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  • Writer's pictureDan Wagner

Ten Days in Southern Utah: The Mighty Five & Beyond

If there is one state that looks and feels like a different planet, it's Utah. It's wild landscapes and soaring rock formations are simply earth defying. Forests of stone, amphitheaters of rock, colorful canyons and towering cathedrals, this is a land of undeniable beauty. Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Capitol Reef National Park, and Arches National Park, collectively known as the Mighty Five, offer lifetimes of outdoor adventure and head-scratching views. Dad and I went on this trip in early summer before the temperatures reached triple digits, and had maybe our best trip ever together. The map below illustrates nearly all of the stops on this adventure.



Day 1: Snow Canyon State Park & Yant Flat

Cinder Cone (1.6 miles/450')
Pioneer Names (0.5 miles/50')
Yant Flat Candy Cliffs & Yellow Top (5 miles/850')

We started the trip in Snow Canyon State Park hiking up to the top of Cinder Cone, an ancient volcano with incredible views of Snow Canyon and the Dammeron Valley from above. Part of the larger Santa Clara Volcano, a volcanic field and lava flow in the Diamond Valley, Cinder Cone and its smaller sister cone visible to the north are responsible for one of the youngest lava flows on the Colorado Plateau. Formed more than 1.4 million years ago during the Anthropocene Epoch, its last eruption is believed to have occurred around 27,000 years ago. To put the volcano's size into perspective, if you zoom in on the photo below, you'll find my dad and I standing near the rocky edge along the lower section of the rim.


Snow Canyon State Park Cinder Cone

We then proceeded to the Pioneer Names Trail, a short sandy trail leading to an alcove in the rock wall where early St George settlers wrote their names in wagon axle grease as early as 1881. Early Mormon Pioneers would often picnic in the area and it's likely that the names were left by them.


Snow Canyon State Park Pioneer Names

We then drove out to Yant Flat and hiked out to the Candy Cliffs and Yellow Top. Pinyon-juniper pines, yucca, agave, and cholla cacti surrounded the trail, with Signal Peak, the Pine Valley Mountains' highest point, commanding the northern view. To the northeast, Zion National Park's majestic red rock peaks came into sight. After a relatively effortless one-mile stroll through the lower forest, the trail unveiled breathtaking sandstone formations – Candy Cliffs. Renowned for their swirling candy-like appearance, these pink and white formations originated approximately 190 million years ago during the Jurassic period when dinosaurs roamed the region. Continuing along the trail, navigating a steep descent, a ravine, and a wash, we encountered another perplexing geological wonder, Yellow Top. Situated on rugged cliffs in the southern part of Yant Flat, Yellow Top stands out as one of the most remarkable rock formations in the region. Its two domes, adorned in pink, red, white, and yellow hues, evoke a sense of otherworldliness, reminiscent of something only the imagination of science fiction novelist Philip K. Dick could conjure.


Yant Flat Yellow Top

After watching the sunset, we headed back to the trailhead and into St George where we grabbed a hotel for the night.


Day 2: Zion National Park

Angels Landing (4.5 miles/1,600')
Observation Point via East Mesa (7.1 miles/720')
The Narrows (2 miles/flat)

With dad resting at the hotel I set off to hike the world renowned Angels Landing. I won't get into the permit process, but it's something visitors will need to familiarize themselves with before anything else.


Angels Landing Zion National Park

Angels Landing stands out as one of the world's most breathtaking day hikes. The trail climbs over 1,500 vertical feet along a narrow stone fin, culminating at 5,790'. Beyond Scout Lookout, chain railings aid in the traverse, though those uneasy with heights may find little reassurance. The trail is predominantly exposed, with some sections barely a few feet wide and sheer drops on either side.


The summit offers unparalleled views. To the north, Observation Point and the Temple of Sinawava; to the south, Zion's main canyon and The Watchman. In 1916, Methodist preacher Frederick Fisher, captivated by the colossal sandstone cliff, coined the name Angels Landing, envisioning that only angels could land on it. The name endured, and by 1926, a trail had been carved out of its steep, rocky spine.


After Angels Landing, dad and I connected and hiked out to Observation Point on another beautiful southern Utah afternoon. Standing over 2,600' above the canyon floor, Observation Point provided exceptional views of Big Bend, Great White Throne, The Watchman, Angels Landing, and quite a bit more. With the Weeping Rock Trailhead closed at the time, we opted to hike from the East Mesa Trailhead, which offered a bit of a different and much easier approach to the viewpoint.


Observation Point Zion National Park

After Angels Landing and Observation Point, I dropped dad off at our hotel and decided to spend the evening hiking up The Narrows. I was a bit exhausted given the heat, but I had time and had always wanted to hike the big three in one day. This was my third time hiking up the Narrows and it honestly never gets old. There's a reason that people from all over the world hike this one.


