Awesomeness beyond the Mighty 5 in Southern Utah

Recommendations for extended adventuring around each of southern Utah’s Mighty 5 national parks

Southern Utah has enough panoramic mountain views, striking red-rock formations, and dark-sky zones for a lifetime of adventure. But sometimes it’s better to settle in to explore one place than try to do everything in one trip. In this post, I’ll look at a few favorite spots for going beyond the parks and staying for a week or longer.

Thanks to some highly successful promotion by the Utah Office of Tourism, people across the globe now know that “Mighty 5” refers to national parks in Utah and not a group of superheroes.

Unfortunately, that heightened awareness carries a price. Utah’s five national parks are often so busy that visitors wait hours to enter or are even turned away. If you’ve been stalled in traffic at Zion, Arches, or Bryce Canyon, you understand.

On holidays or other times when you know the parks will be jammed with tourists, a good alternative is to visit one of Utah’s spectacular national monuments or state parks. Many offer breathtaking scenery to rival that of the Mighty 5 but with much smaller crowds.

Red Rock Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beyond Bryce Canyon and Zion

For a week of exploring around Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, head to St. George, where you can camp within a short drive of hundreds of miles of hiking and mountain-biking trails. The national parks are stunning but the many state parks in Utah are also not to be missed. One favorite is Snow Canyon; the trails there wind through striking red rock and streams of black lava are frozen in time against the canyon walls. Another one of this corner’s lesser-known gems is Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park where you can hike or go four-wheeling among pink dunes formed over the last 10,000 to 15,000 years by eroding Navajo Sandstone cliffs. You’ll also want to visit Red Cliffs BLM Recreation area to hike and marvel at the distinctive landscapes that cover this relatively unknown public area. 

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The reservoir at Quail Creek State Park boasts some of the warmest waters in the state plus a mild winter climate. It is a great place to boat, camp, and fish. Water sports are popular here during the long warm-weather season and boaters and fishermen enjoy the reservoir year-round. Anglers fish for largemouth bass, rainbow trout, crappie, and other species.

Sand Hollow State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Red rock and red sand meet warm, blue water at Sand Hollow which is one of the most popular state parks in Utah. This is a great place to camp, picnic, boat, fish, and ride ATVs. ATV trails run over sand dune access to Sand Mountain in the park and additional trails are located nearby. Sand Hollow Reservoir’s warm water makes it ideal for skiing and other water sports. Anglers fish for bass, bluegill, crappie, and catfish.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hidden within the mountains between Zion and Bryce Canyon is the brilliant geology and vibrant environment of Cedar Breaks National Monument. The geologic amphitheater and surrounding area are home to hiking trails, ancient trees, high elevation camping, and over-the-top views along the “Circle of Painted Cliffs.” Cedar Breaks’ majestic amphitheater is a three-mile-long cirque made up of eroding limestone, shale, and sandstone. The monument sits above 10,000 feet. The Amphitheater is like a naturally formed coliseum that plunges 2,000 feet below amid colorful towers, hoodoos, and canyons. Stunning views are common throughout so keep your camera nearby.

Beyond Capitol Reef

The Capitol Reef Region is a relatively uncrowded landscape with seemingly endless public land to explore. The town of Torrey—an official International Dark Sky Community—is just a 15-minute drive from Capitol Reef National Park and a great base camp for exploration.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Snag a campsite in Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. There are plenty of options to contemplate in this Martian-like landscape. If you’re just passing through, Goblin Valley State Park famous for wind-shaped rock formations called hoodoos is a popular stop for families.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is also within easy driving distance of Grand Staircase and offers plenty of opportunities to cool off in Lake Powell with water sports you might not expect to find amid Utah’s high-desert landscapes.

Escalante Petrified Forest State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef national parks, Escalante Petrified Forest is among the most underrated, surprising, and all-around best state parks for escaping the crowds. If you want to be away from people, it’s pretty easy to find lots of remote space to camp while still having easy access to the main rock formations. Escalante Petrified Forest is located at Wide Hollow Reservoir, a small reservoir that is popular for boating, canoeing, fishing, and water sports. The park includes a developed campground with RV sites. There is also a pleasant picnic area.  On the hill above the campground, you can see large petrified logs. A marked hiking trail leads through the petrified forest. At the Visitor Center, you can view displays of plant and marine fossils, petrified wood, and fossilized dinosaur bones over 100 million years old.

