Despite rich fauna and flora, the real star of Zion National Park is scenery: Navajo sandstone cliffs, soaring rock spires and a spectacular gorge. ©John T. Andrews

A strange, three-sided, metallic monolith was discovered in an undisclosed spot somewhere in Utah’s canyons during a helicopter survey of bighorn sheep on November 18, 2020. The Utah Department of Public Safety workers who found the object determined that the structure was 10 to 12 feet tall and planted firmly in the ground. While they joked that it could have been left by aliens—much like in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey—it seemed to them more like an artistic installation than part of any otherworldly scientific experiment.

It’s still not clear who placed the monolith there, but one member of the flight crew said that it was the most bizarre detection he’s ever made in all the years that he’s flown over the Utah desert. Bighorn sheep live in some of the state’s most rugged and unforgiving areas, and they survive in incredibly hostile climate conditions. Fearing amateur explorers might get stuck in the wilderness while seeking out the monolith, the flight crew did not reveal its exact location. But eight days later, some Instagrammers tracked down the construction in a remote area of the red rocks.

Adding to this mystery is the fact that Google Earth images show that the monolith has been standing in that place since at least 2015 or 2016. The Utah Department of Public Safety goes even further: it says that it’s possible that it’s been there for 50 years or more.

Rock formations in Bryce Canyon National Park can take on the appearance of fanciful creatures, such as dragons. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

While I’m curious about the metal monolith, I believe that nothing could rival the natural obelisks that have been standing in Utah’s canyons for eons. To me, they are far more spectacular and fuller of mystery than any installed, shiny one.

Bryce Canyon National Park: change, changelings and challenges

In late summer of 2019, before the world had ever heard of COVID-19, I traveled to Utah’s canyons. It was my third trip there in recent years, because I’m always interested in visiting places I’ve seen before and how they change over time.

In some ways, Bryce Canyon National Park terrifies me. I have a fear of the edges around steep drop-offs, and when walking the trails down through Bryce’s valleys of hoodoos, there are plenty of those. But the supernatural beauty of the rock spires always keeps calling me onward.

From the rim of the Bryce Amphitheater on a clear day, you can look down upon the intriguing shapes of the hoodoos that fill the bowl. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Bryce’s hoodoos take on their extraordinary shapes because the top layer of rock—the caprock—is harder than the layers that lie below it. Erosion undercuts the soft rock beneath the tops, carving phantasmal creatures and fanciful characters. If weathering of the soft rock is too extreme or happens too quickly, the hoodoo will tumble. But every time you go back to Bryce, you’ll find the stones have changed.

Because of my dread of drop-offs, the Mossy Cave Trail is one of my favorite hikes in Bryce. It’s a short, 0.8-mile trek, but it boasts a bubbling stream, a pint-size waterfall, a cute cave and haunting hoodoos. Here, however, you’re already at the base of the hoodoos, without having to maneuver any steep descents.

The first time I hiked the Mossy Cave Trail, I discovered a rock formation that looked exactly like a dragon. When I returned to the trail 12 years later, my dragon looked slightly transformed. In the intervening years, ice and rain had altered his body. In fact, change and changelings are the theme here: Bryce Canyon really isn’t even a canyon at all—it’s an amphitheater.

Zion’s stunning ecosystems nurture leafy hanging gardens, spilling with maidenhair ferns, and high-country forests teeming with aspens and ponderosa pines. ©John T. Andrews

On a 2019 trip to Bryce Canyon National Park, I stood at Piracy Point—a lightly trafficked, out-and back-trail—and watched the smoke from a distant forest fire billow into the sky. It wasn’t my only brush with wildfires that day. On the Bristlecone Loop Trail—a path that typically crosses thick forests of fir and spruce to several overlooks of cliffs and hoodoos along the south end of the Paunsaugunt Plateau—the sun felt unrelenting, and the land was unusually wide-open. More than a decade ago, I experienced this trail as a shady place. Along with ice and rain, fire changes the aspect of Bryce.

During the evening on that day, I walked to the rim of the Bryce Amphitheater; but, unfortunately, the smoke from the fire had made the atmosphere too hazy to see anything more than a few feet away. More mystery here in the structures that stand tall.

Zion National Park: straight-up land, spectacle and star

Zion National Park’s more than 148,000 acres sit at the junction of the Colorado Plateau, the Great Basin and the Mojave Desert in Utah’s southwest corner. These three, distinct geographical regions fused to create the park’s wondrous landscape, which comprises six unofficial sections: Zion Canyon, the Upper East Canyon, The Narrows, the Desert Lowlands, the Kolob Terrace and Kolob Canyons.

The Kolob Canyons section of Zion National Park is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful places on Earth. ©John T. Andrews

Kolob Canyons is a red rock sanctuary located in the isolated, northwest corner of Zion National Park. It’s one of my most favorite places on Earth. Here, just off I-15, you’ll find finger canyons that glow deep pink and orange, and hanging valleys that keep succeeding upon one another. Being here feels like a spiritual awakening.

The Southern Paiute, who lived in the Zion area as early as A.D. 1250, called it Mukuntuweap, which is translated as “straight-up land.” They found refuge and sustenance within Zion’s sheer walls, harvesting plants and seeds for food and medicines; and they cultivated corn, squash and sunflowers. They were followed by Mormon pioneers, who settled in southern Utah in the 1850s. As described in the Book of Abraham, a sacred text of the Latter-day Saint movement, Kolob is the heavenly body nearest to the throne of God, or the “residence closest to heaven.” While the written work defines Kolob as a “star,” it also calls planets “stars”; and, therefore, some Latter-day Saint commentators consider Kolob a planet.

I certainly can vouch for the fact that Kolob Canyons of Zion National Park is a world unto itself.

While the natural obelisks in the Southwest Canyons don’t shine like metal, they shimmer with red hues. And that’s even more beautiful to me. ©John T. Andrews

Wilderness, wild rides and wellness

For now, news of the monolith has been delighting science-fiction and movie fans all over the Internet. Officials, however, said in a statement that installing unauthorized structures on federally managed public lands is illegal. But even they seemed somewhat tickled. Tongue in cheek, they added, “no matter what planet you’re from.”

Some people also posited that the discovery of a monolith in the wilderness was a fitting end to the wild ride of 2020. While the Bureau of Land Management was determining whether to investigate further, it was reported on Sunday that the monolith had been mysteriously removed.

To tell you the truth, I’m not sorry it has vacated the premises. The best obelisks and pillars, spires and towers, in the Southwest Canyons are made of ice, wind, rain and rock. While they don’t shine like metal, they glow with crimsons, reds and scarlets.

And they soar to the sky with your spirits, like nothing manufactured ever could.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,