The Ultimate Guide to the Mighty 5

The national parks in Utah have long been the perfect playground for RVers. Connecting all five is a rite of passage for many travelers both here and abroad.

When it comes to natural beauty Utah is on the A-list of the most beautiful states in America. With varying landscapes like mountains and deserts, canyons and arches, it is easy to see why.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The state of Utah is home to five of the most stunning national parks the US has to offer. Dubbed the “Mighty Five”, these national parks deliver towering canyon walls, out-of-this-world rock formations, and picture-perfect views. 

So what is the Mighty 5? They’re five parks stretching through the desert landscape of southern Utah and are perfect for a road trip. From east to west, the parks are: Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Parks. 

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the first time I heard about these five parks, I knew I needed to visit them, and I think you’ll want to too. We took a road trip through this area and visited these parks before heading into Arizona to visit the Grand Canyon and Sedona. This is a trip everyone should put on their bucket list. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed!

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Below I’ve compiled everything you need to know to plan your own Utah Mighty 5 road trip.

Plan your trip: The Aftermath of Mighty Five…and Beyond

Each of the five Utah national parks has something unique to offer. From sweeping canyons, hoodoos, and natural amphitheaters to rugged orange cliffs that showcase the best of the Wild West. Whether you’re looking to explore them all or just one, my guide will take you through what makes each of Utah’s national parks so spectacular.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Helpful Tip: Because the Mighty 5 sits in a desert environment, summer months can be sweltering hot and winters snowy and cold. I recommend doing this Utah Mighty 5 road trip in the late spring and early fall months. I’ve personally done this road trip in October and early November and found the weather to be perfectly nice and pleasantly cool.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Arches is classic Utah where jaw-dropping scenery comes standard. But what elevates Arches National Park to one of the best in the United States is its spellbinding collection of natural monuments. No place on earth has as many sandstone arches. In fact, you’ll find over 2,000 if you’re willing to put the steps in.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park’s name gives away the surprise. But to the glee of all travelers, the arches aren’t the only incredible geological wonders here. On the many hikes and along the scenic road, spot enormous boulders balancing on another and admire soaring fins and rock spires that stand like iconic statues and Romanesque churches.

The nature of Arches National Park means there is an abundance of short, family-friendly trails. But those chasing seclusion will be rewarded with a resplendent backcountry. The park also forms a part of the Spanish National Historic Trail.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Must Do: Hike the 3-mile round trip to Delicate Arch to see this famous beauty.

Plan your trip: Ultimate Guide to National Park Tripping in Utah: Arches and Canyonlands 

Helpful Tip: Try to avoid the midday sun when hiking in Arches. Even in the cooler months, most hikes here offer zero shade and the sun can be brutal. Always pack a hiking hat when going out to explore.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to get there:

  • Arches National Park is just outside of Moab in eastern Utah
  • From Moab: 5 miles
  • From Grand Junction: 109 miles
  • From Salt Lake City: 230 miles
Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Entrance Fee:

  • Private Vehicle: $30 (<15 passengers)
  • Motorcycle: $25
  • Walk/Ride: $15
  • Southeast Utah Parks Pass: $55
Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

Utah’s largest national park, Canyonlands harbors some of the rawest and most inspiring landscapes in the American West. The park has been carved by the imposing Green River and Colorado River which converge in the heart of Canyonlands.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of all the amazing Utah national parks, this may be the most untouched. It’s a veritable telescope showing travelers the true artistic qualities of Mother Nature. The park is split into several arresting districts such as the Island in the Sky, the Maze, and the Needles. But with no connecting scenic roads, you have to leave then re-enter to see them all.

This frustration is always eclipsed by the park’s stunning beauty. The grand expanse has relatively few visitors, so the backcountry is a tranquil yet rugged paradise. On the way, you may discover ruins from ancient Puebloans and long-gone explorers.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Must Do: Drive the main road in the Island in the Sky district to get to Grand View Point and enjoy the view. A lot of people recommend Mesa Arch as well. It’s popular for sunrise but you’ll be sharing the view with tons of people.

Plan your trip: Arches and Canyonlands: Two Parks Contrasted

Helpful Tip: You have to leave the park to drive to each individual district. The Needles is about a two hour drive from the Island in the Sky entrance. The Maze is even more remote and offers only backcountry hiking and recreation. 

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to get there:

  • Canyonlands is 40 minutes from Moab in eastern Utah
  • Moab: 32.5 miles
  • Grand Junction: 124 miles
  • Salt Lake City: 244 miles
Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Entrance Fee:

  • Private Vehicle: $30 (<15 passengers)
  • Motorcycle: $25
  • Walk/Ride: $15
  • Southeast Utah Pass: $55
Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

In south-central Utah, Capitol Reef National park exists in the shadows of other renowned Bryce Canyon and Zion. But if we’ve learned anything from the national parks in Utah, is that they’re all impressive in their own ways.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef is in the heart of red rock country, a treasure trove of domes, canyons, and cliffs. It’s a park that gets better the more you explore with a plethora of hiking trails, 4WD trails, scenic roads, and the fascinating Fruita district.

Without the popularity of other Utah national parks, you’ll contend with less traffic on the equally beautiful paths that take you to cathedral monoliths and endless desert views.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Must Do: Drive the scenic drive past the Fruita district to get pretty views. Back at the visitor center ask the rangers if any of the orchards are open so you can try the fruit. And don’t leave without stopping at the Gifford House to get some of the best pies around.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Helpful Tip: If you’re able to snag a campsite at the Fruita campground, do it! The grass is super green and lush. Some of the best views in the park are located off of dirt roads, so bring a high clearance vehicle if you’re able to.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to get there:

  • Capitol Reef is just outside of Torrey in Southern Utah
  • Grand Junction: 186 miles
  • Salt Lake City: 218 miles
  • Las Vegas: 327 miles
Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Entrance Fee:

  • Private Vehicle: $20 (<15 passengers)
  • Motorcycle: $15
  • Walk/Ride: $10
Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

Rising like a church choir out of the red-orange dirt in southwestern Utah, the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park have created a natural wonderland.

Plan your trip: Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef: A Great American Road Trip

Delicately shaped by millions of years of wind, rain, and snow, Bryce Canyon is a paradise for hikers and photographers alike. The park has natural bridges and is teeming with rock spires that form spectacular amphitheaters. It’s like the park is an orchestra and we are the lucky audience.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Throughout, you’ll find hiking trails that take you from the lowly Paria Valley to above 9,000 feet in the forests along the Paunsaugunt Plateau. In between are exceptional experiences, epic views, and some of the best rock climbing in the state.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Must Do: Watch the sunrise and sunset over the hoodoos at sunrise and sunset point, respectively. Hike down into the amphitheater on the Queens and Navajo Loop trails and look out for the hoodoo that looks like Queen Victoria.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Helpful Tip: Pack a sweater, even if you’re visiting in the summer months. We visited in early November, and the temperatures at night dropped below freezing. 

