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A delightful little park, Cedar Breaks is a wonderful place to spend a few hours or even several days, gazing down from the rim into the spectacular natural amphitheater, hiking the trails, and camping among the spruce, fir, and wildflowers that blanket the plateau in summer.

This natural coliseum, reminiscent of Bryce Canyon, is more than 2,000 feet deep and over 3 miles across; it's filled with stone spires, arches, and columns shaped by the forces of erosion and painted in ever-changing reds, purples, oranges, and ochers. But why "Cedar Breaks"? Well, the pioneers who came here called such badlands "breaks," and they mistook the juniper trees along the cliff bases for cedars.

Essentials

At more than 10,000 feet elevation, it's always pleasantly cool at Cedar Breaks. It actually gets downright cold at night, so bring a jacket or sweater, even if the temperature is scorching just down the road in St. George. The monument opens for its short summer season only after the snow melts, usually in late May, and closes in mid-October -- unless you happen to have a snowmobile or a pair of cross-country skis or snowshoes, in which case you can visit year-round.

Getting There -- Cedar Breaks National Monument is 21 miles east of Cedar City, 56 miles west of Bryce Canyon National Park, and 247 miles south of Salt Lake City.

From I-15, drive east of Cedar City on Utah 14 to Utah 148, turn north (left), and follow Utah 148 into the monument. If you're coming from Bryce Canyon or other points east, the park is accessible from the town of Panguitch via Utah 143. From the north, take the Parowan exit off I-15 and head south on Utah 143. It's a steep climb from whichever direction you choose, and vehicles prone to vapor lock or loss of power on hills (such as motor homes) may have some problems.

Information/Visitor Center -- For advance information, contact the Superintendent, Cedar Breaks National Monument, 2390 W. Utah 56, Ste. 11, Cedar City, UT 84720-4151 (tel. 435/586-9451; www.nps.gov/cebr).

A mile from the south entrance gate is the visitor center, open 8am to 6pm daily from early June to mid-October, with exhibits on the geology, flora, and fauna of Cedar Breaks. You can purchase books and maps here, and rangers can help plan your visit.

Fees & Regulations -- Admission is $4 per person per week for those 16 and older. Regulations are similar to those at most national parks: Leave everything as you find it. Mountain bikes are not allowed on hiking trails. Dogs, which must be leashed at all times, are prohibited on all trails, in the backcountry, and in public buildings.

Health & Safety -- The high elevation -- 10,350 feet at the visitor center -- is likely to cause shortness of breath and tiredness, and those with heart or respiratory conditions should consult their doctors before going. Avoid overlooks and other high, exposed areas during thunderstorms; they're often targets for lightning.

Ranger Programs -- During the monument's short summer season, rangers offer guided hikes on Saturdays, nightly campfire talks at the campground, and talks on the area's geology at Point Supreme, a viewpoint near the visitor center, daily on the hour from 10am to 4pm. A complete schedule is posted at the visitor center and the campground.

Exploring Cedar Breaks by Car

The 5-mile road through Cedar Breaks National Monument offers easy access to the monument's scenic overlooks and trail heads. Allow 30 to 45 minutes to make the drive. Start at the visitor center and nearby Point Supreme for a panoramic view of the amphitheater. Then drive north, past the campground and picnic ground turnoff, to Sunset View for a closer view of the amphitheater and its colorful canyons. From each of these overlooks, you can see out across Cedar Valley, over the Antelope and Black mountains, into the Escalante Desert.

Continue north to Chessman Ridge Overlook, so named because the hoodoos directly below look like massive stone chess pieces. Watch for swallows and swifts soaring among the rock formations. Then head north to Alpine Pond, a trail head for a self-guided nature trail with an abundance of wildflowers. Finally, you'll reach North View, which offers the best look into the amphitheater. The view here is reminiscent of Bryce Canyon's Queen's Garden, with its stately statues frozen in time.

Outdoor Pursuits

Hiking -- No trails connect the rim to the bottom of the amphitheater, but the monument does have two high-country trails. The fairly easy 2-mile Alpine Pond Trail loop leads through woodlands of bristlecone pines to a picturesque forest glade and pond surrounded by wildflowers, offering panoramic views of the amphitheater along the way. A printed trail guide is available for purchase at the trail head.

A somewhat more challenging hike, the 4-mile round-trip Spectra Point Trail (also called the Ramparts Trail) follows the rim more closely than the Alpine Pond Trail, offering changing views of the colorful rock formations. It also takes you through fields of wildflowers and by bristlecone pines that are more than 1,500 years old. Be especially careful of your footing along the exposed cliff edges, and allow yourself some time to rest -- there are lots of ups and downs along the way.

Late-Summer Bonanza: The Cedar Breaks Wildflowers -- During its brief summer season, Cedar Breaks makes the most of the warmth and moisture in the air with a spectacular wildflower show. The rim comes alive in a blaze of color -- truly a sight to behold. The dazzling display begins when the snow melts in May and reaches its peak during late July and August.

Wildlife-Watching -- Because of its relative remoteness, Cedar Breaks is a good place for spotting wildlife. You're likely to see mule deer grazing in the meadows along the road early and late in the day. Marmots make their dens near the rim and are often seen along the Spectra Point Trail. Ground squirrels, red squirrels, and chipmunks are everywhere. Pikas, which are related to rabbits, are here too, but it's unlikely you'll see one because they prefer the high, rocky slopes.

In the campground, birders should have no trouble spotting the Clark's nutcracker, with its gray torso and black-and-white wings and tail. The monument is also home to swallows, swifts, blue grouse, and golden eagles.

Winter Fun -- The monument's facilities are shut down from mid-October to late May due to the blanket of snow that covers the area. The snow-blocked roads keep cars out, but they're perfect for snowmobilers, snowshoers, and cross-country skiers, who usually come over from the Brian Head ski area nearby. Snowshoers and cross-country skiers have several different trails to choose from, but snowmobiles are restricted to the main 5-mile road through the monument, which is groomed and marked.

Camping

The 28-site campground, Point Supreme, just north of the visitor center, is open from June to mid-September, with sites available on a first-come, first-served basis. It's a beautiful high-mountain setting, among tall spruce and fir. Facilities include restrooms, drinking water, picnic tables, grills, and an amphitheater for the ranger's evening campfire programs. No showers or RV hookups are available. The camping fee is $14 per night. Keep in mind that even in midsummer, temperatures can drop into the 30s (single digits Celsius) at night at this elevation, so bring cool-weather gear.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.