Canyonlands National Park
A 527-sq-mile vision of ancient earth, Canyonlands National Park is Utah's largest national park. Vast serpentine canyons tipped with white cliffs loom high over the Colorado and Green Rivers, their waters a stunning 1000ft below the rim rock. Skyward-jutting needles and spires, deep craters, blue-hued mesas and majestic buttes dot the landscape.
From Mexican Hat, Hwy 163 winds southwest and enters the Navajo Reservation and – after 22 miles – Monument Valley, on the Arizona state line. Though you'll recognize it instantly from TV commercials and Hollywood movies (it was where Forrest Gump stopped his cross-country run), nothing compares with seeing the sheer chocolate-red buttes and colossal mesas for real.
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area & Lake Powell
In the 1960s the construction of a massive dam flooded Glen Canyon, forming Lake Powell, a recreational playground. Almost 50 years later this is still an environmental hot-button topic, but generations of Western families have grown up boating here.
Canyonlands – Island in the Sky
You'll comprehend space in new ways atop the appropriately named Island in the Sky. This 6000ft-high flat-topped mesa drops precipitously on all sides, providing some of the longest, most enthralling vistas of any park in southern Utah. The 11,500ft Henry Mountains bookend panoramic views in the west, and the 12,700ft La Sal Mountains are to the east.
En route between Bluff (22 miles) and Moab (75 miles), is this aptly-named agricultural and mining center. It's worth checking out for its two specialized museums and the nearby outdoors, though it's slim pickings for hotels and restaurants (which do not serve alcohol). At the Blanding Visitor Center the small pioneer artifact collection is worth a look.
Canyonlands – Horseshoe Canyon
Way far west of Island in the Sky, Horseshoe Canyon shelters one of the most impressive collections of millennia-old rock art in the Southwest. The centerpiece is the Great Gallery and its haunting Barrier Canyon-style pictographs from between 2000 BC and AD 500. The heroic, bigger-than-life-size figures are magnificent. Artifacts recovered here date back as far as 9000 BC.
Dead Horse Point State Park
The views at Dead Horse Point pack a wallop, extending 2000ft down to the winding Colorado River, up to La Sal Mountains' 12,700ft peaks and out 100 miles across Canyonlands' mesmerizing stair-step landscape. (You might remember it from the final scene of Thelma & Louise, where they drove off into the abyss.) If you thrive on rare, epic views, you're gonna love Dead Horse.
The settlement of Mexican Hat is named after a sombrero-shaped rock off Hwy 163. The town is little more than a handful of simple, somewhat uninspired lodgings, a couple of places to eat and a store or two on the north bank of the San Juan River. The south bank marks the edge of the Navajo Reservation. Monument Valley is 20 miles to the south; Bluff is 27 miles to the east.
Goblin Valley State Park & Around
A Salvador Dalí–esque melted-rock fantasy, a valley of giant stone mushrooms, an otherworldly alien landscape or the results of a cosmological acid trip? No matter what you think the stadium-like valley of stunted hoodoos resembles, one thing's for sure: the 3654-acre Goblin Valley State Park is just plain fun.
Canyonlands – The Maze
A 30-sq-mile jumble of high-walled canyons, the Maze is a rare preserve of true wilderness for hardy backcountry veterans. The colorful canyons are rugged, deep and sometimes completely inaccessible. Many of them look alike and it's easy to get turned around – hence the district's name. (Think topographic maps and GPS.