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to get there:

  • Bryce Canyon is south of Bryce in Southern Utah
  • Las Vegas: 260 miles
  • Salt Lake City: 268 miles
  • Zion National Park: 72 miles
Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Entrance Fee:

  • Private Vehicle: $35 (<15 passengers)
  • Motorcycle: $30
  • Walk/Ride: $20
  • Bryce Canyon Annual Pass: $70
Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

As Utah’s oldest national park, Zion has lost none of its grandiosity since its opening in 1919. It’s a place of wonderment, the crown jewel of Utah’s epic national park system. Located in Southern Utah, its esteem has been well earned because of its array of vast and narrow canyons, rainbow rock formations, natural monuments, and stunning vistas.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Upon discovery in 1863, Zion was labeled the Promised Land. It still rings true today, a place that promises (and delivers) spectacular hikes, some of the best canyoneering anywhere on earth punctuated by desert waterfalls that add extra life to the colorful but arid landscape.

Don’t pass up on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. In a state made for road trips, the short and sweet journey is the icing on the cake.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Must Do: Plan to spend at least half a day hiking the Narrows. Drive through the tunnel to get a stunning view of the canyon and head over to the Kolob Canyon entrance to enjoy the views without the crowds. The Pa’rus trail is super underrated but will give you beautiful views without much effort! 

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Helpful Tip: Try to get on the earliest shuttles to avoid crowds in the most popular hikes. 

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to get there:

  • The national park is located in Springdale in southern Utah
  • From Las Vegas: 160 miles
  • From Salt Lake City: 308 miles
Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Entrance Fee:

  • Private Vehicle: $35 (<15 passengers)
  • Motorcycle: $30
  • Walk/Ride: $20
  • Zion Annual Pass: $70

Worth Pondering…

Nobody can discover the world for somebody else. Only when we discover it for ourselves does it become common ground and a common bond and we cease to be alone.

—Wendell Berry

Dead Horse Point Scenic Byway: Moab’s Most Scenic Drive

Dead Horse Point Scenic Byway begins at the turnoff from Highway 191 which is easily accessible from Moab

Moab has a reputation for being an outdoor junkie’s wonderland. No wonder, since it’s close to both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Smack dab in the middle of those two famously stunning swaths of land is another gem: Dead Horse Point State Park. Cruise the park’s Dead Horse Point Scenic Drive and see why it’s such an underrated spot as you make your way between the two national parks.

Dead Horse Point Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s nothing better than a scenic drive that’s also incredibly short. This allows for a number of things: First, it saves time one would spend on the road and allots it to sightseeing. Second, it’s easy enough to fit into one day giving travelers the option to extend their time in a specific place. When it comes to the most scenic drive in the Moab area, Dead Horse Point checks all of these day-trip-drive boxes.

Related: Arches and Canyonlands: Two Parks Contrasted

Dead Horse Point Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While the drive is one that’s well-known, it’s one that’s also incredibly underrated. The total length of the trip is less than 25 minutes and takes almost 30 minutes to traverse with no stops along the way. Here’s everything you need to know about taking this scenic drive, and why it’s worth so much more hype than it currently has.

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

There are some things that visitors should know when taking the Dead Horse Point Scenic Byway and the first is that it resides mostly on the top of a plateau or mesa. The second is that on the way up, visitors will observe the narrow strip of land that connects the starting point of the byway to the top of the mesa, giving one a pretty good idea of the incredible views that wait at the top. The third is that Dead Horse Point Scenic Byway gives way to multiple hikes along the way, all before one even enters the park itself—so if this is something one wishes to take advantage of, it’s a good idea to note where the trailheads are beforehand.

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

Dead Horse Point Scenic Byway takes you through miles of incredible red rock canyon country. To reach the byway, head north from Moab on US-191. After about 9 miles look for the “Dead Horse Point State Park” sign and turn left (west) onto SR-313. This is the start of the byway.

Related: Moab’s Scenic Byways

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

As a grand finale before reaching Dead Horse State Park, the Dead Horse Point Overlook is one for the books. This is not only a great way to end what’s already a short and scenic drive but it’s also one of the most spectacular views in the Moab Desert. From this elevation, visitors will be able to see the Colorado River roughly 2,000 feet below them as well as extensive views of the red canyonlands. On a clear day, it’s very possible to be able to see for nearly 100 miles in any direction.

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

After a series of hairpin curves you begin to ascend the plateau as the road mellows out allowing you to better appreciate the scenery. At about 14.6 miles from the beginning of SR-313 a fork to the left leads to Dead Horse Point State Park. Note that a fee is required to proceed to the viewpoints in the park. The view from Dead Horse Point is one of the most photographed scenic vistas anywhere. Towering 2,000 feet above the Colorado River, the overlook provides a breathtaking panorama of Canyonlands National Park’s sculpted pinnacles and buttes.

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

A campers’ paradise, Dead Horse Point State Park encompasses 5,362 acres of desert at an altitude of 5,900 feet. Hiking is a popular activity with seven miles of trails taking you to eight breathtaking overlooks. The visitor’s center will help with navigating the park and learning the history of all its beauty. If you plan on staying the night, you can camp here as well. For geocachers, there are three official geocaches at Dead Horse Point, each with souvenirs.

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

Basin Overlook offers a short, easy hike down a nature trail that’s paved for easing trekking. Additionally, visitors can find other hikes along the rim of the canyonlands. This is also a popular spot for photographers.

Related: Utah’s Mighty 5 Broke Visitation Records in 2021: Is it Time to Try Other Parks?

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

Another scenic point along the 22-mile route worth mentioning is known as The Neck. This is easily recognizable due to its small parking area and it’s a great midpoint to take advantage of on the way to the final overlook.

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

Tip: For more hiking, the West and East Rim trails can be found at The Neck; these trails are shorter than the rim trails at the Visitor Center thus better for novice hikers.

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

After leaving Dead Horse Point State Park, backtrack on SR-313, turn left, and head toward the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park ultimately ending at Grandview Point. This section of the park sits atop a massive 1,500 foot mesa—quite literally an Island in the Sky.

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

The access road for Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park, SR-313 was first built in 1975 in place of SR-278. In 1988 the route was rebuilt from its original state of steep grades and blind switchbacks to its current state.

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

Tip: Although those driving along the scenic byway will have the protection of the vehicle and, hopefully, access to AC, it’s important to remember that this remote stretch of land is still a desert. Visitors are advised to bring plenty of water and snacks as well as pack a first-aid or emergency kit in their vehicles.

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

Fun Fact: According to a legend, Dead Horse Point State Park got its macabre name in the early 1800s when cowboys rounded up wild horses through a narrow land strip called the neck that was 30 yards wide. At the neck, they selected the horses they wanted and the released horses died of thirst after they were rounded up at a waterless point.

Related: If the Outdoors is your Thing, Utah is your Place

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

Fun Fact: The Dead Horse State Park is known in popular culture for a Grand Canyon scene filmed there for 1991, Thelma and Louise movie starring Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon.

