Finding Adventure (Without the Crowds) in Utah

Avoid the masses but not the epic adventures at these breathtaking under-the-radar desert landscapes around Moab

From Jurassic-era dunes and prehistoric petroglyphs to amber-tinted cliffs and spires, Moab is an adventure traveler’s dream. Located in the heart of the Colorado Plateau, this small city in southeast Utah is one of North America’s greatest outdoor recreation hubs and a gateway to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.  

Millions of years of erosion by ancient oceans, freshwater lakes, streams, and windblown dunes shaped this region’s 2,400 square miles of sandstone arches, picturesque mountain peaks, Martian-like rock formations, and colorful mesas and canyons. 

Along the Colorado River near Moab © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mountain bikers, hikers, campers, climbers, paddlers, and off-road drivers arrive in droves to explore this red rock playground in jaw-dropping numbers—more than 3 million visitors annually.

With increasing use come big problems! Overcrowding and overuse of trails, campgrounds, and recreation facilities led Arches to institute a timed entry reservation system between April and October. Other popular national parks have implemented similar measures encouraging people to come during off-peak times or explore other nearby recreation areas. 

But here’s the good news: The National Park Service (NPS) manages other parks, monuments, recreation areas, and historic areas within a day’s drive from Moab including Aztec Ruins National MonumentGlen Canyon National Recreation AreaHovenweep National MonumentMesa Verde National Park, and Natural Bridges National Monument. About 94 percent of the land surrounding Moab is public meaning there are also plenty of lesser-visited state parks and federal recreation areas extending into the Greater Moab region to discover. 

For adventurers and nature lovers who want to see more of the great outdoors—and less of each other—here are five tips to beat the crowds and explore the elements in Moab this spring.

Devils Garden Campground, Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Get crafty about campsites

Many of the private RV parks, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and state and federally owned campgrounds demand ample planning time. Campgrounds closer to U.S. Route 191 and Utah Routes 128 and 279 along the Colorado River (The Riverway) usually fill up by mid-morning. 

Getting one of the 51 campsites at Devils Garden Campground—the only developed campsite in Arches—can be challenging without some pre-trip planning. During the high season (March 1-October 31), sites are reservable up to six months in advance. But from November 1 to February 28 when temperatures are cooler, the campground is first-come, first-served.

For fewer crowds, venture to Canyon Rims Recreation Area, an hour’s drive south of Moab on Route 191. It has two campgrounds to stage your hiking, biking, and driving adventures—Hatch Point in the north and Windwhistle in the south which rarely fills up and don’t require reservations. Be sure to stop at one of the park’s visitor centers and ranger stations to get the scoop on current park conditions and for other trail and campground suggestions.  

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

Explore public lands south of Moab

Parks closer to downtown Moab (just five miles from Arches National Park) are usually slammed with eager outdoor enthusiasts, especially during summer months. While spring (April through May) and fall (mid-September through October) still have crowds, they are some of the best times to score prime campsites and experience uncrowded trails, climbing routes, and iconic arches around the city.

During the busy seasons, visiting Moab can be kind of overwhelming but the public lands around Moab offer remarkable remote experiences.

With breathtaking views into Canyonlands National Park and the Colorado River 2,000 feet below, Dead Horse Point State Park, a 40-minute drive south of Moab is a highlight for hikers and photographers exploring canyon country. The park, named for an era when cowboys corralled wild mustang herds on the high mesa is also a terrific first outing for bikers new to the area. The 16-mile Intrepid Trail System offers a variety of single-track loops and slickrock (Moab’s weathered sandstone) sections that allow all ages and abilities to experience incomparable cliff-top and canyon vistas. 

Drive further south to Canyon Rims, a 100,000-acre BLM-maintained land between Moab and Monticello to peer over one of three spectacular overlooks—Anticline, Minor, and Needles. Each offers unique views of Canyonlands’ Islands in the Sky and Needles Districts and Bears Ears National Monument’s Indian Creek and Lockhart Basin sections. These sites are comparable to those seen from the rim of the Grand Canyon but without the shoulder-to-shoulder visitor experience.   

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bike away from the crowds

With its seven new non-motorized trails, updated signage, and fresh markings on existing trails plus stunning views of the Salt Valley and Arches National Park, Klondike Bluffs should be on every biker’s list. Just a 30-minute drive north of Moab, this 58-mile single-track trail on dirt and slickrock includes 26 named paths from beginner to advanced which can be combined into loops of any length. It’s the first trail that visitors pass on the way to Moab from I-70 in the north making it the most accessible for cyclists coming from Denver or Salt Lake City. 

Further into the park is the Dinosaur Stomping Grounds hiking trail which features several dinosaur trackways and individual dinosaur prints. Paleontologists believe Utah was part of an island landmass called Laramidia where a wide range of dinosaur species roamed more than 75 million years ago. 

Indian Creek Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan a desert road trip

Recreation areas south of Moab such as Canyon Rims and Bear Ears National Monument are usually less crowded due to fewer developed trail systems. Take a scenic drive through Utah’s vibrant vermillion canyons, over plateaus of mesas and buttes, and around the region’s open plains of grass and shrubland.

In Canyon Rims, travelers may spot pronghorn antelope near Hatch Point and can cruise to remote overlooks with breathtaking views of Canyonlands and the Colorado River.

Rather than endure the hours-long wait to see Delicate Arch in Arches, drive an hour south of Moab to reach Bear Ears’ Indian Creek Scenic Byway. This 40-mile-long route takes travelers through flat-top buttes and colossal sandstone towers. Along the way, make a pitstop at Newspaper Rock, one of the largest collections of petroglyphs in the world.

Newspaper Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike in solitude

A hike around Moab’s natural spaces reveals deep red canyons, buttes, and pinnacles. Summer brings high temperatures and midday crowds around Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. To get around that, experienced adventurers plan their hikes and bike rides in the morning and evening, bringing the best sunlight for photography. To help photographers, the NPS has created a table of the park’s notable landscape features and the best time to photograph them. 

For a quieter trek outside the national parks head three miles from the Hatch Point campground in Canyon Rims to Trough Springs Canyon trail a relatively easy five-mile roundtrip hike. It starts at the top of the plateau and descends 2.5 miles into the canyon where a creek flows year-round. The path continues through the waterway’s riparian zone, riddled with tamarisk, cottonwoods, and willow. Follow the stream into the larger Kane Creek Canyon where a popular but difficult 4×4 off-road trail of the same name invites adventurers to explore. 

Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Downstream, where Kane Creek approaches the Colorado River, travelers find several ancient rock art sites, including Moonflower Canyon Panel, Elephant Panel, and False Kiva. The drawings resembling bighorn sheep and hunters with spears along with crescent moons, lightning bolts, and snakes tell the story of the nomadic Puebloans (formerly called Anasazi) who briefly farmed and built dwellings and granaries—used to store squash, maize, and beans—around the region.

Even today, potsherds (or pottery fragments) can be found poking out of the sand near surviving granaries but visitors should be careful to leave these artifacts untouched.

Worth Pondering…

…the most weird, wonderful, magical place on earth—there is nothing else like it anywhere.

—Edward Abbey, American author and former ranger at Arches National Park, on Canyonlands

The Top 10 Christmas-Inspired RV Road Trips

While any corner of the United States brims with holiday joy and magic during the season, these are the top road trips and destinations to mark on your map to experience the creme de la creme of Christmas road trips

This festive season, many people are choosing to avoid flying and hit the road for the holidays instead. Whether you’re looking for famed mountain peaks frosted with snow, national parks devoid of tourist crowds, or iconic routes allowing you to cruise without traffic or something in between, one of these options is sure to fit the bill.

RV road trips are often reserved for the freedom of summer vacation but if you miss the open road there’s no reason you can’t find holiday-inspired adventure along the highway during the winter. Work these festival stops into a trip back to grandmother’s house or follow the trail for a merry and bright day trip.

Grand Canyon Railway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Phoenix to the Grand Canyon, Arizona

While desert landscapes may not provide a winter wonderland experience, Phoenix knows how to do the holidays right with its famous Chandler Tumbleweed Tree tradition, a lighting ceremony, and Christmas parade.

Before or after enjoying it, take a road trip to the Grand Canyon where there’s a good chance you’ll see at least a dusting of snow with the South Rim sitting at about 6,800 feet in elevation, bringing lots of picture-perfect photo-ops without the crowds. And, during the holidays, you can ride the Polar Express Train from Williams to the South Rim.

Here are some helpful resources:

Savannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

St. Augustine, Florida to Savannah, Georgia

Winter transforms beautiful St. Augustine, America’s oldest city into a stunning spectacle of lights. Its magnificent Spanish architecture is lit up with over three million individual bulbs and there will be horse-drawn carriage rides to view them all.

Afterward, take off for Savannah to enjoy the Boats on Parade with more than 40 lighted vessels parading both sides of the waterfront accompanied by live music, a tree lighting ceremony, and fireworks. Or enjoy an old-fashioned celebration with Christmas on the River with local entertainment, music, seasonal treats, and more.

