UP's Grand Circle

Vacations are supposed to take you away from your job, but when you work in transportation and design a family road trip in the American Southwest the shipping business can turn up in surprising ways.

This summer, it wasn’t that Lake Powell at Page, Ariz., (yes, Page, Ariz.) had a container terminal – it doesn’t – or that there are a lot of triple tractor-trailers near St. George, Utah – there are.

No, last month, after spending countless hours playing at route planner, diagramming out an intricately crafted, perfect circle of scenic symmetry across hundreds of miles of desert roads and canyon vistas, I found myself standing on the porch of the Bryce Canyon Lodge a short walk from the stunning Bryce Canyon in Utah reading a historical marker that told me that my trip already had been plotted out for me nearly a century ago.

The Union Pacific Railroad in the 1920s set a path between Bryce, the nearby Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon, built the lodges that still stand in these stunning locations and set the train service between the parks that brought thousands of people to the region. The railroad created what is still known as the “Grand Circle” – the circle we drew out on a 21st century map that unwittingly mirrored rail business plans of the 1920s.

The UP did that through its subsidiary, the Utah Parks Company, which sought to pull in tourists, and rail passengers, with its investments in the tracks, stations and lodges.

The UP and the other big railroads of the era no longer carry passengers, of course. There are still trains in the region – a BNSF intermodal train moving through Kingman, Ariz., reminded us of that. But you have to drive to travel the Grand Circle in the 21st century. And Las Vegas, Nev., is a more likely takeoff point than the UP’s choice of Cedar City, Utah.

Other than the lights in Las Vegas, the scenery is still pretty much what UP’s planners were selling in the 1920s, and the landscape is pretty much as the railroad found it, as it had been for a few million years before that.

For the full story: Log In, Register for Free or Subscribe