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

One doesn’t necessarily need a reason to take the 30-minute desert drive through the Moab Desert. One doesn’t even need a reason to visit the scenic vistas of Dead Horse State Park; however, its breathtaking views and ease of access are two great reasons to do so.

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, On the Road

If the Outdoors is your Thing, Utah is your Place

Utah features some of the most astonishing landscapes in the world

With soaring sandstone arches, serpentine slot canyons, slickrock domes, and hoodoos of all shapes and sizes, Utah boasts some of the most otherworldly panoramas on planet Earth.

Public lands cover two-thirds of the state offering vast opportunities to hike, bike, raft, ski, climb and camp—or simply gape at epic views. If the outdoors is your thing, Utah is your place. Here are the best places to go for a uniquely Utah experience.

The red rock of Moab © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Base yourself in Moab for outdoor adventures

On the doorstep of two national parks, a national forest with summits over 12,000 feet, and endless acres of slickrock-clad Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands, Moab is ground zero for outdoor action in Utah. A variety of restaurants, shops, hotels, and outfitters line the streets downtown.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just to the north, Arches National Park is graced with some of the most spectacular examples of what wind, water, freezing, and thawing can do to rock over time. If there is one must-see destination in Utah, this might be it, though in peak season the crowds can be the stuff of nightmares.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nearby Canyonlands National Park (Utah’s largest) sees far fewer visitors while offering countless spots to view a Martian-like landscape from the rims or the bottoms of huge canyons or among formations such as The Needles, Chocolate Drops, or Land of Standing Rocks. The Green and the Colorado Rivers meet in the heart of the park.

Related Article: Ultimate Guide to National Park Tripping in Utah: Arches and Canyonlands

Moab also offers easy access to some of the best mountain biking anywhere as well as prime desert rock climbing and river rafting.

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

Canyons of the Escalante is a great hiking region

Prepare to get wet and dirty hiking this sinuous canyon system that’s hewn into a massive field of petrified sand dunes. Spanning some 1,500 square miles including sections of Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, the Escalante is wild, rugged country. Though you’ll probably end up wading through pools and creeks, struggling among tamarisk groves, and scrambling over rocks, it’s more than worth it.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The sublime beauty of the sensuous red- and orange-hued walls streaked with desert varnish inspires a sense of gratitude for life itself. Each side canyon has its own character—some feel private and intimate while others are impressively grand. Aim for highlights such as the Golden Cathedral and Stevens Arch or pick a route where you’re less likely to run into other people. Either way, you’ll be glad to be wherever you are.

Bears Ears National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bears Ears National Monument is home to Ancestral Puebloan Sites

Covering 1.36 million acres of land sacred to the region’s Native American tribes, Bears Ears National Monument features some of the most remarkable Ancestral Puebloan sites in Utah. Regardless of how much time (and energy) you have, there’s something here for everyone.

Related Article: Photographic Proof That Utah Is Just One Big Epic National Park

Newspaper Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can practically drive right up to the petroglyphs that crowd onto Newspaper Rock. Hiking for a few hours on Cedar Mesa will take you to ruins with names like Moon House and House on Fire—named for the effect of the morning sunlight reflecting on the rocks around the stone structure. And on a multi-day backpacking trip in Grand Gulch, you’ll find cliff dwellings, kivas, and granaries set between burly canyon walls.

Wherever you choose to go, you can’t fail to wonder about the lives of the people who lived on this land some 2000 years ago and what they were expressing through their art.

Highway 12 Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Highway 12 is perfect for a scenic drive

In a state with no shortage of scenic roads, this route tops the list. At one end, you’ll drive among the huge, surrealistic domes of Capitol Reef National Park where the rock is every color of the rainbow. Just to the west, Highway 12 then plunges south over a 9,400-foot pass and down into the exquisite geology of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Burr Trail Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some of the most eye-popping views from the road are found between the towns of Boulder and Escalante but there’s plenty to explore along the way, too. Take a quick side trip east of Boulder along the Burr Trail Scenic Byway or get out from behind the wheel and hike around the drip-castle world of Bryce Canyon National Park near the western end of the highway.

Related Article: A Utah Road Trip: Natural Bridges, Moki Dugway, Valley of the Gods & More

Capitol Reef National Reef © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sculpted by water

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’.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Valley of the Gods

Valley of the Gods offers isolated buttes, towering pinnacles, and wide open spaces that seem to go on forever. A 17-mile dirt and gravel road winds through the valley near many of the formations. Short hikes are necessary to reach some, but most can be seen from the road. It is sandy and bumpy, with steep sections.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Days can be spent by anyone with a camera and time. As is usual in this stark landscape, morning and evening are the best times to take photos. The Valley of the Gods is full of long and mysterious shadows in the evening. The morning sun shines directly on the valley and its towers.

Rafting down the river © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Juan River is the best spot for rafting trips

Meandering through Utah’s southeastern corner, the San Juan carves a gorgeous route through 300 million years of geologic time. On rafting trips, ranging from two to seven days, you’ll float between sheer canyon walls, past cliffs etched with hundreds of petroglyphs, and through miles of twisting “goosenecks.” At night, you’ll camp on sandy beaches gazing at pristine starry skies. Since most of the rapids rarely rise above class II, this trip is less about white water and more about the scenery and experiencing the rhythm of the river. It’s perfect for families with kids and hardcore outdoor enthusiasts alike. 

Related Article: Here’s the Proof that Utah is the Most Beautiful State

Worth Pondering…

One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.

—William Shakespeare

A Winter’s Desert: Visiting Southern Utah in the Slow Months

Experiencing the peace of canyon country in the winter is an attraction of its own

Winter in Utah is usually thought of as a ski haven (and rightly so) but the Southern Utah landscapes are an underappreciated delight.

Many people are drawn to Southern Utah in the winter as they also seek out peace among the sparse vegetation and sprawl of open spaces. Looking across the different formations of land is a way to look into Earth’s distant past and to grow a connection to how the land operates free from human interaction. Adding the brisk stillness of winter to the formula makes it a rejuvenating retreat.

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

While hiking and scenic spots can be shoulder-to-shoulder from April to October in the red rocks of Utah, the off-season carries a special silence to offer a welcome respite from the daily grind. A word of caution: preparation is the key as many roads or ranger stations may be closed during the winter months. And though the daytime temperatures will be warmer than higher up in the mountains, the desert climate is still cool and nights can be especially chilling.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Snowshoeing, snowmobiling, and skiing can be enjoyed in the Southern region of Utah but you can also enjoy scenic drives or hike at one of the more popular destinations with a smaller crowd. Read on to find out more about must-visit places in Southern and Central Utah in the winter and remember throughout your travels to leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but photos. This way we can protect the landscape and everyone can enjoy the sought-after stillness that Utah deserts bring.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Near Torrey: Capitol Reef National Park and Scenic Byway 12

Located 11 miles east of Torrey, Capitol Reef National Park is one of Utah’s best-kept secrets. It is home to Cassidy Arch (named for Butch Cassidy), one of the few arches that you can walk on (conditions permitting). To reach the arch from the Visitor Center, take Scenic Drive south about 3.5 miles and turn left at the sign for the Grand Wash Trailhead. You’ll drive down a dirt road that sometimes requires 4WD or high-clearance vehicles (check with the Visitor Center for road conditions). After you travel 1.2 miles, you’ll reach the Grand Wash parking area. From there, walk up Grand Wash for less than a mile to reach the well-marked junction with a path that leads to Cassidy Arch.

