Farther Away From it All
Utah writer Edward Abbey famously referred to wild places as “not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.” This six-day itinerary will provide you with plenty of wild spaces to soothe your soul and boost your spirits along your journey.
For well-prepared backpackers with a permit and a shuttle, you could use this time to spend five spectacular days backpacking the 48-mile Trans Zion Trek with its deep canyons, high ridgelines, and all the striking views of Zion National Park you could imagine.
Or you can split up your Utah trip across several wild spaces. Start with the rugged scenery of Joshua Tree Scenic Backway or the Mars-like landscape of Gooseberry Mesa and then add the expansive views and natural quiet of Red Cliffs National Conservation Area.
You’ll find full solitude in Ashdown Gorge Wilderness Area, where only 10 miles of trail sprinkle the 7,000-acre expanse. Later, you can drop deep into Bryce Canyon National Park’s spire-filled backcountry, where few tourists ever venture.
Capitol Reef National Park will provide you with a national park experience without the usual crowds. After a spectacular sunset, you can gaze at the Milky Way in one of Utah’s internationally-certified Dark Sky Parks.
Towering sandstone buttes stand as silent sentinels over the spirit of the desert at Monument Valley and ancestral cliff dwellings hide in the canyons of Bears Ears National Monument. Soak up the vast expanses and cloistered spaces of the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, where you can you feel like the only person in the world.
Spend a few days away from the hustle and bustle and gain a new appreciation for the peace you’ll find in wild places.
- Gooseberry Mesa
- Joshua Tree Scenic Backway
- Red Cliffs Desert Reserve
Take mountain bikes for a rolling tour of Gooseberry Mesa or simply hike around the fascinating mars-like landscape. Tour the remote Joshua Tree Backway, then hike through the conservation habitat of Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. You might also make a stop at the reservoir of Gunlock State Park. Overnight in Cedar City. Alternatively, stop by the lesser-visited Kolob Canyons section of Zion National Park for a hike — a long hike. If you really want to disappear for a few days, get a permit, arrange a shuttle and gear up for a multi-day Trans-Zion trip through the backcountry of Zion.
Gooseberry incorporates technical slickrock and awesome singletrack atop a stunning mesa. Expect a few uphill grinds, but a smorgasbord of turns, quick dips and short climbs too. You can play out here for hours especially as you pause frequently to take in the panoramic views near Zion National Park.
The Mojave Desert/Joshua Tree Backway is a 16-mile loop on a rough gravel and dirt road that comes back out on old U.S. 91 about 2 miles north of the Arizona state line. Views of the Mojave Desert to the south and west are superb, and the Joshua trees finally appear at the southern end.
This one-of-a-kind reserve was established in 1996 to protect a delicate desert ecosystem and the incredible wildlife species within it. It contains endless hiking trails for every ability, and it promises many moments of speechless awe.
- Ashdown Gorge Wilderness
- Cedar Breaks National Monument
- Dark Skies of Bryce Canyon
On the rim of Cedar Breaks National Monument you might find yourself wondering, “What’s out there?” Turns out it’s the Ashdown Gorge in the Dixie National Forest. The Ramparts hike can separate you from the crowd, but you can truly pursue solace in the Ashdown Gorge. Time permitting, continue on to Bryce Canyon and set up camp or book a room in the area for closest access to the park's spectacular dark skies.
This is a varied hike that will have you meandering among high alpine meadows and through narrow limestone passageways. Explore this moderate hike from Cedar Breaks National Monument through Dixie National Forest — hike a little or make a full day of it with a two-car shuttle. Image courtesy Walt Haas on Flickr.
The rim of Cedar Breaks is above 10,000 feet and looks into a natural amphitheater plunging 2,000 feet below, taking your eyes for a colorful ride through arches, hoodoos and canyons. Stunning views are common on these hikes so keep your camera nearby. It’s also a certified Dark Sky Park, which means the nights are like nowhere else.
Bryce Canyon is the ultimate place to experience the splendor of the night sky. Protected by a special force of park rangers and volunteer Utah astronomy enthusiasts, Bryce Canyon is known as the last grand sanctuary of natural darkness and has one of the nation's oldest astronomy programs.
