Part 1: The Desert –
Utah is such an unearthly state; from her Mars looking red rock canyons, to her abundance of petroglyphs, to her majestic mountain ranges and her stunning night skies – she’s the ultimate destination for the raddest of road-trips and I am here to help guide you throughout this astonishing state, making sure you don’t miss a beat! I’ll provide you with the must-dos and must-sees at each must-go destination.
In part 1 of this blog series, I will focus on the desert (southern) regions of this magnificent state. Part 2, which will follow, will highlight her captivating mountains and canyons, the Great Salt Lake and islands, and more areas surrounding Salt Lake City.
Photos in this blog provided by both my husband, Doug Michaels, and myself.
I suggest flying into Salt Lake City to begin and end your journey (Vegas is also a cheap option, in which case you’d begin with Zion National Park).
Rent a car at Salt Lake City International Airport and begin your journey by heading south to Moab, starting with Arches National Park.
Arches National Park & Moab, Utah
Arches National Park is FULL of, well, Arches duh! You’ll find a multitude of massive, natural rock arches in this beautiful park right beside Moab, Utah. Moab is a hub for adventure – at Moab Adventure Center you can rent a Jeep to do some backcountry off-roading, you can take Hummer Land Tours or Air tours over Arches National Park, you can go rafting down the Colorado River or opt to Stand-Up Paddleboard, there’s plenty of climbing and canyoneering tours along with hot air balloons, horseback riding and biking. There’s ENDLESS adventures here so, if you’re anything like me, you will be in your GLORY in Moab and her surrounding National Parks (Arches and Canyonlands).
Be sure to hike to Delicate Arch (as photo’d above) in Arches National Park (my personal favorite). I highly recommend beginning this hike before sunrise so that you arrive at the arch when the sun crests the horizon. This adds dramatic coloring to the already dramatic landscape and also helps evade the drastic, desert heat. The hike is approximately 3 miles, out and back, and is accessible year-round. It only gains about 600 feet in elevation and is rated moderate. Be sure to bring along plenty of water and a headlight since the better portion of your hike on the way in will be completed in the dark, early morning sky.
Right outside of Arches and Moab, you can find many petroglyph lined rock walls on Pot Ash Road near Wall Street. The site is called Dinosaur Tracksite and Rock Art Trail. AND YES! There are dinosaur prints here as well! They’re SO DANG COOL (photo’d above). It’s a short hike up to the dino prints (you’ll have to visit yourself to see what kind of dinosaur created them) and a tad further to see the petroglyphs – though the hike is fairly short, it’s high up and steep so if you’re afraid of heights, be warned and take caution.
We camped in Moab at Canyonlands RV Resort and Campground – it is right in town and in walking distance to many restaurants and shops, such as Moab Brewery. It also has showers, an in-ground swimming pool, fire rings and a little convenience store – it’s perfect for people who like to semi-rough it! There’s even an awning at each site to shade you from the scorching sun and trees aplenty. What I loved most was the nearby creek that provided me with the greatest ambiance as I fell asleep at night.
A few other places I highly suggest you eat at in Moab:
Jailhouse Cafe – they have the BEST breakfast! Believe me when I say this! I had their Swedish Pancakes with Lingonberries and it was the perfect portion with a to-die-for taste.
Quesadilla Mobilla – the MOST scrumptious quesadillas with plenty of unique quesadilla options. I had the enchanted chicken quesadilla and adored it! Warning: They’re HUGE so splitting one is a good choice.
Canyonlands National Park
Wake up to watch sunrise in the upper section of Canyonlands National Park (30 miles from Moab). Be sure to check out the killer views at Mesa Arch, which is a short hike from the parking lot. Take note: the arch is much smaller than most anticipate – however, the views are literally to die for; vast canyons, red rock monoliths and snow peaked mountains all provide a jaw-dropping background.
Next, journey over to Green River Overlook (we were there at sunset and it was GORGEOUS, however.. it’s beautiful at sunrise as well as any time of the day) – your choice! 🙂
Now, for my personal favorite part of Canyonlands National Park – drive down to the lower section of Canyonlands, known as the Needles. Here is where we did most of our hiking and hardcore exploring – including our overnight hike in the backcountry.