Here are some articles to help:

Mount Dora © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Dora, Florida

Mount Dora’s slow pace of life and relaxed atmosphere paint the picture of a quintessential small town presenting a sweet escape from the urban hustle and bustle. This quaint destination is famous for its antique shops and festivals and by exploring the lively downtown you will discover several spots worth visiting.

One of the highlights is the Modernism Museum, a great place to admire intricate designs of modern furniture. But if you are interested in actual history, you can step into the Mount Dora History Museum. Here, you will explore a local legacy dating back to the 1880s through exciting exhibits.

Stepping outside, Mount Dora is surrounded by picturesque sceneries like Palm Island Park. This tranquil nature preserve features a promenade passing along Lake Dora and through a wooded area. You can find a laidback picnic area or fishing spot to spend quality time. Meanwhile, one of the best times in Mount Dora is during winter festivals like the Mount Dora Arts Festival or the Mount Dora Half Marathon. 

Check this out to learn more: 11+ Sensational Things to do in Mount Dora

Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Santa Fe makes a great alternative to the norm for your best Christmas travel ideas. A trip here allows you to view Christmas through the lens of Pueblo and Hispanic cultures.

Celebrate a midnight mass at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis de Assisi. Discover the GLOW light display at the Santa Fe Botanical Garden.

Pick up some unique gifts at the Winter Santa Fe Winter Indian Market. There are also many music and dance performances to check out. The lanterns adorning the rooftops on Christmas Eve are a sight to behold as well!

Santa Fe has more to offer the Christmas traveler than you would think! Activities, traditions, candles, and lights all make this a unique offering. Enjoy sipping hot chocolate while watching the winter sunsets.

Check this out to learn more: Santa Fe Never Goes Out of Style

Helen © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Helen, Georgia

A Bavarian Christmas in America? Yes, it is possible and Helen in Georgia serves it up for you with the snow-capped Blue Ridge Mountains as a backdrop.

Helen is one of the cutest small towns in the South and it only gets more adorable during Christmas. You can drink Glühwein, visit the Christkindlmarket, marvel at the architecture, and all without having to leave the U.S. For a Bavarian Christmas, Helen offers something different when it comes to the best American Christmas vacations.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park to Moab, Utah

The onset of winter shouldn’t automatically mean that sunny days in the great outdoors are over; to chase bright, dry skies, head for the desert. This jaunt will have you swooning over Utah’s myriad of red rocks, elaborate hoodoos, and slot canyons with pitstops in Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, and Arches National Parks. Spend a full week to soak up the scenery (and craft beer).

Begin early in Zion to take in the sunrise glow from within the fabled canyon walls. Stop for photos and say hello to the horses in rustic, cliff-lined Fruita in Capitol Reef National Park then cruise up to Moab for the Arches scenic drive before taking in the sunset at Dead Horse Point.

Here are some helpful resources:

Manatee in Crystal River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Crystal River, Florida

Cool temperatures in Florida bring to life one of the state’s most famous marine mammals. The gentle Florida Manatees escape the colder waters of the Gulf of Mexico to warmer springs in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, such as the gorgeous Three Sister Springs. Crystal Rivers boasts a long list of park spaces that are perfect to visit during the winter season. At Crystal River Preserve State Park, you find various fun recreational opportunities, including kayaking, paddle boarding, hiking, and bird-watching. 

Alternatively, you can mix your love for history and the outdoors at the Crystal River Archeological State Park. This pre-Columbian site houses a plaza area, temple mounds, and burial mounds that portray a primitive way of life in ancient Native American societies. A visit to Crystal River would not be complete without an intimate encounter with the town’s most famous marine resident and the Swim with Manatees boat tour provides tourists with this rare opportunity. 

Check this out to learn more: Swim with the Manatees of Florida’s Crystal River

Gulf Shores © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gulf Shores, Alabama

It is not just the name. This well-known Alabama jewel provides the ultimate Gulf Coast winter experience. Relaxing coastal breezes, mild temperatures, and heart-ravishing views will see one’s vacation end before it starts. With its miles of white-as-sugar sandy beaches, bayous, rivers, and lakes, winter here is not the time to dress as someone going to the moon.

Gulf State Park boasts 8 miles of paved trails perfect for biking—while Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, one of the largest undeveloped parcels of land on the Alabama coast is bearably cooler in winter and, hence, an awesome outdoor adventure spot. In winter, you will likely see birds such as Red-breasted Mergansers and Peregrine Falcons—at the wildlife refuge. The latter is not only the world’s fastest bird but also the world’s fastest animal. For those who love skating, The Wharf boasts an ice skating rink and is worth checking out.

For more tips on exploring this area, check out these blog posts:

Jekyll Island Club at Christmas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Holly Jolly Jekyll

Jekyll Island is home to more than a million lights during the Holly Jolly Jekyll season. The Great Tree alone has more than 45,000, which is more per square foot than the NYC Rockefeller Center Christmas tree! Purchase tickets online for the guided tram tours that take place on select nights. Trolley riders will enjoy festive holiday beverages, music, and a one-of-a-kind tour souvenir! 

Don’t miss the light parade, holiday fireworks, and special drive-in movie presentations.

Here’s a great article to help you do just that: Holly Jolly Jekyll.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park to Nashville

One of the best things about East Coast mountains (apart from their rich human history) is their year-round accessibility due to being lower in elevation than their counterparts out west. This trip is all about soaking up the best of both worlds—the human and the wilderness—from the panoramic views of Shenandoah’s Skyline Drive to a spooky tour of Mammoth Cave and even the lively honky-tonk bars in Nashville’s historic downtown. 

Shenandoah National Park in Northern Virginia is a hiker’s dream with 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail cutting right along the park’s spine. From there, it’s easy to continue onto the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Great Smoky Mountains. Head to Cades Cove to take in the centuries-old Cherokee and homestead history before veering north towards a self-guided tour of Mammoth Cave National Park.

If you need ideas, check out:

Worth Pondering…

Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.

—Norman Vincent Peale

The Best Road Trip from Salt Lake City to Moab

Though Utah may appear arid and sparse, there’s plenty to do in the Beehive State. And if you’re willing to embrace the great outdoors, a winding journey from Salt Lake City to Moab features the best scenery the state has to offer.

Salt Lake City and Moab are about a 4-hour drive apart if you navigate straight through from one to the other. However, you want to stop and explore Utah’s gorgeous scenery. The landscape along the way makes you want to grab your water bottle—a must-have in the hot, desert environment—and hike through the red rock formations.

Two intriguing and different Utah destinations—Moab and Salt Lake City—await you to explore their gifts. From high-energy adventure to world-renowned musical talent, your road trip between the two will be filled with history, exploration, and great food.

You will find exciting adventures, history, refined culture, and amazing cuisine along the way. Plan to enjoy a day or two or more on either end—Salt Lake City and Moab offer their special character and are unique in their offerings. Take a day in between the two and make the drive a quintessential Utah road trip.

Moab © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Salt Lake City

While it may just be the start of the road trip, Salt Lake City is a fascinating metropolis in its own right. Spend the day in the city, sampling food and enjoying local culture before you hit the road. Salt Lake City was founded in 1847 by Brigham Young and has a history steeped in the Mormon faith. Therefore, there are plenty of interesting religious institutions and monuments to visit. It is also surrounded by a variety of landscapes and terrain that make it a top spot for world-class skiing, hiking, mountain biking and, of course, taking a dip in the Great Salt Lake.

One of the most iconic things to see and do in Salt Lake City is to attend a rehearsal of the world-renowned Mormon Tabernacle Choir. With a 360-member volunteer chorus of men and women, their vocals lift the spirits of those attending their rehearsals.

2. Utah Museum of Natural History

Utah is known as a hub of Mormon history but you don’t have to be religious to appreciate its culture. Start your day by checking out the Utah Museum of Natural History. It features 10 revolving exhibits, each delving into the culture, history, and geography of Utah and The Great Salt Lake.

3. Temple Square

Take a stroll around Temple Square. It’s a must-see for the wonderful architecture alone. Located in the center of downtown Salt Lake City, the Salt Lake Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is surrounded by the five-block area of Temple Square. The Square is the hub of worship, history, commemoration, gatherings, and music. Visitors can take a free guided tour to visit the temple, museums, libraries, gardens, monuments, and fountains.

4. Great Salt Lake

You can’t visit Salt Lake City without floating in the Great Salt Lake, the largest saltwater lake in the western hemisphere. It is located within the Salt Lake City State Park, just 16 miles west of Salt Lake City. The salinity of the water, ranging anywhere between 5 to 27 percent salt, makes it very buoyant. Other activities include sailing, kayaking, and hiking. Bring binoculars because there is a plethora of wildlife to view, such as bison, antelope, deer, bobcats, coyotes, elk and birds.

5. Brigham Young University, Provo

Home of Brigham Young University, Provo is a good spot to stop and stretch your legs. Wandering around the campus grounds brings back the halcyon days of college life. Mingling with students on the cusp of exploring their future imparts a sense of youthful exuberance, not to mention a trip down memory lane.

Utah Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Utah Lake State Park, Provo

Known as Utah’s largest freshwater lake at roughly 148 sq. miles, Utah Lake provides a variety of recreation activities. Adjacent to Provo, Utah Lake State Park offers fishing access for channel catfish, walleye, white bass, black bass, and several species of panfish. Utah Lake provides an excellent outlet for swimming, boating, and paddleboarding.  The RV campground consists of 31 sites, complete with water and power hookups.

