Like another planet, Utah canyon country is empty, dry and incredibly beautiful.
Utah is the second-driest state in the United States after Nevada - on average it has 300 days of sun a year.
has an average of only 32 people per square mile and is one of the least populated states in the nation (though it is the 13th largest).
on May 10, 1869, the First Transcontinental Railroad was completed at Promontory Summit, Utah - the event was billed as the “Wedding of the Rails.”
over 2/3 of Utah land is owned by the United States' federal government, including 5 national parks.
Cottonwood Canyons in Utah are one of the snowiest places on Earth, with the town of Alta receiving 551 inches of snow annually.
Moab . Monument Valley . Bullfrog Ferry . Natural Bridges NM . Goblin Valley SP . Zebra Slot Canyon . Escalante . Grafton
start: moab | end: cedar city
This route takes you through the Mars-like Utah Canyon Country, home to giant natural arches, suffocatingly tight slot canyons, striated rock formations, and stunning natural vistas. In such a wild and off-the-beaten-path area you know there is plenty of adventure to be had - and this road trip route takes you to some of the best. 5 National Parks, 3 National Monuments, 4 State Parks, and tons more random and beautiful places to explore.
Best Time to Visit:
Sept. - October when it starts to cool off
Moab: a nice funky town with lots to offer, both naturally and culturally. While it is dense in hotels and lodging thanks to being so close to two national parks, there is still a nice local scene - including food trucks, cute coffee shops* (with donuts), and quaint restaurants.
*one fun thing to do is grab food at the Moab Food Truck Park and walk around town
Arches NP: one of the five NPs in the state, and the first on the route, Arches is a great introduction to Utah Canyon Country. While it is more of a "driving" park, there are a lot of fun, short hikes to conquer - including Double Arch, Delicate Arch and Tower Arch.
Dead Horse Point SP: right next door to Arches is another A+ park - Dead Horse Point is a great spot to go for a hike, hit some mountain bike trails and check out the stars (it is a designated Dark Sky Park). Another fun thing to check out are the two yurt areas located within the park - the Wingate and the Moenkopi, both of which are close to trails and the visitor center.
Boulder: from Capitol Reef NP, head out west towards the town of Torrey (here you can grab some supplies, food, gas, and water) before turning south on the Scenic Byway 12 (aka All American Road and voted the 2nd prettiest drive in the WORLD)*. Keep going through the Grand Staircase-Escalante NM to the town of Boulder. While there isn't much of a town, what is there is incredibly special: some of the best desert scenery, a fantastic coffee shop-gallery and world-class food (especially Hell's Backbone Grill and Farm).
*Boulder-ans used to be the last people in the whole USA to get their mail by mule because of their incredible remoteness
Lower Calf Creek Falls: keep going on the Scenic Byway deeper into the Monument, where you will pass some of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful desert scenery - including the Hogback, an interesting rock formation right on the side of the road. You will quickly get to the trailhead for Lower Calf Creek Falls, and the attached campground (100% recommend). It is not a long hike, but definitely a pretty one. If looking to stay in the area and explore more - we definitely suggest camping there.
Canyonlands NP: divided into four different areas - Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and the rivers themselves (Colorado River especially). With so many different areas to explore, you could spend a week there and not see it all. One great option is to spend a couple of days mountain biking the White Rim Road, a 100-mile loop that gives you panoramic views of the Island in the Sky district.
Butler Wash Ruins: after checking out the parks near Moab, head down Hwy 191 south towards the town of Blanding. Then turn right onto Rd 95 and head west. You will eventually get to the Butler Wash Ruins Trailhead. It is a short 0.8 mile hike out to some pretty amazing ruins, tucked into the side of the rock wall. A great pit-stop after a long drive.
Lower Mule Canyon: just down the road from Butler Wash Ruins is another great canyon to check out, and another set of unique ruins. There is a nice trail to see the ruins, as well as the rock formations nearby. Similarly, there is a campground along the road that is a nice spot to spend the night out in the desert (aka GOOD stars).