Along your drive in to the Needles, you’ll come across Newspaper Rock – do NOT skip this baby over! Newspaper Rock is COVERED in petroglyphs telling a detailed story one can only guess. It’s so fun to sit there and try to understand their meanings – putting together the story you believe it to be.
Here is a short clip spanning Newspaper Rock. Such a magnificent wonder!
After visiting this treasure, head to the Visitor’s Center to acquire a backcountry permit. Once you have your permit, I totally recommend beginning your hike at Elephant Hill Trailhead. Words of wisdom: be sure to study the map carefully and bring a compass – this network of trails is called “The Maze” for good reason. We begun our hike here, journeying through a network of trails including Joint Trail where we encountered a crazy cool slot canyon (highly recommend Joint Trail). We set up our camp for the night in the backcountry area known as the “Butler Flats” (photo’d below).
(If you don’t wish to overnight camp, you can still make a day hike out of the trails – such as hiking to Druid Arch then back, etc.
A few tips for backcountry hiking in Canyonlands:
-Bring LOTS of water (there’s not water sources to be found and the heat is INTENSE). We brought about 5 liters each and used about 4 each.
-Be sure to cover your food at night, animals (such as ravens and squirrels, etc) are incredibly smart and WILL dig into your stash, leaving you with no food. We bundled our food all together in a bag, dug a hole, stashed the food bag in the hole then covered it with dirt and a pile of heavy rocks. Another option is to tie up your food and hang in a tree. Bear bags and canisters are great tools.
– SUNSCREEN! LOTS OF IT!
-Bring a compass and when in doubt, check the map! We suggest consulting the map at every intersection/fork.
-Look for noticeable cairns to be sure you’re on a trail (though some unmapped trails have cairns as well, so be cautious of this).
-DO NOT PROCEED if you are unsure of a way out! Many people get lost in Canyonlands, run out of water and such – it’s unsafe if you’re not careful and prepared.
– Don’t rely on your phone – carry a physical map and compass.
– Be careful of heat exhaustion – take breaks when your body needs one and find some shade to bask in.
I don’t want to scare you, I just want to stress the importance of preparedness and safety – once you’ve got that covered, you’ll have the time of your lives!
Doug, Cody and I actually lost the trail we intended to hike on our way in at one point – but thanks to our map, we were never lost ourselves. We always saw our way out and always saw the end goal, we just had to reroute ourselves. This is reason to always bring extra water – we were thankful we did due to the added miles.
Despite the heat and the added distance, our trek throughout the Needles in Canyonlands National Park and backcountry was PHENOMENAL! We experienced a beautiful sunset at camp during dinner, admired the stars from our uncovered tent at night, heard coyotes roaming nearby, woke up before dawn to hike out, witnessed a stunning sunrise at an extraordinary overlook, climbed and wiggled through slot canyons, came across a herd of mule deer grazing and a few snakes – overall, it was a blast and a total highlight of my Utah adventure! There’s something so wild to me about carrying everything you need on your back and letting your two feet carry you throughout wildness – connecting with nature and soaking in your surroundings to the fullest. To me, it’s of the utmost soul fulfillment.
Driving further south in Utah, along the border of Arizona, lies Monument Valley – a western staple that must be visited! The Navajo Tribal Park is known for it’s immense, iconic sandstone buttes frequently used for filming locations in Western movies.
Once here, Doug and I realized, without doubt, that the ultimate way to explore this land was by, none other than, horseback. How can you truly be in the wild west otherwise? We opted for the 3-hour (half day) tour with Sacred Monument Tours and had the coolest guide ever! He’s a Navajo man, born and raised in this land, and brought up in the traditional Navajo culture. He taught us so much along our tour by showing us many herbs and even picking some for us to test (such as sage) and explaining their healing properties. He even found some peyote growing in the wild and pointed it out to us, explaining how their tribe uses it and telling us stories of his friends’ experiences with it. He brought along his pup who would run ahead of us in search of snakes – the pup was excellent at his job, no snakes frightened the horses along our ride! Our guide also talked about his love and passion for horses and his training process for wild mustangs (he was riding a newly trained, wild mustang bareback along our tour – so badass!).
