Start: Salt Lake City | Driving to first destination: about 3 hours
Required: High-clearance, 4WD vehicle, wayfinding skills and self-sufficiency
Extras: Plan an urban day in Salt Lake and shower days or overnights along the way
Willing to bring a sleeping bag and leave the pavement behind every once in a while? If you can handle getting your car a little dusty (oh, and have a well-maintained, high-clearance vehicle), this five- or six-day itinerary will put you smack dab in the middle of the great outdoors. And with 300 days of sunshine a year, Southern Utah offers a pretty dang good chance of perfect camping weather. And the best part? This itinerary is designed for budget-conscious travelers.
Just make sure you come prepared because some of the stops along the way are backcountry in the truest sense of the word.
We like spending a day in Salt Lake City to kick off this trip — the Natural History Museum of Utah to learn the geological ropes followed by a night out on the town. Then, start your road trip in the canyons and mountains around Capitol Reef National Park. You’ll see everything from towering monoliths and stark desert landscapes to alpine meadows and panoramic vistas. You can scramble to the top of cliffs, hike through the river in a slot canyon, or explore the many lakes of a high plateau. You’ll even find some of the most scenic and popular fishing spots in the state.
The second half of your trip unfolds around Goblin Valley and the San Rafael Swell in some of the most ruggedly beautiful terrain in the world — a jumble of incredible buttes, pinnacles, canyons and mesas. You’ll have opportunities to tackle more slot canyons, off-road to hidden arches, climb 500-foot slabs of slickrock, or just enjoy a lifetime’s worth of views from the comfort of your car.
- Top Salt Lake City Hikes
- An Afternoon at the Natural History Museum
- Musical Tour of SLC
Below are a few stories and ideas to introduce you to Utah's capital city and flesh out your itinerary, whether you stay in the city or explore its backyard mountains. For this itinerary, a trip to the Natural History Museum of Utah is a must. There's a reason why it's known as the "trailhead to Utah." And while you're in Salt Lake, be sure to hit one of the city's "backyard" hikes. As for the nightlife, watch Salt of Sound in the Musical Tour to get a taste of the city's live music scene.
Oh, and here's a pro tip: As you're navigating the city (walking, bike share, taxi, Uber, Lyft, public transit or car), if you know that part of Temple Square is essentially (0,0) on the grid, each street heading north or south adds 100 and each street heading east or west adds 100. Thus, nine blocks south and nine blocks east you'll be at 900 South and 900 East, locally known as 9th and 9th. (Read about more Salt Lake City neighborhoods and browse accommodations here.)
It's about three hours to the Fish Lake area, so an overnight in Salt Lake City is appropriate, depending on your Salt Lake agenda.
These Salt Lake City hiking and cycling destinations lead into the depths of the glorious, desert mountains and the respite they offer.
Spanning five floors and tucked along the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains, the museum is adjacent to Red Butte Garden, the Intermountain West’s largest botanical garden and part of the University of Utah campus. Follow the author on an afternoon at the Natural History Museum of Utah.
Follow "Bad" Brad Wheeler in the video The Salt of Sound where he tours some of his favorite music venues in downtown Salt Lake City, and plays some blues along the way.
- Fishlake Loop Scenic Drive
- Thousand Lake Mountain
- Cathedral Valley Backway
About 200 miles south of Salt Lake, leave the interstate for the Fishlake Loop, a paved scenic byway that is worth the drive alone. But we’ll soon leave the pavement for the gravel roads of Thousand Lakes Mountain and the Cathedral Valley Scenic Backway of Capitol Reef National Park. If you don’t have a high-clearance vehicle, you’ll have to skip Cathedral Valley and return down Thousand Lakes for the paved route. Regardless, road conditions could be challenging during spring visits or trips after heavy rain. Check at the visitor center for current conditions.
This road trip through lush mountain scenery and high sagebrush flats is highlighted by a visit to a very pretty alpine lake. There are several unpaved spur options to explore (including Thousand Lake Mountain), lodges, campgrounds and the Lakeshore National Recreation Area, home to Pando, the world’s heaviest organism.
You can drive Thousand Lake Mountain Road, a 35-mile scenic backway, from Fremont all the way through the Cathedral Valley section of Capitol Reef. Explore remote lakes and stand in awe surrounded by aspens. Don’t miss the Deep Creek Desert overlook.
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.
- Cohab Canyon to Grand Wash
- Hickman Bridge + Navajo Knobs
- Sulphur Creek
Today is a full day dedicated to the best hikes of Capitol Reef National Park. Well-conditioned and prepared hikers who start early may be able to tackle the lot, but Navajo Knobs itself is a 9.5-mile round-trip journey that climbs more than 1,500 feet. Regardless, if conditions permit, you’ll appreciate the cooling waters of the Sulpur Creek Trail as you scramble down the canyon back to your campsite after a full day of hiking. Camp in Capitol Reef or book a room in Torrey for a mid-trip mattress and shower.
