Story and photos by Jeff and Stephanie Sylva
Well-known parks and recreational areas like Lake Powell, Monument Valley, Arches, Bryce and Zion National Parks have long been popular destinations in southern Utah. However, we discovered that southern Utah also contains numerous other parks and recreational areas with fewer crowds and all the scenic wonders and adventure activities of the more well-known destinations.
Discover Utah’s best kept secrets
One of the least crowded yet most surprising of Utah’s five National Parks – Utah’s “Mighty 5” – is Capitol Reef National Park, so named for its soaring white Navajo sandstone domes and nearly impassable ridges (sometimes called reefs). Capitol Reef preserves a geological wonder, the Waterpocket Fold, as well as its myriad colorful cliffs, massive domes, soaring spires, stark monoliths, twisting canyons, and graceful arches. Native American inhabitants called the area “Land of the Sleeping Rainbow.”Motorists driving the east-west highway Utah 24, as it follows the serpentine Fremont River, will pass through the park and witness some of its awe-inspiring sites like Capitol Dome and Navajo Dome, Chimney Rock, The Castle and the Fruita Historic District. Those who fail to stop and spend a few days exploring Capitol Reef NP can’t really claim to have visited this diverse natural region.
We spent three days exploring Capitol Reef’s more accessible scenic spots as well as some of its fabulous backcountry. The 20-mile round-trip Scenic Drive starts at the Visitor Center and passes along the Park’s brilliantly colored cliffs. Two unpaved spur roads (suitable for passenger cars) took us into Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge, deep and twisting, water-carved, sheer-walled canyons. We also spent the better part of a day driving backcountry roads (a high-clearance vehicle is recommended) into Cathedral Valley for some awesome views of Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon, two unusually shaped monoliths; the beautiful rock formations of Cathedral Valley; and stunning views of the eastern desert region.
A hiker’s paradise
Another day we enjoyed a hike into Cohab Canyon, a moderate hike with numerous spur trails and overlooks. We also had fun exploring some of the small slot canyons in Cohab Canyon. Numerous other trails to overlooks, remote canyons, natural arches and bridges, and even some ancient petroglyphs, make Capitol Reef NP a hiker’s paradise. The park has maintained some of the natural and cultural resources of the historic Mormon settlement of Fuita, which is listed on the National Register of Historical Places. A few of the early structures as well as the fruit orchards have been preserved. Visitors are invited to pick fresh fruit from the orchards at harvest time.
The scenic diversity of Capitol Reef Country makes the region a great multi-day vacation destination during any season. The Highlands zone, in the western section of Capitol Reef Country, ranges in elevation from 7,000 to over 11,000 feet, offering a wealth of year-round activities in its forests, lakes, streams and open plains. Dixie National Forest and Fishlake National Forest offer excellent opportunities for fishing, hiking, ATV riding, mountain biking, hunting, sight-seeing, and camping.The East Desert zone encompasses unique desert landscapes with terrain that is similar to the planet Mars or the Moon. Exploring some of the ATV/4WD trails will bring you to some “out of this world” landscapes very similar to that found on Mars, or back in time to sites were dinosaur fossils have been found in large quantities.
A visit to Golbin Valley, a much-used movie location, reveals a unique assortment of thousands of nobs, pillars, and goblin-shaped rock formations. The Factory Butte area is one of the most extensive and spectacular badlands areas in North America, and the region near Hanksville is known for its numerous slot canyons.
As remote as this region may be, a number of fine accommodations and dining choices are available, particularly in the town of Torrey, located at the crossroads of Scenic Byways Route 24 and Route 12. We stayed at the recently renovated Broken Spur Inn and Steakhouse and loved having the indoor pool and hot tub to relax in after a day of hiking.
A great dining choice is Café Diablo, which offers outdoor dining on its patio or indoors in the café’s local art gallery. Café Diablo’s self-professed “innovative southwestern” cuisine highlights the chef’s use of home-grown herbs, vegetables, and fruits, as well as locally produced meats and dairy products to reflect his strong belief that food has a relation to the area in which it is produced. After a pleasant evening of dining, we would certainly agree that Café Diablo’s outstanding cuisine is a perfect reflection of the area’s beautiful natural surroundings.
