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 th Mighty Five, offer lifetimes of outdoor adventure and head-scratching views. On this adventure you'll walk the rim of an ancient volcano, view prehistoric rock art, traverse one of the most suspenseful roads in America, explore the Mighty Five, camp under some of the darkest skies in the Western Hemisphere, and so much more. This is a trip of a lifetime. A high clearance four-wheel or all-wheel drive vehicle is required and offline Google Maps and the pro version of AllTrails is highly recommended. Late September is the perfect time of year for this one.
Much of this adventure navigates through a massive geological phenomenon known as Grand Staircase, so understanding exactly what it is can be helpful. Formed over 200 million years by tectonic uplift along the Colorado Plateau, Grand Staircase can best be described as a series of cliffs and plateaus rising more than six thousand vertical feet from northern Arizona into southern Utah. Each of Grand Staircase's five escarpments is considered a step in the staircase and named for their general color. In the 1870s, geologist Clarence Dutton first conceptualized the region as a huge stairway ascending out of the bottom of the Grand Canyon northward with each cliff edge forming a giant step. The photo below was taken from the LeFevre Overlook twenty miles southeast of Fredonia, Arizona in the Kaibab National Forest and displays all five steps: Chocolate Cliffs, Vermillion Cliffs, White Cliffs, Grey Cliffs, and Pink Cliffs.
The Chocolate Cliffs make up the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and are the oldest step in the staircase at roughly 200 million years old. The Vermillion Cliffs surround the Kanab area and the world famous The Wave formation, are roughly 165 million years old, and make up the second step in the staircase. The massive 150 million year old Navajo sandstone formations that make up much of Zion National Park are part of the White Cliffs, the third step. The Grey Cliffs are the second youngest step in the staircase at around 130 million years old, are made of sandstone and shale, and can be found between Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park. The fifth step, the Pink Cliffs, was formed roughly 50 million years ago and home to Bryce Canyon National Park, Red Canyon, Cedar Breaks National Monument, and more.
The map below illustrates nearly all of the stops on this adventure and clicking on each waypoint previews the photos found throughout the article.
Day 1: Yant Flat
Cinder Cone (1.6 miles/450')
Pioneer Names (0.5 miles/50')
Yant Flat Candy Cliffs & Yellow Top (5 miles/850')
Start this adventure with a steep ascent up Snow Canyon State Park's Cinder Cone, an ancient volcano with amazing views of Snow Canyon to the west and the Dammeron Valley to the north. 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 some 27,000 years ago. To put the volcano's size into perspective, my father and I are standing near the rocky edge along the lower section of the rim.
Just south of the Cinder Cone Trail you'll find 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. A careful 100' ascent up the sandstone slope will bring you within feet of the names, the Gubler family name being the most common.
A remarkable way to end your first day in southern Utah is travelling east to Yant Flat and enjoying a gorgeous hike out to Candy Cliffs and Yellow Top. The views along the trail are incredible. Pinyon-juniper pines, yucca, agave, and cholla cacti surround the trail while Signal Peak, the highest peak in the Pine Valley Mountains dominates the view to the north. To the northeast, views of Zion National Park's towering red rock peaks. After an easy going one mile through lower forest the trail opens up to some of the most incredibly colored sandstone formations found on Earth, Candy Cliffs. Named for their swirling candy-like appearance, these pink and white sandstone formations were created around 190 million years ago during the Jurassic period when dinosaurs roamed the region. Further along the trail, after a steep descent and a bit of maneuvering through a ravine and wash, an even more head-scratching geological oddity, Yellow Top. Perched along rugged cliffs near the southern reaches of Yant Flat, Yellow Top is one of the most striking rock formations you'll find in the world. Its two domes, blanketed in pink, red, white, and yellow, feel like something only science fiction novelist Philip K Dick could have conjured up. This is an incredible sunset hike and best of all, due to its relative obscurity you'll likely have it all to yourself.
If you're interested in camping tonight there's a dispersed site just opposite of the trailhead, which makes for a great night under the stars. On the rare chance that it's taken there are a number of other sites along the road leading to the trailhead that you'll notice while driving in. If you were to drive past the trailhead and continue down the bumpy road heading east you'll eventually run into US-15 near Leeds. The Leeds RV Park & Motel and St George/Hurricane KOA are good backups. Both are reservable and will put you a bit closer to tomorrow's destination. If you prefer to stay in a hotel, there are plenty to choose from in the St George/Washington area.
