Big Fun at the Iron County Fair in Parowan, Utah

 
Highways Magazine

Big Fun at the Iron County Fair in Parowan, Utah

Featured in Highways Magazine
September 2010

By Emily Fagan

Sometimes the name of a place, descriptive as it might be, doesn't quite match what you find when you get there.

As we drove through southwestern Utah on Interstate 15, the words on the map, Vermillion Castle, tantalized me with images of red turrets in ruins, perhaps the remote fantasy home of an eccentric turn-of-the-last-century millionaire. I decided I had to visit this castle estate, as it appeared easy to find, lying just beyond the tiny town of Parowan on the twisting road that leads to the Yankee Meadow Reservoir.

"No problem," I cheerfully said to my husband, Mark, as the road dropped to one lane and took a hairpin turn up a steep hill. "It's got to be just a short ways ahead." It was only after we'd hauled our fifth-wheel trailer up 1,000 feet of steep, skinny mountain roads, scanning desperately for signs leading to the castle, that I realized the joke was on me. The towering red-rock hoodoos that soared above us on either side of the road had rightfully earned the name Vermillion Castle from locals long ago. These were the dwellings of the gods, not some backwoods baron.

The white-knuckle uphill trek delivered us into the beautiful Yankee Meadows area, filled with mountain wildflowers that stretched before us, rolling in waves toward deep pine woods. Zigzag fencing ran along one side of a clear blue lake, and the air was as crisp and cool as the brook that frothed over stones on its way down the mountain.

While at the Parowan visitor center, we discovered that the Iron County Fair would be held in just a few days and included a 5k run. Never one to pass up a race, Mark had us signed up before I'd sorted out how a tiny mountain road could have four different names, since the road to Vermillion Castle is variously called First Left Hand Canyon, Yankee Meadow Road, Bowery Creek Road and FR 049, depending on which map or person you consult.

Having seen the jaw-dropping "castle" along First Left Hand Canyon, we set out to see what lay along Second Left Hand Canyon (FR 048). We tackled this 4x4 track with our mountain bikes, grinding our way up the mountain, accompanied the whole way by a shallow, rock-strewn stream. The views didn't seem quite as spectacular, but perhaps my senses were dulled by the grueling, head-down effort of the bike ride. However, the euphoric feeling of success upon reaching the top was delicious.

Down in the charming town of Parowan, the Iron County Fair had been revving up for weeks. A classic small-town festival, the fair featured a variety of competitions ranging from the Miss Iron County beauty pageant to horse races to a tractor show and endless arts, crafts and baking contests.

Upon entering the fairgrounds, our first encounter was with the Most Beautiful Baby contest. Proud parents stood in a lineup before the judges, their sweet infants and toddlers adorned in bows and tiny cowboy hats. A guitarist sang songs on a makeshift stage, and in another area a petting zoo filled with soft, furry farm animals kept lots of tiny hands busy.

We stopped to take in a presentation by professional falconer Martin Tyner of the Southwest Wildlife Foundation. He had three large raptors with him, and we were amazed at his descriptions of the flying, diving and hunting feats of these sharp-eyed predators. Their intelligence and memory capacity were undeniable. He told us how a rambunctious prairie falcon he'd rehabilitated and released years ago has always remembered both him and his pickup truck. Whenever he goes into her territory, she recognizes his truck right away and makes contact. One time she dive-bombed him in happy greeting, pulling up just a little late and knocking him to the ground in her enthusiasm.

Clowns carrying balloons wandered the fairgrounds, and the excited shrieks of kids on wild rides and the Ferris wheel filled the air. We paused to watch a group of men engaged in a serious horseshoe championship. The Rodeo Royalty (queen, princess and her four attendants) strolled by, and Mark was quick to join the pretty group for a photo op. Booths sold everything from kitchen gadgets to dietary supplements, and winding through it all was a train loaded with toddlers.

Inside the main tent, all the competing crafts were laid out, ribbons proudly displayed alongside. A photo contest featured lovely images of the Vermillion Castle, and the knitting, crocheting, sewing, needlepoint and quilts were clearly the work of experienced hands. Mark drooled over the endless baked goods, but the blue ribbons made it clear they were to be admired only from a distance.

The running race wove through the fairgrounds bright and early on Labor Day morning, and I'm sure Mark ran a little faster because he hadn't been able to indulge in those pastries the day before. The final stretch went straight down the main street. Cheering fans lined the sides of the road, inspiring all of us to pour on as much of a sprint as we could muster as we pounded out the final half mile.

The race ended in the nick of time, as the Iron County Fair parade came marching down the street right behind us. Cheerleaders and tap dancers swept past with cleverly choreographed routines, and several marching bands got the crowd humming. Floats with covered wagons paid tribute to the area's pioneering past. ­One politician even walked with a handcart, reminding us all of the intense dedication of the early Mormons who walked across the country pushing carts laden with their worldly possessions. A float filled with little girls dressed as prairie dogs was my personal favorite.

The Iron County Fair's final day featured a tractor show and vintage car display. Antique red Farmall tractors and green John Deere vehicles took to the streets and paraded around town. When they finally lined up in a grassy park, we had a chance to learn a little of the history of these massive steel behemoths. Initially relieving the hooves and backs of farm animals, tractors eventually delivered farming into the modern era of air-conditioned cabs with stereo speakers and computerized hay bailing.

Just a few steps from the tractors were the muscle cars, and the most ardent admirers were all in the same age group. There's an appeal in those old cars for everyone, but they hold a special place in the hearts of those who saved up for, owned, worked on, washed and drove them. We heard several men telling stories about how they'd tricked out one car or another back in the day.

I was amazed that so much fun, variety and life could be found on the streets of a small town when it hosts its big annual fair. Parowan, Utah, had been just another town in small type on the map, and we never would have taken the detour there if the tiny words Vermillion Castle hadn't caught my eye. We didn't find anything close to what we expected, but instead found so much more.

Note: Vermillion Castle and Yankee Meadows are easily enjoyed as a day trip by car. However, the drive up First Left Hand Canyon is extremely challenging for larger RVs. If you plan to camp at the top of the mountain, check out the road with your tow vehicle or toad first.


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