The Ultimate Guide to the Mighty 5

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

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

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

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

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to get there:

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

Entrance Fee:

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

Canyonlands National Park

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

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Plan your trip: Arches and Canyonlands: Two Parks Contrasted

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

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to get there:

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

Entrance Fee:

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

Capitol Reef National Park

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

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to get there:

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

Entrance Fee:

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

Bryce Canyon National Park

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

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

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

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to get there:

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

Entrance Fee:

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

Zion National Park

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

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to get there:

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

Entrance Fee:

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Wendell Berry

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

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

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

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

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

Related: Arches and Canyonlands: Two Parks Contrasted

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related: Moab’s Scenic Byways

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jack Kerouac, On the Road

If the Outdoors is your Thing, Utah is your Place

Utah features some of the most astonishing landscapes in the world

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

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

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

Base yourself in Moab for outdoor adventures

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

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

Canyons of the Escalante is a great hiking region

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

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

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

Bears Ears National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bears Ears National Monument is home to Ancestral Puebloan Sites

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

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

Newspaper Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Highway 12 Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Highway 12 is perfect for a scenic drive

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

Burr Trail Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Capitol Reef National Reef © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sculpted by water

The amazing force of water has cut three spectacular natural bridges in White Canyon at Natural Bridges National Monument located 42 miles west of Blanding or 47 miles north of Mexican Hat. These stunning rock bridges have Hopi Indian names: delicate Owachomo means ‘rock mounds’, massive Kachina means ‘dancer’ while Sipapu, the second-largest natural bridge in the state means ‘place of emergence’.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A nine-mile scenic drive has overlooks of the bridges, canyons, and a touch of history with ancient Puebloan ruins. Moderate to difficult trails some with metal stairs lead down to each bridge. A longer trail follows the stream bed beneath all three bridges.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Valley of the Gods

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

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Rafting down the river © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Juan River is the best spot for rafting trips

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

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

Worth Pondering…

One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.

—William Shakespeare

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Near Torrey: Capitol Reef National Park and Scenic Byway 12

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

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

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

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Escalante Petrified State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Bears Ears National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Moki Dugway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Near Cedar City: Cedar Breaks National Monument

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

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Zane Grey

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

Utah wanted all the tourists. Then it got them.

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

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Related Article: The Aftermath of Mighty Five…and Beyond

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Related Article: Awesomeness beyond the Mighty 5 in Southern Utah

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jack Kerouac, On the Road

6 Road Trips for the Holiday Season

Get ready for a RV excursion full of under-the-radar gems

Look alive folks! This diem isn’t gonna carpe itself! The only way out is through. If we’re gonna weather the uncertain waters of a kinda-maybe-sorta-post-pandemic winter, we’re gonna have to put in some hustle, we’re gonna have to do some gratitude journaling, and we’re gonna have to look out for each other, okay? Also, a sip of Kentucky bourbon helps.

Father Christmas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I don’t know, I don’t have any answers! I’m getting word that “going on a road trip” is another good way to cope, and I’m thinkin’ that’s an awesome idea as we head into the holiday season…

Between the stress and unpredictability of air travel, the holidays are an apt time for a good, old-fashioned road trip. Even better: A RV road trip venturing off the beaten path and discovering new sights, flavors, and activities. Sure, a classic, Americana-style trek along Route 66 is all well and good, but digging a little deeper—and making pit stops at under-the-radar destinations along the way—reaps rewards that you won’t forget. From an Arizona sunset and a tour of the Mighty Five to a Cajun Country Christmas, these are the best RV road trips to take this holiday season.

Related: Christmas Gift Ideas 2019

Arizona sunset © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Casinos, canyons, and cacti in the Southwest

You might end up on the naughty list for spending the holidays indulging in Sin City, but it’ll be worth it. Do some gaming at the new Resorts World Las Vegas (with more than 40 restaurants on-site, you won’t be lacking food options). For something more wholesome, stroll through the whimsical Holiday Cactus Garden at Ethel M Chocolates in suburban Henderson, hot cocoa in hand.

Hoover Dam © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From here, buckle up for fun in the Arizona sun—and some epic selfie moments—with scenic stops at the Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon. Don’t forget to stop by the least visited national park in the state, Petrified Forest National Park, where the easy Blue Mesa Trail wows with boulder-sized crystalized logs and badlands lit up in tints of purple and green.