Photo: Prajit Ravindran
- Cathedral Valley Backway
- Cohab Canyon to Grand Wash
- Natural Bridges Dark Skies
Your high-clearance vehicle will get you deep into the backcountry of Capitol Reef, where some of its most iconic sandstone monoliths stand sentry over these peaceful but rugged lands. You can also break from the crowd on the Frying Pan and Cassidy Arch hikes between the popular Cohab Canyon and Grand Wash hikes. Continue to Natural Bridges for a second date with the Milky Way, this time by camping in the world’s first certified International Dark Sky Park.
Solace seekers with wayfinding skills can set out across open backcountry for close-up looks at giant castle-like sandstone formations. A high-clearance vehicle is essential back here. There’s a river ford and some big bumps to negotiate. Go prepared for the unexpected.
Taken individually, the Grand Wash and Cohab Canyon are both excellent out-and-back hikes with distinct trails. Separate yourself from the crowd by combining the two with the Frying Pan Trail, an excellent exploration of the Waterpocket Fold. Arrange a shuttle or add 2.5 miles of hiking up the road.
More than 100,000 people visit Natural Bridges National Monument each year to check out the stunning bridges and hike in cool canyons, but only a handful of them stay through the night to see the area’s most amazing and unique feature: dark skies and glistening, bright stars.
- Muley Point
- Valley of the Gods B&B
- Navajo Spirit Tours
State Route 261 is a wonderful drive. Not only do you get the white-knuckle-inducing switchbacks of the Moki Dugway, a place where large RVs and trailers should not pass, but you get a glance at the lovely Cedar Mesa region of San Juan County. There are lots of trailheads here, or you can grab the aerial view of it all from Muley Point and continue down through Valley of the Gods to your spirit tour of Monument Valley. Overnight in Monument Valley or Bluff.
The Muley Point Overlook has sweeping vistas to the south and includes clear views of the canyons below at sunrise and sunset. From your high vantage point, you’ll see canyons unfolding all the way to Monument Valley. You’ll also lay eyes on the entrenched meanders of the San Juan River.
The only home within the 360,000-acre Cedar Mesa region of San Juan County is this solar and wind-powered historic stone ranch-house. Relax on their large porch in the solitude of the Valley of the Gods or use it as an adventure base camp.
Tour the living landscape of Monument Valley with a Navajo guide and learn about the area’s ancient lore and fascinating geology, then enjoy a spiritual musical performance in a natural amphitheater.
- San Juan River
- Hovenweep National Monument
- Bears Ears National Monument
Here’s a good choice to have to make: Book a day on the San Juan River for the best angle on a number of excellent petroglyphs or take the lonely road to Hovenweep National Monument to peer into an ancient civilization. Regardless, the cliff dwellings of Bears Ears National Monument's Shash Jaa unit found on hikes along S.R. 95 are a must. Overnight in Blanding.
A one-day rafting trip offers a high concentration of Class II rapids and boasts one of the finest collections of petroglyphs in the Southwest. There is also an immaculate ruin and plenty of beaches. Plan at least one extra day for a river trip, though there are longer trips as well.
Hovenweep National Monument is an inspiring place that begs visitors to ask questions about the ancients. 700-year-old and older archaeological sites can be visited by paved and improved dirt roads, but hikes are necessary to fully explore the ruins.
Bears Ears National Monument
- Indian Creek Corridor Scenic Byway
- The Needles Lost Canyon
- The Needles Druid Arch
By way of the Indian Creek unit of Bears Ears National Monument and a stop at Newspaper Rock, the final day takes you into the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. This hiker-friendly landscape offers dozens of incredible trails, many of which are overnighters (with a permit), and will get you far away from the crowds. The even more popular Druid Arch is a solid 10.8-mile day, which means you’ll only hobnob with the dedicated hikers.
Driving down Indian Creek Corridor Scenic Byway (a unit of Bears Ears National Monument) isn't just a way to get to The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. Exploring the byway is an adventure in itself with a fascinating history, awe-inspiring views and some worthy stops along the way.
Lost Canyon is well named. It’s not only the kind of place you could get lost in, it’s so beautiful that it’s also the kind of place you want to get lost in. The 8.6-mile loop requires close attention to trail markers and has an overnight option.
A scenic 10.8-mile day hike or overnight backpack to a spectacular arch, this is one of the top destinations in the Needles District of Canyonlands. There are routes with spurs to Druid Arch, but the out-and-back from Elephant Hill is the most common.