Valley of the Gods: from Lower Mule Canyon, head out on Rd 235 (a dirt, backcountry road) south towards Hwy 163. From there turn right and head towards the town of Mexican Hat - but before you get there you will get to Valley of the Gods, a similar landscape as Monument Valley, without all the people. Head out on the 17-mile Valley of Gods Road to explore the area in a more up-close way (and maybe do hike or two).
*this is another great place for mountain biking and camping - and to just get away from people in general
Goosenecks SP: a small state park, but one with one of the best views of a river cutting through a canyon. Goosenecks SP offers stunning views of the San Juan River as it twists and turns through the canyon - before flowing a distance of over six miles west towards Lake Powell.
Monument Valley: a very popular tourist area (thank you Forest Gump), this region of the Colorado Plateau is characterized by a cluster of vast sandstone buttes - the largest of which reaches 1,000 ft (300 m) above the valley floor. The Monument Valley Tribal Park lies within the Navajo Nation Reservation, meaning you will need to pay to enter the park and may need a guide for some of the areas.
*one mile before the center are numerous Navajo vendors which sell arts, crafts, native food, and souvenirs at roadside stands.
Road 261: you will now start the journey back up north away from the Arizona border. Road 261 is partially paved, but mostly dirt, and takes you through the backcountry desert of southern Utah. There isn't much to see out here - except for some buttes and wide-open vistas, so be prepared (plenty of gas, food, water, etc.). It will eventually land you back on Road 95, right close to the next stop on the route: Natural Bridges NM.
Natural Bridges NM: declared a Monument in 1908, this was Utah's first* National Monument and one that harks back thousands of years to the time ancestral Puebloans made the place their home. In fact, the three main bridges in the park are named in honor of them ("Kachina," "Owachomo" and "Sipapu"). Hike to the bridges, wonder at the geology and power of water, and just explore the area - there is so much to discover.
*it was also the world's first International Dark Sky Park, so bring a telescope...
Road 276: right outside of Natural Bridges is Road 276, a paved but empty highway that will take you south again - this time to Lake Powell. This road, like Road 261 before it, gets you far, far away from civilization (so again, be prepared). It is a good way to admire the canyon landscape, get off-the-beaten-path and explore one of the least inhabited places in the USA.
Halls Crossing & Lake Powell: Halls Crossing is not a town. It has two gas stations and a couple camping areas - and amazing views of Lake Powell (the BIG selling point). This place is popular due to its remoteness - it is 100 miles from Page, the biggest town on Lake Powell. There is a small shop and restaurant at the marina - perfect for a sunset snack - as well as the ferry over to Bullfrog, which lies along the north side of the lake. The ferry costs $25 and runs yearly (and takes about 25 minutes).
Bullfrog: like Halls Crossing, Bullfrog doesn't have much in terms of services: a gas station, camping, and a small store (it does have an urgent care though), so make sure to pack plenty of food beforehand. Keep heading up 276 until you meet up with Highway 95. At that intersection (~40 miles from Bullfrog) you will be able to stop and explore some pretty sweet canyons. Including, Blarney Canyon, Leprachaun Canyon and the North Wash.
Hanksville: keep going up Hwy 95 until you get to the cultural hub* of Hanksville (only sort of joking). Here you can get gas, go to a small grocery store (which last we checked, got food in on Wednesdays) and sit down for a nice meal at Outlaw's Roost - a Mexican restaurant that also serves cold brew coffee(!). There are also some nice motels, a funky art exhibit, and a rock shop.
*this area is so good at looking like Mars that there is actually a Mars Desert Research Station there (crazy!)
Hole-in-the-Rock Road & Zebra Slot Canyon: before you get to the town of Escalante, turn off on Hole-in-the-Rock Road - an awesome dirt road that winds back deep into the backcountry of the monument. We have camped along this road and it was awesome, but if you are looking to just do some exploring we recommend checking out Zebra Slot Canyon, Peek-a-Boo Slot Canyon, and if you are up for a long hike (or maybe two-day backpacking trip) the Hurricane Wash all the way to Coyote Natural Bridge and the Black Lagoon.
Reflection Canyon: for an even bigger adventure (and hike) consider driving almost all the way down the road until you get to the Reflection Canyon Trailhead. The trail is 18.7 miles long and recommended for experienced hikers only (the trail is not well-marked and there are various technical sections). BUT if you conquer it, you will have one of the best views of Reflection Canyon - one of the prettiest canyons in all of Utah (it was even on the National Parks pass).
