This is why you've come to Utah. Labyrinthine canyons, red rock spires, moonlit desert arches and slickrock playgrounds. It doesn't matter if you're a couch potato or hardcore thrill-seeker equipped with a GoPro. Grab a bike, rope or paddle, get out there and have fun.
Canyons can be secret, mystical destinations, with an eerie, unsettling beauty that sometimes gives the feeling that you're wandering the sacred ruins of an ancient civilization – although the smooth, scalloped walls and strange, sculpted dimples and pockmarks aren't the creations of any human culture, but the echoes of a much older visitor: water.
The thrill of squeezing yourself into a dark narrow slot, rappelling over the lip of a 70ft chute or swimming across a cold subterranean pool is obvious enough. The real question isn't whether or not you want to go, but rather what sort of experience you are looking for. For many people, a nontechnical hike is a perfect intro, and if you're short on time or don't have the gear, a guided canyoneering trip or intro course may be the solution. For others, nothing short of full-on immersion will do.
For the latter group, a solid understanding of technical skills – how to tie knots, set up an anchor, use a rappelling device, unsnag a stuck rope and so on – is required but, unlike rock climbing, you don't need years of practice (though the recent flood of inexperienced canyoneers has been largely responsible for an increase in the number of rescues at Zion and elsewhere). Rappelling is a particularly easy way to put yourself into situations you may not be able to get out of, especially if you get hurt. Talk to any local guide, and they'll immediately tell you the number one rule of canyoneering: no jumping (this is in stark contrast to European canyoning). Jumping is among the leading causes of injury in the Utah wilderness.
Canyoneers must also be especially mindful of flash floods and high water levels (wet suits are required for some routes, regardless of the season). Being inside the cogs and wheels of Earth’s geological machinery is very cool – until they switch on. Always check the day's flash-flood forecast before you go out.
Canyoneering in Zion
Zion and its environs are the sport’s epicenter in southern Utah – there are over 30 routes in the area. Before attempting any of the park’s canyoneering routes unaided, take a basic skills course. If you need to rent equipment, such a course is obligatory for liability reasons. The most famous routes for beginners are the Subway and Keyhole Canyon. Orderville Canyon is another classic, which dumps you out in the Narrows. Canyoneers with more experience and the necessary technical skills can tackle Mystery Canyon, which also drops dramatically into the Virgin River. If you don't want to bother with the gear, explore Hidden Canyon or Kanarra Canyon instead.
Southern Utah’s Other Canyons
You’ll find more fantastic slot canyons along the Escalante River and Hole-in-the-Rock Rd in Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. Routes include canyons for all skill levels, with or without gear, but getting lost is fairly easy, so consider going with a guide. The Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area is another awesome place for experienced canyoneers to explore, whether you’re looking for the premier 16-mile Buckskin Gulch challenge or an epic 38-mile backpacking adventure through Paria Canyon to Lee's Ferry, Arizona (permit required). Ask outfitters in Moab about more slot canyons in eastern Utah, including the wonderland of the San Rafael Swell, northwest of Moab off I-70, just west of the town of Green River.
Canyoneering Guides & Outfitters
In addition to recommended outfitters, the American Canyoneering Association (ACA; www.canyoneering.net) offers lots of information online, from technical forums and canyoneering primers to guide referrals. ACA also runs a multitude of certification courses across southern Utah.
For detailed route descriptions, browse CUSA (www.canyoneeringusa.com).
Canyoneering 1, 2 and 3 by Steve Allen are three top-notch guidebooks that cover southern Utah, particularly Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument and the San Rafael Swell. Zion: Canyoneering, by Tom Jones, is an excellent guide to the Zion area.
Need a thrill? Try these:
- Climb Prodigal Sun, Space Shot or one of Zion’s other big walls.
- Through-hike the Subway in Zion.
- Raft Cataract Canyon on the Colorado River.
- Four-wheel drive Elephant Hill in Canyonlands’ Needles district.
- Mountain bike Moab’s Whole Enchilada Trail.
- Backpack the Narrows of the Virgin River.
