Wonder at the deep-crimson canyons of Zion National Park; hike among the delicate pink-and-orange minarets at Bryce Canyon; drive past the swirling gray-white-and-purple mounds of Capitol Reef. Southwestern Utah is so spectacular that the vast majority of the territory has been preserved as national park or forest, state park or BLM wilderness. Rugged and remote Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument (GSENM) is larger than Rhode Island and Delaware put together, or at least it was before President Trump issued a proclamation in 2017 that reduced its size nearly in half. Nevertheless, the area remains ripe for outdoor exploration, with narrow slot canyons to shoulder through, pink sand dunes to scale and wavelike sandstone formations to seek out.
Note that getting to some of the most noteworthy sites can be quite an uphill hike, and elevation changes in the region – mountainous highs to desert lows – pose a weather challenge.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Southwestern Utah.
If you stop nowhere else along the scenic drive, be sure to catch the stunning views from Bryce Point. You can walk the rim above Bryce Amphitheater for awesome views of the Silent City, an assemblage of hoodoos so dense, gigantic and hypnotic that you’ll surely begin to see shapes of figures frozen in the rock. Be sure to follow the path to the actual point, a fenced-in promontory that juts out over the forested canyon floor, 1000ft below.
The Grand Staircase – a series of steplike uplifted rock layers stretching north from the Grand Canyon – dramatically culminates in the Pink Cliffs formation at Bryce Canyon National Park. These cliffs were deposited as sediment in a huge prehistoric lake some 50 to 60 million years ago, slowly lifted above sea level, then eroded into wondrous ranks of pinnacles and points, steeples and spires, cliffs and crevices, and oddly shaped hoodoos.
Termed 'the land of the sleeping rainbow' by Native Americans, this colorful desert landscape encompasses buttes and canyons replete with rock art, Mormon history and hiking trails. Though less famous than other Utah parks, it's well worth visiting.
Kanab's most famous attraction is outside town. Surrounded by more than 33,000 mostly private acres of red-rock desert 5.5 miles north of Kanab, Best Friends is the largest no-kill animal rescue center in the country. The center shows films and gives facility tours at least four times a day; call ahead for times and reservations. The 1½-hour tours let you meet some of the more than 1700 horses, pigs, dogs, cats, birds and other critters on-site.
A bold desert beauty, this 230-sq-mile park is a highlight of southern Utah. Hikes range from trails traipsing the ridge lines to river wading under steep canyon walls. Many come for a canyoneering experience but there are also family friendly hikes and scenic drives. If possible, enter Zion from the east, following Hwy 9 west from Hwy 89. The route is jaw-droppingly scenic as it rolls through colorful red rocks and a gallery-dotted tunnel before switchbacking 3.5 miles into the canyon.
Red and white swirls of sandstone flow like lava, and actual lava lies broken like sheets of smashed marble in this small, accessible park. Snow Canyon is a 7400-acre sampler of southwest Utah's famous land features, 11 miles northwest of St George. Easy trails, perfect for kids, lead to tiny slot canyons, cinder cones, lava tubes and fields of undulating slickrock. Summers are blazing hot: visit in early morning or come in spring or fall.
This 2656-sq-mile monument, established in 1996, is tucked between Bryce Canyon National Park, Capitol Reef National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Tourist infrastructure is minimal, leaving a vast, remote desert for adventurous travelers who have the time and necessary outdoor equipment to explore. In December 2017, President Trump used a controversial executive order to alter the borders of the park, reducing its size to 1568 sq miles.
Sculpted cliffs and towering hoodoos glow like neon tie-dye in a wildly eroded natural amphitheater encompassed by Cedar Breaks National Monument. The majestic kaleidoscope of magenta, salmon, plum, rust and ocher rises to 10,450ft atop the Markagunt Plateau. The compact park lies 22 miles east and north of Cedar City, off Hwy 14. There are no cedar trees here, by the way: early pioneers mistook the evergreen junipers for cedars.
Fruita (froo -tuh) is a cool, green oasis, where shade-giving cottonwoods and fruit-bearing trees line the Fremont River's banks. The first Mormon homesteaders arrived here in 1879; Fruita's final resident left in 1969. Among the historic buildings, the NPS maintains 3000 cherry, apricot, peach, pear and apple trees planted by early settlers. Visit between June and October to pluck ripe fruit from the trees, for free, from any unlocked orchard. Pick only mature fruit; leave the rest to ripen.