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Kodchrome Basin State Park got its name from a 1948 National Geographic expedition that used the relativelynew brand of Koak film. The park is famous for its colorful clifss and odd rock formations.
Kodchrome Basin State Park got its name from a 1948 National Geographic expedition that used the relativelynew brand of Koak film. The park is famous for its colorful clifss and odd rock formations. (Tom Bean for the Boston Globe)

Earth and eye move upward in this basin

Kodachrome's rock spires are one of a kind

Email|Print| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / June 11, 2006

CANNONVILLE -- The view east from the rim of Bryce Canyon National Park is epic: Nearby groves of orange-rock hoodoos give way to the badland sweep of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and 80 miles of blues over browns until the distant silhouette of Navajo Mountain.

It is possible to stare out into that natural vacuum of a view for a long time and still not notice what is, relatively, right beneath your nose. There in the foreground, only 10 miles out and a thousand feet below, more or less, hunkers Kodachrome Basin State Park.

The dictionary defines a basin as a depression in the land in which strata dip inward to the center. Wander into Kodachrome Basin and it is immediately clear that this is true, with bobbing hills and gullies and little box canyons all snuggling together.

But what sets Kodachrome apart, and makes it worth a stop for an Easterner touring a stretch of the wild West that has far larger, more famous national parks and monuments, is that much of the basin reaches up. There are 70 sand pipe spires , some as short as 6 feet, others nearly as tall as a 20-story building. Add the soft kiss of dawn or the hot burn of desert afternoon, and the spires and all that surrounds them take a chameleon's turn, shifting in reds, whites, grays, and browns.

This symphony of sandstone and sunlight inspired members of a 1949 National Geographic Society expedition to dub the ``glowing" valley ``Kodachrome Flat." A caption accompanying one landscape photo in the September issue of that year reads: ``Its many-hued opalescence, unusual even for the Southwest, makes the isolated valley a photographer's dream come true. Fantastic rock fins, towers, and pinnacles thrust skyward."

Local ranchers, the magazine reported, dubbed it ``Thorny Pasture."

These days, Kodachrome State Park is a welcoming place, with a modern visitors center, a clutch of cabins for rent, and a small campground.

Site number 10 is as good a base as any for a stay of a night, or a week. A Utah juniper shades a picnic table from the road. Beyond the squat, berried tree, the dusty land widens toward a circular cliff wall 500 feet high. The setting is at once intimate and awesome.

That duality of scale is the reward of Kodachrome Basin. There are certainly more stunning settings: Southern Utah is home to five national parks, including Arches, Zion , and Canyonlands . Those parks are large and important enough to have garnered attention from afar, and each year draw as many as a million or more visitors to prove it. Spending time in one is like meeting a bigger-than-life celebrity, someone you can never fully comprehend.

But Utah's semi desert south also boasts nearly 20 state parks, and it is here, in pockets of places like Goblin Valley and Snow Canyon, but perhaps best of all Kodachrome, that the state has guarded overlooked gems. Call it local knowledge. Hiking and breathing deeply in these places can be more like meeting a calm stranger, someone with whom you can become a friend, bound through shared experience.

At Kodachrome, this relationship is best built on foot, wandering a series of benign desert trails that range in length from a quarter-mile to 5 miles.

On a loop trail to Shakespeare Arch, signposts point out holly-grape , bitterbrush, rattleweed milkvetch, and other plants cantankerous enough to survive the bone-dry terrain. One deep gully testifies that sometimes it does rain and rivers rush, but only briefly.

Jog the thick dirt paths of Panorama Trail at dusk and watch the palette of colors evolve by the minute. Stay too long, though, and the air cools, the sky deepens beyond cobalt blue, delivering an ominous ambience that reminds visitors that this desert is home to cougars and coyotes, whip lizards and Great Basin rattlesnakes.

Morning comes again all fresh and perfect for walking, and then Grand Parade Trail is best, leading as it does deep into two narrow box canyons. Slow-moving horses carry tourists as rock wrens dart about the cliffs overhead. Dust a bit of red rock with a bare hand and it is easy to see how water and wind could make quick work of the Entrada sandstone that once encased the standing spires.

The terrain throughout the park is rugged but easy to navigate, with views present at every step, a welcome change for Easterners more conditioned to thickly wooded trails. At a bend, the land may drop to Dry Valley, still used as rangeland for cattle. Or after a rise, a look west can show that famous rim of Bryce Canyon, reduced to a trace of brown and red.

At the northern edge of Kodachrome Basin, a short, steep trail called Eagle View promises rich reward. From atop a mountain saddle, survey the basin and look east into Cottonwood Canyon, part of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The trail there is rocky and steep and rises 500 feet in under a mile.

So it is better not to climb, not to part company with the sprinting jack rabbits and tufts of colorful Indian paintbrush, evening primrose and yellow flacks. It is better to stay on the basin floor, lingering in a place that can be, even in a day or two, knowable.

Contact Tom Haines at thaines@globe.com .

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