- Four-wheel drive the Cathedral Valley Loop in Capitol Reef.
- Canyoneer and backpack Buckskin Gulch in Paria Canyon.
- Skydive out of an airplane in Moab.
Tips for Shutterbugs
Nothing is more disappointing than coming home from the desert and uploading your digital photos or getting your rolls of film developed to find dozens, if not hundreds of washed-out horizons, with tiny friends and family squint-smiling in the distance.
You’re not alone. Even the best photographers can’t get the whole desert in their pictures. But you can improve the quality and composition of your photos, whether your camera is a top-shelf digital masterpiece or a disposable throwaway.
- If you have a digital camera, bring extra batteries and a charger; the instant gratification of your LCD preview screen will run the battery down fast.
- For print film, use 100 ASA film for all but the lowest light situations; it’s the slowest film and will enhance resolution. Color slide film is the best, though it’s more expensive.
- A zoom lens is extremely useful; most SLR cameras have one. Use it to isolate the central subject of your photos. A common composition mistake is to include too much landscape around the person or feature that’s your main focus. Sacrifice background for foreground, and your photos will be more dramatic and interesting.
- Morning and evening are the best times to shoot. The same sandstone bluff can turn four or five different hues throughout the day, and the warmest hues will be at sunset. Because of the way a camera reads color (as grays), underexposing the shot slightly (by a half-stop or more) can bring out richer details in red tones.
- When shooting red rocks, a warming filter added to an SLR lens can enhance the colors of the rocks and reduce the blues of overcast or flat-light days. You can achieve the same affect on any digital camera by adjusting the white balance to the automatic ‘cloudy’ setting (or by reducing the color temperature).
- As a rule, don’t shoot into the sun or include it in the frame; shoot what the sunlight is hitting. This is especially important when photographing people, who will turn into blackened silhouettes with the sun behind them. On bright days, move your subjects into shade for close-up portraits.
- A tripod is useful for low-exposure dusk shots but is cumbersome on hikes.
- Some digital cameras have waterproof cases that are worth the investment for canyoneers and river runners.
- That endless horizon? Move people out of the way and shoot it at sunset’s last gasp. Check the weather report for sunset times, as well as when the moon rises. If you’re traveling during a full moon, it can be fairly easy to arrange yourself in front of an iconic arch at dusk for that million-dollar shot.
For an in-depth regional photography guide, Photographing the Southwest, Volume 1: Southern Utah by Laurent Martres will take you around the national parks and off the beaten path.
Top 10 Coolest Places in Summer
It’s the desert – you know it’s gonna be hot. To beat the heat, escape to the following:
- Swimming holes on the Virgin River
- The Narrows of Zion Canyon
- High-elevation Cedar Breaks National Monument
- Pine Valley Mountains outside St George
- Calf Creek Recreation Area, especially Lower Calf Creek Falls
- Creeks winding through Capitol Reef National Park
- The shady pioneer-planted orchards of Fruita, in Capitol Reef National Park
- Moab’s lofty La Sal Mountains
- Lazy float trips or white-water rafting near Moab
Southern Utah is home to some fabulous wildlife. Zion protects mountain lions, bighorn sheep and nesting peregrine falcons, while Bryce is known for its ‘towns’ of endangered Utah prairie dogs. Bighorn sheep have been reintroduced into Canyonlands, and California condors now soar over the Grand Canyon and southern Utah. Almost anywhere it’s possible to see coyotes and eagles, rattlesnakes and bats – though you have to be very lucky. Most of those desert species are very secretive, extremely rare or both.
More common are tame mule deer, proud cawing ravens and begging squirrels and chipmunks. Refrain from feeding these animals; they can carry disease, and if they become dependent on handouts, they will not survive in the wild. Feeding wildlife, even innocent-looking squirrels, also encourages the animals to act aggressively toward humans. For example, a few park visitors have been bitten by aggro squirrels along Zion’s Riverside Walk.