Grand Wash, Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The hike is rated strenuous, so be sure to wear shoes with good grip and watch out for ice patches. The trail is generally well-traveled and marked with cairns. When you reach the arch, take in views of Grand Wash’s red rock walls and the snow-capped arch, which sits at an elevation of 6,450 feet.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the same trailhead, the Grand Wash Trail offers a less strenuous walk that’s about four miles out and back. You’ll walk through a dry creek bed with towering sandstone walls. Keep an eye out for the enormous dome-shaped rock formation known as Fern’s Nipple. Grand Wash can be accessed from either the Scenic Drive side or Highway 24.

Escalante Petrified State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Also known as “A Journey Through Time Scenic Byway,” Highway 12 offers a fantastic stretch of views and winding roads through Escalante and Boulder. This All American Road connects U.S. 89 near Panguitch on the west with S.R. 24 near Torrey on the northeast and while it isn’t the quickest route between these two points, the journey becomes part of the destination. You can take your time on this highway and break up the trip into a multi-day journey with some stops along the route to enjoy the distinct geology of Bryce Canyon National Park, Escalante Petrified State Park, and Grand-Staircase National Monument.

Near Moab: Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and Dead Horse Point State Park

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Traveling to Arches National Park during the winter is a great way to visit the hot spots without dealing with the hassle of long lines of cars or hikers. You can check out the classic Delicate Arch through a short hike or from the viewpoint. A more moderate hike with assorted arches and rock formations wanders through the Devil’s Garden. (Read: The 5 Best Hikes in Arches National Park)

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

The Colorado River Plateau surrounding Moab also includes must-visit spots like the La Sal Mountain range, Canyonlands National Park, Dead Horse Point State Park, and stretches of BLM land between that carry hidden gems. World-renowned mountain biking can still be enjoyed in winter given the right gear or you can drive through many scenic roads with viewpoints and easy hikes. (Read: Moab’s Scenic Byways)

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand View Point is one such drive and provides an excellent view of the mountains and gorges of Canyonlands. If you’re up for a short walk, take the half-mile loop trail to visit the impressive Mesa Arch which sits at the edge of a 500-foot cliff. The arch frames a picture-perfect view of the White Rim country plus you can see the La Sal Mountains towering in the distance.

La Sal Mountains as seen from Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To extend the scenic drive add the spur trip to Dead Horse Point State Park. You’ll find overlooks in the park that offer dramatic views of the Colorado River and the White Rim country of Canyonlands. For an added treat, bring blankets and hot drinks and stay for the sunset.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Near St. George: Zion National Park and Quail Creek State Park

The famed Zion Canyon in Zion National Park takes on a much quieter persona during the winter months so accessing popular trails and finding parking when the temperature drops are much easier. While one of the more popular destinations in the summer is The Narrows in Zion Canyon, it’s unlikely to be heavily used in the winter. This deep section of the canyon is a narrow corridor with towering sandstone walls with a gentle water flow through this section of the Virgin River. In the colder weather, it is best to use a dry suit for this hike.

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Boasting some of the warmest waters in the state and a mild winter climate, Quail Creek lures boaters and anglers, campers and hikers year-round. Quail Creek reservoir was completed in 1985 to provide irrigation and culinary water to the St. George area. Most of the water in the reservoir does not come from Quail Creek but is diverted from the Virgin River and transported through a buried pipeline.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Near Monticello: Monument Valley, Four Corners, and Bears Ears

Learn more about the Indigenous roots of Utah by spending time respectfully on Ancestral Puebloan land. Set aside by the Navajo Tribal Council in 1958, Monument Valley Park covers almost 92,000 acres in northern Arizona and southern Utah and lies within the Navajo Nation reservation.

Bears Ears National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Like Arches and Canyonlands national park to the north, Monument Valley showcases eons of nature’s erosive power, yet has distinctive formations unlike anywhere else in the world. For millions of years, layers upon layers of sediments settled and cemented in the basin. The basin lifted up and became a plateau; then the natural forces of water and wind slowly removed the softer materials and exposed the spires, buttes, and other formations we see today—some of which you may recognize from many Western films.

Goulding’s Trading Post © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Goulding’s Resort and Tours offers guided trips to the surrounding areas such as Tear Drop Arch, as well as access to their lodging, restaurant, grocery store, convenience store, museum, and theater.

Moki Dugway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can also take another trip by car through the Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway which connects Monument Valley to Bears Ears National Monument to round out your journey and catch some of the most iconic mesas and views the state has to offer. You’ll enjoy the breath-taking vistas as you wind through the iconic Moki Dugway and pass through other noteworthy attractions such as the Edge of the Cedars State Park and Museum, Natural Bridges National Monument, Valley of the Gods, and Hovenweep National Monument.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Near Cedar City: Cedar Breaks National Monument

Hidden within the mountains above Cedar City is the brilliant geology and vibrant environment of Cedar Breaks National Monument. The natural formation made of eroding limestone, shale, and sandstone is home to hiking trails, ancient trees, high elevation camping, and over-the-top views along the “Circle of Painted Cliffs.” The Amphitheater is like a naturally formed coliseum that plunges 2,000 feet below.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is a plowed parking area at the junction of Highway 143 and Highway 148. From the parking lot, it’s an easy 5-minute snowshoe to the rim of the amphitheater. Approach the rim with caution, because it’s not maintained during the winter and there can be sheer cliffs. The National Park Service recommends staying at least 200 feet from the rim.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the edge, you’ll see a beautiful landscape of spires, hoodoos, and cliffs tinted with shades of red and orange. During winter, brilliant snow caps the rust-colored spires creating a striking contrast in colors. Situated on the western edge of the Markagunt Plateau, the raised area of earth located in Southern Utah sits entirely above 10,000 feet.

Brian Head Resort area near Cedar Breaks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To explore the area further, don your skis or snowshoes and make your way down Scenic Byway 148. In the winter, it’s closed to vehicle traffic and becomes a groomed snow trail that runs for several miles along the rim of the park. From January through March, volunteers lead guided snowshoe hikes, and you can check online or contact the park for specific dates. The area is also popular for snowmobiling, and Cedar Breaks is one of the few national monuments that allows people to ride unguided.

Worth Pondering…

A strange world of colossal shafts and buttes of rock, magnificently sculptured, standing isolated and aloof, dark, weird, lonely.

—Zane Grey

Utah’s Mighty 5 Broke Visitation Records in 2021: Is it Time to Try Other Parks?