Tucson Mountain Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Loopback to Phoenix and round out your Arizona adventure in Tucson where you can spend your day communing with cacti in Saguaro National Park (the west district of the park is far less visited and hikes like Wasson Peak are practically devoid of humans).

My Old Kentucky Home State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Christmas ’Round Bardstown

Where better to experience a fantastic Christmas season than the “Most Beautiful Small Town in America?” Bardstown, Kentucky is ready to welcome you for a month and a half of Christmas events! All your Christmas wishes can come true in Bardstown.

My Old Kentucky Home State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Guides in Victorian hoop skirts and gentlemen in tailcoats sing the song “My Old Kentucky Home,” on your tour of Kentucky’s most famous landmark decorated for Christmas, My Old Kentucky Home! The mansion is adorned and decorated with six beautiful 12-foot tall Christmas trees each with a unique Kentucky theme.

My Old Kentucky Home State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Learn the origins of the Christmas tree, how mistletoe became famous for exchanging kisses, the tradition of the yule log, the history of the Christmas pickle, the legends of Father Christmas and Santa Claus. As you move forward to each room, experience a different era of Christmas, starting from colonial times, the early and late Victorian periods, all the way to the roaring 20’s when the mansion was last owned by the Rowan family. Tours are on the hour and the last tour begins at 4:00 p.m.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National Park-hopping in Utah

For one of the best road trips to take this holiday season, consider a national park. Home to five national parks, Utah is a quintessential state for nature enthusiasts looking to find serenity. After all, few sights are as amazing as seeing Delicate Arch aglow at sunrise or peering through Landscape Arch as the sun descends in Arches National Park or marveling at the snow-swept hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

First off, drive to Moab for cozy vibes and comfort foods at restaurants like Sunset Grill where the prime rib is as picture-perfect as the sunset views. You’ll be properly fueled to hike in Arches National Park just down the street as well as nearby Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park before heading west to visit the wildly underrated Capitol Reef National Park, then cross-country skiing at Bryce Canyon.

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

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Round out your Utah trip with the iconic Zion National Park. Though one of the most visited national parks, December through March is the slow season for Zion, which means you might get the popular Narrows trail to yourselves.

LBJ Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Christmas past at LBJ state and national parks

Visit President Lyndon B. Johnson’s boyhood home in Johnson City and a historic living farm in Stonewall to experience holiday traditions of the early 20th century.

LBJ Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At the LBJ National Historical Park, the staff decks the halls of the home where Johnson grew up with cedar boughs and berries, a cedar tree, and homemade ornaments. In conjunction with Johnson City’s community celebration of “Lights Spectacular,” the LBJ Boyhood Home will be open for lamplight tours each Saturday from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. on November 27 and December 4, 11, and 18. The home is located at 200 E. Elm St. in Johnson City.

LBJ Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The LBJ State Park and Historic Site’s Sauer-Beckmann Farm, 501 Park Road 52 in Stonewall, is just a few miles away and depicts Christmas during the time of World War I. At the farm’s annual Deck the Halls event from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, November 27, volunteers help decorate by stringing popcorn, icing Christmas cookies, and dipping candles during the event.

LBJ Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Staff continues decorations in the following days until they are complete, around the time of the annual LBJ Tree Lighting, which is at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, December 19, at the park’s headquarters, 199 Park Road 52 in Stonewall.

The farm is open for tours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, and the last Tuesday of every month. The park itself is open until dark.

Related: Monumental Road Trips to Take This Winter

Johnson’s family moved from a farm in Stonewall much like the Sauer-Beckmann Farm into the Johnson City home when he was 5 years old. He lived there until his graduation from high school in 1924.

LBJ Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Johnson family farm is part of the LBJ National Historical Park which includes what became known as the Texas White House during Johnson’s presidency. The house itself is closed due to structural concerns but the LBJ driving tour is still available. The Hangar Visitor Center is open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Park grounds in both Johnson City and Stonewall are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

Cajun Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cajun Country Christmas

Cajun Country in Louisiana celebrates the holidays just like the rest of the nation however they like to throw in some Cajun holiday traditions that make for a merry ol’ time!