Day 2: Zion National Park
Angels Landing (4.5 miles/1,600')
The Narrows (varies)
Wherever you decide to stay the night before you'll be anywhere between 45 minutes to just over an hour from Zion National Park. And, regardless of where you stay you'll inevitably pass by River Rock Roasting Co in La Verkin which is a great place for breakfast with a view. If you need a spot to shower, check out Zion Outfitter just before Zion's entrance in Springdale. Eventually you'll need to make your way to Zion's visitor center to board the park's free shuttle and ride out to the Grotto Trailhead (Stop 6) to begin Angels Landing, the first hike of the day.
Angels Landing is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular day hikes in the world. The trail ascends more than 1,500 vertical feet along a narrow stone fin to reach its summit at 5,790'. Chain rainlings assist the traverse after Scout Lookout, but those with a fear of heights won't find much solace in them. The trail is largely exposed and in some areas less than a few feet wide with sheer drops off each side. The views from the summit are some of the best in the park. To the north, Observation Point and the Temple of Sinawava. To the south, Zion's main canyon and The Watchman. A man named Frederick Fisher, a Methodist preached who visited the area in 1916 is credited with naming Angels Landing. Fisher, so in awe of the massive sandstone cliff, surmised that only angels could land on it. The name stuck and in 1926 the trail was hewn out of its steep, rocky spine.
The drawback to hiking Angels Landing is that it requires a permit. To learn about the seasonal and day-before permit lotteries visit the park's Angels Landing Permits page. If you fall short of securing a permit, a solid backup is Observation Point. Towering more than 2,600' above the canyon floor, views of Big Bend, Great White Throne, The Watchman, and more are visible. The large fin jutting out from the canyon's west wall 1,000' below is Angels Landing. Observation Point can be reached from two trailheads, the Weeping Rock and East Mesa, but check the park's website for updated trail closures. On August 24, 2019 a large rockfall dumped 435,000 cubic feet of debris onto the Weeping Rock Trail causing its indefinite closure. For the time being, The East Mesa Trailhead provides the only access to Observation Point. Parking accommodates a dozen or so cars and fills by 9AM most peak season days. Parking in unapproved locations will result in a large, tough to remove sticker being placed on the driver's side window.
After either Angels Landing or Observation Point pick up the park shuttle to the Temple of Sinawava (Stop 9) and hop on the Riverside Walk Trail. The generally flat, paved trail follows along the Virgin River while lush hanging gardens drape the high weeping rock wall beside you. The end of the Riverside Walk Trail leads to the start of world renowned Narrows, the narrowest section of Zion's canyon. Unlike most other hikes in the park, there is no trail in The Narrows. Instead, you'll wade directly upstream along the Virgin River's cobblestone riverbed. The gorge's vertical sandstone walls soar up to 3,000' as the pristine river widens and narrows. It's absolutely beautiful. The Narrows continue on for roughly sixteen miles, so hike as far as you like before returning the way you came in. Hiking poles and water shoes are highly recommended. If you don't have hiking poles you can rent them from Zion Outfitter.
Watchman Campground and South Campground are both located a half mile from the South Entrance in Springdale. Both accept reservations. The Leeds RV Park & Motel or St George/Hurricane KOA are roughly 30 minutes east of the park and solid fall back options if the park campgrounds are booked. There are also several hotels in Springdale, but generally come with a hefty price tag. If glamping is more your thing look no further than Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort in Orderville or Zion Wildflower Resort in Virgin.
One of the best sunset spots in all of Utah can be found a mile and a half from the park's Springdale entrance at the Canyon Junction Bridge. The view of the Virgin River and The Watchman from the bridge is special any time of day, but it's drop dead gorgeous during sunset. Parking is permitted just north of the bridge in any of the various pull-offs along Zion Park Blvd/Rt 9. This is also an incredible spot for nighttime photography.
Day 3: Bryce Canyon National Park
Canyon Overlook (1 mile/150')
Queens Garden & Navajo Loop (3.0 miles/600')
Get an early start today and head to the Zion Canyon Overlook Trail, one of the biggest bang for your buck hiking trails in the country. The trail winds through shaded alcoves, over bare slickrock, and above Pine Creek slot canyon before reaching the main overlook. The west facing view into the canyon is excellent and if you can swing getting to the overlook for sunset you'll be rewarded handsomely. The arch-like feature beneath the overlook visible while driving up the switchbacks to the trailhead is the Great Arch, a proto-arch burrowing its way into the northeast flank of East Temple.