Zion Narrows

After grabbing a late dinner, dad, being the photographer that he is, wanted to photograph the sunset from Canyon Junction Bridge, so we headed over there with a couple of camp chairs and watched one hell of a show.


Zion Watchman

Day 3: Zion National Park & Bryce Canyon National Park

Canyon Overlook (1 mile/150')
Queens Garden & Navajo Loop (3.0 miles/600')

We got an early start to day three and drove out to hike Zion's Canyon Overlook for sunrise. It was the third or fourth time that I had hiked up to the overlook, but the first time for sunrise.


Zion Hidden Canyon Overlook

After returning from the hike, we drove a few hours to Bryce Canyon National Park which we had visited numerous times before. We hiked the very popular Wall Street and Queens Garden Loop, one of dad's favorite national park hikes.


Bryce Canyon Wall Street

After lunch at the Bryce Canyon Lodge, we settled into our hotel room for a break in the action. Later, we made our way to Inspiration Point to catch the sunset. While Inspiration Point tends to draw a considerable crowd during sunset, the view is undeniably spectacular.


Bryce Canyon Inspiration Point.

After dinner, we headed back to the canyon rim so dad could photograph the Milky Way. He got some incredible shots and the shoot is something that we still talk about to this day.


Bryce Canyon Milky Way

Day 4: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument & Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Devil's Garden (1 mile/75')
Reflection Canyon (8 miles/300')

The next day we ventured off to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, my favorite of the Mighty Five parks. After stopping at several of the pull-off viewpoints along Scenic Byway 12, we arrived at the monument, drove down the heavily washboarded Hole-in-the-Rock Road, and hiked out to Devil's Garden to see Metate Arch.


Grand Staircase Devil's Garden

Afterward, we drove forty more miles down Hole-in-the Rock Road to the Reflection Canyon Trailhead. After a long hike out to the viewpoint, we set up camp and talked about what we were expecting for tomorrow's sunrise.


Day 5: Glen Canyon National Recreation Area & Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Reflection Canyon return (8 miles/1,300')
Zebra & Tunnel Slot Canyons (6.5 miles/400')

Today, we rose well before sunrise to prep for a photo shoot capturing the early morning light. With numerous great locations to choose from, we were pleased with the spot we had selected.


Reflection Canyon

After returning to the trailhead late morning, we headed into Escalante and grabbed a bite to eat at Ranch Dog Kitchen and then headed back into the monument to hike Zebra and Tunnel slot canyons. Named for its pink and red striped walls, Zebra is one of the most beautiful slot canyons in America, if not the world. In 2019 Fodor's named it one of the 13 Southwest Slot Canyons That Will Take Your Breath Away. The downside of Zebra is that it often fills with water and stays submerged throughout the year. Fortunately, on this trip, luck was on our side, and the slot was bone dry.


Zebra Slot Canyon

After, we chose to camp near the Harris Wash Trailhead about twenty minutes away.


Day 6: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Capitol Reef National Park, & Hanksville

Cosmic Ashtray (5 miles/700')
100 Hands Pictograph Panel (1 mile/250')
Cassidy Arch (3 miles/650')
Factory Butte

After a leisurely morning, we took a short drive to hike out to Cosmic Ashtray, a bit of a hidden gem we had learned about a few years prior. The colossal formation, sculpted by wind and sand over millions of years, proved to be one of my favorite hikes of the entire trip. There wasn't a visibly established trail or any rock cairns to guide us to Cosmic Ashtray, but the trail map that we downloaded prior to the hike helped quite a bit.


Cosmic Ashtray

Afterward, we left Hole-in-the-Rock Road and drove east along Scenic Byway 12 to the Escalante River Trailhead and hiked out to the 100 Hands Pictograph Panel.


100 Hands pictographs

Just beyond this panel, we discovered a petroglyph panel known as the Shaman & The Hunter Panel.


Shaman and Hunter petroglyphs

We then drove north along Scenic Byway 12 to reach Capitol Reef National Park for a mid-afternoon hike to Cassidy Arch. Named after outlaw Butch Cassidy who used the area as a hiding place, the arch stands 400 feet above Grand Wash Rd and is one of the few arches in the area that you can legally walk across.


Cassidy Arch Capitol Reef

With dad wanting to do some more nighttime photography, we decided to head out to Factory Butte and camp in the open area beside it. Again, he ended up with some pretty great shots.


Factory Butte Utah

Day 7: Hanksville, Goblin Valley State Park, Sego Canyon, & Arches National Park

Bentonite Hills
Valley of the Goblins (varies)
Goblin's Lair (2.5 miles/270')
Sego Canyon
Fiery Furnace (2.3 miles/500')
Delicate Arch (3.2 miles/600')

The following morning, we rose early and drove a short distance to photograph the Bentonite Hills near the Mars Desert Research Station. Given that my drone was allowed beyond the facility's boundary, I flew it up attempting to capture the vibrant colors that are characteristic of the sunrise here.