Cajun Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lafayette rings of zydeco beats throughout the holiday season at their annual Cajun & Creole Christmas Celebrations. The celebrations include everything from Christmas markets, concerts, local eats, holiday window displays, caroling, and a Movies in the Parc season finale.

You’ll want to check out Noel Acadien au Village in Lafayette to view more than 500,000 lights illuminating the night, lighted displays, carnival rides, local cuisine, and photos with Santa.

Cajun Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The historic living history village of Vermilionville hosts Old Time Winter at Vermilionville, an event where families can see what winter traditions in the Cajun Country of yesteryear looked like. Meet Papa Noël, decorate cookies, and make bousillage ornaments. Watch Vermilionville’s artisans as they demonstrate winter traditions of the Acadian, Creole, and Native American cultures such as open-hearth cooking and making candles, soap, and natural decorations.

Cajun Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Additionally, every Christmas season, on the Mississippi River levees above Highways 44 and 18, dozens of log structures are built for an enormous display of bonfires. Though traditionally these log piles are built to resemble narrow pyramids, local residents who build them get creative—elaborate log cabins, trains, or swamp creatures. Fires are set on Christmas Eve in an absolutely breathtaking display.

Jekyll Island Club © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Holly Jolly Jekyll

From twinkling holiday lights to visits with Santa, escape to the coastal community of Jekyll Island on Georgia’s Golden Isles for a holiday season you’ll never forget. You’ll find plenty of fun things to do, exciting celebrations, and hands-on experiences for everyone in the family.

Jekyll Island Club © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The island is home to more than half a million lights during the Holly Jolly Jekyll season. The Great Tree alone has more than 35,000 which is more per square foot than the New York City 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.

Jekyll Island Club © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan to attend the light parade on December 4, holiday fireworks on December 11 and 18, and a special drive-in movie presentation of Frosty the Snowman on December 12 and 19, 2021.

Related: End 2020 on a High Note with these Travel Ideas

See holiday lights from November 26, 2021, through to January 2, 2022.

Jekyll Island Club © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s nothing like dazzling holiday lights to get you in the spirit of the season and Jekyll has nearly a million lights that set the island aglow.  Hop aboard Jekyll’s jolliest trolley with Holly Jolly Light Tours. The whole family can sit back, relax, and view festive displays from Beach Village to the Historic District. Along the way, sip on seasonal beverages and sing along to iconic carols and tunes.

Jekyll Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Or climb into an old-fashioned, horse-drawn carriage for a Christmas Carriage Light Tour through the Historic District, listening to relaxing music all along the way.

Worth Pondering…

Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before! What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!

―Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas

The Ultimate Guide to Camping in the Southwest

A road trip through the American Southwest is of the most iconic road trips in the country. Here’s what you need to know!

Picture it: craggy, towering, red-rock formations in every direction. You’re hiking through narrow slot canyons, down verdant riverbeds, and along snow-capped mountains. You’re identifying a variety of cacti—from the giant saguaro to the miniature pincushion. Citrus-colored sunrises and sunsets define the days’ end. Inky night skies sparkling with stars are worth staying up through the night. The open road rambles on as far as the eye can see.

Driving an RV in Organ Pipe National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is RVing in the American Southwest! It’s arguably wilder than anywhere else in the country and requires a bit more preparation and know-how than your average destination.

Feeling intimidated? Not to worry, you’re in the right place. Prepping starts right here, right now, so let’s dive in.

Apache Trail, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Planning your trip

Before we begin, be sure to prep your RV for travel; inspect your RV tires, belts, hoses, check for leaks, you name it. That’s done? Great—now we’re really ready.

Anza- Borrego Desert State Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Step one: Find your route

Map out your destinations prior to hitting the road. In the Southwest, national parks and monuments, state parks, and other must-see places can sit hundreds of miles apart across arid landscapes with limited services in between.

Related: Where It All Began: My Love Affair with the Southwest

Saguaro National Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Step two: Find a camp

Once you’ve mapped out your route and your destinations, it’s time to plan where you’ll spend your nights. Make sure you know the maximum length of your RV, towed vehicle, and tow hitch combined. The last thing you want is to drive all day to a campsite that’s too short for your setup. In national parks, the average campsite length is 27 feet but you may find some that go up to 40. Be sure to make reservations especially in high seasons. Many campgrounds and RV parks are fully booked months in advance.