After you've enjoyed a beautiful sunset from the overlook, set off on the hour and a half drive to Bryce Canyon National Park. Keep an eye out for Orderville's top cop, Latex Larry, when passing through town. A few miles north of Hatch you'll reach Scenic Byway 12, one of the most beautiful scenic drives in the country. Follow this to reach Bryce Canyon National Park and proceed to Sunset Point. Enjoy the view from the canyon rim and then hop on the Navajo & Queen's Garden Loop Trail from Sunset Point. Hiking counterclockwise, the trail descends into the canyon through a series of switchbacks at Wall Street, through a thinly forested area of Ponderosa and bristlecone pines, then into a more open area known as the Queen's Garden. The hoodoos in the Queen's Garden are spectacular. Named so after a hoodoo resembling England's Queen Victoria I, the Queen's Garden is an otherworldly display of formations created by the forces of ice, wind, and water over the last 60-million years.
The ascent from Queen's Garden is fairly gentle and eventually leads to Sunrise Point where you simply follow the rim back to Sunset Point to complete the loop. Keep your eyes peeled when approaching Sunset Point where just below the rim you'll find Thor's Hammer, a prominent formation in the canyon. If you have gas left in the tank check out the seven mile Fairyland Loop which is often mentioned as one of the best day hikes in the country. A great lunch option afterward is the Bryce Canyon Lodge. If they still have the elk chili make sure to grab a bowl.
Bryce has two campgrounds, the North Campground and Sunset Campground. The North Campground can be reserved during the summer months while the Sunset Campground is first come, first served throughout the year. The North Campground General Store has the only shower facilities inside the park. Since Bryce sits at around 8,000' and nights can be fairly chilly even in the summer months, so something to keep in mind. If you don't want to camp your closest options are the Bryce Canyon Lodge, Best Western Ruby's Inn, Best Western Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel, and Bryce Canyon Resort, all within minutes of the park's entrance. The Lodge definitely separates itself from the others in terms of quality, but comes at a significantly higher price. The other three stays are pretty similar to each other, so price should be the only deciding factor in our opinion. We've stayed at them all.
Sunsets in Bryce are gorgeous and two great spots along the rim to take it all in are at Sunset Point and Inspiration Point. Neither is better than the other in our opinion, so whichever floats your boat. Inspiration Point is at a higher elevation and often comes with larger crowds. Both can be driven to.
Bryce received its International Dark Sky Park certification in 2019 and we highly recommend visiting the canyon rim a few hours after sunset. Even if you're not into nighttime photography it's well worth your time.
Day 4: Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
Devil's Garden (1 mile/75')
Reflection Canyon (8 miles/300')
After exiting the park, continue east along Scenic Byway 12 and make sure to stop at both Powell Point Vista and Upper Valley Granaries pull-offs. The Upper Valley Granaries pull-off features a great view of a small stone and mud built structure tucked into the cliff face to the north built by Ancient Puebloans and believed to have been used to store corn and grain. The pull-off has a viewing tube that points to the structure allowing for a better view. After this you'll pass through the town of Escalante and eventually reach Hole-in-the-Rock Rd, a gnarly washboard road leading to both of today's adventures. About twelve miles down Hole-in-the-Rock Rd you'll find the trailhead to Devil's Garden. The small area set back from the road features Navajo sandstone hoodoos, domes, narrow passageways, and small arches. It's a good way to stretch the legs out before heading farther down the road to the day's main event.
Continue south on Hole-in-the-Rock Rd roughly 40 miles to reach the Reflection Canyon Trailhead. There wasn't a trailhead sign the last time we backpacked this, so make sure you have offline maps downloaded to your phone. Reflection Canyon is a bucket list backpack for many and offers one of the most stunning sunrise views you'll ever find. It does however come with a few challenges. There is zero shade, zero water, zero cell reception, and a good amount of sand. That being said, 6-8 liters of water/person for cooking and drinking, sunscreen, and a backup battery are highly recommended. Other than than pack as light as possible. The first six miles are fairly easy to follow, but as you begin to descend the area filled with slickrock route finding can become an issue. Because of this we highly recommend downloading the AllTrails map to help guide you the last two miles. Set up camp above the cliffs and enjoy a night camping under the stars!
Day 5: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Reflection Canyon return (8 miles/1,300')
Zebra & Tunnel Slot Canyons (6.5 miles/400')
Get up early and find your spot along the cliffs to enjoy a phenomenal sunrise. There's really no bad spot to enjoy it from. If you're planning on photographing be sure to bring a wide angle lens.