We trotted and galloped all around and in between the towering red buttes as the sun slowly set in the distance. This whole experience is one of my fondest memories – a day I’ll long cherish. I’ll forever be grateful for my horse, Blue, as she had given me the greatest of evenings one could ever dream of (along with our fantastic guide, of course!).
Think Monument Valley can’t get any radder? Think again! Stay in a premium cabin at Monument Valley View and your mind will be blown. Each cabin features a private porch that overlooks the valley in, what was our opinion, one of the BEST views of the land! We sat on our porch at night and watched an intense lightening storm blast across the sky, illuminating the iconic buttes. Simply incredible.
Zion National Park
Now, heading west along your road-trip, be absolutely sure to spend some time in Zion National Park – and I suggest more than a day or two! Zion National Park holds a special place in my heart because of her unbelievable, magical hikes and her magnetic pull she possesses over my entire being. I felt a remarkable connection to this park, especially while journeying up to Angel’s Landing and wandering through The Narrows (both among my favorite hikes of all time). There’s just something sensational about these steep, red canyon walls encompassing the abundant river valley.
Begin at Grotto Trailhead: (37.259392, -112.950038).
Rated: Class 3 difficulty with ~1,500 elevation gain.
Estimated time to complete: 4 hours
Angel’s Landing is a rather short, half-day hike (a little over 5 miles roundtrip). However, don’t let the length fool you – the trail is full of seemingly endless switchbacks (Walter’s Wiggles) and steep inclines. The dramatic, awe-inducing views that you see while hanging onto a chain bolted into the cliffs are worth every ounce of energy expended. The adrenaline you gain from walking on a two-foot wide path with literally thousand foot, sheer vertical drops on both sides is utterly thrilling. Thus, if you’re a risk taking, thrill seeker such as myself – this hike is SO FOR YOU. Even if you’re not, this hike is still a MUST do – just hold on to the chain, be mindful of your steps and keep in mind the “3 points of contact” rule. If you do this, you’ll be fine and dandy. This trek is none other than heavenward and worth facing your fears, shall you have any.
Once at the top of Angel’s Landing, you’ll see the most beautiful, panoramic views of steep, red, rocky cliffs dating back to the triassic era and the Virgin River and valley far below (cars look like tiny black ants, thats how high you are). The landing upon which you sit (once at the top) is like an island in the sky, floating in the middle of Zion Canyon. Up there, you feel like an angel floating on heaven’s cloud. Everything is right in the world and ultimate beauty encompasses you. Frederick Fisher once said, “Only an angel could land on it”, because from below – that is exactly how it appears.
Once you’ve journeyed heavenward, it’s time to journey inward – to the heart of Zion. It’s time to wade through the belly of this beastly beauty via The Narrows. The Narrows is the narrowest section of Zion Canyon (hence its namesake). Rather than being on top of thousand foot cliffs, you’ll be in between narrow, thousand foot tall cliffs – deep down in the narrow gorge where you’ll walk and wade in the Virgin River (literally, the trail IS the river – no escaping getting wet). However, have you ever walked on a purely water trail before? I mean, HOW COOL?? (Side note: if you have, let me know where – I’d love to venture to another).
Day hike from the bottom and back (which doesn’t require a permit): 6 miles, round-trip
Estimated time to complete: 4.5 hours
Beginning location: Take the shuttle to the Temple of Sinewava, follow the paved path for one mile to its end, then begin hiking up river.
Difficulty: strenuous – due to hiking in the river. The river is often murky and the bottom of the river is covered in decent-sized rocks. Proper shoe attire is a MUST. Also, once past Orderville Canyon and the Wall Street section, the water gets considerably deeper – knowing how to swim is also a must as you may be required to do so in parts.
*BEWARE of Flash Floods – always check the forecast and the ranger station before entering The Narrows. A couple people actually died in The Narrows a few weeks before we hiked it due to flash flooding. Take it very seriously.