Arches National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Step three: Take it slow

If you’re new to RVing, know that traveling in an RV takes longer. Don’t plot out your trips like you would in your car. You’ll rarely exceed 60 mph so plan to drive fewer miles in a day. Give yourself plenty of time to make stops for fuel, food, and rest breaks. Start long driving days early so you’ll arrive at the campground in time to set up and enjoy a desert sunset while toasting marshmallows around the campfire. Arriving early allows time to enjoy your surroundings and helps you avoid disturbing other campers after dark.

Joshua Tree National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Water, lots of water

In the Southwest, this is rule number one: water for you, your pets, and your vehicle. The heat of the Southwest is unforgiving from giving you a dehydration headache to an overheated engine.

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many national parks including Grand Canyon and Arches have free water-refilling stations at their visitor centers. Use them. In this dry climate, water is crucial.

Related: Five National Parks to Visit on the Ultimate Southwestern Desert Road Trip

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A good rule of thumb for gauging water needs: One gallon of water per person per day. Fill up the fresh water tank in your RV before hitting the road. If you’re boondocking, double the water you think you’ll need.

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pro tip: If your engine begins to overheat turn off the A/C especially on steep grades. If necessary find a safe place to pull over and inspect coolant levels, fans, and any possible obstructions. About a half-cup of clean, air-temperature water (not cold; that can crack a hot engine block) added to the coolant tank can help get you to an auto repair shop. This is not a fix, it’s a Band-Aid. Use extreme care when removing the cap as pressure and hot steam may be released.

Date palm groove, Coachella Valley, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

First aid, for you and your pets and your RV

Know that heat can mess with tire pressure, too. And any responsible RVer will want to travel with a first-aid kit, tool kit, fire extinguisher, coolant, and oil.

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

A weatherproof wardrobe

Then there’s your clothes closet. When packing for your Southwest trip, bring layers—the temperatures in the desert can vary 30 to 40 degrees in a single day.

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

Cool, moisture-wicking clothes work well in the heat and then you can add layers at night or higher elevations. It’s not all low-lying desert in the Southwest (Arizona, for example, has an average elevation of 4,000 feet), and high-desert temperatures can plummet when the sun goes down. There can be snow flurries in Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon while the temperature in the Sonoran Desert reaches 75 to 80 degrees.

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What to see in the Southwest

You likely know the big national parks of the Southwest. Bucket-list destinations like Arches, Zion, Joshua Tree, and the Grand Canyon attract millions of visitors a year. Although these spots shouldn’t be overlooked, lesser-known parks like Capitol Reef or Petrified Forest might get you closer to the quiet solitude you desire.

Related: Stunningly Beautiful Places in the Southwest

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

Don’t forget the many state parks, national monuments, and national forests, either! Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Cedar Breaks National Monument, Hovenweep National Monument, Natural Bridges National Monument, Dead Horse Point State Park, Escalante-Petrified Forest State Park, Coconino National Forest…the list goes on. These lesser-known locations offer less-crowded trails, incredible photo ops, and easier social distancing.

Monument Valley, Arizona/Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are over 60 NPS sites in the Southwest and the NPS’ annual America the Beautiful Pass ($80) pays for itself after visiting just a few. But if you plan to spend an abundance of time in one state, consider purchasing that state’s parks pass. Utah, for example, has more than 40 state parks making the $150 pass a good value if they’re serving as your main playground. And, yes, Utah’s state parks have just about all the iconic Southwest landscapes you can imagine.

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to camp in the Southwest

If your heart is set on staying at one of the crown jewels of the Southwest, book early. Reservations for most national parks can be made six months prior to your arrival date and you’ll need every day of that especially if your RV exceeds 27 feet as larger campsites are limited. Find more campgrounds in national forests or on Army Corps of Engineers land. Other camping options include private RV parks and resorts.

Tombstone, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A huge advantage to RVing the Southwest is the availability of boondocking options. There are hundreds of millions of acres of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in this region and much of it is open for dispersed camping. Arizona alone is 38 percent federal land. Never mind Nevada, which is 85 percent. To find dispersed campsites, stop at the local BLM office ask at just about any local visitor center.