Return the way you came picking up all the elevation loss from yesterday. Once back at your vehicle drive the length of Hole-in-the-Rock Rd to Escalante and grab lunch and some air conditioning at Ranch Dog Kitchen. The small town of Escalante was named after Silvestre Velez de Escalante, a Franciscan missionary and a member of the first European expedition into southern Utah. History nerds will undoubtedly enjoy The Dominguez-Escalante Journal which details Escalante's expedition through Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico in 1776. It's a fantastic read. Head of the Rocks Overlook is ten minutes east of Escalante along Scenic Byway 12 and definitely worth visiting. Later in the day head back down Hole-in-the Rock Rd eight miles to the Zebra & Tunnel Slot Canyons Trailhead. Parking is on the right and the trail begins on the left. Named for its pink and red striped walls, Zebra is one of the most beautiful slot canyons in the world. In 2019 Fodor's named it one of the 13 Southwestern Slot Canyons That Will Take Your Breath Away and after hiking you'll understand why. It gets pretty tight in there the deeper you go. The slot narrows to less than twelve inches at times which just adds to the fun. At roughly a football field long it's one of the shortest slot canyons around, but don't let that deter you. It's drop dead gorgeous. If you're low on energy consider hiking to Zebra and skipping Tunnel which shaves off a mile and a half or so. Check the reviews on AllTrails prior to venturing out on this one as the slot is prone to flooding.
Dispersed camping is permitted anywhere along Hole-in-the-Rock Rd as long as your vehicle is parked in a pull-off or parking area and not on the road itself. Feel free to camp wherever you like, but we highly recommend camping near the Harris Wash Trailhead about twenty minutes away. There are plenty of camping spots here and will position you well for tomorrow's first hike out to Cosmic Ashtray.
Day 6: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Cosmic Ashtray (5 miles/700')
100 Hands Pictograph Panel (1 mile/250')
Cassidy Arch (3 miles/650')
One of southern Utah's oddest geological features, Cosmic Ashtray is a bit of a hidden gem and a far less traveled destination than many of Escalante's incredible spots. The massive formation, carved from wind and sand over millions of years, is an incredible sight to see and we found ourselves amazed with its size and appearance. It's absolutely huge in person and one of our favorite hikes in all of southern Utah. The Volcano/Cosmic Ashtray Trail on AllTrails lists the hike at 9 miles round trip, but there's an easy way to shave off several miles and a decent amount of elevation. If you've camped at the Harris Wash Trailhead last night you're in a good spot. This is where The Volcano/Cosmic Ashtray Trail on AllTrails officially starts. From camp, jump in your vehicle, cross Harris Wash, and veer right on the signed V-Road. The terrain on the V-Road is comparable to Harris Wash Rd. Follow the V-Road as far as your vehicle will allow, then park and hike the rest of the way. We were able to get within 2.5 miles of Cosmic Ashtray in a standard AWD SUV before the V-Road became too rocky to continue. From here the hike to the ashtray is fairly tame, but completely exposed to the sun. There's no established trail and no trail markings/cairns along the way, so downloading a trail map prior to your trip will be helpful. Once you reach the ashtray you find cliffs to the left which we highly recommend getting up to. The view is far better than from below. There's also a way to get down into the ashtray, but it's not for the faint of heart. In the photo below you'll notice a small dip in the rock wall on the far side. Hike to that side of the ashtray and carefully make your way down the slope before reaching several Moki steps that have been carved into the slope about half way down. It's a pretty steep descent, but doable. We recommend taking a 50' rope and tying off up top to help with the climb, but it's not a must. The views are spectacular from up top, so don't feel bad if you're too chicken shit to make the climb down.
After your adventure out to Cosmic Ashtray head back to Scenic Byway 12 from Hole-in-the-Rock Rd and head east. If you didn't stop at the Head of the Rock Overlook yesterday make sure to today. The next 65 miles of the byway are by far the most scenic. Less than five miles after the Head of the Rocks Overlook you'll arrive at the Escalante River Trailhead at a bend in the road. A short hike leads to the Fremont era 100 Hands Pictograph Panel. It's located about 30' off the ground on a large sandstone wall. Just before the 100 Hands Panel you'll find a separate panel of Bighorn sheep to your right worth viewing.
Two-tenths of a mile past the 100 Hands Panel you'll also find another petroglyph panel known as The Shaman & The Hunter. These are also very impressive and well worth the minimal effort to view.
