1. MONUMENT VALLEY
If the cluster of iconic sandstone buttes in Monument Valley look familiar to you, it’s because they were used as the backdrop for early Western movies and Forrest Gump, as well as the inspiration for the Road Runner cartoons. Straddling the Utah/Arizona border, the views of the valley symbolize the Wild West. These beautiful rock formations, some rising as much as 1,000 feet above the desert floor, are mostly within the boundary of Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. The park, which is on Navajo land, requires an entrance fee of $20 per car.
Once in the park, after checking out the expansive gift shop selling Native American goods, you have a few options: Hike the 4-mile Wildcat Trail around West Mitten Butte; it’s the only trail you can hike without a Navajo guide. Or drive the 17-mile scenic dirt road into the park to get a closer view of the monuments. The scenic road is rough, so be patient and take your time.
2. HOVENWEEP NATIONAL MONUMENT
The National Park Service manages Hovenweep National Monument, which is best known for the well-preserved remains of stone buildings associated with its six Ancestral Puebloan village sites. Located close to the Colorado border, the cool factor for this park is seeing these elaborate structures up close, some of which were built 700 to 800 years ago. We liked the Square Tower Loop Trail, 2 miles roundtrip, which takes you past many of these archeological wonders.
3. VALLEY OF THE GODS
This valley of dramatic sandstone mesas, buttes, and towers was once part of Bears Ears National Monument. Although it has been removed from the monument, it’s still protected as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern while managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Driving the 17-mile gravel road through the valley, you can’t help but draw comparisons to Monument Valley, a mere 30 miles to the southwest. The road through the valley is bumpy and steep in places but passable in non-four-wheel-drive vehicles when dry. There is no entrance fee, nor are there services in the valley. Dispersed camping is allowed in certain locations.
4. GOOSENECKS STATE PARK
As the San Juan River winds its way through southeastern Utah on the way to Lake Powell, it loops back and forth across the desert, carving out a spectacular, thousand-foot-deep canyon and forming two entrenched river meanders, or goosenecks. From the park’s overlook, you can look down at rock walls that are 300+ million years old. It doesn’t take much time to visit this site, but if you’re in the area, it’s a must-see just the same. The park is open 24 hours a day year-round; the entrance fee is $5.
5. MOKI DUGWAY
Part of State Route 261, Moki Dugway is the name given to a 3-mile section of road that climbs over 1,000 feet up the side of Cedar Mesa about seven miles northwest of US Route 163. The road was built in 1958 by a mining company that needed to get uranium ore from the Happy Jack mine by Hite, Utah to a processing facility in Mexican Hat. The steepness of the grade, its hairpin turns, and the dramatic views from the top make Moki Dugway an exciting destination of its own. The State of Utah recommends that only vehicles less than 28 feet in length and 10,000 pounds in weight attempt it. They also advise caution for motor homes and vehicles pulling trailers.
6. HOUSE ON FIRE
House on Fire is a Puebloan ruin in Bears Ears National Monument along the South Fork of Mule Canyon. As you can see in the photo, the dramatic markings on the rock above the stone structure make it look as if it’s on fire. This ruin is just one example of thousands of ancient sites that exist in the Bears Ears area of southeastern Utah. House on Fire is about 1.5 miles from the trailhead, on your right as you’re hiking toward the site. If you continue hiking past House on Fire, you’ll come to seven or eight additional ruins within the next 2.5 miles.
7. NATURAL BRIDGES NATIONAL MONUMENT
Karen added this park to her list of hidden gems after learning that Theodore Roosevelt designated it Utah’s very first NPS site in 1908. Home to three massive natural bridges within White Canyon, the monument offers seven named trails with hiking distances ranging from a half mile to ten miles. We did the Sipapu-Kachina Loop hike, 5.7 miles through the canyon and over the mesa. (The loop hike through all 3 natural bridges is 9.8 miles.) Thirteen campsites are available year-round on a first-come, first-served basis.
8. CORONA ARCH
Not all the beautiful arches near Moab are in Arches National Park. Corona Arch, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, is a popular destination so be prepared to have plenty of company as you hike to this huge, 140-foot natural arch. From the parking lot, the trail to the arch is about 1.5 miles with an elevation gain of 500 ft. Hikers are required to climb a short (about ten feet) metal ladder halfway through the hike; otherwise, the trek is only moderately strenuous.
9. DEAD HORSE POINT STATE PARK
If you’re visiting Arches or Canyonlands National Parks, this state park, a 32-mile drive from Moab, is definitely worth checking out. The defining feature of the park is its spectacular panoramic view from Dead Horse Point of the Colorado River 2,000 feet below. But that’s not the only view the park has to offer: seven miles of hiking trails, ranging from very easy to moderate, take you to eight overlooks along the canyon rim. And still on our list, two campgrounds offer a variety of yurts to rent.
10. GOBLIN VALLEY STATE PARK
Twelve miles north of Hanksville, Utah, this genuinely unique desert park nestles up against the San Rafael Swell, which is home to several hikeable slot canyons. Named after its mushroom-shaped, sandstone hoodoos, Goblin Valley offers visitors a chance to wander through this enchanting, un-earthly landscape without the constraint of designated trails.
11. LOWER CALF CREEK FALLS
Lower Calf Creek Falls flows year-round and is one of the most popular hiking destinations in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The trail begins at the Calf Creek Campgrounds on State Route 12, 12.6 miles south of Boulder, Utah. This moderately strenuous, 5.5-mile round trip hike has an elevation gain of about 500 feet and a magnificent reward at the end: a spectacular view of the lower 126 feet of Calf Creek Falls. It’s also a great spot to cool down on a hot summer day.
