Cedar City, Utah, only a three-hour drive from Las Vegas, is not only a great place to visit but also a fine base location for exploring some of the most stunning natural scenery in the United States.
Fall foliage will be the area's star attraction the next couple of months. Cedar City is surrounded by unspoiled public lands. Cedar Breaks National Monument, Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park are all close by, and in between you will find thousands of acres of Dixie National Forest good for hiking, biking or just sightseeing.
But the town itself is rich with cultural and historic attractions. The Tony Award-winning Utah Shakespeare Festival started in 1962 and has grown to become one of the top Shakespeare festivals in North America. It has long added modern plays to the Shakespearean main course; through Oct. 19 you can see "Les Miserables," and Sept. 20 through Oct. 20 they will present "Hamlet" and "Stones in His Pocket." The latter is a critically acclaimed comedy about a Hollywood production, filming on location in Ireland, and thereby encountering reality instead of the expected idyllic stereotypes.
With the weather about to cool down, September and October are probably the best months for a visit here. Although you can't predict Mother Nature's exact schedule, fall colors start appearing in early to mid-September at higher elevations such as the Markagunt Plateau, only about 20 miles west of Cedar City. This plateau is home to Cedar Breaks National Monument, Brian Head, Duck Creek and Navajo and Panguitch lakes and is the premier place for fall foliage viewing. The foliage season runs through late October in the lower areas such as the Zion Canyon area of Zion National Park.
In September, one of the best scenic drives for seeing the colored foliage is a 55-mile loop along three scenic byways. Start from Cedar City by taking Scenic Byway 14 west, which takes you up Cedar Canyon and up to the Markagunt Plateau. Take a left onto Scenic Byway 148, which will take you through Cedar Breaks National Monument and then continue onto Scenic Byway 143, which heads over to Brian Head and Parowan Canyon and into the valley below. In Parowan you pick up Interstate 15 south back to Cedar City.
While you could easily do the loop in a couple of hours, devoting a full day to this journey is the better strategy, because there are plenty of places to stop along the way. As you leave Cedar City along Scenic Byway 14 you will head along Coal Creek and through the Hurricane Cliffs, passing several deep canyons in the Ashdown Gorge Wilderness area. The road then steepens and has many curves and twists through areas of steep cliffs and forested spots. Once you have reached the plateau there are several good places to stop, stretch your legs and take in the views.
An excellent first stop is a large pullout on the right, signed Zion Overlook. From this vantage point you will be able to see the Pine Valley Mountains to the southwest, the Kolob Plateau and down to some of Zion National Park's prominent landmarks, including the West Temple.
Just about one mile farther, keep an eye out for the small sign on your right marking Bristlecone Trailhead. This is an easy one-mile loop hike through a landscape full of evergreens, including fir, spruce and an ancient bristlecone pine forest. From a man-made wooden platform viewing area you will find even more views down into Zion, including the headwaters of the North Fork of the Virgin River. If you have ever hiked between the feet of soaring cliffs in the Zion Narrows, you will find it interesting to look down onto the tops of those cliffs.
Back in your vehicle, continue on Scenic Byway 14 a short ways and go left onto Scenic Byway 148. This is only a six-mile drive but takes you past open meadows, dense forested areas and through Cedar Breaks National Monument. Even those short on time ought to stop at one of the viewpoints to gaze at the park's three-mile-wide amphitheater, filled with the interesting natural pillars called hoodoos.
This byway connects with Scenic Byway 143, which will take you the last few miles to the resort town of Brian Head. Before you get to the town, though, look to your right for the road that takes you up to Brian Head Peak. The two-mile gravel road climbs to 11,307 feet and the finest view you could possibly get in the region. If you are fortunate to have a crystal-clear day, you can see more than 100 miles, all the way into Nevada and the Arizona Strip.
If you happen to be in the area on Sept. 15 and 16, Brian Head will host its 20th annual Oktoberfest. It takes place at the Navajo Lodge at the base of the ski resort, where you can feast on authentic German food, listen to great music and, of course, have a few pints of beer.
Continuing your drive on Scenic Byway 143, you will end up in the valley, home to the small town of Parowan. The Iron County Fair coincides with Labor Day Weekend, Friday through Sept. 3. Activities are planned to interest everyone in the family, including a car show, parade, carnival, talent show, ranch rodeo, 5k fun run, concession booths and exhibits. On Sept. 15 at the nearby Parowan Gap Petroglyphs, there will be the Fall Equinox Observation, which includes a presentation of the American Indian solar calendar and observation of the equinox sunset.
Once you make it back to Cedar City, it is worth spending an hour or two at the Frontier Homestead State Park Museum, formerly called the Iron Mission Museum. This is a trip back to the time of the region's first settlers. I especially enjoy seeing the indoor displays of modes of transportation from days gone by. Few other museums can boast such a fine collection of sleighs, wagons, carriages, let alone a replica of a Wells Fargo Overland Stagecoach. You can actually get into this stagecoach and see what it was like to travel in the 19th century.
Outside the main building you will find a small pioneer village including many structures, all built in Southern Utah and later donated to the park. One small house, built in 1851, is the oldest known log cabin in the region. It was home to many pioneer families and was the birthplace of 24 children. There is also a line shack, one of two built in 1945 by the Utah Parks Co. for workers to live in as they installed a telephone line in the steep and rugged terrain between Cedar City and Bryce Canyon.
Sept. 29 is National Public Lands Day, which gives you free entry to any National Park. Do you need any other excuse to spend that day in the hinterlands of Cedar City?