Escalante: head back north on Hole-in-the-Rock Road to the town of Escalante, a funky desert town with a lot of outfitters, guide services, restaurants, and a gas station (there is also a small store as well). For a nice quick adventure, consider checking out the Escalante Petrified Forest State Park right outside of town, or do something unique and stay in a yurt.
Kodachrome Basin SP: keep going on Highway 12 to the town of Cannonville, turn left onto Kodachrome Road (there will be a sign). Head out on that until you reach the state park - one of the most colorful* natural areas in the US (maybe the world). The park is home to 67 monolithic stone spires - called sedimentary pipes - accentuate multihued sandstone layers that reveal 180 million years of geologic time. Take a hike around the park and admire the formations, or spend the night in one of the campgrounds and admire the stars.
Bryce Canyon NP: the fourth national park on the route, and one with possibly the most unique scenery. Bryce Canyon NP is home to a rock formation known as "hoodoos" aka irregular columns of rock. Take a trip around the park, with the best option being hiking down to the bottom of the canyon either on the Queen's Garden trail or the Navajo Loop trail. And like many other natural areas in the state, make sure to stick around for the nighttime: Bryce Canyon is also an International Dark Sky Park.
Orderville: head back out on 12 until you get to the 89 junction, from here turn left towards Orderville. While it is not the biggest of towns, Orderville does have everything you would need. But the town is interesting more for its history than present state: founded in 1875 under the direction of Brigham Young, the town was made to live the United Order, a voluntary form of communalism defined by Joseph Smith. It stayed that way until enforcement of the Edmunds Anti-Polygamy Act of 1882 which jailed many of the Order's leaders and drove many of the others underground.
Zion NP: head south out of town until you get to the Mt. Carmel Junction. Once there turn right onto Hwy 9 towards Zion NP. This is another fantastic drive and one that is worth spending time enjoying. Eventually, you will enter the national park and see the Checkerboard Mesa - a large rock formation with a unique pattern. Then you will quickly hit the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel, which when finished in 1930 was the longest tunnel of its type in the USA. Once into the heart of the park, the oldest national park in the state, you will be able to explore many awesome areas. Including hiking the famous (or infamous) Angels Landing Trail, the Grotto Trail, the Watchman Trail and the Observation Point Trail (incredible views). This is also one of the best places to go canyoneering: either on your own (be smart) or with one of the many guiding services to be found nearby.
Springdale: the town closest to Zion NP, and one with all the expected tourist attractions: food, hotels, grocery store and gas station. One of the better restaurants, especially for breakfast, is MeMe's Cafe. This is a nice place to kick up, refuel and relax. Plus the views of the surrounding canyon are pretty spectacular.
Grafton Ghost Town: a true hidden gem near Zion, this ghost town is one of the most well-preserved in the state. Located near the town of Rockville, you have to cross the historic bridge over the Virgin River and then head west on 250 S Street. Eventually, you will get to Grafton*, where you can still see the old schoolhouse as well as one other historic building, the cemetery, and leftover town items.
*the town has been filmed in for a couple of movies, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Hurricane: a small town near the much larger city of St. George, and one with the most services close to Zion NP, Hurricane might just have one of the best naming stories: first settled in 1896, and received its name after a whirlwind blew the top off a buggy in which Erastus Snow, the founder, was riding. Snow exclaimed, "Well, that was a Hurricane. We'll name this 'Hurricane Hill'."
Red Cliffs National Conservation Area: technically a transition zone between the Mojave Desert, the Great Basin, and the Colorado Plateau, this area, north of the town of St. George, was designated a conservation area to protect the desert tortoise, a threatened species. It is also home to lots of hiking trails and camping. If mountain biking and climbing are more your thing, head over to Snow Canyon State Park.
Goblin Valley SP: now to do a bit of out of the way exploring (but to something totally worth it!). From Hanksville head up Route 24 until you get to the turn off for Goblin Valley State Park (on the left), turn there and head back close to the San Rafael Swell (the big rock, mountain range looking thing). Goblin Valley is one of the most unique landscapes in the world - hoodoos, multicolored bluffs, and something cold the Goblins Lair*. It also has yurts you can stay in and a sweet disc golf course. There is also camping and hiking trails in and near the park, including...