One of the most satisfying activities is bird-watching: Utah is perched on a major migratory flyway. Ask at park visitor centers for free birding checklists. Park bookstores also sell helpful field guides for amateur to expert birders. Based out of St George, the National Audubon Society’s Red Cliffs Chapter offers online birding reports, photographs, festival information and field trips for members.
Don’t forget to bring binoculars!
Every national park sponsors free ranger talks, guided hikes and evening programs that cover topics of main interest to visitors – geology, wildlife, ecology, human history and more.
Zion and Bryce Canyon boast the widest range of talks and activities. Zion offers ranger-guided park shuttle tours (sign up in person the day before at the visitor center) while Bryce features popular stargazing programs and full-moon and showshoe hikes (for the latter, sign up in person at the visitor center). Night skies here are among the darkest in North America – don’t miss the chance to admire them.
Arches offers a very popular ranger-led hike into the Fiery Furnace. It’s a hair-raising trip across slickrock, along narrow ledges and over vertiginous cracks. Reservations are required, and you can make them online months in advance. In spring and fall, Canyonlands rangers lead guided hikes around Horseshoe Canyon, while summer brings guided walks, talks and evening campfire programs to Capitol Reef.
You can check what’s going on during your trip in the free newspaper brochures handed out at entrance fee stations, or by stopping by any park visitor center or information desk. You can also check schedules online via some parks’ websites.
The national parks’ junior ranger programs truthfully can be fun for all ages!
Hiking & Backpacking
Hiking is the main and most accessible activity in the national parks and can be done at any time of year. Walks can be as short or long as you like, but remember this when planning: you need to be prepared. The wild desert may be unlike anything you have ever experienced, and designating certain parcels as ‘national parks’ has not tamed it.
The weather is extraordinary in its unpredictability and sheer force. The summer sun is blazing hot, sudden thunderstorms can drop enough water in 10 minutes to create deadly flash floods, and ferocious windstorms can rip or blow away your poorly staked tent all the way back to camp.
Number one on your packing checklist is water: a gallon (3.8L) of water per person per day is the recommended minimum in hot weather. Sun protection (hat, sunblock and sunglasses) is also vital. While the danger of dehydration and heat exhaustion is obvious enough, don't forget that violent downpours and strong winds can cause temperatures to quickly plummet. Always consider a waterproof shell and even a warm layer outside of summer.
After the elements, getting lost is the next major concern. Most day hikes are well signed and visitors are numerous, but nevertheless you should always take some sort of map. If you plan on going into the backcountry, definitely take a topographic (topo) map and a compass. You can pick up detailed maps in most visitor centers. All travelers, solo or not, should always remember the golden rule: let someone know where you are going and how long you plan to be gone.
When to Hike
Though southern Utah is a year-round destination, variations by location and season are extreme. As the majority of parks, monuments and other hiking destinations are in the desert, spring and fall are often the best times to hike. Summer – the height of tourist season – can be the worst, as temperatures routinely top 100°F. One smart summertime strategy is to hike the big canyons only very early or late in the day, planning your hike for the side that will be in shade.
Elevation also plays a factor. At over 8000ft, Bryce Canyon’s rim stays a bit cooler, as do other spots in the mountains. However, in the fall certain roads and trails at higher elevations may be closed until April, May or even into June, and some canyon hikes are not safe in spring, when runoff from snowmelt can dangerously raise water levels. If you’re planning on hiking the Narrows in Zion Canyon in April or May, for example, you’ll need to check the river flow to ensure that levels are low enough.
Where to Hike
Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks have hiking and backpacking opportunities for people of all ages and abilities. Every park offers one or two rewarding easy nature trails, plus a bewildering variety of more moderate to difficult trails. Zion may have the best overall selection of trails for day hikers and backpackers. Most trails in Zion Canyon either follow the Virgin River or climb its steep walls; the park’s best-known trek, the Narrows, is literally in the river.