Utah wanted all the tourists. Then it got them.

If it felt like Utah’s Mighty 5 were more crowded than ever last year, that’s because they were. All-time visitation records were broken at four of Utah’s five national parks in 2021, according to preliminary data made available by the National Park Service.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There were at least 11 million visitors at Utah’s five national parks in 2021—far exceeding the 7.7 million recorded visitors in 2020, a year when visitation plummeted as a result of pandemic-related park closures and travel restrictions.

Related Article: Everything You Need to Know about the Mighty 5

The final 2021 visitation figure has yet to be calculated because Zion National Park has not submitted its December visitation. Even so, visits to Utah’s national parks jumped by at least 43 percent last year and Zion is one of the four parks that broke visitation records in 2021.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion again led all of Utah national parks in visitation last year. The southern Utah nature preserves reported over 4.8 million visitors through November besting its previous record of 4.5 million in 2017. The park is still reviewing its numbers before it submits its final 2021 visitation statistics.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion needs a little over 172,000 to reach 5 million visitors for the year—a rare feat that only three national parks have ever reached. Recent visitor trends suggest that Zion will be close to that number. The park has averaged 162,000 December visitors in the previous five years; however, it also recorded 227,244 people visits in December 2020.

Related Article: Utah’s Mighty 5 National Parks & Must-See Hidden Gems

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches (1.8 million), Canyonlands (over 911,000), and Capitol Reef (1.4 million) national parks also broke all-time visitation records in 2021. While Bryce Canyon National Park fell short of its visitation record, more than 2.1 million people visited the park last year—the second-most of the five parks and an increase of nearly 640,000 visitors from 2020.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While 2021 produced an eye-popping leap from 2020 because there were no shutdowns and fewer COVID-19 concerns, 2021 also far exceeded the state’s previous total park record of 10.6 million recorded in 2019.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The rise in visitors meant more people were enjoying Utah national parks but it also led to an uptick in resources needed to support the public lands. This has been true since the sudden rise of the parks’ popularity over the past decade—the issue came to a head in 2021 because of the dramatic increase in park visitation from the previous year.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The year ended with Arches National Park implementing a timed entry ticket pilot program and Zion announcing a permit process to hike Angels Landing both set to begin in the spring. Bryce Canyon National Park officials also increased its backcountry permit fees and implemented a partial campground reservation requirement to match the spike in popularity at the park over the past decade.

Related Article: Utah Wanted All the Tourists. Then It Got Overrun.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With more than 2,000 arches, as well as rock fins, pinnacles, and balancing rocks, visiting Arches National Park is like escaping to a wonderland of ancient sandstone. Visitors cherish the soaring red rock features—clad in rock formations of red, orange, brown, and purple hues—set against an often-bright blue sky.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To maximize your enjoyment, consider visiting during off-peak times. The park is most active from March through October and especially around Easter, Memorial Day, and Labor Day. The busiest time of day is from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Early morning and late afternoon typically offer fewer crowds, shorter lines, easier parking, cooler temperatures, and golden light for photographers. Winter in Arches National Park also offers stunning scenery during the quiet season.

Related Article: The Aftermath of Mighty Five…and Beyond

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Utah’s national parks feature some of the most astonishing landscapes in the world. But other lands in Utah promise just as much allure including state parks, national monuments, and national recreation areas. It may be time to try other Utah parks and other natural areas because the state has much more to offer than just the five national parks. Those are all things that the state’s newest campaign, Forever Mighty strives to accomplish.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Southeastern Utah is anchored by Arches and Canyonlands national parks and the active tourism basecamps of Moab and Green River. Further south, travelers can explore the vast stretch of land known as Bears Ears country which includes active and ancient Native American communities and historic sites such as Monument Valley and Hovenweep National Monument.

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.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The majority of visitors to southwestern Utah focus their efforts on the Mighty 5 national parks. And, for good reason, these parks are spectacular. However, seasoned travelers and savvy locals know that fun southern Utah activities, remarkable scenery, and memorable adventures aren’t limited to national park boundaries. In fact, by stepping off the beaten path, many travelers have found their favorite memories were created in these hidden gems, parks that may leave you breathless but are less likely to leave you standing in line.

Related Article: Awesomeness beyond the Mighty 5 in Southern Utah

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hidden within the mountains above Cedar City is the brilliant geology and vibrant environment of Cedar Breaks National Monument. The geologic amphitheater and surrounding environs are home to cool hiking trails, ancient trees, high elevation camping, and over-the-top views along the “Circle of Painted Cliffs.”

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

Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument is phenomenal. Sun-drenched Utah backcountry spreads out well beyond the visible horizon from the road whether you’re traveling along Scenic Byway 12 or on Highway 89. This area boasts a mixture of colorful sandstone cliffs soaring above narrow slot canyons, picturesque washes and seemingly endless Slickrock, prehistoric sites, and abandoned old Western movie sets, among many other treasures

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area offers more than 1.2 million acres of unparalleled opportunities for land- and water-based recreation. Within the recreation area, Lake Powell is the second-largest man-made lake in the U. S. and is widely recognized as one of the premier boating destinations in the world.

Read Next: Photographic Proof That Utah Is Just One Big Epic National Park

As you plan your next road trip through Utah, look for opportunities to visit less-crowded destinations. While the national parks are open, so are many less crowded and equally brilliant nearby destinations. 

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, On the Road

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

Utah’s Mighty 5 National Parks & Must-See Hidden Gems

Sheer beauty on an awe-inspiring scale and plenty of wide open space to enjoy it: this is what travelers search out in the months to come. And Utah has it.

From A to Z, Utah’s five national parks include some of the best-known favorites in the U.S. There might also be one or two that aren’t on your radar—yet.

Here’s a look at The Mighty 5.

MIGHTY FIVE

ARCHES NATIONAL PARK

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,238,083

Just like its name suggests this stunning national park is famous for its natural sandstone arches—over 2,000 of them. There are photo ops galore as the warm golden hues of the rock formations provide a striking contrast with the endless blue skies. Visitor favorites include Delicate Arch and the Landscape Arch. There’s also Balanced Rock which is exactly what it sounds like and must be seen to be believed. Arches is located just north of Moab near Utah’s eastern border.

BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,464,65

Standing like sentinels and witness to millions of years of the Earth’s existence, the jagged hoodoos of Bryce Canyon are as haunting as they are beautiful. The towering red rocks also provide a playground for the many varieties of wildlife—from Rocky Mountain elk to the Utah prairie dog—that call Bryce Canyon home. At elevations of up to 9,100 feet, this park offers cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter—and hiking and horseback riding in the summer.

CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visits in 2020: 493,914

Canyonlands features a unique landscape of canyons, mesas, and buttes formed by the Colorado and Green rivers. At more than 337,597 acres, this is Utah’s largest national park. It’s also where visitors will find Mesa Arch, the star of so many photographs in Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky district. Take the road less traveled and visit Canyonlands’ Needle District where you are on the canyon floor looking up at astonishing rock formations.

CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK

Recreational visits in 2020: 981,038

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ve heard of a wrinkle in time—but how about a wrinkle on the earth? Also known as a geologic monocline, the 100-mile long Waterpocket Fold in Capitol Reef has cliffs, canyons, domes, and bridges. Also of note: the 21-mile Capitol Reef Scenic Drive has vistas galore.

ZION NATIONAL PARK

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visits in 2020: 3,591,254

It was Utah’s first national park, and it’s also one of the top three most-visited national parks in the U.S. Larger-than-life Zion has a lot to live up to and it delivers with soft-hued sandstone cliffs glinting pink, white, and red in the brilliant sunshine. Zion’s other charms include Angels Landing, The Narrows, and the Emerald Pools Trails.

Beyond the Mighty 5, Utah has an additional seven national monuments, two national recreation areas, and 46 state parks including gems like Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, San Rafael Swell, and Snow Canyon State Park.

MUST-SEE HIDDEN GEMS

NATURAL BRIDGES NATIONAL MONUMENT

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.

LITTLE GRAND CANYON

San Rafael River Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Grand Canyon is a destination on many people’s bucket lists. But did you know Utah has its very own version of the Grand Canyon? Little Grand Canyon is located in the deepest part of the San Rafael River canyon located directly beneath the Wedge Overlook in the San Rafael Swell. The Swell covers a large area and until modern times posed a formidable barrier to east-west travel. Only two roads actually cross it including I-70 (from Salina to Green River) which cuts right through its middle. Several rest stops are provided in scenic areas. You’ll have breathtaking views into Eagle, Devils, Black Dragon, and several other deep, sheer-walled canyons.

San Rafael River Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the Wedge Overlook you can look out over the Little Grand Canyon of the San Rafael. It’s a majestic viewpoint that does indeed resemble the world-famous Colorado River chasm. When you approach the edge—carefully—and peer over the side, the river hundreds of feet below and then gaze out at the distant mesas, you realize there is nothing “little” about this canyon. The big difference between The Wedge and other scenic vistas is the solitude. You will probably be the only one on the rim.

San Rafael River Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you want to get to know the Swell on a more personal basis—and still remain in your car—drive the Buckhorn Draw Road, designated as one of Utah’s Scenic Backways. Also, drive the spur down to the Wedge Overlook. These are maintained gravel/dirt roads, washboardy in spots, but nothing which will pull your muffler off. They will guide you through the changing faces of the Swell from dry desert to juniper and pinion trees to streambeds where a trickle of water enables lush vegetation in the canyon bottoms.

This is a hot, dry country and you need to be prepared for emergencies. Let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return. Carry water, food, and emergency supplies. If your vehicle breaks down on a backroad it may be days before someone happens along that way.

San Rafael River Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The ideal time to hike the Swell is during spring or fall when temperatures are moderate. Morning or evening hikes are enjoyable during the summer. Carry water if you are hiking any distance.

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 Ultimate Guide to Arches National Park

This 76,000-acre wonderland is less a park and more a sandstone sculpture garden of sunset-hued arches and domes. Here’s how to outsmart the crowds.

Good morning. Your friendly reminder that with the summer solstice arriving tomorrow, this weekend will have the most daylight of any weekend this year (in the Northern Hemisphere). Enjoy it!

Before earning its spot as one of Utah’s five national parks in 1971, this fantastical landscape spent over 40 years as a national monument. It was during this time that esteemed writer and environmentalist Edward Abbey worked at Arches as a seasonal ranger documenting both his love for the area and his disdain for people’s poor treatment of it in the classic Desert Solitaire. Abbey spent only two years at the park.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What You Need to Know Before Visiting 

Watch the mercury (and your H20 intake). Heat-related illness is a common affliction for those who fail to respect both the weather and their own bodily needs. Park guidelines suggest consuming a gallon of water per day year-round to stay hydrated during your time at the park and after my hiking experiences in the Southwest desert areas I’d say that advice is pretty spot-on. You’ll find water at the visitor center and at the Devils Garden Campground and trailhead. Since the shade is even harder to come by than water packing a wide-brimmed hat is good advice (I recommend a Tilley).

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enjoy—and respect—the power of wind and water. The park’s incredible formations wouldn’t exist without the power of Mother Nature at her most intense. These same erosive forces continue to shape Arches today. Visitors have been stranded on trails and roads when flash floods overtake low-lying areas. Sandstone fins (narrow walls that remain after surrounding rock has been eroded away) are no place to be near during high winds. Skyline Arch doubled in size after dislodging a hefty boulder in 1940, Landscape Arch gave up some of its innards in 1991, and Wall Arch disintegrated in 2008. 

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park feels crowded but it actually isn’t. Relatively speaking, Arches is a fairly compact park (at roughly 76,000 acres) with very few named routes. This means that viewpoints and trails (not to mention front-gate traffic) can often feel jammed. You can still beat the crowds, however, by going the extra mile—literally and figuratively. Arrive before dawn. Not only is it absolutely awe-inspiring to watch the sunrise light up the sandstone (along with the La Sal Mountains to the southeast) but you’ll nab some solitude on the park’s most popular trails. You can also branch out on Arches’ network of unpaved roads. Developed areas make up only a tiny portion of the park’s acreage and there’s so much more to see once you leave the pavement behind. 

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to Get There

Arches National Park is located off U.S. Route 191, just north of Moab which is centrally situated near Utah’s border with Colorado.

When Is the Best Time of Year to Visit Arches National Park?

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Winter

Snow isn’t uncommon during the winter months when temperatures hover in the forties during the day and routinely dip below freezing at night. But if you’re prepared with the proper gear, it’s a real treat to see the vivid red-rock landscape all snow capped. This time of year the park experiences its lowest visitation and you’re sure to snag a site at its sole campground.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spring

Welcome back, humans! Between the thawed-out trails and crowd-drawing events to Moab, prepare to jostle for space at popular viewpoints and trails. It’s hard to beat Arches this time of year—the mercury begins to rise with daytime highs topping off in the sixties and seventies and tiny wildflowers start to sprout from the desert crust.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Summer

The best way for most folks to experience Arches in the summertime is from inside an air-conditioned vehicle or toward nightfall when temperatures slide into the sixties. That said, you’ll see just as many people crawling along its trails in July as you will in April—and that is a lot. I can’t say it enough: carry lots of water and drink said water, no matter the kind of activity. And come prepared for the monsoon season which is marked by intense thunderstorms prone to causing flash floods; this season begins in July and can last through September.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fall

Sweet relief! Temperatures dip back down to mirror springtime conditions and come November, the hordes begin to do the same. I have toured Arches in November and it’s been an amazing experience due to the pleasant weather and lack of crowds. Darkness arrives more quickly this time of year but that just leaves more time for stargazing.

Devils Garden Campground © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Camp in and near Arches

The only camping option inside the park is the Devils Garden Campground, a slickrock-flanked oasis at the end of the park’s main road. Reservations are available and recommended via Recreation.gov, March through October and are available up to six months in advance; its 51 sites are first come, first served the rest of the year. 

