Updated: Feb 26, 2020
Entering the Canyonlands of Utah and Arizona is like stepping into a time machine. It is fitting then that scenes from hit movie Back to the Future III was filmed in Utah. And did you know that the final scene in the classic Hollywood film Thelma and Louise was shot at Dead Horse Point State Park in Utah (not the Grand Canyon in Arizona as the film would have you believe)? In fact there have been loads of movies shot in Utah, particularly cowboy and westerns including; Stagecoach, Billy the Kid, The Searchers, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The canyons of Utah provided great hide outs for outlaws back in the day; such as Robbers Roost, The San Rafael Swell & The Book Cliffs. So whether you're a movie buff, a cowboy and western fan, hiker, mountain biker, canyoneer, nature, rock or dinosaur lover, these lands have something for everyone. And lucky for you (& us), one of the most beautiful drives in America, Scenic Byway 12 links the big 5 Utah National Parks in one incredible drive? Welcome to the Wild Wild West!
We started our Utah experience in Moab, well Green River to be precise. If like us you would rather avoid the hustle and bustle (and prices) of a tourist town, Green River offers a great alternative to Moab, it’s part oasis & part ghost town in the desert and is a great jump off point for visiting Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Dead Horse Point State Park & The San Rafael Swell. We spent 10 days here so that we could spend sufficient time in the National Parks, re-visiting them to do some early morning hiking. We also spent several days mountain biking the Klondike Bluff trails (look out for the Dinosaur footprints!) and Dead Horse Point State Park trails. The Moab area did not disappoint and provided us with our favourite hiking and biking experiences so far.
Driving South from Green River, scenic byway 12 passes directly through Goblin Valley State Park, Capitol Reef National Park, The Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks. It is one epic road trip which you can continue to Lake Powell/Glen Canyon and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. On route, the Escalante Petrified Forest and Snow Canyon State Parks were surprise packages not to be missed. Make sure to stop a few days to explore the area. The best star gazing we have ever experienced was at the Grand Staircase Escalante.
Overall, there are few words that can describe the majestical beauty of this epic and vast landscape, carved by the forces of nature over millions of years it leaves you feeling both awestruck and insignificant as you walk in the footsteps of dinosaurs amongst petrified Jurassic forests. Having now travelled 16 states of America and visited the National Parks & Monuments in each state, we can safely say that Utah wins hands down in terms of best scenery, best mountain biking trails, best hiking and best star gazing in the Mid-West.
Although Utah provided us with some of our best experiences to date, there were a couple of downfalls. Bryce Canyon is spectacular but unfortunately we were unable to hike into the canyon due to stormy weather (which is common in the afternoons, so plan accordingly). Zion is also a beautiful park but most of the trails were closed due to recent landslides so it was a bit of a disappointment, particularly when you have to ride a shuttle bus around the park and you need to arrive before 8am to get a car park. It is extremely popular and this really detracted from the appeal for us as it felt more like an amusement park. We did hike the Narrows but it was very crowded even first thing in the morning. We didn't make it to Glenn Canyon this time around, and opted for the Grand Canyon instead. And of course, a trip to Utah would not be complete without a visit to Antelope Island, Salt Lake City.
Recommended Hiking Trails (allow half a day for each and start early to avoid the sun and the crowds):
Arches National Park, Moab: The Devils Garden is the longest and most impressive maintained trail in the Park, taking you to seven arches in total (7.2 miles or 11.5km round trip). *OUR FAVOURITE hiking trail in Utah*
Canyonlands National Park, Moab: Island in the Sky Grand View Point Trail (Canyon Rim) (2 miles or 3.2 km round trip) which takes you along the rim of the canyon with spectacular panoramic views. *Highlight a little desert mouse climbed up my leg to steal some protein bar. So cute. Whale Rock with views of Upheaval Dome (1 mile or 1.6 km round trip).
Grand Staircase National Monument, Escalante: The Petrified Forest provides an awesome look back to the Jurassic period and the time of the dinosaurs, preserved by volcanic ash for millions of years, the trees now granite and gemstone rocks (2-3 mile loop round trip). Peek-a-Boo slot canyon is a twisting turning narrow slot canyon requiring some rock scrambling and canyoneering skills, not for the claustrophobic (3.5 mile loop). Access via Hole in the Rock road (26 miles). Lower Calf Creek Falls is an easy but hot hike through the canyon which rewards with an impressive waterfall at the end (6.2 miles round trip).
Snow Canyon, St George: Jenny’s Slot Canyon (0.5 miles) and The White Rocks Amphitheatre (4 miles) (at sunset) two easy hikes with impressive that reveal two very different perspectives of snow canyon.
Recommended Mountain Biking Trails (intermediate level)
Klondike Bluff trails (Moab); Dino-Flow (5 miles) and Jurassic (3 miles) one way with linkages possible.
Dead Horse Point State Park trails (Moab); Raven Roll (1.7 mile), Great Pyramid (2.2 mile), *OUR FAVOURITE* Big Chief (3.6 mile) and Crossroads (1.7 mile) one way with linkages possible.
Snow Canyon trails (St George); Paradise Canyon trails; Paradise Rim (1.2 mile), Turtle Wall (1 mile), Chuckwallah (0.8miles)
Rainbow Rim Trail (Kaibab Forest); with impressive views of the North Rim of the Grand Canyon (18 miles) one way. A difficult trail which ended up with me breaking my arm! Ouch. There was no cell service and we were 130 miles from the nearest hospital. It was 10 hours before I was treated. But, watch out for the sunsets, incredible!
Where we stayed:
GnTonefortheroad travel tip:
Prepare for the worst but expect the best. Always carry enough food, water, first aid, gas, sunscreen and spare tires. There is often no cell service and you could be miles away from any services. When the worst happens you could be on your own like we were, so make sure you’re prepared for anything.
Visit the National Parks on weekdays and avoid weekend and public holiday crowds for a better experience
So stay tuned as we #keepitreal #keepexploring #beyond40. For all our up to the minute adventures follow us on facebook, instagram or twitter @gntonefortheroad and feel free to like, share, comment or contact me of more info.