Cassidy Arch, the highlight of Capitol Reef National Park in our opinion, is just under an hour and a half from the Burr Trail Grill. Named after the famous outlaw Butch Cassidy who used the area as a hiding place, the arch stands 400' above the Grand Wash Rd below. It's a steep trail featuring many rock stairs along the way, but the view from up top is excellent. Walking across the arch is permitted and highly recommended.
An excellent place to camp for the night is near Factory Butte, about an hour east of the Cassidy Arch Trailhead and twenty minutes west of Hanksville. Follow Rt 24 through Capitol Reef and hang a left on Coal Mine Rd/N Factory Butte Rd. You'll find a large parking area beside a noticeable rock formation on the right side of the road about five miles down. Park there and walk towards the butte about a quarter mile where you'll find a large vegetation free patch of land to camp. The view is really great here. There are no fees or permits to camp here and it's a great spot for nighttime photography.
Day 7: Arches National Park
Valley of the Goblins (varies)
Goblin's Lair (2.5 miles/270')
Fiery Furnace (2.3 miles/500')
Delicate Arch (3.2 miles/600')
Rise early today and head to the Bentonite Hills for sunrise. The colors here are pretty muted during the day, but just before sunrise and just after sunset their blues, greens, and reds really come to life. The best spot to view them from is just outside the perimeter of the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) at the end of S Cow Dung Rd, about thirty minutes from Factory Butte and fifteen minutes from downtown Hanksville. Use the MDRS as your destination in your GPS and you can't miss the hills. We've read several articles on the Bentonite Hills and unfortunately many of the photos in them have been severely Photoshopped. The photo below was taken ten minutes before sunrise and depicts the true colors of the hills at that time of day.
A good spot to grab breakfast nearby is Duke's Slickrock Grill in Hanksville. From there Goblin Valley State Park, one of the most underrated state parks in the country let alone Utah, is about forty minutes away in the San Rafael Swell. Bizarre Entrada sandstone rock formations nicknamed goblins dot the valley floor while sage green tinted mountains serve as their backdrop. You could easily spend an entire weekend or more exploring the strange landscape. Make sure to check out both the Goblin's Lair and Valley of the Goblins whose trailheads conveniently share the same parking area.
The Goblin's Lair is a huge 100' deep cave that you climb down into and a ton of fun. The cave itself is massive and there are multiple windows at the top that let light down into it. To give some perspective, this photo was taken near the entrance of the cave and I'm standing at the bottom near the back of it. The trail shares the same parking area as the Valley of the Goblins, so tackling those two together makes a lot of sense.
Valley of the Goblins is a massive field of goblins worthy of hours of exploration. In the back of the valley you'll find a large grey rock formation that we highly recommend hiking up. The views from up top are awesome! It can be found center left near the back of the valley in the photo below. The Henry Mountains, the last mountain range to be surveyed in the lower 48 states, are visible to the south and Capitol Reef's Waterpocket Fold is to the west. If you're interested in grabbing a bite to eat after, don't miss out on Tacos La Pasadita in Green River. It's almost as bizarre as Valley of the Goblins, but the tacos are incredible.
After, head east to Sego Canyon to view two of the finest pictograph panels anywhere in the world. The panels are attributed to the Archaic people who inhabited the area as far back as 8000 BC and include numerous haunting Barrier style figures. Named after Barrier Creek in what is now commonly referred to as Horseshoe Canyon, Barrier style pictographs appear in much of Utah and western Colorado with their highest concentration in and around the San Rafael Swell and Canyonlands National Park. A second panel displaying similar figures can be found at eye level on the opposite side of the canyon less than fifty feet away. For what it's worth, the panel below was featured on an episode of History Channel's Ancient Aliens.
There are also a number of petroglyphs attributed to the Fremont and Ute on the left canyon wall prior to reaching the pictograph panels. The panel below is attributed to the Fremont people who inhabited the area from the first to fourteenth century.
The petroglyphs below are attributed to the Ute and include images of horses among other objects. Since there were no horses on the continent prior to 1493, these were created sometime after when Christopher Columbus first introduced horses to what is now North America. The Utes inhabited the area until the late 1800s when they were forced onto reservations. If you're wondering what the difference is between pictographs and petroglyphs, it's easy. Pictographs are painted on and petroglyphs are carved.