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.
These front country hikes in Capitol Reef National Park lead to amazing rock formations and panoramic views of Southeastern Utah. Hickman Bridge is a short out-and-back (about 2 miles). The Rim Overlook and/or Navajo Knobs add 2.3 and 4.7 miles (one-way), respectively, for an elevated 360º panoramic view of Capitol Reef’s tilted landscapes.
The perennial Sulphur Creek has cut a deep canyon that passes through the oldest exposed rocks at Capitol Reef. The difficult, but not technical, 5.5-mile one-way hike is best completed with shuttle vehicles. Check conditions at the visitor center and carry a map. Route conditions vary with weather. Image courtesy James St. John.
- Boulder Mountain
- Burr Trail-Notom Road
- Little Wild Horse to Ding & Dang
Today completes a full-day backcountry loop through a defining feature of Capitol Reef: the Waterpocket Fold. Turn down the All-American Road Scenic Byway 12 and consider a stop to explore the expansive timbered plateau of Boulder Mountain. At Boulder, veer east down the Burr Trail. It starts paved then turns to gravel before dropping down some eye-popping switchbacks into the national park. Turn north on Notom Road to complete your backcountry tour of Capitol Reef. Back on S.R. 24 you’ll head northeast toward the San Rafael Swell’s introduction to canyoneering: Little Wild Horse and Ding and Dang canyons.
Dotted with high alpine lakes full of fish begging to be caught, this family-friendly destination is the perfect place to stretch your legs and dip your toes during your road trip. Fishing not your thing? Take a hike (literally) on one of the four major trails that offer short, steep ascents up the mountain.
The Burr Trail Scenic Backway is one of the most picturesque drives in Utah. A paved and graded gravel and dirt road passing through slickrock mountains and sandstone dunes, it extends from Boulder to Bullfrog Marina with a spur north through Capitol Reef on the Notom Road.
Little Wild Horse Canyon is a well-known classic and is a perfect intro to canyoneering for most ages and anyone in reasonable shape. Its trailhead is located 5 miles west of the Goblin Valley visitor center along an improved dirt road. Nearby Ding and Dang Canyons take it up a notch.
- McKay Flat to Hondu Arch Backway
- Hike the Little Grand Canyon
- San Rafael Swell
The San Rafael Swell is a 70 by 40-mile geological upheaval located in Southeastern Utah. Relentless forces of erosion have cut, shaped and formed the land over thousands of years into a crazy assembly of sandstone buttresses, canyons and plateaus. This is your destination today. Start with a backcountry tour of the southern part of the swell then head north for the grand view of the Little Grand Canyon from the Wedge Overlook. Tempting, right? It’s a good hike. There’s a short option on nearby Buckhorn Draw or you could use this whole day and a car shuttle to hike the whole 14 miles.
These unpaved roads travel through the southern half of the San Rafael Swell and allow travelers to get deep in the region to explore it up close. The journey will take you past fierce, beautiful landscapes with rock towers, mesas and arches that expose the colorful rock layers of the Swell.
The Little Grand Canyon is a centerpiece of the San Rafael Swell. A great day hike begins at the end of the unpaved Buckhorn Draw Road, following the river about three miles to Cane Wash. With extra time and a shuttle car, hike even further and camp under the stars.
The Wedge Overlook is a good place to begin exploring the northern Swell. The view from here offers a bird’s-eye perspective of the Little Grand Canyon, a 14-mile path cut by the San Rafael River. This 1,000-foot deep gorge reveals towering sandstone cliffs that overlook the lush canyon floor.
- Kane Creek Road
- Potash–Lower Colorado Drive
- Fisher Towers
No outdoor trip in Utah is complete without a visit to the Moab area. If you wish, explore the two national parks that happen to be in the neighborhood. But this itinerary pushes you off the beaten path, exploring both sides of the Lower Colorado River on Kane Creek and the Potash Road before heading northeast along the Upper Colorado River toward Fisher Towers, one of the BLM’s premier hikes.
A fun diversion just outside the Moab bustle, the partially unpaved Kane Creek Road is a little desert treasure filled with magic, history and adventure. Check out Moonflower Canyon, camp on BLM land, or haul the bikes back to access the famed Amasa Back mountain biking trail.
If Arches is just the first stop on a bigger national park vacation, take the quieter 17-mile scenic byway of the Lower Colorado-Potash Road between Moab and the outer boundary of Canyonlands National Park. This road follows the winding path of the Colorado River, and has many places to stop and view native petroglyphs, fossilized dinosaur tracks and even more arches.
The Fisher Towers are centerpieces of one of Southeastern Utah’s most bizarre landscapes. The 2.6-mile trail twists through the towers, dipping into sharp canyons and traversing beneath vertical cliffs to its far southern terminus, forming a 5.2-mile round-trip hike.