to the Cedar Breaks Visitor Center, which sits at Point Supreme, elevation 10,350 feet. It boasts a viewing window at the back, which is right on the edge of the plateau’s rim.
But the better views were outside.
The Pink Cliffs here are magnificent and are made all the more striking since they are capped with white Claron formation limestone.
Then we decided to go for a hike to at least Spectra Point one mile to the southwest along the rim of the amphitheater. Depending on how we felt, we might go the additional mile to Ramparts Overlook.
From the parking area, the trail led up to the rim through a strip of forest. Signage indicated tree and wildflower species along these first few steps of the trail.
Once at the rim, the trail turned left (south) and followed the edge of the forest strip along Claron formation limestone.
Cedar Breaks got its name because early settlers mistook its Englemann Spruce for cedar. Beyond and below Cedar Breaks is the Ashdown Gorge Wilderness, and the monument is virtually surrounded by Dixie National Forest.
We spotted a Yellow-Bellied Marmot and a Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel almost simultaneously, each going about its business against the white limestone.
The trail was easy to follow, but at times the grade of the limestone layer toward the drop-off of the cliffs was a touch vertigo inducing, particularly because the wind was strong and blustery. I was hiking with my poles not because it was particularly difficult, but simply because it made my mind feel safer, even if physically, we were perfectly safe the entire time.
The trail climbed to a water tank above Jericho Canyon, which was the high point along the trail.
From there, we had views both out over the amphitheater and southeast over the Markagunt Plateau, Dixie National Forest, and the Park Road leading to the southeast entrance.
The trail descended to the limestone outcrop of Spectra Point, elevation 10,285 feet. Some of the fast-moving clouds were darker than others. And we began to hear very distant thunder. So we kept alert as we made our way out onto Spectra Point. Multiple signs near the visitor center and along the start of the trail warned hikers away from the exposed cliffs in the event of lightning.
Out on windswept Spectra Point, we encountered a whole grove of Bristlecone Pines. One of the Bristlecones at Spectra Point, the Park Service doesn’t indicate which one, is over 1,600 years old. (The longest-living individual of any species of life on earth is a Bristlecone in California that is over 5,000 years old.)
Then suddenly it began to rain for a moment as the wind hurried a particularly dark and volatile cloud over us. But the rain stopped as soon as the cloud moved on.
We noticed that the clouds were heaviest over the plateau itself and seemed to break up over the amphitheater. I don’t know if the elevation drop caused updrafts or some other sort of atmospheric phenomenon. But it was definitely cloudy on the plateau and bright over the amphitheater. It was almost like the clouds were clustered and then waiting to make their move out off of the plateau one by one.
Far below in Jericho Canyon we spotted an arch in one of the eroding walls.
The views from Spectra Point were splendid in every direction, back toward the rim and Point Supreme, out over the lowlands beneath the amphitheater, and straight down into Jericho Canyon.
Spectra Point was also a splendid spot to have lunch. And so we did.
We noticed a lot of dead trees at Cedar Breaks. A lot. They are being killed by Spruce Bark Beetles, which are ravaging spruce populations (particularly Engelmann Spruce) throughout the West.
This infestation is similar to the pine beetle infestation that has become so serious that authorities in Alberta are clear cutting miles-wide swathes of forest to prevent the beetles from continuing east above the Great Plains to the continent’s eastern forests. In both cases, these are native beetles (not an infestation of a pest from another continent like the Emerald Ash Borer) that usually live in harmony with the tree that they evolved with. But the long drought in the West has stressed the trees, weakening their defenses. Climate change has led to warmer winters, killing fewer of the beetles. And a century of misguided fire suppression in western forests has led to denser, less healthy forests that are now being decimated by the beetles.
Authorities are letting the infestation play out in the hopes that it will lead to a healthier forest overall once the dead trees are thinned. In Dixie National Forest, the dead trees are being removed for lumber and also to ensure that all the dead trees don’t contribute to apocalyptic wildland fires. At Cedar Breaks, the Park Service distributes a brochure about the issue.
Meanwhile, the Bristlecone Pines endure and endure and endure.
As we headed back up from Spectra Point, we heard more thunder, and another cloud threw some rain at us, so we decided to head back to the parking area and not to Ramparts Overlook, which made our hike a two-mile roundtrip instead of a four-mile.
Despite an elevation gain of only some one hundred feet, the ascent was a touch moderate because we were so high.
Almost back to the parking area, we met some more Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrels.
All told, our two-mile Spectra Point hike took about an hour and a quarter, including having lunch. We encountered maybe a half dozen people on the trail, and we had Spectra Point to ourselves while we were eating.
It was now 1:45, and we decided to drive north along the Park Road to check out some of the other viewpoints and overlooks before doing the Alpine Pond Trail hike.
First up, Sunset View Overlook, elevation 10,354 feet:
Then Chessman Ridge Overlook, elevation 10,467 feet (the high point along the rim):
Finally North View Overlook, elevation 10,435 feet:
North View Overlook is almost immediately south of Brian Head Peak, the highest point on the Markagunt Plateau.
We retraced our route about a third of the way back to the visitor center and parked at the north trailhead for Alpine Pond Trail. The trail is a two-mile double loop that winds north-south through a strip of forest between the Park Road and the rim of the amphitheater. The trailhead boasted a yurt, which was open to the public in the winter as a warming station for those cross-country skiing the closed Park Road. How cozy!
Mixed in with the Engelmann Spruce and Douglas Fir along Alpine Pond Trail was a lot of Quaking Aspen. At a fork, we decided to go right and take the lower trail along the rim first. It meant that we would descend for half a mile, ascend for a mile, and then descend for a final half mile, as opposed to the exact opposite had we taken the upper trail first.
The Quaking Aspen was just beginning to turn yellow to greet the fast-approaching autumn. Suddenly we were in a fresh, bright, magically autumn day, with the air cool and crisp.
At the half mile point, we came upon the spring-fed pond for which the trail is named. It was a peaceful, lovely pond surrounded by a skeleton forest of dead trees. You could essentially do tree identification easily: the living trees were Douglas Fir and the dead trees were Engelmann Spruce.
(I am not entirely positive what I’m doing in the photo above. I think I’m mimicking the movements of a water bug.)
After the pond, the trail began its gentle half-mile ascent toward the parking area for Chessman Ridge Overlook, the southern trailhead for the loop.
At the southern end of the loop, we emerged into a meadow. It was long past wildflower season at this elevation, but in July, this would have been an expanse of blues and yellows and purples.
Back we went into the forest for the second mile of our hike.
We had just taken our jackets off because it was getting warm, when a dark cloud blew over us and it began to hail. Talk about changeable high-altitude weather… Happily, the hail event only lasted a few minutes. But we definitely put our jackets back on.
Near the end of the trail, we emerged into a rocky area. The entire time we’d been at Cedar Breaks, we’d been hoping to spot a Pika. This would be our last chance. So we slowly, carefully, quietly climbed up into the rocks and peered around, hoping.
Alas, it was not to be. Pika would have to remain on our list of yet-to-be-seen species.
From the rocky outcrop, the trail descended quickly to the north parking area. Our two-mile Alpine Pond Loop hike took us an hour and a quarter. (Apparently we’re very consistent.) We’d seen only two other hikers on the trail and four more at the parking area.
It was now a bit after 3:30pm, and it was time to say farewell to beautiful Cedar Breaks National Monument and start the drive back down 6,400 feet to our campsite in Zion National Park.