An Encounter at Cedar Breaks National Monument

It's funny how one small comment can change your outlook on a place.

Cedar Breaks Melissa and I were walking along the precipitous edge of Spectra Point, the 10,300-foot high classically beautiful viewpoint at Cedar Breaks National Monument when something hit me: I bet a lot of people die here. I mean, here is this 1,000 foot or whatever cliff off into no-man's land and there is no guardrail. Nothing. Not that I would want a guardrail here, something for me to hold on to lest I slip and begin the plunge toward death, but I was just thinking that with nothing there it must be a fairly common occurrence that people slip and die. Or jump off on their own accord. Or are pushed off by love-crazed psychopaths.

So after our hike we went back to the visitor center and asked the white-bearded park ranger, Do a lot of people die here?
'What do you mean?' he asked, eyes narrowing.
'Do a lot of people slip off the cliff and die?'
'Why would you ask something like that?'
'No,' he went on. 'People do not die here. No, I take that back. Once, about 25 years ago, a guy walked up the edge and threw himself off Spectra Point.'
'Do people ever get murdered here?' Melissa chimed in.
'Ya,' I said. 'Like, do people ever get pushed off the edge?'
Apparently, we put the ranger over the edge. He said: 'You have a dark mind, my friend.'
('Dark mind' Melissa and I wondered? Or was Ranger Friendly trying to hide something?)
Jeez. Just asking.

Cedar? What cedar?

Bellicose rangers aside, Cedar Breaks really is a place worth visiting. Think of it as a high-altitude warm-up to Bryce Canyon National Park, which is just a few miles to the east. However, Cedar Breaks is more than a copycat of Bryce.

Spectra Point Cedar Breaks is a three-mile wide amphitheater of fantastically eroded red, yellow, white and pink-colored buttes and pinnacles which are surrounded by sweet-smelling alpine forests and meadows full of wildflowers (well, in the summer, at least). Part of the great beauty of the park is that until you stand at the very edge of the 10,000-foot high Markagunt Plateau and look down (remember: don't jump, and trust the person standing behind you!) there is nothing to suggest that such a place exists. With a few small exceptions, the Markagunt rambles on for few hundred square miles, pocked occasionally by a high peak (like Brian Head to the northwest) or frigid lake. Before white folks arrived the Indians called this place the Circle of Painted Cliffs — a pretty good description. Mormon settlers who showed up in the 1850s called it 'cedar' however, which is a real stumper because cedar trees are found nowhere near the park, or even in the state. Maybe such a misnomer worked to the area's advantage, though: until the area was designated a national monument in 1933, almost no one outside of southern Utah knew about.

The park's awesome colors and formations are the result of oxidation and erosion. Each century the rim of Cedar Breaks recedes about four feet, exposing more relatively soft limestone. Exposed to the air, the limestone oxidizes — rusts, basically — and changes into the red and pink colors which make the monument famous. And exposed to the elements, the limestone comes under the forces of rain and ice. Rain, of course, turns the rock into mud, and spring and fall freezes (there are about 250 freezes a year here) drive water into small cracks, opening the rock open.

Besides the amphitheater, which visitors can hike along for several miles, Cedar Breaks has two other great attractions: flowers and trees.

Bristlecone Pine Each summer the high country meadows that dot the plateau back of the breaks come alive with a bee-filled profusion of wildflowers. From late June until mid-August flowers such as the Indian paintbrush, Blue columbine, Cinquefoil, Shootingstar, Fleabane and wildrose provide a continuing spontaneous show of delicate beauty. These can best be seen on the looping Alpine Pond trail. Back over by Spectra Point visitors are likely to remember one other thing than the view down: the gnarled old tree. That old tree is a bristlecone pine, a subspecies of pine with a peculiar needle structure found only on the highest summits from here east to the Sierra Nevadas in California, and north to the mountains surrounding the Great Salt Lake. Bristlecone pines are called the oldest living things in the world; the oldest trees can be up to 4,500 years old, while the fire-eaten tree at the Point is about 1,600 years. Built to withstand the most extreme conditions on Earth, these pines live through floods, blizzards, drought, fires, lightning strikes and large-scale climate change, not to mention the thin soil of mountaintops.

Cedar Breaks is technically open year-round, but due to heavy snowfall the roads are not plowed from October until May. During the summer visitors can check out the visitors center, which has a book and gift shop, the scenic drive, trails and overlooks, a 30-slot campground with water and restrooms, and numerous picnic grounds. In the winter you can ski, snowshoe or snowmobile in, though Congressional legislation may soon make snowmobiles in national parks a thing of the past. Perhaps the easiest access in winter is from Brian Head. Accommodations can be found in Panguitch, Brian Head, Long Valley Jct. and Cedar City.

I Can't Stop Thinking About It!

Alpine Pine After our encounter with Ranger Friendly, Melissa and I went back into the park for a hike. We walked along the rim's high points south from the visitors center and went to visit the old bristlecone pine. The colors and striations in the rock here are really fabulous, even if you have just been to Bryce Canyon. I was walking with Melissa, and we were trying to gauge how far it was to the bottom. Melissa is so light that if she fell off she would not actually fall but instead float down. Still, I can't help but peer over the edge. A good place to stay in Cedar City is The Best Western El Rey Inn & Suites. It's right downtown, and is a quick drive from the park.

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