Beyond Arches and Canyonlands

One of my favorite things about southern Utah is the way the landscapes transform from lush riverscape to shaded slot canyons to desert all in a short drive. For a week in the Arches and Canyonlands region start in Green River at the foot of Desolation Canyon Wilderness. Swasey’s Beach has developed camping and a great beach.

Dead Horse Point State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The scenic overlooks of Dead Horse Point State Park are often compared to views of the Grand Canyon. Just over 30 miles from Moab, it’s a worthy destination when Arches is overly crowded. The park gets its name from a gruesome legend. Around the turn of the century, the point was used as a corral for wild mustangs roaming the mesa top. One time, for some unknown reason, horses were left corralled on the waterless point where they died of thirst within view of the Colorado River 2,000 feet below.

Bears Ears National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From there, head to the lesser-visited west side of Canyonlands National Park for a guided 4×4 tour. Spend ample time in the Bears Ears National Monument area with a scenic drive through Valley of the Gods and visits to Goosenecks State Park and Natural Bridges National Monument—both of which are certified by the International Dark-Sky Association.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The amazing force of water has cut three spectacular natural bridges in White Canyon at Natural Bridges National Monument located 42 miles west of Blanding or 47 miles north of Mexican Hat. These stunning rock bridges have Hopi Indian names: delicate Owachomo means ‘rock mounds’, massive Kachina means ‘dancer’ while Sipapu, the second-largest natural bridge in the state means ‘place of emergence’. A nine-mile scenic drive has overlooks of the bridges, canyons, and a touch of history with ancient Puebloan ruins. Moderate to difficult trails some with metal stairs lead down to each bridge. A longer trail follows the stream bed beneath all three bridges.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The wild canyons and mountains of southern Utah have been around for over 2.6 billion years. Help to protect them for a few billion more.

Worth Pondering…

As we crossed the Colorado-Utah border I saw God in the sky in the form of huge gold sunburning clouds above the desert that seemed to point a finger at me and say, “Pass here and go on, you’re on the road to heaven.”

—Jack Kerouac

The Land above the Canyons: Top 10 Options for Fun in the Monticello Area

And no I’m not talking about visiting your Uncle Monti & his cello

With towering mountains, vast red rock canyons, hundreds of hiking trails, world-famous snow, and endless outdoor recreation, Utah is a major playground for adventure. The only hard part is deciding where to begin.

If you’re itching to get out the door, you can’t go wrong with a trip to the “Land Above the Canyons.” We’re talking about none other than Monticello (mon-ti-sel-oh). It may be a small town (2020 population: 1,935) but it packs a big punch. You’ll finally have some solitude in your life (get away from the hustle and bustle) along with some super real adventures! From hiking, biking, ATV riding, golfing, and camping, you’ll never have a dull moment in Monticello. If you want the chance to experience everything Monticello has to offer you’ll definitely need a few more days than you had originally planned. You can feel free to go visit ol’ uncle Monti and his cello if you fancy, or you can pack your bags and head out for an amazing southeastern Utah adventure.

Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A high-elevation town on the edge of Utah’s Canyon Country, Monticello lies on the sheltered eastern slope of the Abajo Mountains overlooking a maze of sandstone canyons and plateaus. The Abajos, topped by 11,360-foot Abajo Peak, are Monticello’s summer paradise with mild temperatures, cooling rains, and recreation sites scattered through Manti La Sal National Forest.

Monticello is also a place where Utah’s past brushes against the present with ruins and rock art from the Ancient Ones scattered in nearby Bears Ears National Monument and Hovenweep National Monument. The town is also a starting point for the 480-mile Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway, a huge highway loop lined with scenic views and important archeological sites.

Bears Ears National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are a few things to add to your bucket list when you go.

Bears Ears National Monument: Indian Creek and Shash Jáa Units

Distance from Monticello to Indian Creek Unit: 20 miles

Distance from Monticello to Shash Jáa Unit: 61 miles

Bears Ears National Monument has a rich cultural heritage and is sacred to many Native American tribes who rely on these lands for traditional and ceremonial uses. Outstanding opportunities to hike, visit cultural sites, backpack, mountain bike, float the San Juan River, and ride OHVs exist within the monument boundaries. Other world-class activities include scenic drives, photography, rock climbing, camping, paleontological exploration, and wildlife viewing.