7. Utah State University Prehistoric Museum, Price

Dinosaur hunters will want to stop at the Utah State University Prehistoric Museum. Wannabe paleontologists, archaeologists, and geologists alike will find displays to captivate their attention. The Aggies are proud of their university and take great care in maintaining the museum for their guests to enjoy.

Throughout the West, you will come upon dinosaur museums in the most unlikely little towns. These ancient beasts left copious footprints and fossil evidence that will amaze you and pique your imagination.

8. Ray’s Tavern, Green River

A little way down the road from Moab is Green River, home to Ray’s Tavern. Time your journey to land here for lunch. The order of the day: burgers and fries. Keep it simple and keep it delicious. This local dive bar has morphed into a must-stop eatery on any road trip between Moab and Salt Lake City.

Moab © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Moab

Moab is an active, popular town (pop. 8,900) in the heart of the beautiful red rock canyon country of southeastern Utah. It plays host to the thousands who visit southeastern Utah to take advantage of the area’s great recreational opportunities. From Moab, one can conveniently hike in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, mountain bike on the famous Moab Slickrock Trail, whitewater raft the Colorado River, tackle the thousands of miles of rugged canyon roads in four-wheel drive vehicles, or horseback ride amidst the alpine beauty of the La Sal Mountains.

You will love the Western vibe in this dusty adventure town.

Downtown Moab is a fun place to shop, eat, and people-watch. A mix of souvenir shops, jewelry stores, and Western outfitters line the downtown area, making it a perfect spot to stretch your legs and absorb the Moab outdoorsy vibe.

10. Moab Food Truck Park

In one corner of downtown Moab is a large food truck park where you can dine on everything from gelato to paninis. There are over nine independently operated food trucks serving a variety of cuisines in a relaxed outdoor setting. It’s family-friendly, pet-friendly, and bicycle-friendly. Around the corner from the park sits a lone, bright yellow truck—Quesadilla Mobilla. Monster quesadillas that will fuel you up with energy for your outdoor exploits are served up at this food truck stop. Grab a picnic table and a fist full of napkins—their ooey-gooey quesadillas are legendary.

11. Hell’s Revenge, Moab

Exploring Hell’s Revenge is at the top of everyone’s list when visiting Moab. The intrepid explorer can pilot their own ATV/UTV up and down the precarious rock formations following in the footsteps of many a skilled driver. For thrill-seekers who are happy to hand over the controls to a professional, there are large all-terrain vehicles where you can buckle in and enjoy the scenic route. With obstacles to attack with names like the Tip-Over Challenge and Rubble Trouble, you know you are in for an exciting ride.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12 Arches National Park

No trip to Moab is complete without visiting Arches National Park. A drive through the park is like visiting the moon or another unearthly planet. Every turn opens up new and unusual gravity-defying red rock formations.

From April 1 to October 31, 2023, visitors are required to have a timed entry ticket to enter the park. Ticketed entry will run from 7 am to 4 pm daily. Those without a ticket may enter the park before 7 am or after 4 pm. The park is open 24/7.

Due to its high elevation (4,085 to 5,653 feet) and intense summer heat even short hikes through the park can be a challenging exertion and sturdy shoes are a necessity. If you don’t have time for a hike, a simple drive-through to enjoy the panoramic vistas is a minimum must-do when visiting the area.

Enthusiastic adventurers will want to make a reservation at Devils Garden Campground to enjoy the immersive national park experience. Try to take a midday nap and rest up for the amazing nighttime starlight dark sky extravaganza.

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

13. Dead Horse Point State Park

At the top of Dead Horse Point State Park, there is a large flat area—the point—surrounded by deep, rocky canyons with precipitous drops. The point is accessible by a precariously narrow road—don’t look down. In pioneer days, wranglers would drive wild horses into the flat and barricade the entrance, corralling them on the inescapable point. Legend claims at one time the horses were forgotten high on the point and died—thus the park’s name.

The beauty of the park’s wild landscape viewed from your perch high up on the point is stunning. No matter which direction you turn, the panorama is breathtakingly beautiful, offering views of Canyonlands National Park, the La Sal Mountains, and the Colorado River.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Canyonlands National Park

Avid hikers will love Canyonlands National Park. The park boasts hundreds of miles of hiking trails for all levels. Hiking in Canyonlands National Park requires some pre-planning—water, sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat, and a trail map are at the top of the list.

The easy-rated White Rim Overlook is just under 2 miles round trip with a rewarding view. Expert hikers can embark on the 10-plus-mile Alcove Spring Trail that brings you to the base of the Moses and Zeus Towers.

La Sal Mountain Scenic Loop © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. La Sal Mountain Loop

The La Sal Mountains form a majestic backdrop to the Moab area. A trip on the La Sal Mountain Loop takes you on a 3-hour scenic, winding drive. From the alpine ridges of the La Sal Mountains to the red rock desert and sandstone pinnacles of Castle Rock, this backroad is an adventure. You will see mesas and buttes used in movies and drive past steep bulging peaks that often serve as the backdrop in photographs of the famed Delicate Arch.

This 60-mile route is paved and starts about 8 miles south of Moab off US-191 and loops through the mountains down to Castle Valley and SR-128 where it follows the Colorado River back to Moab. The narrow winding road while suitable for passenger cars is not suitable for large RVs or trailers. There are no services available along the route so make sure you have all the gas, food, water, and other supplies you may need for at least a few hours.

16. International Dark Sky Experience

Arches National Park is a certified International Dark Sky Park, an award given to parks with exceptional starry night viewing. These parks offer protected areas with public viewing of the night sky, offering an illuminating experience.

As you drive north through the park at night, the sky darkens and the stars twinkle in a glorious light show. Some of the best spots are the Balanced Rock Picnic Area and the Garden of Eden Viewpoint.

Join a Stargazing Event with a National Parks ranger-led program. The rangers rotate tours between Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and Hovenweep and Natural Bridges National Monuments for nightly viewings during the summer months. Gazing at the stars without the ambient city lights is a unique and magical experience.

Hiking Arches © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. Hiking for Miles

Nature trails, backcountry hikes, and multi-day excursions are high on the list of every Moab outdoor enthusiast. One of the top spots to hike is Arches National Park. Delicate Arch, one of the most visited sites, can be viewed from one of two trails ranging from a 10-minute easy walk to a more heart-pumping 30-minute climb. Another popular hike through the park is to Balanced Rock, a 20-minute, easy loop trail.

For more Utah road trip ideas, explore these articles:

Worth Pondering…

Standing there, gaping at this monstrous and inhumane spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space, I feel a ridiculous greed and possessiveness come over me. I want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally…

—Edward Abbey, once a park ranger at Arches, from his classic novel Desert Solitaire

The Complete Guide to Canyonlands National Park

Hiking, camping, and biking are among the many outdoor activities at Canyonlands National Park

Nowhere are the shape-shifting powers of water, wind, and rock more dramatically on display than in Canyonlands National Park in southeast Utah. This immense expanse of the Colorado Plateau has been etched by the Green and Colorado Rivers into a relief panel of chiseled buttes, twisted rock spires, and deeply incised canyons.

Here, millions of years of geologic upheaval, compression, and erosion have left behind a magical landscape where you can peek into caves; wander between rock formations resembling castles, towers, and fantastical creatures; and slip through canyons narrow enough to touch both sides.

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Human history also comes alive in Canyonlands National Park with archaeological evidence of human habitation dating back more than 10,000 years. Native tribes, pueblos, and communities are associated with the land in a region that served as hunting grounds for early hunter-gatherers and then home to the Ancestral Puebloan people. This heritage is still apparent in the park with ancient cliff dwellings, petroglyphs and pictographs, and trails that have been traveled for centuries.

Canyonlands was established as a national park in 1964. It owes much of its more recent history to the role of mining in this part of the American West.

But uranium, not gold or silver, lured fortune-seekers to this isolated and intimidating region—the chemical element was in high demand during the 1950s and early ’60s.  Ultimately, however, little uranium was mined here although the 1,000 miles of roads funded by the Atomic Energy Commission opened up the inner canyons to exploration and convinced locals that this geological wonderland deserved protection and preservation. 

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The largest of Utah’s five red rock national parks at 337,598 acres, Canyonlands is essentially three parks in one separated by the Green and Colorado rivers which come together in a confluence near the center of the park.

No roads connect the sections of the park (each has its own entrance) and no bridges span the rivers. 

Depending on your time and how much you want to explore on foot or by driving, you may do as most visitors do and limit your experience to just two sections: Island in the Sky, a high mesa that comprises the park’s northern end and The Needles on the park’s southeast side, named for its impossibly spindly rock spires.

The third area, the rugged and remote labyrinth of canyons on the park’s southwestern side deservedly called The Maze requires four-wheel-drive to go beyond the ranger station and is a favorite among advanced hikers (steep and unmarked trails) and backcountry campers.

