Four states hold many wonders of nature and history in parks, monuments, reserves


November 08, 1992|By Susan Bayer Ward | Susan Bayer Ward,Contributing Writer

One of America's most popular vacationlands is the Southwest, where a salubrious climate, stunning scenery, American Indian cultures, lively indigenous cuisine and a variety of pleasant accommodations have made a hot spot for fun and adventure.

But few know that within the confines of four Southwestern states lies a magic circle of scenic wonders tied together by a 1,400-mile, all-weather highway system. Known as the "Grand Circle," this spherical route connects, and gives easy access to, the greatest concentration of national parks and monuments in the United States. Altogether, seven national parks, seven national monuments, a Navajo tribal park, a plethora of state parks and reserves, and a lavish array of historic sites ring the Grand Circle.

Bisecting the corners of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona -- where they adjoin -- this spectacular loop ribbons not only through parks, but also by impressive rivers, quaint Old West towns, picturesque Western film sites, original Indian trading posts, rustic and historic lodges and inns, a host of good arts and crafts shops, prehistoric Indian ruins and more.

The Grand Circle can be easily driven in its entirety (though you want a healthy chunk of time to do it properly), or -- as many people do -- you can choose to tour one segment of it, returning time and again to explore a fresh section. It's like digging into the same pie year after year, and finding, to your delight, that each slice has a different texture, color and flavor. And each wedge, when sampled, is more scrumptious than the last.

The Grand Circle's most famous taste treats are the Grand Canyon, Bryce and Zion national parks and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area/Lake Powell. Other great sites include Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Mesa Verde and Arches national parks, Canyon de Chelly, Cedar Breaks, Hovenweep, Natural Bridges, Navajo and Rainbow Bridges national monuments, and Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park.

Not only can you enjoy all, or some, of these spots on this elliptical route, but there's an organization that specializes in providing data on its many features. The 8-year-old Grand Circle Association, with offices in Page, Ariz., has compiled an eight-page guide crammed with information and a map on Grand Circle sights. Free for the asking, the publication is just one of many materials put out by the association to promote the famous circuit. Its extremely popular photo- and information-filled book has gone into numerous printings. In addition, a video can be purchased at retail outlets throughout the Grand Circle region.

Asked to pick a favorite Grand Circle locale, members of the association stare back at you in mock horror. "Pick one?" they cry. "But they're all great. It's really a matter of personal taste."

Back to that word taste again: Indeed, it is up to travelers to sample each landscape and decide for themselves which are their favorites. And the task couldn't be more fun.

There's Utah's Bryce Canyon National Park overflowing with pink-, red- and golden-hued rock formations. Its historic lodge has just undergone a $2.5 million restoration, and the cabins are a joy with their working fireplaces, ample porches, Western decor and modern bathrooms. The cowboy-led trail rides into the canyon are a must.

Zion National Park, also located in Utah, provides a very different perspective. Here you stand inside the canyon and look up, whereas in Bryce, you rim-walk while gazing down. Also known for a charming lodge-and-cabins setup and its tame mule deer that flock around tourists, Zion and its mighty monuments once kept the wary Paiutes out at nightfall (they feared evil gods), while luring Mormon pioneers who settled along its Virgin River.

Colorado's arresting Mesa Verde is the only national park whose main purpose is to conserve the creations of prehistoric peoples. A prime place for such an endeavor, the park contains mesa-top cliffs that shelter more than 4,000 known archaeological sites -- a number of them already researched and uncovered. A rim drive and adjacent overlooks allow tourists clear views of these astonishing and intricate cliff palaces, while several can actually beclimbed into for a close-up look.

The south rim of Arizona's popular Grand Canyon National Park is still a mecca for those who wish to drive the rim, hike or ride down, via mule-back, into its interior to revel in one of nature's most dramatic productions. Unfortunately, only 10 percent of park visitors make their way to the more isolated north rim, which offers even more breathtaking panoramas, less crowding, hikes and mule rides aplenty, and the historic Grand Canyon Lodge and Western-style cabins.

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