Devils Garden Campground © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you strike out, there are plenty of other options scattered around the greater Moab area including an endless parade of RV parks and resorts stuffed with equally endless amenities. For more rustic surrounds, bunk down at one of 26 different BLM camping areas all of which are first come, first served except for the reservoir-adjacent Ken’s Lake Campground which requires advance reservations from March through mid-November.

What to Do

Along the 18-mile scenic drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sightseeing

Get the lay of the land by driving the park’s 18-mile scenic drive which rolls past a handful of pull-outs and overlooks that showcase the park’s wild landscape. A spur marked by signage for the park’s Windows Section—so named for the portholes that have been gouged from the rock—is not to be missed.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Day Hiking

Yes, it’s worth the hype—you really should see Delicate Arch while you’re at Arches. You don’t have to make the somewhat strenuous three-mile round-trip to do so; instead, bypass the trailhead and drive a little farther down to a pair of viewpoints. The lower one is only 50 yards from the parking lot along an accessible path while the upper one rewards a half-mile climb with a closer look.

Balanced Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another accessible and very worthy stop is the gravity-defying Balanced Rock which can be seen from its parking lot or from a 0.3-mile loop, roughly half of which is paved. Nearby, the Windows Area is a popular stop especially at sunrise when you can scamper around the back side of North Window to look through and spot Turret Arch bathed in reddish glow. The mile-long Park Avenue Trail which connects its namesake overlook with the Courthouse Towers Viewpoint is a quieter option (though just as beautiful) especially at sunrise and sunset. 

Landscape Arch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Deeper into the park the impossibly thin Landscape Arch (1.8 miles round-trip), the longest such span in North America at 306 feet, is a must-see. If you’re feeling adventurous continue past this point to complete a 7.9-mile loop of the Devils Garden area. The route travels across sandstone fins and requires good navigation skills.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driving

While you can’t go off-roading (or use off-highway vehicles) anywhere in the park, you can get off the beaten path by driving around its quiet interior via a network of unpaved roads, one of which—Salt Valley Road—is accessible to two-wheel-drive vehicles. This route travels between the Devils Garden area and the park’s northeast boundary; a 2.6-mile round-trip near the latter deposits you at Tower Arch situated in the fantastically lumpy Klondike Bluffs. If you have four-wheel drive visit Herdina Park, an even more remote area home to several arches and zero crowds. Keep an eye on the weather no matter where you drive and stay off backcountry roads right after a rain when they turn into mush. 

Cycling

Moab is arguably one of the best mountain-biking destinations in the U.S. but you can’t get your fix inside the park where it isn’t allowed. That said, you can still cruise along any of its roads. Just know that you’re going to share space with a lot of cars if you stick to pavement; making the steep, narrow, winding climb from or descent to the visitor center not without its risks especially.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyoneering

A journey through the Fiery Furnace, an unmarked sandstone labyrinth that requires quality boots, a good sense of balance, and an even better sense of direction. While it’s possible to purchase a permit for a self-guided trip ($3 to $6 via recreation.gov), it’s better to buy a ticket for a ranger-led tour ($10 to $16) unless you have previous experience navigating the mazelike canyons or are traveling with someone who does. (Note: The Fiery Furnace has been closed throughout the COVID pandemic.) 

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If You Have Time for a Detour

Listen—it’s not if you have time for a detour, it’s that you’d better make time for a detour. Moab is a fantastic base camp for enjoying all the region has to offer. 

The most obvious side trip is one to neighboring Canyonlands National Park about a half-hour southwest from Arches. This section of the park rises like a wedge above the snaking Colorado and Green Rivers whose tight bends carve canyons over 2,000 feet below the overlook. For a more illuminating perspective on the local landscape, set out at dawn for the short hike to cliffside Mesa Arch which glows at sunrise; just know that you won’t be the only person jockeying for the perfect photo.

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

The same road that leads to Canyonlands, State Route 313, will also steer you toward Dead Horse Point State Park whose namesake overlook is worth the price of admission. But you’d be remiss to simply gawk and go; instead, leash up Fido to enjoy the roughly seven miles of trail that trace the rim or pedal the park’s network of beginner-to-intermediate-level mountain-bike trails.

Castle Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although it’s incredible to scope the mighty Colorado River from high above its waters, make time to get down to its level by driving all 44 eye-popping miles of State Route 128 most of which runs directly next to the iconic flow. Dip off the main drag for side trips to ogle—or even climb—the postcard spires of Castle Valley and Fisher Towers; a 4.5-mile trail weaves throughout the latter.

Worth Pondering…

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.

—Edward Abbey

21 of the Most Visited National Parks in America

Whether planning to camp under starry skies, take a scenic drive, or chase thrilling outdoor adventures, these parks are sure to please

Approximately 237 million people visited the national parks in 2020, representing a 28 percent year-over-year decrease attributed to the COVID pandemic. To determine the most popular national parks in the United States, I’ve compiled data from the National Park Service on the number of recreational visits each site had in 2020.

President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 signed the act creating the National Park Service to leave natural and historic phenomenons “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Since then, national parks have welcomed visitors to experience some of the best the country has to offer and showcase America’s natural beauty and cultural heritage.

Today, the country’s 63 national parks contain at least 247 species of endangered or threatened plants and animals, more than 75,000 archaeological sites, and 18,000 miles of trails.

Keep reading to discover 21 of the most popular national parks in the United States, in reverse order. And be sure to check with individual parks before you visit to find out about ongoing, pandemic-related safety precautions.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

48. Pinnacles National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 165,740
Percent of total national park visits: .24%

Pinnacles National Park in California was born after several volcanoes erupted forming the unique landscape of the park which is packed with canyons, rock spires, and woodlands. When the park was established in 1908 it was only 2,060 acres but has now grown to 26,000. Because of hot summer temperatures, Pinnacles is most popular in the winter months.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

45. Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 183,835
Percent of total national park visits: .27%

Located in southern New Mexico, Carlsbad Caverns National Park’s 119 caves were born when sulfuric acid dissolved limestone millions of years ago leaving behind a treasure trove of caverns. The Big Room in Carlsbad Cavern is the largest single cave chamber by volume in North America and takes an hour and a half to cross, according to the National Park Service. Birders from around the globe flock to Rattlesnake Spring to see some of the 300 documented bird species.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

42. Mesa Verde National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 287,477
Percent of total national park visits: .42%

Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado protects nearly 5,000 archaeological sites that have preserved the history of the ancestral Pueblo people. They inhabited the land for almost 700 years building dwellings into the cliffs and establishing communities before moving away. Visitors can see and explore several of the cliff dwellings through tours and hiking trails.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

38. Petrified Forest National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 384,483
Percent of total national park visits: .57%

Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona is home to the gorgeous Painted Desert and Crystal Forest where petrified logs shine with quartz crystals. The site in the park known as Newspaper Rock contains more than 650 petroglyphs between 650 and 2,000 years old. The landscape of the park features mesas and buttes created by erosion.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