Within the park boundaries, the Colorado River shoots through the sheer-sided chasm of Cataract Canyon creating Class V rapids. While Big Drops and Satan’s Gut challenge even the most experienced rafters, quieter stretches provide plenty of fun for families and novice rafters.

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your trip

Moab is the closest big town to the park. 

Sitting atop a mesa more than 1,000 feet above the surrounding lands, the Island in the Sky district is one of the most popular of Canyonland’s sections. There, a scenic drive zigzags around the rim providing one dramatic canyon view after another. When arriving from Moab in the north many visitors start at the Island in the Sky Visitor Center just inside the park. There you can see fauna, flora, and geology exhibits; watch an introductory video to the park; and check out the schedule of ranger programming.

The Needles, named for its layers of spiky sandstone striped in gold and ocher, has its visitor center inside the entrance to this section about 74 miles southeast of Moab. The Maze, on the park’s western side, is served by the Hans Flat Ranger Station where you’ll find a small selection of books and maps, a vault toilet, and a picnic table. There are no paved roads there although the unpaved path to the station is navigable with two-wheel drive; its other roads require a four-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicle.

As a high-desert region of the Colorado Plateau, Canyonlands National Park experiences extreme climate and weather fluctuations. It’s not uncommon for days to top 100 degrees in summer with nighttime temperatures dropping into the 40s and 50s. Spring (April and May) and fall (September and October) are temperate and pleasant with daytime temperatures ranging from 60 to 80 and nights dipping from the 50s down to the 30s. 

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the winter, daytime temperatures average 30 to 50 degrees while temperatures at night average 20 to zero. The region also experiences a monsoon in late summer and early fall with sudden heavy rains and possible flash floods. 

Winter is an overlooked opportunity to visit Canyonlands and not just because you’ll share the landscape with fewer people. Take that beautiful red rock and the gorgeous blue sky, put a dusting of powder white snow on it, and you’ll see it’s even more stunning. The park is an all-season hiking destination since snow accumulation rarely exceeds more than a few inches deep but the park recommends winter hikers use traction devices on their shoes since trails can be slippery.

There is some cellphone coverage along the Island in the Sky scenic drive depending on carrier but cell service is limited to nonexistent in the canyons and on remote trails. There is little to no service in the Needles and almost none in The Maze except at the ranger station. Wi-Fi is available at the Island in the Sky Visitor Center.

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do

Take a driving tour

You’ll find the park’s top views strung along Island in the Sky scenic drive which makes a Y shape with access to Whale Rock. Because the shapes and perspectives shift so much as you move around the mesa you won’t want to skip any of the main overlooks which include Green River, Buck Canyon, and Grand View Point.

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go hiking

Hundreds of miles of trails varying in length and difficulty thread through Canyonland’s diverse terrain. The most-visited are in Island in the Sky including the Mesa Arch Trail, a 0.6-mile easy hike round trip leading to the park’s iconic photo op as the cliff-side arch frames the canyon below.

Another hike in this section is the moderately challenging, 1.4-mile Aztec Butte Trail which traverses a flat and sandy wash before ascending around 200 feet to reach an Ancestral Puebloan archaeological site.

At Grand View Point, the southernmost end and turnaround point of the Island in the Sky scenic drive, the level and comfortable 1.8-mile Grand View Trail winds along the mesa rim between expanses of slick rock and stands of gnarled and stunted piñon. Thanks to the elevation, this is one of the best views in the park. 

In Needles district, trails spiderweb among the spindly rock towers and gnarled outcrops. When you’re in The Needles, you’re down in the canyon walking among all these otherworldly landforms and sculptural formations instead of looking down on them from the mesa. This also means many of the trails are easier because there’s less elevation change since you don’t have to hike down into the canyon and back up.

A top pick for a shorter hike is the Cave Spring Trail, a 0.6-mile round trip past a natural underground spring with prehistoric rock markings and the remnants of a historic cowboy camp. Other favorites include the Chesler Park Trail, a 5.4-mile loop through knobby sherbet-colored hoodoos, and the 8.6-mile Lost Canyon Trail which loops among eerily twisted formations.

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Watch sunset or sunrise

The park’s two popular spots for sunrise and sunset viewing are Grand View Point Overlook and White Rim Overlook, the last two stops on the Island in the Sky scenic drive. The Grand View Point Overlook has great views just steps from its parking lot but it’s an easy 1.8-mile hike to White Rim’s overlook where fewer people interrupt the peace of the dusk. 

Go stargazing

Designated an International Dark Sky Park from DarkSky International, formerly the International Dark-Sky Association, in 2015, Canyonlands National Park goes a level beyond with a Gold-Tier designation reserved for the parks with the darkest skies. The park stays open all night so stargazers can see the spectacle with stargazing programs scheduled during summer. Some are listed in the park calendar but it’s best to check at the Island in the Sky Visitor Center for updated activities. 

Visitors are encouraged to take a DIY approach to stargazing. Every night that isn’t cloudy there is a dark-sky show in the park whether there is a ranger there or not. On a moonless night, all you have to do is pull off the road, turn your back to the direction of Moab where there’s a little glow, and you’ll see stars and constellations you’ve never seen before.

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go cycling

An ever-expanding network of mountain bike trails has turned the area into a bucket-list destination for riders. You’re surrounded by trails everywhere you look and there is so much to do at every skill level. A favorite ride is the Dead Horse Point Singletrack Loop trail which starts in Dead Horse Point State Park north of Canyonlands and continues into the park winding over terraced buttes that afford dramatic views of the valley spreading below.

Experienced mountain bikers come to the park specifically to ride all or part of Island in the Sky’s White Rim Road which drops into the canyon and traces a 100-mile loop along the mesa, its ragged red cliffs towering above.

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go river rafting

Some visitors choose to see Canyonlands National Park and its iconic Cataract Canyon on rafting trips. Accessing Canyonlands by river is a way to get down in the heart of the canyon and see some things in the park that you wouldn’t see otherwise. Wildlife sightings are common with bighorn sheep frequenting the slopes above the river and bald eagles soaring overhead.

Western River Expeditions offers two- and four-day trips to the canyon both traversing the stretch of the Colorado River from Moab. Shorter rafting experiences that explore stretches of the Colorado River outside the park are available from Moab Adventure Center and other Moab-based outfitters such as Mild to Wild Rafting and Adrift Adventures.

Older adults and those who prefer tamer rafting could check out J-Rig trips. The J-Rigs are really big rafts with a lot of different seating flexibility and people can sit 20 feet back in the raft if they want a quieter experience,

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping options

With numerous camping options, an RV trip to Canyonlands is a breeze.

Let’s start with identifying the best time to plan your Canyonlands camping trip.

Winter can be challenging due to low temperatures that could harm an RV’s water system. Additionally, snow and ice can make travel difficult and potentially dangerous.

Summer camping in Canyonlands is a popular choice. However, Utah’s summer heat requires ample water and cooling methods. Note that in-park campgrounds do not offer hookups so if you need to run your RV air conditioner, consider staying outside the park.

I recommend spring and fall for Canyonlands camping. During these seasons, you’ll experience sunny days and cool nights, perfect for dry camping. If possible, plan your visit in April, May, October, or November.

Now that you know the best times for your Canyonlands camping adventure, let’s explore the best places to camp. The area offers a variety of options including in-park campgrounds, boondocking, and full-service RV parks.

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are my top picks:

Island in the Sky Campground

Island in the Sky Campground is a small in-park campground near the visitor center. It offers 12 first-come, first-served campsites at $15 per night. While there are no hookups, you’ll find potable water outside the visitor center and amenities like toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings in the campground. This is really not a big rig-friendly campground but it is easy to maneuver and there are a couple spots that will accommodate a big rig.

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

The Needles Campground

The Needles Campground, another in-park option, offers 26 individual campsites and three group sites. Reservations are accepted from spring through fall with first-come, first-served availability during the rest of the year. The camping fee is $20 per night and amenities include toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings.

Gemini Bridges Road Designated Dispersed Campsites

For free camping on government-owned land just a few minutes outside of Canyonlands National Park, consider Gemini Bridges Road Designated Dispersed Campsites. While amenities are non-existent, the location between two national parks and proximity to Moab makes it a fantastic choice for boondocking.

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

Sun Outdoors Moab Downtown

If you prefer a full-service camping experience, Sun Outdoors Downtown Moab is an excellent choice. Located in the heart of Moab, you can easily access shopping and dining. The campground offers full-hookup sites, a swimming pool, and clean restrooms with showers, ensuring a comfortable stay.

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

Gateway town

Most visitors to Canyonlands National Park base their stay in the lively outdoor adventure hub of Moab, the largest town (population 5,321) near the park. Once a ranching community and later a base of uranium mining, Moab has transformed into a hipster hangout with the arrival of mountain bikers and outdoor adventurers. It now buzzes with lively brewpubs and a constant stream of festivals and events such as the Moab Folk Festival in early November. 

Never gone mountain biking before and want to try it? Rent a bike from one of Moab’s many cycle shops and ask directions to the Courthouse Wash Loop, an easy seven- to 10-mile (depending on preference) circuit around a wide-open bluff northwest of Moab. It’s gentle terrain with a little bit of singletrack, a little bit of slickrock, and a little bit of everything, so you can experience what riding here is all about.