Related: 10 RV Parks in the Southwest that Snowbirds Love

Cedar Breaks National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pro tip: If you’re interested in boondocking in the Southwest consider solar panels to maximize your RV’s off-grid range. Put all that desert sunshine to good use! Solar is an investment upfront but allows you to boondock off-grid at length, saving money on campsites over time.

Zion National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Seasonal considerations in the Southwest

The American Southwest ranges from the lowest point in the US to some of the highest peaks in the lower 48. This diversity creates a variety of weather conditions with the changing of seasons. Here’s a brief rundown on what to expect:

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Summer: Be prepared for temperatures well above 100 degrees in the low-lying desert regions of Southern California and Arizona. Expect temps into the 90s for most other regions of the Southwest.

White Sands National Park, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Winter: Desert winters can be surprisingly chilly. As you reach higher elevations (Cedar Breaks National Monument, for example, sits at 10,000 feet), don’t be surprised to find snow and freezing temperatures. Be prepared with tools for snow removal and be ready to protect your RV pipes hoses from freezing.

Quail Gate State Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fall: Fall arrives late in the Southwest usually around early November. It brings with it stunning fall colors in places like Sedona, Flagstaff, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, and Carson National Forest.

Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spring: Traveling in the Southwest in the spring—think March and April—provides an opportunity to experience fields of wildflowers especially when it follows a wet winter. Check out places like Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and Picacho Peak State Park for desert blooms.

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah/Colorado © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To boost your luck at nabbing a quiet campsite and a quiet everything else, travel in the shoulder seasons and avoid holidays and weekends when possible. That aside, any time of year will make for a memorable RV trip in the American Southwest. But it’s proper planning for that trip that will make it comfortable, too.

Worth Pondering…

When I walk in the desert the birds sing very beautifully

When I walk in the desert the trees wave their branches in the breeze

When I walk in the desert the tall saguaro wave their arms way up high

When I walk in the desert the animals stop to look at me as if they were saying

“Welcome to our home.”

—Jeanette Chico, in When It Rains

Awesomeness beyond the Mighty 5 in Southern Utah

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

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

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

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

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

Red Rock Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beyond Bryce Canyon and Zion

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

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Sand Hollow State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Beyond Capitol Reef

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond Arches and Canyonlands

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

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

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

Bears Ears National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jack Kerouac

Monument Valley has Re-opened: What to Know Before You Visit

One of the most iconic and enduring landmarks of the American Wild West, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park has reopened

Monument Valley was described by the filmmaker John Ford (1895-1973) as “the most complete, beautiful, and peaceful place on earth.” Many of Ford’s films were westerns and filmed in Monument Valley, one of his favorite film settings.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of course, seeing the place in a movie is nothing like being there. As filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich explains, “It’s breathtaking. You can’t believe it. It’s very photogenic; it has a kind of mythic feeling of age, of legend… You’ve seen it in the movies, but when you see it in life, it’s so epic in its proportions that it almost stands for the whole of the West.”

The Navajo Nation is reopening parks and businesses on a phased basis, welcoming visitors back to the community’s monuments, casinos, and unique attractions.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After more than a year of being closed during the pandemic, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park is now open on a limited basis. The park that straddles the Arizona/Utah state line reopened last week after the Navajo Nation determined that the reservation has achieved the orange status of its COVID-19 reopening plan. According to the “Safer-at-Home” order issued August 12, 2021, the Navajo Nation is returning to “Orange Status”; thereby Navajo Parks and Recreation will continue to follow all safety protocols. It is mandatory that all visitors and tribal members continue to wear face masks at all times while visiting the Navajo Nation. According to the order, 50 percent capacity is permitted in most businesses including in restaurants, casinos, hotels and campgrounds, museums, and parks.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As part of the plan, several other destinations on the Navajo Nation—Canyon de Chelly, Antelope Canyon, Navajo National Monument, Hubbell Trading Post, and Four Corners Monument—also are open to visitors under certain conditions. Visit your destination’s website for specific COVID-19 guidelines. 

Here is everything you need to know to plan a trip to Monument Valley.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Can I drive through Monument Valley?

There are two ways to visit Monument Valley. You can enter the park and drive to the valley overlook but not beyond. Admission is $20 per vehicle for up to four people. Each additional person costs $6.