America’s beautiful roads
One of the great things about traveling in southern Utah is that the journey is an extraordinary experience unto itself. This is no more evident than driving Scenic Byway 12 – one of the 20 All-American Roads so designated because they are a destination unto itself. From high alpine forests to wondrous red rock formations and canyons, and on to open sagebrush flats and remains of ancient sea beds, Scenic Byway 12 travels through some of the most diverse, remote, and ruggedly beautiful landscapes in the country. In addition to the numerous overlooks and viewpoints along the highway, many unique and interesting attractions and towns beckon the traveler seeking memorable experiences. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument’s vast and austere landscape is an unspoiled natural area offering unlimited outdoor adventure. (This rugged, remote area was the last place in the continental United States to be mapped.)
Numerous outfitters are available for canyoneering, hiking, and backpacking tours, especially in the town of Escalante. The folks at Escalante Outfitters can provide you with just about anything you may need to experience the unspoiled wonder of this National Monument. Nathan Waggoner is also an outstanding fly fishing guide, as this area also has some pristine spots for casting. BTW – Escalante Outfitters also serves some great pizza and sandwiches in its café.
Other stops along Scenic Byway 12 include Boulder Town, long known as the “last frontier in Utah,” and
Anasazi State Park Museum; Calf Creek Recreation Area ( a moderate hike takes you to a wonderful waterfall and placid swimming hole); Kodachrome Basin State Park, famous for its series of russet-hued cylindrical chimneys called sand pipes that remarkably contrast against the deep blue Utah sky; and a number of Scenic Backways, like Hell’s Backbone and Cottonwood Canyon, backcountry roads suitable for high-clearance and/or 4WD vehicles that will take you even further into the remoteness of this protected wilderness.Even a coffee break along Rt. 12 can be an experience with a stop at Kiva Koffeehouse. The uniquely designed building offers some outstanding views of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Overnight stays are available in the Kiva Kottage in one of its two rooms with Jacuzzi tub, fireplace, and spectacular views.
A land like no other
Kodachrome Basin and its sand pipes were a precursor to what we experienced just a short drive west on Rt. 12 – the breathtaking landscape of Bryce Canyon National Park. Bryce’s most captivating features are its fairy tale castle-like rock formations known as hoodoos. With a palette of infinite colors, these standing stone towers create an amphitheater of natural treasures unlike anything else in the world.
Bryce Canyon is an easy park to explore with numerous overlooks along the main park road, an 18-mile drive with free shuttle bus service in the Bryce Amphitheater area. The Rim Trail, a round-trip hike of 11 miles, is a great way to experience the beauty of Bryce. Do what we did; hike one way and take the Park Service shuttle bus back to your starting point. A number of other great hikes, like the Navajo Loop/Queen’s Garden Trail, take hikers down into the canyon among the captivating hoodoos and stunning canyon walls. Staying at Bryce Canyon NP is easy, but getting accommodations at the Bryce Canyon Lodge can be difficult, as they book quickly. We stayed at the Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel, a more upscale hotel located just a mile from the park entrance. The Grand Hotel is part of Ruby’s Inn Best Western Plus hospitality complex, which has been hosting visitors to Bryce since 1916.
Ruby’s Inn offers a long list of amenities and activities such as horseback trail rides, ATV tours, mountain biking, ice skating and cross-country skiing in season, and even a rodeo and Western Dinner Show. We took an enjoyable horseback ride through the beautiful red rocks of Red Canyon. Trail rides into Bryce Canyon are available with Canyon Trail Rides.
A great choice for dinner that is just a few miles away is Bryce Canyon Pines. Serving hearty, homemade meals in the best Western fashion, “The Pines” is world famous for its homemade soups and outstanding pies.
Remote, yet accessible
For more information about the many natural wonders to experience in southern Utah’s Wayne and Garfield Counties, visit their websites. As rugged and remote as Bryce Canyon Country and Capitol Reef Country can be, getting there is easy, as they are easily accessible from a number of major cities such as Salt Lake City, Denver, and Las Vegas.