I must say, there’s a considerable, mysterious force that beckoned me to go further and further into this gorge – almost in a trance, I couldn’t resist exploring her depths. The contrast of The Narrows and Angel’s Landing is partially what makes Zion National Park SO DANG FASCINATING to me. If you’re a hiking buff, as well, you will also fall madly in love with her.
There are MANY other trails to complete as well – such as Observation Point – given you have the time. Many people diss on Angel’s Landing because she, indeed, is polluted with hikers during the summer months – making it very difficult to safely climb and enjoy the views. However, I went in Late September, early October and had the perfect weather and the landing to MYSELF. Legit, Doug and I were ALONE on top of Angel’s Landing for the better part of our time there. It was perfection.
Capitol Reef National Park & Dixie National Forest
Capitol Reef is, bewilderingly, a very underrated park in Utah. Not only is she an official International Dark Sky Park (meaning the night sky is completely out of this world!) earning the Gold Tier by the International Dark-Sky Association, but she’s also full of natural bridges, canyons, rad hikes, stunning monoliths, lush oases and so much more! And the fact that she is underrated means LESS CROWDS. Sooo, that’s a big WIN in my book!
I, without a doubt, recommend hiking to Hickman Bridge (as shown in the above photo). It’s a quiet, tranquil and rather easy hike back to the natural bridge.
Length: 2 miles round trip.
Trailhead location: (38.288867, -111.227975).
The trail begins beside the river before beginning up the lower slopes of the Waterpocket Fold. This natural bridge is one of the most well-known sites of Capitol Reef (for good reason) and sits 300 feet above the Fremont River.
For a tad longer hike, I favorably recommend hiking to Cassidy Arch – a grand and photogenic arch, indeed! This is a phenomenal photo-op because, unlike the other arches, you are permitted to walk across this one and are at a higher vantage point. Cassidy Arch sits 400 feet above the Scenic Drive and Grand Wash Trail.
Trailhead location: (38.255895, -111.232806).
Distance: 3.5 miles round-trip.
Difficulty: Easy – moderate (the steep climbs in parts causes the moderate rating).
Don’t forget to visit the Sun and Moon Temples in Cathedral Valley (bonus points if you also go at night!). You’ll need 4WD and a high-clearance vehicle to access these giant monoliths – if you don’t personally own one, try a 4×4 tour at Ride the Reef. Cost is $150 per person and the tour takes you 60 miles in the backcountry of northern Capitol Reef.
As far as camping goes, head up in the mountains and camp among the trees of Dixie National Forest. Not only is there plenty more camping availability, but it’s also cheaper and cooler! The views from the overlooks spread among Dixie National Forest are spectacular, too! They overlook Capitol Reef down below. The views of the red rocks dotting the green and brown mixture below is completely frame-worthy. We had the quietest and most peaceful camping experience here – the wind howling through the tall pines and the stars shining brightly overhead. Nature’s peace will surely flow through you up in this isolated, well kept secret.
Mystic Hot Springs
Are you a lover of all things old, vintage, gypsy, bohemian, rustic, western etc? I sure the heck am! Not only do I love the fact that Mystic Hot Springs boasts several, various hot springs, but I adored it’s free-spirited vibes. I gladly paid the $15 soaking fee to relax in her one-of-a-kind, vintage-tub hot springs which were incredibly engulfed by nature. As you bask in the hot waters, you look out in wonderment of the killer mountain views in the distance. This place is entirely unique and well worth a visit for the day. If you’re lucky, you may stop during one of their live music shows. The welcoming, one-love, hippie aurora is a huge draw – reminding me well of Slab City, with a tad less crazy ;-).
Honorable Mentions: Bryce Canyon and Grand Staircase-Escalante
Why honorable mention you ask? My honorable mentions throughout my blogs stand for places that I’ve briefly visited / made a pit-stop, don’t have much to say about, or haven’t explored yet.
These places are beautiful and must-see, I just can’t give you well-informed opinions and recommendations quite yet! Perhaps I’ll update in the future. 🙂
As always, thank you so much for reading and stay tuned for Pt.2: The Mountains of my Unearthly Utah: The Ultimate Road-trip guide. Coming SOON!
Much love and happy travels,