My first road trip in the USA was four years ago. It was my honeymoon, I was super-excited to discover a new continent and immediately taken by what it had to offer. This year, my husband and I decided to have our very own “part two” to our adventure. This time we would explore a slightly different part of Southwest USA – Utah. We started planning in October last year… and thank goodness we did, as accommodation gets booked out quickly in Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon. Would there be hours of queuing and battling hordes of people to even get a parking spot? Luckily, this was not the case and I discovered that Utah has got even more to offer than the well-known hotspots. Join me on a photo trip along Utah’s classics and hidden wonders!
Red Rock & Canyons
Our first stop was the small town of Moab, which is the perfect base for visiting Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. On the first day in Arches, I was immediately awed as I had never seen the famous red slickrock, let alone vast kilometers of it!
My husband and I both love hiking, which is a must for exploring Utah. My favorite part of Arches was a 12km hike around the “Devil’s Garden”. It takes you around some of the famous and accessible arches of the park, but also to several hidden gems in the backcountry. Navigation skills required!
A destination that remains on my wish list is the Grand Canyon. But, I left Canyonlands National Park with a rather good impression of what it might look like. You don’t even have to hike very far to get amazing views of the canyon. That was not a bad thing, because it was mighty hot when we visited! We deliberately planned out trip in May to avoid the heat of the summer, but nonetheless temperatures crept over 30° C almost every day.
Just next to Canyonlands, but often skipped, is the Dead Horse Point State Park. Whilst you admire gooseneck bends in the Colorado River, take a moment to consider the legend of how Dead Horse Point got its name. 19th century cowboys used the Point as a natural corral to round up wild Mustangs and select the best riding horses. Legend has it, the entrance to the Point was fenced off and the horses were forgotten. It was only a matter of time before they died of thirst. Some locals say these horses still roam the area today!
Into The Back-Country
After we left buzzing Moab, crowds started to thin. We stopped for the night at the Runnin’ Iron Inn, a small family-run hotel that is easy to miss on highway 191, but a definite gem. The owners also operate a steakhouse on the premises, so make sure you’re hungry when you arrive.
Natural Bridges National Monument was our next stop. It is quiet and can easily be visited in one day. We called at the visitor centre upon arrival and I felt somewhat silly when asking the ranger: “why do you call them bridges and not arches?”. I learnt that a natural bridge is a type of arch, formed by the erosion specifically resulting from a river streaming underneath.
After Natural Bridges, a mighty long, but beautiful drive through the no-man’s land of Glen Canyon awaited. Signposts for towns hidden in the desert were accompanied with a threatening “no services” sign. Just as I was starting to get anxious and the gas meter’s needle moved further towards the red area, Hanksville, a sleepy town with more gas stations than people, emerged.
A shorter drive took us to Torrey, the gateway for Capitol Reef National Park. It is no more than a main street lined with houses and a few shops, but a good place to settle down for a few days. My husband and I like to vary the type of accommodation we stay in, so when we discovered the tipis in Capitol Reef Resort, we did not hesitate. The first night we had a surprisingly steep drop in temperature, but otherwise I absolutely loved sleeping under the canvas.
When I was preparing the trip and reading about the area, I was intrigued to discover how many slot canyons are dotted around. Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument is a good place to start for those who (like me) who are new to slot canyons. We decided to visit Peek-a-Boo and Spooky canyon. They are situated at the end of a 20 miles dirt road and don’t require any climbing equipment, making them “suitable for beginners” as I was told.
In case you’re not familiar with slot canyons, they are narrow, deep canyons that are prone to flash floods. Having only one entrance on each end, one can be miles away from a safe escape if the weather closes in unexpectedly.
The Classics: Bryce and Zion
Two thirds into the trip, I was still as fascinated by the red rock as I was on day one, so I was excited to go to Bryce Canyon next. The main attraction to admire at Bryce is its hoodoos: rock shapes formed by the erosion of hard and soft layers of rock. With some imagination, human features can be attributed to the hoodoos and this is the reason you won’t find any ancient rock art in Bryce Canyon, unlike elsewhere in Utah. Native American tribes who settled down in the surrounding area believed that they would turn into a rock statue themselves if they got too close to the hoodoos.
Horse back is an original and relaxing way to explore the hoodoos as you can cover a lot more distance than would on foot. Beautiful vistas are guaranteed, but it is not for those with a fear of heights, as the horses are steered over narrow paths with steep drops (often on either end!).
In case you always wanted to go to London, but haven’t gotten round to it, don’t look any further: Bryce Canyons also offers amazing views of the iconic Tower Bridge!
We had driven in and out of the Dixie National Forest a few times on our trip, but it was only to the end that we actually made a stop there. The Red Canyon area was a great choice. We had a long drive ahead and not much time to spare, but a short walk from the car park provided a very rewarding view.
Our next point of call was Panguitch town. The main reason for stopping, admittedly, was that we needed to stock up on groceries for the last leg of the trip, but it turned out to be a nice surprise. The historic houses on the main street make great material for photos and the sense of heritage and pioneer spirit are strongly present.
Cedar Breaks is another small National Monument that can be see in a day, but that is worth a stop. If you’ve seen enough canyons, at least go and admire the bristlecone pines. We took the relatively short Rampart Trail along the main view points and saw some great specimens of these ancient trees, which are considered one of the longest living organisms on Earth. The oldest bristlecone pine in the Monument is estimated at 1600 years old. This number is even more impressive if you consider the harsh conditions.
Zion National Park is probably a name familiar to most and it was the last stop of our trip. It was also the only time my concerns of large crowds materialised. A 5 o’clock alarm was necessary to beat the queues for the park bus. This small inconvenience was quickly forgotten when I got to Angel’s Landing. A path of steep switchbacks followed by a scramble over a narrow ridge rewarded us with an amazing 360° view.
The Narrows are perhaps the most famous feature of Zion. Hiking this beautiful slot canyon means wading through the water of the Virgin River, which at times came up to our waste. Despite thorough packing with drybags, I remained nervous about slipping!
When planning the trip, I was keen to include a visit to one of the famous ghost towns allegedly dotted around the Western states. Grafton, just outside Zion, was originally founded by Mormon missionaries and later used by pioneers. It has featured as the backdrop in many a Western movie and is therefore well maintained. At the same time, it is rather hard to find at the end of a dirt road, so we found ourselves all alone to wander around the old houses.
Zion was the conclusion of our road trip around Utah. On the way, I’d been keeping a little list of all the exciting things I saw on the map, but which we didn’t manage to include. I’ve got inspiration for at least three other Southwest USA trips now. However, we weren’t flying home just yet. From Zion, we drove to Las Vegas to conclude our trip with two cheeky days in the Sin City!