Bears Ears National Monument has two units: the Shash Jáa Unit to the south and the Indian Creek Unit to north.

Nawspaper Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Newspaper Rock

Distance from Monticello: 21 miles

Extra, extra, read all about it! You can see all the news you can’t actually read at one of the West’s most famous rock art sites. The rock is called Tse’ Hane in Navajo, or “rock that tells a story.” There are hundreds of petroglyphs here that feature a mixture of forms including pictures resembling humans, animals, tools, and more esoteric, abstract things. The 200-square-foot rock site is a part of the cliffs all along the upper end of Indian Creek Canyon. Indian Creek Canyon is a popular Utah destination for rock climbers who flock to the Wingate sandstone for its pristine cracks which are scaled with traditional climbing aids. However, the common nature lover will still get much out of the scenic drive; better still, the road leads to The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. Take your family past this historic site and see if you can decipher the rock’s story for yourself!

Canyonlands National Park, Needles District © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park, Needles District

Distance from Monticello: 32 miles

The Needles District forms the southeastern portion of Canyonlands National Park. Its signature features are colorful sandstone spires—hundreds of them poking up from the desert floor. There are also entrenched canyons, natural arches, and sheer-walled cliffs in this vast, rugged landscape. This area is famous for its rough jeep trails, including some that rank with the most challenging in the world. You need a high clearance 4X4 vehicle optimized for off-road travel to drive some of the routes here.

Hole N” the Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hole N” the Rock

Distance from Monticello: 38 miles

Imagine living in a 5,000-square-foot home that’s carved directly into a large cliff. It’s a very unique way to go about building a house! That was the vision of a man named Albert Christensen in the 1940s. Christensen spent 12 years digging, carving, and blasting out a rock home for his family to live in. He also opened a unique diner where travelers could stop for lunch. After he died in the late 1950s, Christensen’s wife Gladys continued to live in their rock home and run the diner. She and her husband are both buried near the rocks they called home. The ‘Hole N” the Rock’ house has 14 rooms including a fireplace with a 65-foot chimney, a deep French fryer, and a bathtub built into the rock.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument

Distance from Monticello: 66 miles

The amazing force of water has cut three spectacular natural bridges in White Canyon at Natural Bridges National Monument. These stunning rock bridges have Hopi Indian names: delicate Owachomo means ‘rock mounds’, massive Kachina means ‘dancer’, while Sipapu means ‘place of emergence’. A nine-mile scenic drive has overlooks of the bridges, canyons, and a touch of history with ancient Puebloan ruins. Moderate to difficult trails some with metal stairs lead down to each bridge. A longer trail follows the stream bed beneath all three bridges.

Moki Dugway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moki Dugway

Distance from Monticello: 75 miles

Moki Dugway is a staggering, graded dirt switchback road carved into the face of the cliff edge of Cedar Mesa. It consists of three miles of steep, unpaved, but well-graded switchbacks (11 percent grade) which wind 1,200 feet from Cedar Mesa to the Valley of the Gods below. The term “moki” is derived from the Spanish word, moqui, a general term used by explorers in this region to describe Pueblo Indians they encountered as well as the vanished Ancestral Puebloan culture. Dugway is a term used to describe a roadway carved from a hillside.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Valley of the Gods

Distance from Monticello: 68 miles

Perhaps one of the most intriguing names of all of the destinations in San Juan County is the Valley of the Gods. While similar to the geography found at Monument Valley to the south, this Bureau of Land Management area sees much, much less traffic, thereby adding solitude to its beauty. A number of tall, red, isolated mesas, buttes, and cliffs tower above the valley floor and can be seen while driving along the 17-mile gravel road on which it sits. Carved over the course of 250 million years from the Cedar Mesa sandstone, the variety of formations shows the power of time, water, wind, and ice at play in this desert landscape.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep National Monument

Distance from Monticello: 66 miles

The six abandoned Ancestral Puebloan ruins in Hovenweep National Monument are impressive not only for their excellent state of preservation but also for the diversity in the structures including square and circular towers, D-shaped dwellings and many kivas (Puebloan ceremonial structures, usually circular). The park preserves 700-year-old—and even older—archeological sites that visitors can access by paved and dirt roads. Hovenweep boasts incredible skies for night viewing and has been named a Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association.

Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway

Distance from Monticello: Mile 0

The Trail of the Ancients, a federally designated National Scenic Byway circles through the ancient Puebloan Country of southeastern Utah providing opportunity to view scenic landscapes, archaeological, cultural, and historic sites as well as Natural Bridges and Hovenweep national monuments, Monument Valley, Edge of the Cedars State Park, and Manti La Sal National Forest. It’s a land filled with 250-million-year-old rock formations, mysterious Anasazi ruins, and remnants of long-ago Mormon pioneer families, all but undiscovered by crowds of tourists.

Manti La Sal National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreate in Manti La Sal National Forest

If you’re in the mood for some fishing, cross-country skiing, mountain climbing, or hiking, the Manti La Sal National Forest is the perfect destination for your favorite outdoor recreational activities. The forest features more than 1,600 miles of streams, 8,100 acres of lakes, and hundreds of miles of hiking, biking, horseback riding, cross-country skiing and off-road trails, so there’s plenty to explore.

Worth Pondering…

Sometimes a day trip isn’t about where you’re going. Sometimes it’s just about going. About straying off the interstates and hitting the back roads to see what you can find.

Rock That Tells a Story: Newspaper Rock

Newspaper Rock features a rock panel carved with one of the largest, best preserved, and easily accessible collections of petroglyphs in the Southwest

Extra, extra, read all about it! The reviews are in: You can see all the news you can’t actually read at one of the West’s most famous rock art sites. And there’s no fake news here!

Newspaper Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Native American Indians have been engraving and drawing on Newspaper Rock for more than 2,000 years. Their markings in these ruins tell the stories, hunting patterns, crop cycles, and mythologies of their lives. But what exactly these petroglyphs are communicating, we’ll never know for there is no actual translation available at this remarkable Utah attraction.
Newspaper Rock is located 15 miles west of U.S. 191 along the 41-mile Indian Creek Corridor Scenic Byway (S.R. 211) in Bears Ears National Monument, now part of the 71,896-acre Indian Creek unit designated December 4, 2017 by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Newspaper Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bears Ears National Monument includes red rock, juniper forests, high plateau, and an abundance of early human and Native American historical artifacts. The Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Hopi Nation, and other tribes are tied to this land.

Newspaper Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A petroglyph panel of such renown, Newspaper Rock was listed on the National Register of Historic Places long before either Bears Ears National Monument or Indian Creek added prominence to the remote corner of Utah. The landmark is covered with images of animals, people, ancient symbols, and depictions of the natural world etched into the rock by peoples from the Fremont, Ute, and Ancient Puebloan (Anasazi) Native American tribes. It’s surmised that the perennial natural spring attracted ancients to this distinctive area of Utah.

As one of the largest collections of petroglyphs in the country, Utah’s Newspaper Rock State Historic Monument is like a living museum. However, thankfully, you don’t have to peer at the pristine rock art through glass at this site.

Newspaper Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The rock is called Tse’ Hane in Navajo, or “rock that tells a story.” There are over 650 rock art designs here that feature a mixture of forms, including pictures resembling humans, animals, tools, and more esoteric, abstract things. The 200-square-foot rock site is a part of the cliffs along the upper end of Indian Creek Canyon.

Newspaper Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Indian Creek Canyon is a popular Utah destination for rock climbers who flock to the Wingate sandstone for its pristine cracks, which are scaled with traditional climbing aids. However,  nature lovers will still get much out of the scenic drive; better still, the road leads to The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, which offers a number of great hiking trails ranging from family-friendly walks through historically significant places to overnight backpacking trips.

Newspaper Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Standing at the base of the 200-square-foot rock and trying to decipher what the ancients were trying to communicate, craning your neck to count all of the artwork, sketching and replicating some of the petroglyphs in your own notepad, losing count when you try to see who can count the most antelope, driving the awe-inspiring byway and looking at all of the massive, perfectly-red Wingate sandstone cliffs.

Newspaper Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just across the highway from the petroglyphs there is a picnic area and campground, which is free and is first-come, first-serve. The area is open year-round, and the best times to visit are March through late-May and September through October.

Newspaper Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No fees or permits are required to visit Newspaper Rock or to drive the Indian Creek Scenic Byway. There are fees to enter Canyonlands National Park.

Driving Indian Creek Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Traveling is almost like talking with men of other centuries.

—René Descartes