You need to book a tour to go on the full 17-mile Monument Valley loop drive. Self-driving is not allowed at this time. You’ll ride in your outfitter’s vehicle. According to Louise Tsinijinnie, media representative for Navajo Nation Parks, most vehicles are open-air and can hold 10 to 12 passengers. Tours typically cost $65-$75 per person, Tsinijinnie said. A list of tour guides is at navajonationparks.org.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley Visitor Center

From the visitor center, you see the world-famous panorama of the Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte. You can also purchase guided tours from Navajo tour operators who take you down into the valley in Jeeps for a narrated cruise through these mythical formations. Places such as Ear of the Wind and other landmarks can only be accessed via guided tours. During the summer months, the visitor center also features Haskenneini Restaurant which specializes in both native Navajo and American cuisines, and a film/snack/souvenir shop. There are year-round restroom facilities. One mile before the center, numerous Navajo vendors sell arts, crafts, native food, and souvenirs at roadside stands.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The View Hotel and Camping at Monument Valley

For visitors wanting to stay inside Monument Valley, The View Hotel and Premium Cabins are open at 50 percent capacity as well. The campground and RV sites remain closed. Masks must be worn indoors, in any public areas, and on all guided tours. 

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is Monument Valley?

Monument Valley is not a ‘valley’ in the true sense of the word but rather a vast, desert-like expanse of land punctuated by towering, huge stones that rise hundreds of feet in height. Monument Valley is one of the most majestic—and most photographed—points on earth. This great valley boasts sandstone masterpieces that tower at heights of 400 to 1,000 feet framed by scenic clouds casting shadows that graciously roam the desert floor. The angle of the sun accents these graceful formations, providing scenery that is simply spellbinding.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The landscape overwhelms, not just by its beauty but also by its size. The fragile pinnacles of rock are surrounded by miles of mesas and buttes, shrubs and trees, and windblown sand, all comprising the magnificent colors of the valley. All of this harmoniously combines to make Monument Valley a truly wondrous experience.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Area Geology

The geology of the area helps add to its grandeur. Monument Valley is part of the Colorado Plateau which covers 130,000 square miles. More than 50 million years ago the area was a lowland basin that over eons of time and extensive layers of sedimentation, ceaseless pressures from below the surface, and eventual geological uplifts were transformed into a plateau. Then wind and water took over the task of creating the dramatic vistas and formations that we see today.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The current elevation of the valley floor ranges from 5,000 to 6,000 feet. The floor is basically siltstone. Iron oxide gives the area its red color. The blue-gray rocks get their color from manganese oxide. The buttes are clearly stratified in several distinct layers: Organ Rock Shale, de Chelly Sandstone, and Shinarump Conglomerate.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where is Monument Valley?

Monument Valley is a part of the Navajo Nation. It is located on the Utah/Arizona border, east of Highway 163, midway between Kayenta, Arizona, and Mexican Hat, Utah. The park entrance is in Utah.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alternative to Monument Valley

Often described as a “Miniature Monument Valley”, the Valley of Gods is definitely worth checking out—and it’s totally free and without restrictions. The area is publicly managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The 17-mile Valley of the Gods Road, also known as BLM Road 226, stretches between US-163 north of Mexican Hat and Utah Route 261 just below Moki Dugway. Hoodoos, spires, buttes, buttresses, forming and collapsing arches, and towers are all visible along the drive.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Details

Navajo Name: Tse’Bii’Ndzisgaii (Valley of the Rocks)

Elevation: 5,564 feet above sea level

Size: 91,696 acres (spans Utah and Arizona)

Worth Pondering…

So this is where God put the West.

—John Wayne

Valley of the Gods Is a Mini-Monument Valley…and Totally Free

The Valley of Gods is a Miniature Monument Valley and definitely worth checking out— and totally free

The Valley of the Gods is publicly-managed Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land in a setting surrounded by two national parks (Arches and Canyonlands), three national monuments (Natural Bridges, Hovenweep, and Bears Ears), three state parks (Goosenecks, Dead Horse Point, and Edge of the Cedars), Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. It’s a land of immense beauty that epitomizes both the American West and movie landscapes.

From the top of Cedar Mesa, Moki Dugway descends into the Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The beautiful Cedar Mesa sandstone monoliths, pinnacles, and other geological features of this enchanting area are known as a Miniature Monument Valley. These sandstone sentinels were eroded by wind and water over eons of time.

