When I see this sign I get high, in more ways than one. No drugs are necessary. Southern Utah is my drug. It’s the place I dream about when I close my eyes and project myself to somewhere better in times of stress. It’s the place I return to every summer after teaching all year. It’s the place I’ll die not ever seeing enough of. It has new surprises for me every time I go.
For the sake of this post I’ll be talking strictly about the southern part of the state. The northern portion of Utah is pretty fantastic, too, but in my opinion does not match up to the south. So if you’re looking for a review of Salt Lake City this won’t be it.
Let me clear up a couple of misconceptions about my beloved landscape before I further laud its awesomeness.
One comment I hear over and over again is: “Utah? What’s there?” Umm, I beg your pardon? Look on a map. Five National Parks and several National Monuments and National Recreation Areas are below I-70. And speaking of I-70, parts of this interstate feature National Park worthy landscapes. Utah’s State Parks look like National Parks, too. Okay, so I’ve written National Parks several time. Have I made my point?
The other thing I hear people blurt all the time is, “But those Mormons!” First of all, in this day and age, any comment about race or religion needs to be withheld, and so does any discrimination. Come on, folks, it’s 2018. Is that the way we still think? I mean, do you say, “I’m not going to Italy because I might see the Pope?” Please! Secondly, I don’t believe I’ve ever witnessed someone hanging off a sandstone arch in the middle of nowhere and waving a bible at me, demanding me to join their religion. Have I seen Mormons in my travels in Utah? Yes. Are they just like anyone else? Pretty much so. I’ve had some downright wonderful experiences with the people. Get over that whole bit of nonsense.
Now, to further narrow my focus.
Because a lot of people enter Southern Utah via I-15 out of Vegas the parks on the western side of the state get a lot more visitors than those on the east side. I’m talking Bryce Canyon and Zion in the west, and Canyonlands and Arches in the east. Now, don’t get me wrong: Zion and Bryce are great places. But the ones I keep returning to are the ones on the east side and the one “in the middle,” namely Capital Reef. In fact, if I was going to suggest one to visit I would suggest Canyonlands. It’s further away from humanity than Arches, but as I’ve pointed out in previous posts, often the further away you get from civilization the better the experience, and I’d count the sights in Southern Utah into this equation.
As for where to stay, I say Moab all the way. It may very well be my favorite town in the whole world.
I’ve been going to Moab for more than twenty years, and as popular as it is, it hasn’t changed that much. Moab is one of those places that’s big enough to have everything you need, but not big enough to be annoying. And as adventurous as I am, I’m probably the most boring person in town. Last time I was there my neighbor was airing out his BASE jumping parachute in the hallway. Totally natural occurrence in old Moab.
From Moab, Arches National Park is a very short five miles. It’s also a small park. There’s said to be something like 2,000 sandstone arches in the park, and because of the size of the park it feels like there’s at least that many cars there on any given summer day. The old advice of getting there early is alive and well here. And, strapping on a backpack will give you a real advantage over most visitors to Arches. Do it! There are many short hikes that get you right underneath natural features that will make you gasp. For a longer hike, do Devil’s Garden. I rate this hike as difficult, but only because there are some tricky rocks that you have to throw yourself over, and one of them is about a mile and a half into the trail. Most people don’t make it past Landscape Arch. If you can, you’re in for a quiet and stunning walk.
Now let’s talk about Canyonlands. The most visited section is the Island in the Sky District, about thirty-five miles out of Moab. From here there are several small hikes that can’t be missed. If you’re only there for a day the must-dos are Mesa Arch and Grand View Point. Don’t bypass them, even if you’re a seasoned hiker and want to do longer hikes. You won’t have Mesa Arch to yourself, but you may have Grand View. (Photo at end of post is from the one-mile trail.) And speaking of those longer hikes, the Needles District has some of the most amazing hikes I’ve ever done. Much more remote than Island in the Sky, you’ll drive eighty miles from Moab to get there. I highly recommend the eleven miler to Druid Arch.
Expect to climb a lot of rocks, as well as a tricky ladder. But you’ll feel like a National Geographic explorer. Probably my favorite hike EVER, and that’s saying something!
Half the fun of Capitol Reef National Park is getting there from Moab. My favorite highway on the planet is SR95 between Blanding and Hanksville, a 100-mile thrill ride with enough views to make your neck sore. Here’s a place where you can just pull over to the side of the road, hike without a trail for a half hour, and find something amazing that others are just speeding by. Plan a whole day just to drive it one way. Beyond Hanksville and onward to Capital Reef is pretty special, too. As for Capital Reef itself, I feel like it’s a much-overlooked park that’s equally as spectacular as its better known cousins on both sides. Hike Cassidy Arch, Chimney Rock, and Cohab Canyon, all under five miles and big on memories.
Whew! How quickly and easily I wrote this is a true testament to the greatness of my beloved Southern Utah. And I’ve only scratched the surface!
Book your flight to Salt Lake City NOW.