Experience the earth's beauty at its most elemental in this rocky-and-rugged desert corner of the Colorado Plateau. Beyond the few pine-clad mountains, there's little vegetation to hide the impressive handiwork of time, water and wind: the thousands of red-rock spans in Arches National Park, the sheer-walled river gorges from Canyonlands to Lake Powell, and the stunning buttes and mesas of Monument Valley. The town of Moab is the best base for adventure, with as much four-wheeling, white-knuckle rafting, outfitter-guided fun as you can handle. Or you can lose the crowd while looking for Ancestral Puebloan rock art and dwellings in miles of isolated and undeveloped lands.
Note that many regional restaurants and shops – and even some motels – close or have variable hours after the May to late-October high season.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Southeastern Utah.
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. A few trails lead from the overlooks down to the valley floor. You can climb down, around and even over the evocative ‘goblins’ (2ft to 20ft–tall formations). Kids and photographers especially love it.
Covering 527 sq miles, Canyonlands is Utah's largest and wildest park. Indeed, parts of it are as rugged as almost anywhere on the planet. Arches, bridges, needles, spires, craters, mesas, buttes – Canyonlands is a crumbling, decaying beauty, a vision of ancient earth. The park has four distinct districts separated by the Green and Colorado Rivers: Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze and Horseshoe Canyon, each must be visited independently as they are not linked by road.
One of the Southwest's most gorgeous parks, Arches boasts the world's greatest concentration of sandstone arches. Just 5 miles north of Moab on Hwy 191, the park is extremely packed in summer. Consider a sunrise or moonlight exploration, when it's cooler and the rocks feel ghostly. Many arches are easily reached by paved roads and relatively short hiking trails.
Up and over, through and around: the 17-mile unpaved road (County Rd 242) that leads through Valley of the Gods is like a do-it-yourself roller coaster amid some mind-blowing scenery. In other states, this incredible butte-filled valley would be a national park, but such are the riches of Utah that here it is merely a BLM-administered area. Locals call it 'mini–Monument Valley.'
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. Here you can stand beneath a sparkling blue sky and watch thunderheads inundating far-off regions while you contemplate applying more sunscreen.
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.) Rocky roads absolutely necessitate reliable, high-clearance 4WD vehicles. Plan on spending at least three days, though a week is ideal.
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.
Blanding's Dinosaur Museum is fascinating and highly ambitious; it's aim is to cover the complete history of the world’s dinosaurs. Mummified remains and fossil replicas go a long way toward this goal, but most interesting is the collection of dinosaur-movie-related memorabilia.
Designated as a National Monument in December 2016 as one of President Barack Obama's last acts, Bears Ears originally covered a large 1.35-million-acre swath of southeastern Utah. The area protects important sites of cultural significance to Native American peoples, with ancient rock art, dwellings, ceremonial sites and granaries in a landscape of mesas and desert canyons. However, in December 2017 President Donald Trump issued a controversial proclamation that reduces the monument's size by a whopping 85% to 201,876 acres.