Moab offers a wide range of camping and lodging options as well as an up-and-coming food scene for some creative dining.

Come morning, before heading into the park fuel up on pastries, huevos rancheros, or a sunrise panini at Love Muffin Café. After your exploring, quench your thirst with ales, IPAs, and stouts, and savor flavorful burgers in the capacious dining room at Moab Brewery or line up for crispy fried chicken and waffle fries at Doughbird.

If you’re planning to focus most of your time in the Needles District, the quiet mountain town of Monticello, 49 miles southeast of the Needles Park entrance offers several quality RV parks including Mountain View RV Park and Campground and Devil’s Canyon Campground.

En route

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

Dead Horse Point State Park

Take a slight detour on the way to Island in the Sky from Moab to Dead Horse Point State Park. The park provides one of the best views in the area from a peninsula like spur that sticks out over a branch of the same Colorado River canyon country as Canyonlands National Park.

Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Drive the Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway

When traveling to Canyonlands from the north replace the more direct U.S. Highway 191 with a tour down State Route 128, the Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway. The route traverses broad valleys that may look familiar from starring roles in numerous Western films and presents a stunning photo op at a red rock Fisher Towers silhouetted against the La Sal Mountains. 

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit Arches National Park

Most people traveling to Canyonlands National Park combine their visit with Arches National Park, 26 miles to the northeast. The two parks make a perfect complement, doubling the fantastical appeal of water-carved, wind-burnished, and ice-chiseled rock markings.

Canyonlands National Park offers a unique and unforgettable experience. I hope this guide helps you plan your adventure and that you’ll soon discover the magic of this park.

Here are a few more articles to help you do just that:

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

Fact Box

Location: Southeast Utah

Acreage: 337,598 acres

Highest point: 7,180 feet (above Big Pocket in the Needles District)

Lowest point: 3,900 feet (on the Colorado River)

Main attraction: Stunning canyon views and unusual rock formations

Entry fee: $30

Best way to see it: By car

When to go: April through early June and late August through Novemer, for more temperate weather

Worth Pondering…

…the most weird, wonderful, magical place on earth—there is nothing else like it anywhere.

—Edward Abbey, American author and former ranger at Arches National Park, on Canyonlands

Preparing for Sweater Weather

The fall equinox arrives on Saturday, September 23, 2023

Autumn has caught us in our summer wear.
—Philip Larkin, British poet (1922–86)

It’s officially the last day of summer which means that pumpkin spice and sweater weather are basically upon us. Rather than bemoan the end of one season, I’m looking forward to everything autumn brings with it—including crisp morning air and apple cider. Consider today’s post your fall kickoff complete with a leaf-peeping guide and some great road trips for the season.

Saying farewell to the long, warm days of summer can be bittersweet but the sheer majesty of the changing fall foliage makes the transition a little bit easier. As autumn’s cooler temperatures and shorter days set the trees ablaze with color, now is an ideal time to plan a leaf-peeping road trip, hike, or other excursion to take in the views.

It is the summer’s great last heat,
It is the fall’s first chill: They meet.
—Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The fall season officially begins on Saturday, September 23. This date marks the autumn equinox or the date between the summer and winter solstices when day and night are nearly equal lengths. (We also know it as the first day of the year when you can order a pumpkin spice latte with no shame.)

During an equinox, the Sun crosses what we call the celestial equator—an imaginary extension of Earth’s equator line into space. The equinox occurs precisely when the Sun’s center passes through this line.

After the autumnal equinox, days become shorter than nights as the Sun continues to rise later and nightfall arrives earlier. This ends with the winter solstice after which days start to grow longer once again. 

The word equinox comes from Latin aequus, meaning “equal” and nox, the Latin word for “night.” On the equinox, day and night are roughly equal in length.

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

But why do leaves change color in the fall?

Autumnal leaves in vibrant hues are a beautiful part of the season but those leaves are also a vital part of keeping trees alive. The trees with leaves that change color in fall are deciduous. (Evergreen trees with needles which stay green to continue the photosynthesis process through the winter are coniferous.) Deciduous trees usually have large, broad leaves.

Most of the year, these leaves are green because of the chlorophyll they use to absorb energy from sunlight during photosynthesis. The leaves convert the energy into sugars to feed the tree.

As the season changes, temperatures drop and days get shorter. Trees receive less direct sunlight and the chlorophyll in the leaves breaks down.

The lack of chlorophyll reveals yellow and orange pigments that were already in the leaves but masked during the warmer months. Darker red leaves are the result of a chemical change: Sugars that can get trapped in the leaves produce new pigments (called anthocyanins) that weren’t part of the leaf in the growing season. Some trees like oaks and dogwoods are likely to produce red leaves.

Vermont © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When do fall leaves change color

Leaves can change their color from as early as mid-September through early November. Typically, the second and third weeks of October are the peak times but it shifts depending on your location and your local weather conditions.

Foliage starts to change in the northern-tier states out West and in the Midwest by late September. By October 2, the leaves in some areas will be past their prime. 

Much of New England as well as the Pacific Northwest will be at or near peak fall color by October 9. 

A little further south in the Blue Ridge Mountains, mid-October is your best bet.

Cherohala Skyway, North Carolina/Tennessee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

See below for times of the year of peak foliage around the country:

  • Oregon: Best viewed while driving along scenic highways from mid-September through mid-October; however, color conditions vary daily based on humidity and fog density. 
  • North Carolina: North Carolina’s leaf patterns move east across the state. The first leaves in the western part of the state begin to peak the week of October 9. By October 23, the entire state should peak and the show will be pretty much over by November 1.
  • Vermont: Optimal viewing from September 18 through October 2 although the leaves will begin to change in early September.
  • New Hampshire: Leaves in New Hampshire will be at their best the last week of September. By October 16 most of the state will have changed.
  • Washington: Washington State leaves normally hit their peak the week of October 9 and past their peak by October 23.
Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top destinations for viewing fall leaves

Here is a list of my picks for the most idyllic spots in the U.S. for viewing fall leaves. Some are off the beaten path, some are on more popular, scenic routes for you to enjoy whether on foot or by vehicle. I’ve also included the dates for peak foliage viewing for each location.

Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Peak Viewing: October 9-28

Virginia’s Skyline Drive is a National Scenic Byway that runs 105 miles along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The speed limit is 35 mph with 75 overlooks to pull over and enjoy the sights of the Shenandoah Valley below. Often called one of America’s favorite mountain drives, Skyline Drive is “good for the soul.” 

La Sal Mountain Scenic Loop © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moab, Utah

Peak viewing: Mid September to mid October

Aside from aspens, cottonwoods, and other deciduous trees making the slow turn to brilliance, the abundant sandstone rocks change colors here, too. Shorter days and angled fall light combine to give Moab’s signature sandstone deeper, more varied colors than usual. Several different leaf-peeping routes include the La Sal Mountain Loop Road Scenic Backway, the Gemini Bridges Trail, the Poison Spider Mesa Trail, and the Moab Rim Trail. Jeeps are required on all routes except the La Sal

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

Great Smoky Mountain National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

Peak viewing: Mid to late October, depending on elevation.

You’d be hard-pressed to find any terrain more perfectly orchestrated for fall color viewing than the Great Smoky Mountains. Lots of sumac adds to the brilliant reds but the Park boasts an amazing diversity of trees and terrain that add to the color spectrum—some 100 species of native trees live in the Smokies. To enjoy them, drive the Clingmans Dome Road, the Blue Ridge Parkway, or the Foothills Parkway. 

Mount Washington Cog Railway, New Hampshire © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kancamagus Scenic Highway, Lincoln, New Hampshire

Peak viewing: September 25-October 7

The Kancamagus Scenic Highway in the White Mountains of New Hampshire known by the locals as The Kanc provides some of the most spectacular fall foliage viewing in New England. The Kanc’s 35-mile scenic pass that connects Lincoln to Conway (Route 112) has some tricky hairpin turns and no gas stations so be prepared. It does have plenty of places to pull over and enjoy the grandeur of the vistas. 

Julian apples © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Julian, California

Peak viewing: Early to mid-November.

In Julian, autumn is the grandstand season both for apple-pie eating and leaf-peeping. Sample the town’s homemade apple confections then watch black oaks do their color-changing trick at Lake Cuyamaca in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. A scenic 45-minute drive leads to Palomar Mountain State Park where you can put some miles on your feet while you admire bracken ferns and leafy oaks on the Thunder Ridge and Chimney Flat Loop. Or hike the Five Oaks Trail at Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve, home to some of the oldest and largest black oaks in San Diego County. 

Worth Pondering…

It’s the first day of autumn! A time of hot chocolatey mornings, and toasty marshmallow evenings, and, best of all, leaping into leaves!

—A. A. Milne

Most Scenic Road Trips in Utah

Make plans now to take all 10 of the best road trips in Utah—you won’t regret it

 Utah presents an array of scenic drives that will leave roadtrippers salivating for more. The terrain is vast and scarred with stunning canyons, defiant mountains, random but complex rock formations, fossil and archeological remnants from distant eras, and plenty of cool pit-stop or side-trip lookouts, interpretive sites, hikes, towns, parks, and even additional branching roadways.