*Goblins Lair is one of the best canyoneering routes in Utah (you can also hike to the bottom), if you aren't afraid of heights we HIGHLY recommend going with a guide and checking it out.
Little Wildhorse Canyon: if you keep heading down the road past the entrance to Goblin Valley SP you will eventually get to Little Wildhorse Canyon Trailhead. Because of its location, it is very popular - so expect to share the trail with others. BUT if you are good with hiking 8 miles you can make a loop out of it, see all the amazing scenery - including tight slot canyons - and get away from the crowds. Similarly, if you are wanting to explore more slot canyons keep heading down the road to Ding and Dang Slot Canyons, which are less popular and a bit more rugged/adventurous.
Kolob Canyon: keep heading north up Interstate 15 towards Kolob Canyons (it will be a marked exit). Stop in at the visitor center to learn more about the area, and then head into the park (part of Zion NP) along the five-mile scenic drive which gives visitors views of the crimson canyons and access to the many hiking trails*. If you want to get away from the crowds that are always present in Zion Canyon (it was the fourth most visited park in 2019) then Kolob is your best bet.
*there are also some amazing canyoneering routes here, though permits have been hard to get for a while (if available at all)
Cedar Breaks NM: Known as “u-map-wich”, or “the place where the rocks are sliding down all the time" by the native Southern Paiute, this area was designated a national monument in 1933 by FDR. To get there keep heading up Interstate 15 to Cedar City, and then turn right on Route 14. Head down that road until you reach the heart of the park*, where you will find hiking trails, camping, the historic visitor center, and scenic overlooks - including the over-the-top views along the “Circle of Painted Cliffs.”
*like so many other parks in Utah, this is another Dark Sky Park, and is home to the Southwest Astronomy Fest.
Capitol Reef: now head back to Hanksville and turn right to go west on Route 24. This drive takes you through some open desert plains, colorful canyons, and along the Fremont River. About 35 minutes later you will get into Capitol Reef NP (one of the least visited NPs in the states). Located in the heart of red rock country, Capitol Reef NP is a hidden treasure filled with cliffs, canyons, domes, and bridges in the Waterpocket Fold - a geologic monocline (a wrinkle on the earth) that extends for almost 100 miles. Here you can have all kinds of adventures. Including, hiking, canyoneering (personal favorite), climbing, and heading out on some truly scenic drives. One of the most off-the-beaten-path adventures is driving north to the remote reaches of the park known as the Cathedral Valley District.
Cedar City: originally settled in late 1851 by Mormon pioneers originating who were sent to build an ironworks. Fort Cedar or Cedar City quickly began to grow and become a tourist hub in 1923, after the completion of a railroad that connected the town to nearby national parks, including Bryce and Zion. Today it is home to Southern Utah University, the Utah Shakespeare Festival, the Utah Summer Games, and the Simon Fest Theatre Company. Because of all that, the town is known as the Festival City.
Expected Driving Time: ~14 hours (but better to spend at least a week exploring the area)
Great Hikes Along the Way:
Golden Cathedral, a very neat rock formation located in the heart of the Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument (9.2 miles)
Paria Canyon, a 14-mile trail that is similar to the Narrows in Zion NP, but without all the crowds - find it east of Kanab (it is out there)
Negro Bill Canyon, just outside of Moab and Arches NP - this 4.8 mi trail leads to one of the largest natural bridges in the USA
Hurricane Wash Trail, located on Hole-in-the-Rock Road, there are a lot of amazing things to see along this "trail"
Where to Get a Good Cup of Joe:
Worth Stopping to See:
Cisco, a ghost town that still sits alone in the desert but still has some pretty photogenic buildings
Alhambra Rock, near Mexican Hat
Panguitch, near Bryce Canyon NP
Rainbow Bridge NM, the largest natural bridge in the world and one you need a boat to get to
Mammoth Cave, a lava tube located in the Dixie National Forest and is one of the largest lava tubes in Utah