It Pays to Go Deep in Southern Utah
Expert recommendations for extended adventuring around each of southern Utah's Mighty 5 national parks
Southern Utah has enough panoramic mountain views, striking red-rock formations, and dark-sky zones for a lifetime of adventure. But sometimes it’s better to settle in to explore one place than try to do everything in one trip. We asked a couple of adventurers who love southern Utah to share their favorite spots for going beyond the parks, and staying for a week or longer.
Beyond Bryce Canyon and Zion
For a week of exploring around Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, head to St. George, where you can camp within a short drive of hundreds of miles of hiking and mountain-biking trails. “Our national parks are stunning but I have a soft spot for the many state parks in Utah,” says Nailah Blades Wylie, a Salt Lake City–based adventure coach and founder of Color Outside, which runs adventure retreats for women of color. One of Blades Wylie’s favorites is Snow Canyon; the trails there wind through striking red rock, and streams of black lava are frozen in time against the canyon walls. Another one of this corner’s lesser known gems is Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, where you can hike or go four-wheeling among pink dunes formed over the last 10,000 to 15,000 years by eroding Navajo Sandstone cliffs. You’ll also want to spend days at Red Cliffs Desert Reserve marveling at the distinctive landscapes that cover the intersection of the Mojave Desert, the Great Basin, and the Colorado Plateau.
Whether you want to cook all your own meals at your campsite or eat out at excellent restaurants like wood-ash-rye at The Advenire hotel, you’ll find it easy to support small local businesses in the Greater Zion area.
Beyond Capitol Reef
The Capitol Reef Region is a relatively uncrowded landscape with seemingly endless public land to explore. The town of Torrey—an official International Dark Sky Community—is just a 15-minute drive from Capitol Reef National Park and a great base camp for exploration. Erin Parisi, a Mammut ambassador who travels with her partner and nine-year-old daughter with a teardrop trailer, suggests snagging a campsite in Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. “There are plenty of options to contemplate in this martian landscape,” she says. “If you’re just passing through, Goblin Valley State Park, famous for wind-shaped rock formations called hoodoos, is a popular stop for families, and it has extensive short hikes. And if you’ve got a climbing rope, The Goblin’s Lair hike is two-plus miles with a family-friendly rappel and hill after hill for a nine-year-old to burn off energy before the car ride home.” Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is also within easy driving distance of Grand Staircase and offers plenty of opportunities to cool off in Lake Powell with watersports you might not expect to find amid Utah’s high-desert landscapes.
Beyond Arches and Canyonlands
Professional climber Erin Parisi says her favorite thing about southern Utah is the way “the landscapes transform from lush riverscape to shaded slot canyons to desert all in a short drive.” For a week in the Arches and Canyonlands region, the Mammut athlete and founder of the outdoor-adventure transgender advocacy group TranSending recommends starting in Green River at the foot of Desolation Canyon Wilderness. “Swasey’s Beach has developed camping and a great beach,” she says.
From there, head to the lesser-visited west side of Canyonlands National Park for a guided 4×4 tour with NAVTEC Expeditions. Parisi suggests spending ample time in the Bears Ears National Monument area, with a scenic drive through Valley of the Gods and visits to Goosenecks State Park and Natural Bridges National Monument—both of which are certified by the International Dark-Sky Association. Back up near Moab, Parisi suggests exploring gems south of town like Looking Glass Arch.
Looking for more adventure intel? Head over to Beyond the Parks, our interactive and in-depth guide to getting off the beaten path in southern Utah.
The wild canyons and mountains of southern Utah have been around for over 2.6 billion years, and we want to protect them for a few billion more. Do your part by following our Forever Mighty travel ethic.