Utah is a valued chunk of many inspiring National Scenic Byways and All-American Roadways. Also, it contributes its slew of state-sponsored drives across a wide spectrum of lengths and intensities. Depending on your odometer goals and gas fund, these are the best, most scenic road trips to undertake in the Beehive State. 

Zion National Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Zion National Park Roadways

Picturesque and world-famous Zion National Park has a few great options for exploring with wheels. A lovely lead-up to the East entrance is the Zion National Scenic Byway (State Route 9) which begins at the intersection with State Route 17 in the city of La Verkin and cruises for 54 miles to the park entrance and then onwards to Mount Carmel Junction. Along the way, the byway passes through the towns of Rockville and Springdale and the mile-long Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel.

Also en route is the turnoff for Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. If adventuring after the Thanksgiving long weekend, motorists can continue in their own car along this cherished route. However, during peak season (late spring through early fall) visitors must transfer to the official shuttles to ease the congestion in the heart of the park. 

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway

The Utah segment of the Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway provides an extensive tour through the past and present stomping grounds of the Ancestral Puebloan and other Indigenous peoples of the Four Corners region (the meeting point of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico).

It’s best to break this over 400-mile drive into two or three-day chunks to hit all of the amazing stops spread across sections of U.S. 191 and 163 and State Route 261 and 262. Such highlights include the cliff dwellings of the Canyonlands region, Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum, Hovenweep National Monument, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Valley of the Gods, and Natural Bridges National Monument to name a few. Round trippers can return the way they came perhaps saving certain stops for the return journey or jumping on this next entry to switch up the scenery.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Bicentennial Highway

Southeastern Utah’s Bicentennial Highway (U.S. 95) is a perfect complement to the culturally-focused Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway. This highway goes for 133 miles from the small town of Hanksville back to the San Juan city of Blanding (where the Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum, a highlight shared with the Trail of the Ancients can be found).

To the West, views of the Henry Mountains can be enjoyed. The road then dives into classic canyon country before booting across the long and lean Lake Powell/Colorado River at the Hite Crossing Bridge (near the arresting Hite Overlook). As with the Trail of the Ancients, a side-trip loop around Bridge View Drive in Natural Bridges National Monument is a must. 

Arches Scenic Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Connecting Arches, Dead Horse, and Canyonlands

This one is more of a makeshift road trip based out of Moab with a bunch of cool stops that can be made at your leisure. For starters, head north into Arches National Park and make the out-and-back journey on Arches Scenic Drive.

Depending on how much time you invest in the various viewpoints and hikes either return to Moab to enjoy the offerings of this pretty desert town or head up to the turn-off for UT-313, marked by the Moab Giants Dinosaur Park. Shoot all the way down to Dead Horse State Park, and then backtrack to Grand View Point Road and descend into Canyonlands National Park/the Island in the Sky mesa. 

Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Scenic Byway 12

Utah’s State Route/Scenic Byway 12 is designated as an All-American Road meaning it exemplifies particularly unique features of the country’s landscape. This 123-mile stretch links U.S. 89 just south of Panguitch (the Western terminus) with State Route 24 just east of Torrey (the Northeastern terminus). Travelers will get a taste of the Dixie National Forest, the army of hoodoos at Bryce Canyon National Park, a view of the Henry Mountains, the sandstone cliffs of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the pastel hues of Capitol Reef National Park plus the state parks of Kodachrome Basin, Escalante Petrified Forest, and Anasazi Museum with random tunnels and eye-catching rock formations randomly punctuating the drive. 

Potash Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Potash Scenic Byway

If a short, Moab-based, add-on road trip is all that is desired, scoot off on the Potash-Lower Colorado River Scenic Byway for 17 miles of bliss. State Route 279 or simply Potash Road is a hidden gem drive and given the low density of traffic is also a favorite among cyclists. This route follows the curves of the Colorado River to the border of Canyonlands National Park.

The river is contrasted by prominent sandstone cliffs and a popular climbing spot known as Wall Street. Right out of the gates, this drive offers terrific views of Moab Valley. Next, jump out at Potash Road Dinosaur Tracks and Petroglyphs to appreciate the accidental imprints left behind by the extinct giants and the intentional markings left behind by some of the area’s first human inhabitants. And all the while, keep a keen eye for those amazing arches and creative rock formations that Utah is famous for. 

Upper Colorado Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway (State Route 128)

This spectacular route along the Colorado River gorge begins at the Colorado River Bridge on the north end of Moab. For the first 13 miles, it parallels the Colorado River within a narrow section of the gorge providing breathtaking views of the surrounding red sandstone cliffs. Popular attractions along this portion of the route include viewpoints of the river, public camping areas, and Grandstaff Canyon.

After 24.7 miles the highway passes a viewpoint for an amazing view of the red rock spires of the Fisher Towers. After leaving the valley, the road winds farther up the river gorge until arriving at the site of historic Dewey Bridge at 29.8 miles. Unfortunately Dewey Bridge was destroyed in April 2008 by a brush fire. The road then follows the northern bank of the river before exiting the Colorado River gorge. The highway proceeds across open desert toward the ghost town of Cisco at 44 miles. After another 5 miles the route intersects Interstate 70.

Patchwork Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Patchwork Parkway

Very few routes in the U.S. exhibit a 4,500-foot elevation change that crosses six major life zones in 51 miles. The Patchwork Parkway (State Route 143) skirts lava flow only a few thousand years old before passing Panguitch Lake, a spectacular, large mountain lake renowned for its excellent fishing.

This topmost rise of the geological Grand Staircase showcases the 2,000-foot-deep Cedar Breaks amphitheater with its vibrant hues of pink, orange, red, and other coral colors carved from the Claron Formation.

This highway is also known as the Brian Head-Panguitch Lake Scenic Byway.

Prehistoric petroglyphs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Nine Mile Canyon

Cutting through the Book Cliffs of Eastern Utah is the must-see Nine Mile Canyon, dubbed the longest art gallery in the world. In this already seemingly sculpted place, the prehistoric Fremont Culture, Ute people, and other indigenous groups inscribed over 10,000 petroglyphs onto the canyon walls.

The 46-mile-long (one-way), winding Nine Mile Canyon Road brings these ancient and captivating works of art into view. Yes, despite the name, this road trip will chew up some solid miles. Thankfully, the road has been recently paved which makes the going a little easier for casual motorists but also spares the petroglyphs from harm that the kicked-up dust was causing over the years. Nine Mile Canyon Road can be accessed off Highway 191 near the Utah/Colorado border towns of Helper and Price. 

La Sal Mountain Loop © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. La Sal Mountain Loop

From the alpine ridges of the La Sal Mountains to the red rock desert and sandstone pinnacles of Castle Rock, this back road is an adventure. This 60-mile route is paved and starts about 8 miles south of Moab off US-191 and loops through the mountains down to Castle Valley and SR 128 where it follows the Colorado River back to Moab.

It takes about 3 hours to complete this drive. The narrow winding road while suitable for passenger cars is not suitable for large RVs. The La Sals are the most photographed mountain range in Utah, providing a dramatic background to the red rock mesas, buttes, and arches below.

With so many chart-topping national, state, and native parks/monuments, having a car is essential for taking in all Utah offers. Sometimes the trick is to drive just a little bit at a time, taking many breaks along the way or transitioning to an adventure on foot (rope, boat, or bicycle). But on other occasions, it can be rewarding to bank a ton of miles and appreciate how much the landscape can change with the climbing odometer. The best road trip is the one that calls to you but these ten entries are a great place to start.  

Worth Pondering…

Standing there, gaping at this monstrous and inhumane spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space, I feel a ridiculous greed and possessiveness come over me. I want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally…

—Edward Abbey, once a park ranger at Arches, from his classic novel Desert Solitaire

The Magic of Winter in Southern Utah

Experiencing the peace of Southern Utah in winter is an attraction of its own

Find your sense of adventure and awe in the vast yet intricate swaths of the desert from Arches National Park to Monument Valley. This magical landscape is awash in history dating back thousands of years to the original Native American settlers to whom these places were sacred.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A journey through Southern Utah is an expansive geological paradox: It’s vast and wide-open…empty. Yet, up close, this landscape bears the most intricate topography imaginable: twisting slot canyons, towering rock formations, winding rivers cutting through eons of rock layers, and ancient dwelling sites bringing history within reach.

Canyonland National Park, Islands in the Sky District © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During the winter, the sense of awe is heightened. Not only are the dramatic red, orange, and sandy desert hues brightly lit by the low wintery sun but they may be topped with touches of white snow—a photographer’s dream. In the off-season, the summer crowds are long gone. It’s just you and the silent, crisp desert air.

This itinerary guides you through classic Southern Utah vistas, archaeological sites, geographic marvels, and sacred Native American lands including Bears Ears National Monument.