Bryce Canyon presents the opposite configuration: easy hikes are along the rim, while longer hikes drop steeply into its amphitheater of hoodoos. Cedar Breaks is a cool escape in summer, where moderately strenuous forest trails wind past alpine lakes, wildflower meadows and ancient bristlecone pines. Grand Staircase–Escalante is a paradise for backpackers, though it also provides plenty of easy to moderate trails – some very accessible, others along rough dirt roads. While Capitol Reef and Arches offer many easy to moderate trails off scenic drives, Arches is not recommended for backpacking. Canyonlands tends to the extremes: short trails off the main roads let you dip your toes, but to really get into it, be ready for a major backpacking trip.
Boundaries seem almost arbitrary in this unending landscape, and hiking is just as good outside of the national parks and monuments. Escape the crowds in the Pine Valley Mountains outside St George; the enormous Dixie National Forest, stretching from Cedar Breaks to Capitol Reef; or the La Sal Mountains near Moab. On the Utah–Arizona border, the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area is among the most fantastical places on the planet, while state parks like Coral Pink Sand Dunes, Goblin Valley and Dead Horse Point feature unusual spectacles with trails that are worth a detour.
Rating hikes by difficulty level is always subjective. Heat, elevation and trail grade are only a few of the variables you should consider when deciding how difficult a trail will be. When in doubt, assume trails will be harder and take longer than you think.
Easy: Generally level and easy to navigate, these trails are often paved, sometimes accessible to wheelchairs and usually suitable for young children.
Moderate: Trails involve some elevation gain and may be slightly rocky, rough and/or exposed, but can be hiked by anyone of average fitness.
Difficult: These are strenuous trails involving steep climbs, tricky route-finding and/or long distances.
The actual time spent hiking will vary with your ability.
Most ‘easy hikes’ in the area are less than 2 miles in length and cover fairly even, possibly paved terrain with no significant elevation gain or loss.
The majority of hikes in the region are day hikes, taking anywhere from 20 minutes to eight hours. On steep trails that lead from canyon floors to rims, or vice versa, a general guide is that it takes twice as long to ascend as to descend. For people who want to test themselves, or who don’t have time for a full hike, it’s always possible to tackle just the first few miles of a day or backcountry hike.
People can and do spend weeks hiking in the southern Utah desert, but it’s something to build up to, once you get to know the place better. Backcountry hikes in the area lean toward the easier ones, usually involving one to three nights out. When you’re ready for more, park rangers and local outfitters can help you find new challenges. In general, Zion, Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef offer a good selection of easy to moderate backpacking trips, while Canyonlands and Grand Staircase–Escalante are famous for their difficulty.
The most important consideration on any backcountry hike is water. Will there be any on your route, and of what quality and quantity? Many blue squiggles marked on topo maps are not rivers at all, but washes, only flowing during a rainstorm or with spring runoff. Always check with rangers or knowledgeable locals before trekking into the unknown.
Hiking Rules & Permits
Hiking and backcountry-use rules at the national parks and monuments are virtually the same. With minor exceptions, these are the guidelines for trail use:
- Day hikes on maintained trails do not require a permit.
- All overnight backcountry hikes require a permit; some permits are free, while others cost (typically $5 to $20).
- Pets are prohibited on all trails, whether day use or backcountry (Zion’s Pa’rus Trail is the one exception).
- Bicycles are forbidden on all day-use or backcountry trails (again, Zion’s Pa’rus Trail is the exception); however, bicycles are allowed on paved and dirt roads.
- It’s illegal to touch, disturb, take or deface any cultural sites or artifacts or to pick wildflowers or otherwise harm plants or animals. Never feed a wild animal either.
For backcountry camping and use, further rules apply:
- Group limits apply to backcountry use; these vary, so always ask.
- Certain other backcountry activities, like canyoneering in Zion and horseback riding or four-wheel driving in Canyonlands, require a day-use permit.
- Human waste must be carried out or buried in a 6in to 8in hole at least 100ft away from water sources, trails and campsites; consider using human-waste disposal bags.
- No dispersed camping is allowed within 200ft of streams or trails, nor within 0.25 miles of springs.
- No open fires are allowed in the backcountry; use a gas stove. The exceptions are Canyonlands and Grand Staircase–Escalante, which allow fires with restrictions.