After taking in the views of the ancient artwork continue south to Arches National Park and stop by the visitor center to pick up the permit that you should have reserved ahead of time for the Fiery Furnace hike. You'll need to give a ranger your vehicle info including license plate number and watch a seven minute video on the hike before receiving your permit. Contrary to its name, Fiery Furnace is not a hot place. Named for the warm glow seen on the rocks in later afternoon, the Fiery Furnace is actually a maze of cool, shady canyons between towering sandstone walls. Skull Arch and Surprise Arch are two of the highlights along the trail, but the minor rock scrambling and narrow passageways are what makes this one so much fun. The downloaded AllTrails map will help you along the way, but even with it you're all but guaranteed to find yourself wandering off trail.
There's no better way to end a day in Arches than with a sunset hike to Delicate Arch. The arch that's featured on most Utah license plates is undoubtedly the crown jewel of the park. Near the start of the trail you encounter Wolfe Ranch, home to Etna, Ohio native and Civil War veteran John Wesley Wolfe, who, looking for a drier climate, settled in the area now home to Arches National Park. The story behind the settlement is actually pretty fascinating. Behind the tiny cabin you'll find a small petroglyph panel created by the Ute depicting a horse and rider surrounded by bighorn sheep and dog-like animals. After a fairly steep ascent up a large slickrock slab you'll soon be met with a ledge running along a rock wall. Above the ledge to the right you'll find Twisted Doughnut Arch/Frame Arch, a small arch that gives a unique view of Delicate Arch from a distance.
A very short distance later you'll arrive at the largest free-standing in the park, Delicate Arch. Views of the La Sal Mountains will be to your southwest. Find a spot and enjoy the sunset!
On the way back to the trailhead a careful eye will spot the silhouette of Balanced Rock in the distance. There are countless restaurant options in Moab, but the ones we've had amazing experiences at are Antica Forma, The Trailhead Public House & Eatery, El Tapatio, and for those with a glutton for diner food, Moab Diner. The bruschetta at Antica Forma might be one of the best things we've ever eaten anywhere and the pork green chili at The Trailhead Public House & Eatery is worth writing home about. There are plenty of lodging options in Moab, but for those looking for a glamping experience check out Under Canvas Moab. Campers will find a ton of primitive Bureau of Land Management campgrounds east and west of Rt 191 along Rt 128, Rt 279, and Kane Springs Rd. If you're in need of any gear make sure to check out Gearheads Outdoor Store in downtown Moab.
Day 8: Moab & 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')
UTV riding is incredibly popular in Moab and a ton of fun. Epic 4x4 Adventures in downtown Moab does a great job with this and we highly recommend booking with them. Fair prices and the guides are awesome. You'll climb steep rock formations, haul ass through sandy banks, and a ton more. It's about a four hour long excursion and best done in the morning before the temperatures peak.
About fifteen minutes from Epic 4x4 Adventures you'll find the famous Birthing Scene Petroglyph, a breech birth depiction on the bottom left corner of the northeast facing panel on the large boulder below. The rock art covers all sides of the boulder, is thought to represent the Archaic through Ute cultures, and includes a number of Abajo-La Sal style objects unique to the Canyonlands region. A small pull-off along Kane Springs Rd can accommodate four to five vehicles.
Just south of downtown Moab you'll find the Golf Course Rock Art Site, a large roadside petroglyph panel depicting various objects including the famous Moab Man, the far left object in the photo below. A good amount of the lower section of the panel has broken off, but Moab Man has stood the test of time thus far.
On your way back to Arches National Park be sure to stop at the Courthouse Wash Panel to view some of the best pictographs in the Moab area. These are believed to have been created by early Archaic people thousands of years ago with additions made to the panel by the Ute many years later. The site is located off Rt 191 just north of the bridge spanning the Colorado River. There isn't a pull-off, but parking is permitted along the road. A short walk is all that's required to view the panel.
One of the best short hikes in Arches is Double Arch located in the Windows area, an area with the highest concentration of arches in the entire world. The walk to the base of Double Arch is quick and easy, but the more adventurous will scramble up the rock wall to the opening of the left arch. You can get some pretty amazing shots from inside the arches and a wide angle lens is recommended. While you're in the area make sure to check out the Windows Loop, Turret Arch, and Balanced Rock. That'll add on about a mile and a half to the day and definitely worth the time if you have it.