From Moki Dugway to Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Keep in mind that while winter is an extraordinarily beautiful time to visit this corner of the world, the roads can at times be wet, icy, or snowy, especially on some of the remote roads you’ll be traveling. It’s a very smart move to use a four-wheel-drive vehicle with good tires and plenty of water and snacks packed along. As any seasoned cowboy could tell you, you’ll never regret bringing extra snacks. (Read: A Winter’s Desert: Visiting Southern Utah in the Slow Months)

Start: Green River or Salt Lake City

Finish: Mexican Hat

Hours of drive time: 11-14 depending on starting point; plan at least six hours for return to Salt Lake by car, longer in an RV

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Day 1: See Arches National Park in its full winter glory

If you’re starting from the Salt Lake City area initially, drive south to Green River the night before your itinerary begins to shave three hours of drive time off your first day. If you can’t, plan an early departure from Salt Lake to make the most of your time in Arches and Moab. Arches National Park is world-famous for good reason which attracts quite the dense summer crowds. Now, mid-winter, you can truly take its wonders in with plenty of breathing room. Take a few short hikes: Delicate Arch is one of the most classic vistas in the state, so start there. Then add a walk through Devil’s Garden if you can. (Read: The 5 Best Hikes in Arches National Park)

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

Wrap the day warming back up in an RV resort in Moab and fuel up with tasty pub fare and a pint. If you’re up for it, inquire at the Arches Visitor Center about ranger-led stargazing for the evening. Arches and Dead Horse Point State Park both have International Dark Sky Designations which means you can experience unforgettable stargazing free of urban light pollution. (Read: Immense Cliffs and Stunning Overlooks: Dead Horse Point)

Castle Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Day 2: Wander the wonders of Castle Valley

Get ready for another big day, this time taking in the beauty of the Colorado River canyon east of Moab. Stop for a hike in the classic Grandstaff Canyon (just two miles each way reaching one of the longest rock spans in the country, Morning Glory Natural Bridge).

Castle Valley Gourd Festival © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Once you get to the Castle Valley area, you’ll take a scenic stroll around Fisher Towers. This is one of the most exquisite hikes in the area because the towers and surrounding rock formations look different—and equally amazing—from every angle. The trail covers approximately 2.5 miles each way so go the entire distance if you have the energy. (Read: Moab’s Scenic Byways)

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

Day 3: Peer into the wilds of the Canyonlands Needles District

Fuel up and get ready for a day that won’t disappoint, start to finish. Take in an incredibly scenic drive along the base of the La Sal mountains through Spanish Valley toward Monticello and Blanding. Stop for a side-trip down Needles Overlook Road to get an up-close look at one of the most beautiful and remote corners of Canyonlands National Park, the Needles District. You can take a short hike from Needles Overlook Point, keeping your camera close at hand.

Newspaper Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As you make your way toward the town of Blanding, you’ll gain elevation and encounter even cooler temps than you did in Moab. Bundle up and make sure your vehicle is up to the road conditions. You’ll want to make a stop at Newspaper Rock which features one of the heaviest concentrations of Native American petroglyphs in the region. This rock panel offers an unforgettable peek into history, as it was used for thousands of years as a recording spot for the area’s earliest inhabitants. The name in Navajo is Tse’ Hane, which means rock that tells a story. (Read: Rock That Tells a Story: Newspaper Rock)

On the road to Bears Ears © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Day 4: Explore the heart and soul of Bears Ears National Monument

At Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum, you can begin to wrap your head around this place’s incredible history which spans thousands of years of human habitation. Learn a bit about the Native American tribes who have called this place home and consider the Bears Ears area to be sacred to this day. You’ll see the largest collection of Ancestral Puebloan pottery on display in the region and venture into an authentic 1,000-year-old kiva dwelling to get a sense of how the land’s original inhabitants lived.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Next, take a beautiful drive into the heart of Bears Ears stopping at the incredible dwelling sites at Butler Wash and Cave Towers, each a short hike. Then, make your way to Natural Bridges National Monument where multiple natural rock bridges defy gravity and attest to the power of flowing water to carve the desert into unbelievable shapes. There are many Ancestral Puebloan dwellings to explore here dating back as far as 2,000 years old. So, take your time to stroll through history and the clues it’s left behind. (Read: Sculpted By Water: Natural Bridges National Monument)

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Day 5: Journey into another world in the Monument Valley area

The Valley of the Gods’ name is no hyperbole. You’ll feel a sense of reverence as you drive the valley’s washboard dirt road through a series of exquisite towering buttes and otherworldly rock formations. (Read: Valley of the Gods Is a Mini-Monument Valley…and Totally Free)

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Then, you’ll head an hour south to the equally iconic Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, beautifully remote and packed with history in its own right. While you can take a few easy hikes on your own it’s a great idea to hire a local Navajo guide to get the best understanding and appreciation for this rugged—and legendary—landscape. (Read: Magnificent Monument Valley: Where God Put The West)

To cap off an unforgettable day, head back north and make a stop at Goosenecks State Park. 300 million years in the making, you’ll get a firsthand look at the power of water in geology—the San Juan River has cut a series of tight turns or goosenecks into the landscape. Take a stroll, take a breath, and take lots and lots of photos.

Worth Pondering…

…of what value are objects of a past people if we don’t allow ourselves to be touched by them. They are alive. They have a voice. They remind us what it means to be human; that it is our nature to survive, to be resourceful, to be attentive to the world we live in.

—Terry Tempest Williams, Exploring the Fremont

The Ultimate Guide to Canyonlands National Park

The Colorado and Green rivers divide the park into four districts: the Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze, and the rivers themselves

Landscape is what becomes us. If we see our natural heritage only as a quarry of building block instead of the bedrock of our integrity, we will indeed find ourselves not only homeless but rootless by the impoverishment of our own imagination. At a time when we hardly know what we can count on in a country of shifting values and priorities, Canyonlands is our bedrock, a geologic truth that we all share, the eyes of the future are looking back at us, praying that we may see beyond our own time.

—Terry Tempest Williams

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s huge! The four districts are approximately the area of 172,121 football fields! Ringing in at over 520 square miles, Canyonlands is the largest of Utah’s five national parks and doubtless one of the most stunning. Known for its sweeping vistas of colorful desert landscapes carved by rivers into countless canyons, Canyonlands National Park draws thousands of visitors each year both with its views and its endless outdoor recreational opportunities.

With seemingly unlimited wild landscapes to explore it can be tough to know where to start an adventure. The Green and Colorado Rivers help to do some of the narrowing down by trisecting the park.

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is divided into four distinct areas, each offering a unique perspective on this stark desert ecosystem. Island in the Sky is a flat-topped mesa while the Needles are tall, sharp spires; the Maze is a seemingly-endless system of crevasses and canyons, and finally, visitors can see where the Colorado and Green rivers intersect at the Colorado Plateau. The park also boasts some original Native American rock paintings inside its iconic Horseshoe Canyon.

The lack of development narrows it down even further by providing only a couple of roads into the park boundaries. Such paved access opens a door to the red rock wilderness where the scenery is enhanced by a colorful Southwest sunset that gives way to soft dusky skies and brilliant starry nights. It is very much a place to write home about. 

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Like its neighbor Arches to the north, Canyonlands is served by the small but busy gateway city of Moab where visitors can enjoy a variety of restaurants, shopping opportunities, museums, and cultural events. Other small towns in the Canyonlands area include Monticello and Spanish Valley.

More on Canyonlands National Park: Ultimate Guide to National Park Tripping in Utah: Arches and Canyonlands

The weather at Canyonlands is characterized by the wide temperature fluctuations of a high desert environment; the area sometimes sees temperatures change by more than 40 degrees in one day. The summer is excruciatingly hot and prone to sudden afternoon thunderstorms while the spring and fall bring temperate climates—and crowds.

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With its untamed landscape, Canyonlands offers unparalleled outdoor adventure opportunities both on land and on water. Visitors can enjoy the park on foot, horseback, or bicycle, or take to its two formative rivers for both flat- and whitewater boating. The Park Service also hosts several organized, ranger-led activities such as geological talks and stargazing parties. Check the official park calendar for up-to-date information on these opportunities.

What is today known as Canyonlands National Park is the ancestral land of Indigenous peoples including the Ute, Southern Paiute, and Pueblo people. The Indigenous story of Canyonlands begins long before European men named it such—indeed before they ever set foot in this jaw-dropping desert.

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands features two on-site campgrounds which are accessible and open to RV camping. However, neither campground offers hookups and both have a tendency to fill up fast.

Fortunately, campers can also choose from a wide array of privately-owned RV parks and campgrounds in the Moab area as well as several free or low-cost dispersed camping or boondocking options.

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Island in the Sky 

The Island in the Sky mesa rests on sheer sandstone cliffs over 1,000 feet above the surrounding terrain. Every overlook offers a different perspective on Canyonlands’ spectacular landscape. Island in the Sky is the easiest area of Canyonlands to visit in a short period of time offering many pullouts with spectacular views along the paved scenic drive. Hiking trails or four-wheel-drive roads can take you into the backcountry for a few hours or many days.

The Island in the Sky area is the closest of the four districts to Moab which serves as a jumping-off point into Canyonlands as well as to neighboring Arches National Park and the La Sal Mountains. Island of the Sky is the place to get your 101 briefing on the area.