Bentonite Hills

Following the visit to the MDRS, we had breakfast at Duke's Slickrock Grill in Hanksville and drove out to Goblin Valley State Park, a park we hadn't managed to explore on prior trips. First, we hiked to the Goblin's Lair, a subterranean cave that involved a moderate scramble to reach its innermost depths.


Goblin's Lair Chamber of the Basilisk

The Goblin's Lair is an expansive cave, plunging 100 feet deep, featuring multiple windows at the top that allow light to filter through. To provide some perspective, this photo was taken near the cave's entrance, with me standing at the bottom towards the rear of the cave.


After returning from the Goblin's Lair, we walked through the Valley of the Goblins, a vast expanse filled with thousands of bizarre, goblin-like formations. Towards the back of the valley, we discovered a large rock formation that we hiked up to take in a panoramic views of the Henry Mountains to the south, the last mountain range surveyed in the lower 48, and the Waterpocket Fold of Capitol Reef to the west. The views were absolutely stunning and we've since made plans to revisit the park and explore more in the coming year or two. Pressed on time, we left after wandering around the valley for a short time, and headed to Tacos La Pasadita in Green River for a quick bite to eat.


Goblin Valley Utah

Afterward, we headed about 30 minutes east to Sego Canyon, home to some of the most incredible and bizarre Native American rock art in the southwest.


Sego Canyon

There are also a number of ornate petroglyphs attributed to the Fremont and Ute peoples in the immediate area. The panel below is attributed to the Fremont people who inhabited the area from the first to fourteenth century.


Sego Canyon

Another panel, attributed to the Ute, includes depictions of horses, hunting scenes, and shields.


Sego Canyon

The action packed day continued with a visit to Arches National Park where dad and I hiked two trails. First, we ventured out to hike the Fiery Furnace, a maze of cool, shady canyons between towering sandstone walls. The entire hike was a ton of fun, but the main highlight turned out to be Skull Arch, shown below.


Skull Arch

After eating in the car, we headed over to hike out to Delicate Arch for sunset. I had previously hiked out to the arch for sunset, but dad had not and was really looking forward to it. We were again against the clock and had to hustle up to get to the arch in time for sunset, which we did. Just prior to Delicate Arch, as we were walking along the long, narrow sandstone ledge that leads to the arch, we encountered Twisted Doughnut Arch, a small arch offering a unique view of the main attraction.


Twisted Doughnut Arch

A short distance later, just as the sun had dipped below the horizon, we reached Delicate Arch where we were greeted with one of the best sunsets that I've ever experienced in southern Utah.


Delicate Arch sunset

Afterward, we headed to Trailhead Public House for a few of their legendary burgers and a bowl of pork green chili before retiring for the night in our hotel.


Day 8: Moab, Arches National Park, & Canyonlands National Park

Fins & Things + Hell's Canyon UTV
Birthing Scene Petroglyph
Golf Course Rock Art Site/Moab Man Petroglyph
Courthouse Wash Panel
Double Arch (0.5 miles/100')
Corona & Bowtie Arch (2.5 miles/450')

The next morning we started the day on a guided four hour-long 4x4 ride with Epic 4x4 Adventures, which turned out to be a blast.


Moab 4x4

Following the ride, dad headed back to the hotel and I went to visit the Birthing Scene Panel, a series of petroglyph panels on a massive boulder along Kane Creek Road. One of the panels depicts a breech birth, and to my knowledge, is the only one of its kind in the area.


Birthing Scene petroglyphs

On the way back to the hotel, I stopped at the Golf Course Rock Art Site to get a look at the Moab Man petroglyph.


Moab Man petroglyphs

And then, a trip to the Courthouse Wash Pictographs panel.


Courthouse Wash pictographs

After picking up dad from the hotel, we headed back into Arches National Park and hiked to Double Arch, followed by The Windows and Turret Arch Loop.


Double Arch Utah

With dad having a little more gas left in the tank, we headed north to hike out to Corona Arch & Bowtie Arch. The hike, mostly over slickrock, includes a short ladder climb and a chain to help pull yourself up a steep slope just before arriving at the arches. With so few people on the trail, a stark contrast to the hikes in Arches National Park, we really enjoyed ourselves.


Corona Arch Moab

We then returned to Moab, grabbed a bite to eat, and called it a day.


