It's like a sunrise, but even better.
You're in that near perfect outdoor setting, the breeze, the sounds, the views, the textures, the people. Everything combines to shape your impressions. You're having a magical experience. It's similar to the awe you feel with a sunrise or sunset but much better, and often can last much longer.
The above description accurately portrays two such moments that are indelibly burned into our family memories.
The Hidden Canyon
My wife and I piled the kids in the car one Saturday morning with intentions of discovering together a new place for a day-time adventure. We headed east from St. George, Utah toward Zion National Park with a plan to avoid the crowds. Along the way we passed a road leading up the side of a plateau and we circled back to see where that route would lead. As we ascended the plateau a few of the acrophobia suffering members of the family anxiously expressed their views about how close to the edge we were. The higher we climbed the greater the vertical drop, and the more vocal the expressions. As a result I found myself driving through some curves on the left side of the road to satisfy their concerns. Once on the plateau, the paved road turned to dirt, and we were immediately rewarded with dramatic views of the distant west face of the formations that comprise Zion park. Our intended destination was yet unknown as we followed the road northward and parallel to a canyon on the east. After another 20 minutes of driving the road bent hard to the right, we descended slightly and spotted what appeared to be the beginning of the canyon.
Call it serendipity, or inspiration, but my wife and I looked at each other with a simultaneous impression that this was a good spot to begin a family adventure. On foot we first descended just a few feet into a shallow gully and the further we trekked the deeper this small gorge became. Soon the canyon walls changed from soil and boulders to sheer rock faces. We continued on the downward stair-stepping slope looking for features in the terrain that would capture our children's imaginations. To our right a crevice in the rock face became visible and it became immediately evident that this narrow space needed to be explored.
Our children fit readily through the gap and emerged on the other side of what appeared to be a sandstone fin formation. They called to us with encouragement to follow and we squeezed our bodies after them. The other side of the fin was a small side canyon filled with large boulders with spaces to crawl between and beneath, and hand holds for climbing on top of them. My wife set up a timer on her watch and we devised an obstacle course for our four children to negotiate. Each ran the course which led them under and around large boulders strewn through the small canyon, and they chomped at the bit to attempt to improve their prior time and challenged the course over and over. While the kids were finishing their last runs, I ascended the back section of this side canyon just enough to realize that we were standing below a smaller arch formation. For a moment I stood in awe of the formation, and our luck at finding the span which was approximately 40 feet in length and hugged the cliff face. As soon as I pointed it out, the whole family diverted their effort to finding a pathway closer to the arch. We worked out way through some light brush and pulled each other over various obstructions until we found ourselves standing on top. From this vantage point we could see that this small side canyon merged with the main slot which eventually became a much broader expanse. This arch was such a hidden gem that we were sure very few people were even aware of it, so we determined that it needed a name. It was with great pride that we christened the rock structure Wade Arch.
Somewhere in the course of these small events, my wife and I gave each other the look, the expression that says without saying it out loud, “This is magical!” We spent several hours in this small area, just playing, laughing, inventing games, and taking in the enchantment. Over the years we've returned to this spot several times but we still count this initial visit as one of the top ten of our family experiences.
While this secret spot will remain hidden there is another known wonderland that everyone should experience at least once.
Don't let the name deter you, this is very simply a natural playland for kids and adults. There are very few places where the rock formations are eroded and shaped in such a diverse and interesting fashion. In a small area that encompasses just a few hundred square yards you'll find arches, rock fins, and goblin shaped formations that defy description.
If you are inclined to insert a game into your adventure, then hide and seek, sardines, or fugitive are perfect solutions. There's plenty of places for bouldering, and rock scrambling, and the angles for photography are limitless. We had such great memories of Devils Garden when our children were younger that we recently determined to return again to reenact some of our experiences. In particular we reshot a photograph at a location that had become a family favorite standing on the top of one of the many arches. See pictures next.
Location: Access Devils Garden from near Escalante, Utah approximately 10 minutes down the Hole In The Rock road. Visit Devils Garden in the early morning or late afternoon/evening to catch the full effect of the best light. At these times you're likely to see less people and, if you're lucky, have the place to yourself. Google Map.
There are other places we've experienced in Utah's southwest that have similar potential for magical experiences.
Kodachrome Basin State Park
Snow Canyon State Park
While there are more destinations we could list on this post, it's time to pile in your own vehicle with some water and snacks in hand, and go on a search for a secret place and the setting of your next great magical moment.