Another great sunset hike in the area is Corona Arch and Bowtie Arch, two arches just outside of the park's boundary with incredible views. The hike is mostly over slickrock and includes a short ladder climb and a chain to help pull yourself up a steep slope just before the arches. You'll have a view of the 140-foot Corona Arch, sometimes referred to as Little Rainbow Bridge, near the ladder and chain, but it blends in really well with the canyon wall behind it. Bowtie Arch is just left of Corona Arch and a short spur trail leading to Pinto Arch can be found around roughly a half mile into the trail. This trail brings far fewer people than most in the area. The last time we hiked this we only saw a handful of people and had sunset all to ourselves. In 2013, a 22-year-old Utah man fell to his death after miscalculating the length of the rope he was using while attempting to swing under Corona Arch. Signs were put up along the trail advising against rope swinging after his death, so if you notice a few along the way that's why they're there.
Day 9: Canyonlands National Park
Grand View (1.8 miles/150')
Shafer Canyon & Potash Road Scenic Drive
Poison Spider Dinosaur Tracks (0.3 miles/80')
Butler Wash Ruins (1 mile/100')
Get an early start today and head to Marlboro Point for an amazing sunrise that you're all but guaranteed to have to yourself. Situated along a remote stretch of cliffs between Dead Horse State Park and Canyonlands National Park, Marlboro Point offers incredible canyon views that go on for miles. This is also where the first Marlboro cigarettes commercial was filmed, hence the name. Sunrise here is spectacular, but getting to the point can be a bit of a challenge. Google Maps will unfortunately lead you to an industrial site far from Marlboro Point, so scratch that idea. Instead, head west on Rt 191 from Moab and south on Rt 313 as if you were going to Canyonlands National Park. About fourteen miles into Rt 313 you'll hang left at the junction with Grand View Point Rd/Island in the Sky Rd and continue along Rt 313. After making the left you'll encounter two unsigned dirt roads to the right, the second of which you'll head down. This road starts off pretty tame, turns fairly rocky about a mile in, and eventually becomes impassable to most vehicles. Drive as far as you're comfortable going and park to the side. Most standard SUVs can make it to within a third of a mile of Marlboro Point leaving you with a short walk down the road. From downtown Moab this will take about an hour to drive and walk without rushing.
After, head to the Grand View Point Overlook, the southernmost point of Canyonlands National Park's Island in the Sky scenic drive. The overlook is amazing, but the easy going two mile round trip trail provides even better views including The Maze and Needles District to the south. On your way back make a quick stop at the Buck Canyon Overlook for another incredible view.
Near the park's visitor center you'll find the entrance to the Shafer Canyon Rd, a gnarly and iconic road diving more than 1,500' into the depths of Canyonlands National Park. The rock-laden road twists and turns through a series of cliffside switchbacks giving drivers a chance to put their fear of heights to the test and conquer the iconic route. The drive down Shafer Canyon Rd and eventually Potash Rd takes about two hours to complete, taking drivers from the top of the mesa all the way out to Rt 191 in Moab. Along the way you'll run into an unsigned overlook known as Thelma & Louise Point where the final scene from the legendary 1991 movie was filmed. Google Maps has this as a waypoint, so if you have the area's offline map downloaded it'll be easy to locate. It's a bit uneventful, but still worth a quick stop. The main attraction on the drive is the switchback section at the very beginning of the route. After that it's far less eventful, but an interesting experience. Standard clearance SUVs can complete the route with careful navigation. In the 1890s, Moab pioneer brothers Frank and John Shafer developed the route from what had been a Native American pathway and used it to move cattle from the mesa to the Colorado River below.
Shortly after Potash Rd/Rt 279 turns from dirt to pavement you'll find a signed pull-off for Jug Handle Arch, a large, almost vertical arch jutting out from the cliffs along the Colorado River.
The arch is best viewed from a distance, but a short, steep unmarked trail leading to a small petroglyph panel is worth a visit. The panel is located roughly one hundred feet left of the base of the arch and contains concentric circles and a snake-like object, among others.
Roughly eight miles past Jug Handle Arch you'll find an unsigned dirt road on the left side of the road leading to 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 the placard below. There are also numerous petroglyphs above the slab, so make sure to catch those.
Roughly one mile past the dinosaur tracksite you'll find a signed pull-off for a very large panel of petroglyphs and pictographs located on a rock wall right on 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. You'll notice what looks to be a watermark on the rock wall, but it's actually the old dirt line before a talus slope was removed to build Rt 279. There are many objects carved into the wall including a large bear with hunters at its nose and over its back near the far right end of the panel. At the far left of the wall, at least twelve round holes carved into the sandstone that once held the roof poles of a structure that was excavated by archaeologists prior to road construction.
