September 01, 2022

Cedar Breaks: What's in a Name?

Written by Jem Ashton
A view from the rim of Cedar Breaks National Monument A view from the rim of Cedar Breaks National Monument Jem Ashton

Cedar Breaks National Monument - located just south of Parowan in Iron County - is a natural amphitheater that stretches across 3 miles and has a depth of over 2,000 feet. The rock formations found here are similar to those in Bryce Canyon National Park but are more eroded. The meadowed rim of the amphitheater blooms each spring with Colorado columbine, scarlet paintbrush, orange sneezeweed, prairie smoke, yellow evening primrose, plantainleaf buttercup, and two species of penstemon among many other wildflowers. Visitors will frequently spot mule deer and porcupines, but will even more frequently see marmots, golden-mantled ground squirrels, pocket gophers, violet-green swallows, and ravens. The monument is home to several tree species, like bristlecone pine, subalpine firs, aspen, and limber pine among others, but one tree species is unexpectedly absent – cedars.

Originally called un-cap-i-un-ump or “circle of painted cliffs” by the native Paiutes, the monument lies within the traditional homeland of the Southern Paiutes, an area that spans across southern Utah, Nevada, and northern Arizona. Within the monument itself, archeologists have documented sites of ancestral natives dating back more than 10,000 years. It wasn’t until 1919, when the first automobile reached Cedar Breaks, that settlers of European heritage found substantial interest in the area. Shortly after the first machine-made venture into the area, a road was constructed that connected Cedar Breaks to the east side of Zion National Park, making it more accessible and therefore more popular. In the 1930s, visitation increased dramatically after advertisements were made showcasing the soon-to-be national monument – one of which read, “…countless grotesque and magnificent geological forms, caused by water erosion, anointed with all colors of the spectrum…”

Then, on August 22, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt officialized the area’s status as a US National Monument, christened with its longstanding misnomer, Cedar Breaks National Monument. While the monument certainly is a break, the word early pioneers used to describe what we now refer to as badlands, there were no cedars in Utah until they were introduced by new settlers. What the early pioneers mistook for cedars were actually Utah junipers, or juniperus osteosperma, of the cypress family. Utah junipers are found throughout most of Utah and are very drought, cold, and heat resistant. They’re hardy and they can tolerate a variety of soil conditions, even doing well in dry, rocky locations. They can be recognized by their small scale-shaped leaves and their gray bark. Although the Utah juniper does well in most growing conditions throughout the state, they haven’t become very popular for home landscaping. However, their hardiness makes them the perfect candidate for xeriscaping and water-wise gardening on properties with plenty of sun.

While its name might technically be a bit dishonest, don’t let that deter you from visiting Cedar Breaks National Monument. In the summer heat, its high elevation and its trees (although not cedar) provide a cool getaway. Besides, as Shakespeare put it, “what’s in a name?”

To learn more about trees in Utah, click here.


utah juniper closeupClose-up of a Utah juniper's branches