Day 9: Moab, Canyonlands National Park, Bears Ears National Monument, & Monument Valley

Marlboro Point
Grand View (1.8 miles/150')
Shafer Canyon & Potash Road Scenic Drive
Poison Spider Dinosaur Tracks (0.3 miles/80')
Newspaper Rock
Butler Wash Ruins (1 mile/100')
Monument Valley

The next morning, we woke up around 4:30 AM and drove out to Marlboro Point with the aim of reaching the overlook for sunrise. Nestled along a secluded expanse of cliffs between Dead Horse State Park and Canyonlands National Park, Marlboro Point presents breathtaking canyon vistas that stretch for miles. Interestingly, this location is where the inaugural Marlboro cigarettes commercial was filmed, lending the site its name.


Marlboro Point Utah

After sunrise, we left for the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park. We had been there a number of times in the past, but we decided to head back once again. First, we hiked the Grand View Point Overlook Trail to take in the view of one of the more stunning canyons in the park.


Canyonlands Grand View Point

After, we stopped at Buck Canyon Overlook for a short bit and then set off to drive Shafer Canyon Road. It turns out that dad's fear of heights, coupled with my history of erratic driving, made the Shafer Canyon Road drive a bit unpleasant for him, but I thought it was incredible. We ended up driving the road out to Thelma & Louise Point, and ultimately all the way to Rt 191 in Moab.


Shafer Canyon Road Utah

Following lunch in Moab, we drove out and hiked up to the Jug Handle Arch Petroglyphs, which were a little underwhelming looking back.


Jug Handle Arch Utah

A short, steep trail leads up to a minor rock scramble where the petroglyphs are.


Jug Handle Arch Utah petroglyphs

Then, we continued along Rt 279 to reach the Poison Spider Dinosaur Tracks Trailhead. A short walk leads to a large Navajo sandstone rock slab containing two perfectly preserved dinosaur footprints. The slab containing the tracks at some point fell from the cliffs high above and now rest firmly on the side of the mesa. They're believed to be have been created during the Early Jurassic period around 190 million years ago and belonged to a dinosaur that stood around 5-1/2' tall at the hip according to a nearby placard. We also explored above the slab containing the dino tracks, where we found a slew of petroglyph panels.


Poison Spider Dinosaur Tracks

Roughly one mile past the dinosaur tracksite, we encountered a pull-off for a very large panel of petroglyphs along Rt 279. Google Maps lists the waypoint as Roadside Petroglyphs, but they're formally known as the Utah Highway 279 Rock Art Site. The petroglyphs range from just ten feet off the ground to more than thirty feet up, span more than one hundred feet across the wall, and are believed to have been the work of the Archaic and Fremont.


Highway 279 Rock Art Utah

After exploring the area, we continued along Rt 279, headed back through Moab, and ventured out to Newspaper Rock Historical Monument near the Needle District of Canyonlands National Park. A short walk is all that's required to view Newspaper Rock, a massive petroglyph panel etched in sandstone recording nearly 2,000 years of early human activity. Archaic, Basketmaker, Fremont and Pueblo culture all etched on the rock from BC time to around 1300 AD.


Newspaper Rock Utah

We followed up Newspaper Rock with a short hike out to the Butler Wash Ruins in Bears Ears National Monument. Built by the Anasazi in the 1200's, the cave ruins reflect the full range of living activities: habitation, ceremonial, farming, hunting, storage, and tool making. An overlook at the end of the trail provides a great view of the four kivas inside the dwelling as well as several other structures to the left of the main complex.


Butler Wash Ruins Utah

Then, we drove two hours to spend the night at The View Campground in Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. The tent sites rest on a sandy ridge offering some of the best views in the region in my opinion. We had plenty of time to relax, eat, and watch the sunset from our tents.


Monument Valley campground

Day 10: Page, Arizona & Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Antelope Canyon (0.5 miles/flat)
Horseshoe Bend (1.5 miles/100')
Great Chamber (0.8 miles/210')
Inchworm Arch (1 mile/135')

The following morning dad had arranged a guided tour of Upper Antelope Canyon, something that he had wanted to do for quite a while. The tour hour tour was very rushed, but dad was still able to capture some amazing photos.


Antelope Canyon

We then drove out to Horseshoe Bend, another iconic spot that dad had wanted to visit.


Horseshoe Bend Page Arizona

After a relatively easy-going morning and afternoon, we headed to Kanab to visit The Great Chamber. Following a long and sandy drive, we hiked up into the cave and dad snapped a few photos of us walking along the large sand pile inside.


Great Chamber Utah

Later in the evening, we ventured out to Inchworm Arch where dad set up his equipment and took even more amazing shots, including one of me standing beneath the arch.


Inchworm Arch Utah

Afterwards, we grabbed a hotel in Kanab and the following morning, drove to Las Vegas and flew home.

2 Comments


Bob Campbell
Bob Campbell
Jan 24, 2023

i could do 10 more days. excellent

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Dan Wagner
Dan Wagner
Jan 24, 2023
Replying to

Several lifetimes worth of things to explore in Southern Utah, that's for sure!

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