After exploring the panel continue along Rt 279, head back through Moab, and venture out to Newspaper Rock Historical Monument. Along the drive you'll pass by the western edge of the La Sal Mountains, the large Entrada sandstone Wilson Arch named after Dry Valley pioneer Joe Wilson, and Church Rock, a gumdrop shaped sandstone formation need the entrance to Canyonland's Needles District. 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. Later, Ute and Navajo, as well as early European Americans made their contributions. The Navajo refer to the rock as Tse' Hane' '' or "rock that tells a story," but the true purpose of the rock remains a mystery to this day. This shouldn't be confused with the Newspaper Rock Petroglyphs District in Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park.
Another great stop along the way to tonight's campground is the Butler Wash Ruins along Comb Ridge 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. The ruins are remarkably well preserved, likely due to how challenging it can be getting down to the ruins from the cliffs above.
Two hours from the Butler Wash Ruins is The View Campground in Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park and an amazing place to call home for the night. The park has a hotel and cabins, but the wilderness sites are absolutely the way to go. The tent sites rest on a sandy ridge offering some of the best views in the American Southwest. Sunsets here are absolutely spectacular. Bathrooms, hot showers, a large gift shop, and restaurant can all be found within the complex. Reservations are required and are highly competitive. It's worth noting that since this is in Arizona you'll gain an hour once crossing the border from Utah.
Day 10: Page & Kanab
Antelope Canyon (0.5 miles/flat)
Horseshoe Bend (1.5 miles/100')
Action Photo Tours
Roughly two hours from Monument Valley you'll find Antelope Canyon, widely considered the most beautiful slot canyon in the world. Known to the Navajo as Tsé bighánílíní, the small slot canyon is one of the most photographed spots on Earth and a great way to kick off the last day of the adventure. Shaped by millions of years of water and wind erosion, the spectacular canyon was named for the herds of pronghorn antelope that once roamed the region. Paid guided tours are the only way to access the slot and should be booked in advance. There are numerous companies that offer tours, but whichever company you choose to go with make sure that it's Upper Antelope Canyon. Midday is the best time to view the slot when the position of the sun creates light shafts that reach the canyon floor and illuminates the pink, red, orange and gold patterns on the canyon walls. Plan on roughly two hours for the experience.
Horseshoe Bend, another iconic spot to visit, is located less than ten minutes from downtown Page. A short walk leads to the edge of the cliffs overlooking a horseshoe-like bend in the Colorado River. This is usually a fairly crowded spot, but if you head north along the rim a bit you're likely to find some peace and quiet. The city of Page requires a fee to park at the trailhead and national park passes are not accepted. In 2017/2018, a platform and railing were installed above Horseshoe Bend which unfortunately took away from some of the natural beauty of the place. It's still an amazing spot and there are plenty of railing-less spots to the right of the platform if you care to view from there.
After, head west into Kanab where you'll spend the rest of the day and night. A great spot to grab a bite to eat is at Rocking V Cafe on the main drag. The burgers are incredible. We've always stayed at the Holiday Inn Express, but there are several other hotels and campgrounds nearby. A really great way to spend the evening is on a photo tour with Action Photo Tours and owner/professional photographer David Swindler. Custom tours are offered and we highly recommend booking the Great Chamber and Inchworm Arch, both within Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The tour runs from about an hour before sunset until midnight or later and camera equipment is provided in the event that you don't have your own. The evening starts with a wild ride out to the Great Chamber, a massive cave inside Grand Staircase's White Cliffs. The large sand dune inside the cave has sadly been whittled down from its previous height by sandboarders, but the sunset view from inside the cave is excellent. If you're interested in visiting the Great Chamber without a guide, check out our How to Get to Utah's Great Chamber article.
Later in the evening you'll head deep into the desert to a bit of a hidden gem, Inchworm Arch. Discovered by a local Boy Scout troop a handful of miles north of the Arizona Strip years ago, it's become a local favorite for decades and an incredible spot for nighttime photography.
If you're flying out of Las Vegas the following day a great way to spend the morning is an easy going drive on the Red Rock Canyon Scenic Drive in the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. The twelve mile loop is drop dead gorgeous and has several hikes of varying length and difficulty along the way. If you have time for a hike, the two mile Calico Tanks Trail is the way to go. National park passes are accepted at the ranger station at the start of the drive.
And that's a wrap. We hope you find your time in southern Utah to be one of the best experiences of your life. Take a lot of photos and bring back a ton of great memories on this epic adventure!