37. Big Bend National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 393,907
Percent of total national park visits: .58%

Big Bend National Park in Texas offers spectacular views of the Chihuahuan Desert landscape as well as the Rio Grande. Visitors to the park can even enter Mexico through the park’s Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry. Big Bend has more species of birds, bats, and cacti than any other national park in the United States.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

34. White Sands National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 415,383
Percent of total national park visits: .61%

The park is aptly named, featuring wavy white sands over nearly 300 square miles in New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin. This is the world’s largest gypsum dunefield and the park preserves a major part of it. Visits can include the park’s historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Lucero Ranch on the shore of Lake Lucero and the White Sands Missile Range Museum and Trinity Site, where in 1945 the first atomic bomb was tested.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

30. Canyonlands National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 493,914
Percent of total national park visits: .73%

Utah’s Canyonlands National Park features a unique landscape of canyons, mesas, and buttes formed by the Colorado River and its tributaries. Even though the park is considered a desert, its high elevation gives it a varying climate; temperatures here can fluctuate as much as 50 degrees in a day. This, combined with the low annual rainfall, make the park a perfect home for drought-resistant plants such as cacti, yuccas, and mosses.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

29. Lassen Volcanic National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 542,274
Percent of total national park visits: .80%

Each rock at Lassen Volcanic National Park in California is a result of a volcanic eruption given that the park has been volcanically active for 3 million years. The world’s four volcanic types—shield, composite, cinder cone, and plug dome—are all present at the park and located in close proximity to each other. Park visitors can also check out the park’s several fumaroles, mud pots, and boiling pools.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

28. Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 551,303
Percent of total national park visits: .81%

Located in North Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s dominating feature is the badlands which are colorful, rolling hills consisting of rock that are millions of years old. Erosion and other natural processes like lightning strikes and prairie fires continue to shape the badlands today. The park is of course named for the U.S. president who first came to the Dakotas in 1883 to hunt bison.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

24. Saguaro National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 762,226
Percent of total national park visits: 1.12%

As its name suggests, Saguaro National Park in Arizona protects giant saguaro cacti, a symbol of the American West. The average lifespan of one of these cacti is 125 years old and it produces sweet fruits. The park is also home to a variety of animals many of which can only be found in the southern part of the state including kangaroo rats, roadrunners, and horned lizards.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

23. Sequoia National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 796,086
Percent of total national park visits: 1.17%

Sequoia National Park is adjacent to Kings Canyon National Park in California and was the first park established to protect a living organism: its native sequoia trees. Since World War II, Sequoia and Kings Canyon have been administered jointly. In 2014, Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep were reintroduced to the park for the first time in 100 years as part of a recovery effort for this endangered species.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

21. Badlands National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 916,932
Percent of total national park visits: 1.35%

The striking landscape of Badlands National Park in South Dakota contains one of the world’s richest fossil beds. At one point, it was home to the rhino and saber-toothed cat. The Badlands were formed nearly 70 million years ago by erosion and deposition of sediment when an ancient sea was located where today’s Great Plains are.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

20. Capitol Reef National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 981,038
Percent of total national park visits: 1.44%

Capitol Reef National Park in Utah is famous for the Waterpocket Fold, a geologic monocline extending almost 100 miles and considered a “wrinkle on the earth.” The fold was formed 50 to 70 million years ago as a warp in the Earth’s crust and erosion has exposed the fold at the surface. The park has some of the darkest night skies in the United States, so much so that it has been designated an International Dark Sky Park.

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

19. New River Gorge National Park & Preserve

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,054,374
Percent of total national park visits: 1.55%

New River Gorge National Park & Preserve consists of 70,000 acres along the New River, a whitewater river in southern West Virginia that despite its name is one of the oldest on the continent. From the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, the sides of the valley fall almost 900 feet into the deepest and longest river gorge in the Appalachian Mountains. Visitors can go whitewater rafting or canoeing, rock climbing, bird watching, camping, hiking, or biking along an old railroad grade.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. Arches National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,238,083
Percent of total national park visits: 1.82%

Arches National Park in Utah lives up to its name and has more than 2,000 natural stone arches, the densest concentration of natural stone arches in the world. These sandstone geological formations are the result of erosion and a thick layer of salt beneath the rock surface. The arches are impermanent, however; the 71-foot Wall Arch collapsed in 2008.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. Bryce Canyon National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,464,655
Percent of total national park visits: 2.16%

Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah has the world’s largest collection of hoodoos, pillars of rock left standing after erosion. Bryce Canyon contains a series of natural amphitheaters and bowls, the most famous being Bryce Amphitheater which is full of the park’s iconic hoodoos. The park is one of three national parks to house the Grand Staircase geological formation which is a giant sequence of sedimentary rock layers.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Shenandoah National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,666,265
Percent of total national park visits: 2.45%

Just 75 miles from the nation’s capital, Shenandoah National Park in Virginia showcases the Blue Ridge Mountains and is home to 90 perennial streams, many of which turn into cascading waterfalls. While many native species have been lost over time, today the park has more than 200 bird species, 50 mammal species, and more than 35 fish species. The park is popular with hikers with 500 miles of trails including 101 miles of the famed Appalachian Trail.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Joshua Tree National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 2,399,542
Percent of total national park visits: 3.53%

Joshua Tree National Park in California was named after its picturesque, spiky Joshua trees. Mormon immigrants named the trees after the biblical Joshua after noticing that the limbs looked as if they were outstretched in prayer. Many of the park’s animals including Scott’s orioles, wood rats, and desert night lizards depend on the tree for food and shelter. Keys View in the park offers an incredible view of the Coachella Valley, the San Andreas Fault, and San Jacinto.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Grand Canyon National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 2,897,098
Percent of total national park visits: 4.26%

Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona is synonymous with its world-famous canyon that is 18 miles wide and 1 mile deep. The park encompasses more than 1 million acres and consists of raised plateaus and structural basins. The Grand Canyon is considered one of the best examples of arid land erosion in the world. It has a rich and diverse fossil record and the land offers a detailed record of three out of the four geological eras.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Zion National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 3,591,254
Percent of total national park visits: 5.29%

Zion National Park was Utah’s first national park and is famous for its landscape of giant colorful sandstone cliffs. Around 12,000 years ago the first people to visit this land tracked mammoths, giant sloths, and camels until those animals died about 8,000 years ago. Because of the range in elevation in the park, it has more than 1,000 diverse plant species.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 12,095,720
Percent of total national park visits: 17.81%

Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee is the most biodiverse park in the National Park system with more than 19,000 documented species. The Smokies are among the oldest mountain ranges in the world. On average, more than 85 inches of rain falls in the park each year fueling 2,100 miles of streams and rivers that flow through the park.

Worth Pondering…

The national parks in the U.S. are destinations unto themselves with recreation, activities, history, and culture.

—Jimmy Im

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.