If Dr Seuss designed a rock-climbing playground, it would look a lot like this: a surreal landscape filled with enormous blobs, spires, soaring cliffs and canyon walls in kaleidoscopic colors. Some of the country’s best rock climbing lies in southern Utah, though many routes are for moderate to expert climbers. Zion is famous for big-wall climbs, while the St George area, particularly Snow Canyon State Park, offers dozens of shorter bolted sport routes. You’ll find great climbing in Arches, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef, although restrictions apply. Several popular routes for all abilities await near Moab: Indian Creek is known for its premier sandstone cracks, while Castleton and other desert towers offer superb multipitch adventure. Outdoor outfitters in Moab and Springdale offer rock-climbing classes for beginners and sell climbing gear.
Climbing in summer can get exceptionally hot. When the air temperature reaches 100°F, the cliff face could top 115°F, and the rocks hold the heat all night. Spring, fall and even winter are better times to climb; if you do climb in summer, start early in the morning. Some parks enforce seasonal route closures to protect nesting or breeding wildlife. All parks prohibit power drills, discourage excess bolting and ask climbers to use subdued colors for hangers and slings. Ask at park visitor centers about the latest regulations and permits, which are usually required for overnight bivouacs. Even if you don’t need a permit, stop by Zion’s backcountry desk, where the rangers and volunteers are often climbers themselves, full of great local tips and advice.
Mountain Biking & Cycling
The fat-tire crowd already knows about Moab, a mountain-biking mecca for decades. The original Slickrock Bike Trail is there, among many others. If you’re a novice rider, try the Bar-M Loop. For slickrock virgins who have mountain-biking experience, the Klondike Bluffs Trail awaits. When the summer sun is baking the desert lowlands, riders can escape to the cool forests of the La Sal Mountains outside town, where the Moonlight Meadow Trail is a high-altitude downhill challenge, or the flat single-track of the Intrepid Trail at Dead Horse Point State Park.
What mountain bikers might not know is that southwest Utah offers equally good trails in places outside St George and Zion, including at Gooseberry Mesa and Wire Mesa, and on national forest land in Red Canyon, west of Bryce Canyon. Even though mountain biking is prohibited on national park trails, it’s permitted on dirt roads. In Canyonlands, Island in the Sky’s White Rim Rd and the labyrinth of 4WD roads in the Maze are awesome experiences, as is Cathedral Valley Loop in Capitol Reef and backcountry roads in Grand Staircase–Escalante. All mountain bikers should observe desert conservation guidelines, particularly rules about staying on trail.
Road cycling the paved scenic drives in Zion, Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef is an excellent way to take in the parks’ sights. The steeper, longer and more challenging paved roads in Arches and Canyonlands are best left for experienced cyclists in good shape. Recreational cycling paths are uncommon in southern Utah, with the notable exception of the St George area. The Snow Canyon Loop is the longest of the area trails (18 miles) connecting the town with the state park. Shorter paths are the Zion’s Pa’rus Trail and the Red Canyon Bike Path, on USFS land outside Bryce Canyon.
You’ll find outdoor outfitters and bicycle shops offering rentals and guided trips outside all of the national parks. If you want to rent a mountain bike, expect to pay $35 to $65 for a full day, plus $20 for a car rack or shuttle.
Horseback Riding & Pack Trips
Canyon Trail Rides runs horseback and mule rides at Zion, Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. One- and two-hour rides and half-day trips cost from $45 to $90 per person. Some rides are offered year-round, although the famous Grand Canyon trips are only available from mid-May to mid-October. You’ll need to make reservations in advance in high season. Children must be at least seven years old for two-hour rides, and at least 10 for half-day rides. The weight limit is 220 pounds per rider fully dressed.
Several outfitters can get you on horseback for rides in Red Canyon, in the Dixie National Forest west of Bryce Canyon, as well as around Capitol Reef and into Grand Staircase–Escalante starting from Boulder and Kanab. Moab outfitters and ranches will take you into either the desert or the La Sal Mountains.
Red Rock Ride offers week-long all-inclusive guided horseback trips visiting Zion, Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, Red Canyon in the Dixie National Forest and Paria Canyon in Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. Trips usually depart in spring and fall.