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driving the paved park loop road aside the canyons on the high mesa provides easy access to stops along the road at archeological sites as well as at trailheads that lead to easy-to-moderate hiking trails into your private wilderness. In the evening, scenic viewpoints welcome visitors to cap off a day of exploration with the magic of sunset skies.

More on Canyonlands National Park: A Lifetime of Exploration Awaits at Canyonlands (National Park)

This popular area is not only ideal for day trippers but is also heaven for mountain bikers and off-roaders who want to take 4WDrive vehicles onto the legendary 100-mile White Rim Road which provides an up-close and personal meeting with the interior canyons. 

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Several short trails explore the mesa top with minimal elevation change enjoying canyon views from above. Moderate trails involve elevation such as climbing a sandstone feature or descending partway into a canyon. Long trails at Island in the Sky begin on the mesa top and descend via switchbacks to the White Rim bench or beyond to one of the rivers. All are considered strenuous with an elevation change of 1,000-2,000 feet and require negotiating steep slopes of loose rock as well as sections of deep sand.

Mesa Arch Trail is a short hike (0.5 miles) that leads to a cliff-edge arch. Mesa Arch is a classic sunrise spot and is popular among photographers. It has stunning views toward the La Sal Mountains any time of day.

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Island in the Sky Campground (Willow Flat) has 12 sites, first come, first served. The campground is open year-round. The spectacular Green River Overlook is nearby. The nightly camping fee is $15 per site. Sites fill quickly from spring through fall. There are toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings in the campground. There is no water at the campground. You can get drinking water outside the visitor center spring through fall. RVs are limited to 28 feet in length.

To reach Island in the Sky, drive 10 miles north of Moab on US 191 or 22 miles south of I-70 on US 191. Turn onto UT 313 and then drive southwest 22 miles. Driving time to the visitor center from Moab is about 40 minutes. Be aware that a navigation system may send you the wrong way.

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

The Needles 

The Needles form the southeast corner of Canyonlands and were named for the colorful spires of Cedar Mesa Sandstone that dominate the area. Hiking trails offer many opportunities for day hikes and overnight trips. Foot trails and four-wheel-drive roads lead to such features as Tower Ruin, Confluence Overlook, Elephant Hill, the Joint Trail, and Chesler Park.

The Needles offers over 60 miles of interconnecting trails as challenging as they are rewarding. Many different itineraries are possible.

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

Four short, self-guided trails along the paved scenic drive highlight different aspects of the park’s natural and cultural history. Surfaces can be uneven. Trail guides are available at the visitor center and the trailheads.

Roadside Ruin (0.3 miles), Pothole Point (0.6 miles), Cave Springs (0.6 miles), and Slick Rock (2.4 miles) are some of the most popular easy/moderate trails but you’ll likely find after consulting a map and with expert rangers at the visitor center that there are plenty of creative ways to chart your own adventure while flexing your outdoor survival skills. 

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

Conditions of other trails are more primitive, traversing a mixture of Slickrock benches and sandy washes. Longer trails are especially rough and require negotiating steep passes with drop-offs, narrow spots, or ladders. Water in the backcountry is unreliable and scarce in some areas. Trails are marked with cairns (small rock piles). Although most trails can be hiked in a day by strong hikers many form loops and may be combined with other trails for longer trips. Net elevation change is generally several hundred feet or less except for the Lower Red Lake Trail which drops 1,400 feet to the Colorado River.

Newspaper Rock, The Needles, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Newspaper Rock Petroglyphs in the Needles section of the park is easy to access on your way in. Having the ability to walk up to and stand face to face with remnants of ancient peoples who lived so long ago in areas that are now our national parks is a grand reminder of the history of the precious American wilderness and its long and important connection with humanity. 

More on Canyonlands National Park: Chasing John Wesley Powell: Exploring the Colorado River—Canyonlands, Lake Powell & Grand Canyon

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

The Needles Campground has 26 individual sites plus three group sites in different locations around The Needles district. The nightly camping fee for an individual site is $20. You can reserve some individual sites from spring through fall. At other times of the year, individual sites are first-come, first-served. There are toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings in the campground. RV’s maximum length is 28 feet.

To reach Needles, drive 40 miles south of Moab on US 191 or 14 miles north of Monticello then take UT 211 roughly 35 miles west. UT 211 ends in The Needles and is the only paved road leading in and out of the area. Be aware that GPS units frequently lead people astray.

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Maze

The Maze is the least accessible district of Canyonlands. Due to the district’s remoteness and the difficulty of roads and trails, travel to the Maze requires more time. Visitors must be prepared for self-sufficiency and the proper equipment or gear for self-rescue. Rarely do visitors spend less than three days in the Maze and the area can easily absorb a week-long trip.

The Maze is the Wild West of the park—remote, rugged, and open to those who are eager and equipped to experience the Utah backcountry without signs and/or other visitors leading the way. In the Maze, you are left with the proverbial horse you rode in on, a map, your best-charted plans, your instincts to guide you as well as the company you keep. 

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Four-wheel-drive roads in The Maze are extremely remote, very difficult, present considerable risk of vehicle damage, and should not be attempted by inexperienced drivers. A high-clearance, low-range, a four-wheel-drive vehicle is required for all Maze backcountry roads.

The Hans Flat Ranger Station is 2.5 hours from Green River. From I-70, take UT 24 south for 24 miles. A left-hand turn just beyond the turnoff to Goblin Valley State Park will take you along a two-wheel-drive dirt road 46 miles southeast to the ranger station.

From the ranger station, the canyons of The Maze are another 3 to 6 hours by high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle. Another four-wheel-drive road leads into The Maze north from UT 95 near Hite Marina (driving time is 3+ hours to the park boundary). Use a map to reach The Maze. GPS units frequently lead people astray.

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Rivers

Also well worth visiting in Canyonlands are the rivers themselves. The Colorado and Green rivers wind through the heart of Canyonlands cutting through layered sandstone to form two deep canyons. In stark contrast to the hot, sunny desert above, the river corridors are remarkably green, shady, and full of life.

Both rivers are calm upstream of The Confluence, ideal for canoes, kayaks, and other shallow water craft. Below The Confluence, the combined flow of both rivers spills down Cataract Canyon with remarkable speed and power creating a world-class stretch of whitewater.

More on Canyonlands National Park: Canyonlands: Colorado River and Canyon Vistas

As you can see in that basic outline of the Canyonlands wilderness, there are endless things to do and see while hiking, camping, off-roading, exploring the waterways, taking photographs, and blazing your path in this famous and also challenging park.

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 337,598 acres, largest national park in Utah

Date established: September 12, 1964

Location: Southeastern Utah, on the Colorado Plateau

Designation: International Dark Sky Park

Park Elevation: 3,700 feet to 7,120 feet

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park entrance fee: $30 per private vehicle, valid for 7 days

Park camping fee: $15 (Island in the Sky), $20 (Needles)

Recreational visits (2021): 911,594

How the park got its name: Citing From Controversy to Compromise to Cooperation: The Administrative History of Canyonlands National Park by Samuel J. Schmieding, explorer John Wesley Powell designated the region “The Cañon Lands of Utah” in a 1878 report written for the U.S. government. The word cañon was anglicized in the early 20th century and in 1963 the National Park Service merged them into one—Canyonlands.

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Iconic Site in the Park: In the Island of the Sky district is Mesa Arch,the most iconic landmark in Canyonlands and among the most photographed landmarks in the national parks. The pothole arch frames Utah’s White Rim country and the La Sal Mountains—a vista view that is magnificent—and that is before the first ray of sunlight pops over the horizon. That first light bounces off of the rock beneath the arch casting an epic glow onto the roof of it framing a keyhole view of the valley with illuminated light. Every morning, photographers hike their gear along the 0.5-mile trail to the 1,200-foot-high cliff-side to watch the scene unfold, each vying for their own take of the classic shot. Photograper or not, this landmark is a must-see for any visitor to the park, just know that it is only at sunrise when you will see this magnificent light show. 

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Accessible adventure: One of the engineering marvels in the U.S. National Parks are the roads that were constructed, both recently and long ago, to enable visitors to experience America’s most special wilderness places.

More on Canyonlands National Park: Arches and Canyonlands: Two Parks Contrasted

The Island in the Sky paved scenic driving road is the easiest way to explore Canyonlands National Park in a short amount of time. It is the only paved road in this area of the park winding for 34 miles along the high mesa with panoramic views of the red rock wonderland stretching from the canyon bottom 1,000 feet below. The star of the show is at the end of the loop at the Grand View Point, the highest point on the mesa and a scene that is considered by many to be the best view found anywhere in the park.

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Did you know?

Canyonlands was the 31st national park and was established by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Because of its twisted labyrinth of slot canyons, what is now known as The Maze was one of the last sections of the contiguous United States to be mapped. Mapping became easier once planes were invented. 

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Desert scenes from the film Thelma and Louise were captured in Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.

Canyonlands is one of 11 International Dark Sky Parks in the state of Utah. Others national parks with this designation include Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon.

Worth Pondering…

…the most weird, wonderful, magical place on earth—there is nothing else like it anywhere.

—Edward Abbey, American author and former ranger at Arches National Park, on Canyonlands

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. 

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Worth Pondering…

One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.

—William Shakespeare