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Trip Planner: Where to Go in Southern Utah

Southern Utah is an outdoor playland rife of national parks to explore. Don’t expect the same old, same old from each one, either; while there’s plenty of hiking, camping, and scenic vistas in all the parks, the pink sandstone hoodoos of Bryce are vastly different from the strange wrinkle of rock covering miles and miles of ground in Capitol Reef, which are different again from the stone arches of the aptly-named Arches National Park.

Zion & Bryce travel maps by region.
Zion & Bryce travel maps by region. Check out Moon’s gallery of free Utah maps.

Zion National Park

In Zion National Park, hiking trails lead up narrow canyons cut into massive stone cliffs, passing quiet pools of water and hanging gardens. The park’s main canyon, carved by the Virgin River, is an easy place to find a day hike; however, the rest of the park’s canyons are the province of canyoneers and long-distance hikers.

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon has famous vistas across an eroded amphitheater of pink sandstone hoodoos. Short trails lead down from the canyon edge into a wonderland of fanciful formations and outcrops, and you’ll have quite a different experience from the amateur photographers perched along the rim if you venture into the park’s backcountry.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Grand Staircase preserves some of the Southwest’s best canyon hiking. Numerous day hikes and long-distance hiking trails follow the slot canyons of the Escalante River. Mountain bikers can head down the Hole-in-the-Rock Road or the Burr Trail to visit some of the same landscape via jeep road; even cruising scenic Highway 12 in a car is an eye-popping experience.

Fremont River flows through red rock with sandstone mountains rising in Capitol Reef National Park.
Fremont River in Capitol Reef National Park. Photo © William Perry/123rf.

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef preserves a vast wrinkle of rock called the Waterpocket Fold, which buckles up into a vertical barricade across more than 100 miles of southeast Utah. Of the few canyons that penetrate Waterpocket Fold, the Fremont River Canyon is most accessible along Highway 24. Ancient petroglyphs, pioneer farms and orchards, and soaring rock formations extend the length of the canyon. A paved scenic highway explores more canyons along the fold’s western face. The rest of the park is remote backcountryjust the way hikers and backpackers like it.

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park is made up of four sections: the River District, containing the canyons of the Colorado and Green Rivers; the Needles District, with hiking trails and backcountry roads through a standing-rock desert; the Maze District, a remote area filled with geologic curiosities and labyrinthine canyons; and the Island in the Sky District, a flat-topped mesa that overlooks the rest. A separate area, the Horseshoe Canyon Unit, lies to the west and contains a significant cache of prehistoric rock art.

Arches National Park

Just up the road from Moab is Arches National Park, with its famous rock bridges. Arches is a great family park: It’s not too large and there are lots of accessible hikes to explore. Unlike other Utah national parks, there’s plenty to see even if you can’t get out of the car and hike. Be sure to hike the Windows Section, a series of arches and rock fins at the center of the park, and to Delicate Arch, overlooking the Colorado River.

Travel map of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks in Utah
Arches and Canyonlands

Moab

At the heart of Utah’s slickrock country, Moab is the recreation capital of southeastern Utah. Although mountain biking put Moab on the map, old mining roads make four-wheel-driving an increasingly popular alternative. Arches National Park is just minutes from downtown, and Canyonlands’ districts are an easy drive from Moab. But Moab is a destination in itself: a youthful, high-energy town that offers good restaurants, brewpubs, and coffee shops.

The Southeastern Corner

Although Arches and Canyonlands National Parks get most of the attention from first-time visitors, veterans of the area know that southeastern Utah has abundant other wonders in national recreation areas, national monuments, and state parks. After you have explored the national parks, take time to visit such fascinating destinations as Natural Bridges and Hovenweep National Monuments, Dead Horse Point State Park, and the lovely alpine glades of Manti-La Sal National Forest.


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