The 17-mile Valley of the Gods Road, also known as BLM Road 226, stretches between US-163 north of Mexican Hat, Utah, near the Arizona-Utah border, and Utah Route 261 just below the white-knuckle Moki Dugway. In the morning, enter from US-163 in the east. This way, the sunlight highlights the buttes. And, in the afternoon start from the west entrance off SR-261.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s just a simple non-descript green highway sign on US-163 in southeastern Utah near Mexican Hat: “Valley of the Gods.” Tighten your grip on the steering wheel as you drop down to ford the creek as the towering Seven Sailors Butte fills the earth to the sky. This is the eastern beginning to the twisting, climbing, and turning but readily accessible drive looping through a valley of 9dramatic red rock buttes, rolling desert landscape, and a smattering of brush and wildflowers.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Following the Seven Sailors greeting, Setting Hen and Rooster buttes loom large. This starts the stretch where the most scenic campsites are located. The road weaves its way north and west past buttes named Franklin and Battleship and then after making a steep turn at Castle Rock, two whimsical buttes are in view: Rudolph and Santa and Lady in a Bathtub. A simple drive-by brings you past more than 12 named buttes and spires and easily another dozen without names on various maps.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The massive red rock formations are a geology fan’s dream. Hoodoos, spires, buttes, buttresses, forming and collapsing arches, and towers are all visible along the drive. It’s a potpourri of Southwestern geology. To truly enjoy the experience, stop often at the many wide spots on the road. Get out and walk around and take some photos. Keep an eye peeled for roadrunners and coyotes—this is their home turf.

Valley of the Gods Road is graded gravel and clay. This two-lane road is passable in a conventional passenger car when road conditions are dry. A local inquiry should be made during and after periods of inclement weather.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Never enter a flooded wash if it’s not possible to discern depth and flow speed. When storm conditions are present over the Valley and north of Valley of Gods, watch for flash flooding. Lime Creek is the drainage for a large area including portions of Cedar Mesa. It can flood even if the Valley of the Gods is in the sunshine and blue skies. It takes only six inches of water and a 5 mph flow to float a passenger car—even a four-wheel-drive pickup truck—off the road and down the stream. Use common sense and caution.

This 17-mile loop through Valley of the Gods has sharp turns and crosses several washes. Taking the drive in a leisurely fashion, we stopped for photos, taking two to three hours to complete the loop.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are many places to stop along the scenic drive and numerous locations suitable for FREE camping as the valley lies on BLM land and is completely undeveloped. Since hardly anyone seems to pass by, the area provides a much more relaxing and isolated experience than the famous valley (Monument Valley) 30 miles southwest, and without any of the restrictions on hiking or camping. The spacing between campsites and the low traffic volume through Valley of the Gods provides ample opportunity for privacy while camping.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping is available in the dozens of off-road graded areas BLM has prepared adjoining Valley of the Gods Road. Starting just before Setting Hen Butte and past Battleship Rock, the campsites are slightly hidden from the road and provide some privacy and distance from dust. Practice “leave no trace” camping techniques. There are no potable water and no restrooms or pit toilets. Be prepared for primitive camping and bring plenty of water.

Overnight stays allow a chance to explore the buttes and rocks at leisure, cross-country hike, and see a near-perfect dark sky reveal of the Milky Way. DarkSiteFinder’s map rates Valley of the Gods with its darkest sky measure.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are no formal hiking trails. Hike with a map and compass. With a portable GPS, remember extra batteries and set the tracking feature. The ground surface tends to have loose small rocks, especially below and around the buttes which can be slick. Trekking poles are recommended along with a basic “watch-your-step” sense. Keep an eye open for rattlesnakes and other reptiles on large rocks or near crevices. Do not stick bare hands under a rock without checking for spiders, insects, or snakes. There are many things that sting and bite in the desert.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Small canyons cut into the cliffs that form the northern boundary of the valley and can be reached after a couple of miles of cross-country hiking. The entire region is excellent for photography, especially at sunrise and sunset when the rocks take on a particularly deep red hue.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Do not count on mobile phone signals anywhere throughout this portion of southeast Utah. There is mobile service from time to time but not that can be relied upon to be available when needed.

Worth Pondering…

Time, geologic time, looks out at us from the rocks as from no other objects in the landscape.

—John Burroughs