Bryce Canyon National Park & Around
The sorbet-colored, sandcastle-like spires and hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park pop like a Dr Seuss picture book creation. Though the smallest of southern Utah's national parks, this is perhaps the most immediately visually stunning, particularly at sunrise and sunset when an orange wash sets the otherworldly rock formations ablaze.
Zion National Park
Get ready for an overdose of awesome. The soaring red-and-white cliffs of Zion Canyon, one of southern Utah's most dramatic natural wonders, rise high over the Virgin River. Hiking downriver through the Narrows or peering beyond Angels Landing after a 1400ft ascent is indeed amazing.
When the cottonwoods are budding against the red cliffs, Springdale is the perfect little park town, though more frequently, it's a bottleneck of traffic entering Zion National Park. The main drag – well, the only drag – features eclectic cafes, galleries and restaurants touting local produce and organic ingredients.
Nicknamed 'Dixie' for its warm weather and southern location, St George has long been attracting winter residents and retirees. (Brigham Young, second president of the Mormon church, was one of the first snowbirds in the one-time farming community here.) An interesting-if-small historic downtown core, area state parks and a dinosaur-tracks museum hold some attraction.
Vast expanses of rugged desert surround the remote outpost of Kanab. Don't be surprised if it all looks familiar: hundreds of Western movies were shot here. Founded by Mormon pioneers in 1874, Kanab was put on the map by John Wayne and other gun-slingin' celebs in the 1940s and '50s.
This sleepy college town comes to life every summer when the Shakespeare festival takes over. Associated events, plays and tours continue into fall. Year-round you can make one of the many B&Bs a quiet homebase for exploring the Kolob Canyons section of Zion National Park or Cedar Breaks National Monument.
With shy pioneer charm and quiet streets backed by red-rock cliffs, Torrey is a relaxing stop. A former logging and ranching center, its mainstay now is outdoor tourism. Capitol Reef National Park is only 11 miles east, Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument is 40 miles south and national forests surround the town.
Capitol Reef National Park
Native Americans once called this colorful landscape of tilted buttes, jumbled rocks and sedimentary canyons the Land of the Sleeping Rainbow. The park's centerpiece is Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile-long monocline (a buckle in the Earth's crust) that blocked explorers' westward migration as a reef blocks a ship's passage.
Your gateway to the north side of the GSENM, Escalante is a mix of ranchers, old-timers, artists and post-monument-creation outdoors lovers. The town itself doesn't exude character, but a friendly selection of lodgings and restaurants make it a decent base camp. Numerous outfitters make this their base for hiking excursions, and you could, too.
A tiny slice of heaven and a great base to explore the surrounding desert wilderness. Until 1940, this isolated outpost received its mail by mule – it's still so remote that the federal government classifies it as a 'frontier community.' Its diverse population includes artists, ecologists. farmers and cowboys.
Arguably Utah's most diverse and stunning route, Hwy 12 Scenic Byway winds through rugged canyonland, from near Capitol Reef southeast past Bryce Canyon – linking several national parks on a 124-mile journey. See how quickly and dramatically the land changes from wooded plateau to red-rock canyon, from slickrock desert to alpine forest, as it climbs over an 11,000ft mountain.
The highest town in Utah, Brian Head towers over Cedar City, 35 miles southwest. 'Town' is a bit of an overstatement, though: this is basically a big resort. From Thanksgiving through April, snow bunnies come to test the closest slopes to Las Vegas (200 miles). Snowmobiling in winter and mountain-biking in summer are also popular.
Hwy 89 - Panguitch to Kanab
Most people pass through this stretch of Hwy 89 as quickly as possible en route from Zion to Bryce national parks. All the better for you – the tiny old towns along the way have a few restaurant and lodging gems hidden within. (Note that businesses' seasonal closings change with weather and whim.