12. THE BURR TRAIL
Originally a cattle trail blazed in the late nineteenth century, the Burr Trail today connects the towns of Bullfrog, Utah to the east and Boulder, Utah to the west. The road is paved for part of the way, yet unpaved across its more treacherous sections. It’s passable in non-four-wheel-drive vehicles when the road is dry. When wet, even four-wheel-drive vehicles struggle. The drive takes you through some of the most scenic parts of three amazing public lands: Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Capitol Reef National Park, and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
13. LITTLE WILD HORSE & BELL CANYONS
Slot canyons are strewn throughout Southern Utah, and a couple of great ones sit along the eastern edge of the San Rafael Swell. Our favorite is Little Wild Horse Canyon, which you can access from a trailhead a few miles from the entrance to Goblin Valley State Park. LWHC has a long stretch of “narrows,” an area where the sculpted canyon walls are so close you have to turn sideways to make it through. The hike requires some scrambling, but it’s doable for anyone in decent physical condition. We like to combine it with the adjacent Bell Canyon and turn it into a 8-mile loop, rather than an out-and-back trek.
14. HOLE-IN-THE-ROCK ROAD
If you want to experience a stretch of Utah’s desolate backcountry the way the pioneers did back in the late nineteenth century, take a drive down Hole-in-the-Rock Road. Starting at State Route 12 a few miles east of the town of Escalante, this 55-mile, unpaved road begins in Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument (BLM) and ends in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (NPS). The road provides access to a lot of spectacular hikes, but the main attraction for us is the slot canyon trails. (The accompanying photo is Zebra slot canyon.) Zebra was only about a quarter of a mile in length, while the entire hike—out and back—was 5.3 miles from the road. Hole-in-the-Rock Road is rough, but in good weather can be driven by passenger cars for all but the last few miles on the southern end.
15. BUCKSKIN GULCH
We’ll always remember Buckskin Gulch as the first slot canyonwe ever hiked. That experience was magical; we’d never walked between such beautiful, sculpted sandstone walls that were so close we could touch both sides of the canyon at once. With more than 13 miles of narrow passageways, Buckskin is the longest slot canyon in the southwestern US, and possibly the world. Buckskin has been rated one of the most dangerous hikes in America because there’s no way to hike out if a flash flood comes through while you’re in the canyon. But don’t let that warning deter you; on days with no threat of rain, it’s a must-see natural wonder.
16. CEDAR BREAKS NATIONAL MONUMENT
Often compared to Bryce Canyon National Park because of its reddish-colored hoodoos, Cedar Breaks holds its own as one of Utah’s must-see destinations. The three-mile-long amphitheater, filled with an incredible array of spires, pinnacles, arches, and hoodoos, drops 2,000 feet below the canyon rim. Surrounded by Dixie National Forest and situated at a whopping 10,000 ft elevation, winter comes early to this monument, with snow falling some years by mid-October.
There are only a few hiking trails inside the park. Our favorites are the Spectra Point and Ramparts Overlook Trails, which take you along the rim past Bristlecone pine trees, the longest-living species of trees in the world; the oldest known tree in Cedar Breaks is 1,600 years old. Spectra Point is a two-mile roundtrip trail, and continuing to the Ramparts Overlook will add another two miles to your roundtrip.
17. GLEN CANYON NATIONAL RECREATION AREA
When the 710-foot Glen Canyon Dam was completed in 1966, it blocked the Colorado River and formed Lake Powell. Now the lake and the land area surrounding it make up Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The dam sits a few miles south of the Utah border in Page, Arizona, but the majority of the recreation area—and its 186-mile long lake—is in Southern Utah.
House boating, kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding are popular pastimes on Lake Powell, but another great way to see the lake is to book a boat tour to Rainbow Bridge National Monument, one of the largest known natural bridges in the world. The eight-hour tour, leaving from Wahweap Marina near Page, Arizona, cruises 50 miles of Lake Powell’s shoreline and requires a total walking distance of just over a mile to reach the bridge.
18. NEWSPAPER ROCK
For us, searching for petroglyphs feels like a treasure hunt. It’s a thrill to spot an ancient carving on a sandstone wall, knowing that the person who created it stood in that same spot hundreds of years ago as they scratched out their design. So we geek out every time we visit Newspaper Rock, one of the largest collections of petroglyphs in the country. The accompanying photo shows a portion of the approximately twenty-foot by ten-foot wall covered with more than 650 petroglyphs. For those traveling to the Needles District of Canyonland National Park, this magnificent example of ancient rock art is right beside the road and easy to access.
19. SNOW CANYON STATE PARK
A state park with lava flows, lava tubes, petrified sand dunes, slot canyons, petroglyphs and an extinct volcano? Yes please. Located near St. George, just an hour from Zion National Park, Snow Canyon is sometimes referred to as Zion’s little brother, but it’s a remarkable park in and of itself.
20. FACTORY BUTTE
Located off the beaten path between Hanksville and Capitol Reef National Park is a striking 6300-ft tall butte that stands in stark contrast to the desert around it. The dirt road to Factory Butte is accessible for any type of vehicle, as long as it’s not muddy, and as you approach the monolith you’ll feel like you’ve landed on another planet. We found a spur road that took us close to the butte, and we walked the rest of the way to its base for an up-close look at this marvel.