Southwestern Utah is world famous for its wildly colorful parklands: Bryce Canyon, Zion, Cedar Breaks and others. But lesser known is Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, one of the most colorful displays of nature you'll ever see.
Less than 20 miles from the east entrance of magnificent and popular Zion National Park, this 3,370-acre dune ecosystem and conservation area is the second highest dune field in the country, sitting at a 6,000-foot elevation.
The dunes are named for their brilliant color, which comes from the type of surrounding Navajo sandstone rock. Over the past fifteen thousand years, high winds strafing a notch between the Moquith and Moccasin Mountains have broken down the rock to form the massive orange-pink dunes. The soft, extremely fine sand has been wind-sculpted into beautiful forms that are especially dramatic late in the day or early morning.
Visitors come here to take in the views from an observing platform, hike the dunes and absorb the sheer beauty of the place. Unfortunately ATVs are allowed in portions of the park, which mars the solitude of the place somewhat, but not enough to take the park off the list of must-see southern Utah sites.
This is a challenging environment for animal life, but some creatures have adapted to the lack of water, the summer heat and the winter cold. Some of the animals found here include mule deer, ring-tailed cat, jack rabbit, coyote, fox, mountain lion, bobcat and the cottontail, striped whiptail, California king snake, Utah milk snake, Utah Mountain king snake and the Sonoran lyre snake. The protected Coral Pink Sand Dunes tiger beetle is an insect species that is endemic to these dunes, and is found nowhere else in the world. The park also home to a rare plant, Welsh's milkweed, a federally listed threatened species.
Coral Pink Sand Dunes is a great prelude to one of the West's most magnificent parks: Zion National Park, which happens to be just down the road.
Utah's first national park, Zion is a collection of narrow valleys and canyons, sculpted rock terraces and sheer cream, pink and red sandstone cliffs. It is a dream destination for camping, hiking, biking and photography, especially in late September and October, when the trees along the park's Virgin River explode in a brilliant display of fall color.
You take the park’s shuttle bus to any number of hiking trailheads. Angels Landing is one of the most remarkable hikes in the park, taking you on a precipitous climb above the river to Refrigerator Canyon followed by a challenging ascent up Walter’s Wiggles, a series of switchbacks carved into the cliff, and to Scout Lookout. If heights don't bother you, you can continue on to Angels Landing, a sheer wedge of rock looming 1,500 feet above the valley.
The last half-mile of trail runs along a steep narrow ridge with a dizzying drop-off on either side. (Chains bolted into the rock steady you on your climb.) The vista from the landing is a 360-degree panorama of soaring rock faces and the abyss of Zion Canyon.
Another fantastic option is experiencing The Narrows, Zion’s most popular hike. You wade into the inner gorge of the Virgin River as it forges through rock. Small waterfalls and hanging gardens tumble down the canyon walls, which reach up to 1,000 feet high. If you do this hike, you will get wet, so be sure to wear closed-toe shoes with good tread that you don’t mind getting soaked. (Note: If there are threats of flash floods, the park service will close the trail for safety reasons.
There is also the hike to the Observation Point, which serves up more than 2,000 feet of vertical gain along with spectacular views of Zion’s backcountry. A less strenuous option is the shaded trail to Emerald Pools, a natural spring with small cascades during parts of the year.