Southern Utah boasts dirt roads aplenty and a 4WD vehicle is useful on all of them. The region also has many dirt roads – some of which are legendary – that are only manageable via 4WD. Yet if there’s one thing that can get the inexperienced into trouble faster than a static canyoneering rope, it’s a 4WD vehicle. A rental 4WD is not a magic bullet; sometimes it’s just a means for getting as far away from help as possible.
Before heading into the desert, know the capabilities of your vehicle. If you don’t have the winches and experience to free a stuck vehicle, don’t take chances on unknown roads. And before heading out, get current road and weather conditions from visitor centers and public lands information offices. GPS is delightful, but it’s useless in a muddy wash with a storm coming. Expect that 4WD roads may be muddy and inaccessible for at least a day or two after even light rains, so wait until the road thoroughly dries out to tackle it. In winter, many 4WD roads in southern Utah may be impassable. If you’ve never driven back roads in Utah before, consider taking a guided tour first – it’s a good reality check.
Remember, nothing ruins the desert’s fragile cryptobiotic soil – which holds the entire ecosystem together – faster than car tires, and a single off-road joyride leaves harmful scars that can last decades.
Utah is an anglers’ paradise, offering scads of mountain lakes and rivers and oodles of stocked reservoirs; unfortunately, not too many options exist in southern Utah, and the national parks are awful for fishing. C’mon, what’d you expect? It’s a desert.
The mountains surrounding Zion harbor several good reservoirs stocked mostly with trout, including Kolob Reservoir, off Kolob Terrace Rd; Navajo Lake and Duck Creek on Hwy 14, between Cedar City and Bryce Canyon; the reservoir in the Pine Valley Mountains, outside St George; and Panguitch Lake, between Panguitch and Cedar Breaks National Monument, in the Dixie National Forest. Off Hwy 12 north of Boulder, Boulder Mountain is a popular fly-fishing destination; you’ll find outfitters in Torrey. Near Moab, the La Sal Mountains have a few good trout-fishing lakes, while fly fishers can cast lines into small Mill Creek, which runs out of the mountains.
Wherever you fish, including in the national parks, you’ll need a Utah fishing license. Be sure to familiarize yourself with each fishing spot’s particular restrictions. These vary and can be strict, limiting the type of bait or lure and the catch, sometimes to only one fish. Seasonal restrictions may also apply. All park visitor centers and public lands information offices in southern Utah should have the fishing information you’ll need, including local regulations.
Contact the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR; https://wildlife.utah.gov) for up-to-date fishing regulations, including the state’s annual fishing guidebook, available online as a free downloadable PDF. A resident/nonresident Utah fishing license costs $16/24 for three days and $20/40 for seven days. Children under the age of 12 do not need a fishing license, although they must still obey all regulations. Licenses may be bought online or over the phone directly from DWR, or from local businesses near busy fishing spots.
While destinations at lower elevations, like the floor of Zion Canyon, only rarely see significant snowfall, higher up there's often enough snowpack for some serious fun.
Several spots offer cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Among the most popular is Bryce Canyon, which features 10 miles of cross-country trails atop the canyon’s rim, plus 20 additional miles in the surrounding Dixie National Forest. During winter, park rangers offer guided snowshoe hikes, with free snowshoes loaned to participants. Otherwise, you can rent snowshoes and skis at Ruby’s Inn, which also offers winter sleigh and horseback rides and snowmobiling tours outside the park. For the most fun in the snow, show up for the Bryce Canyon Winterfest, held annually in mid-February, featuring outdoor sports clinics, tours, ski races and competitions, as well as snow sculptures and sledding.
If you have your own skis, cross-country skiing is popular in the mountains east of Cedar City along Hwy 14, particularly the scenic amphitheater rim at Cedar Breaks, where a volunteer-staffed seasonal yurt lets you warm up with a cup of hot cocoa.
The La Sal Mountains outside Moab feature great snowshoeing and cross-country skiing and even a hut-to-hut system. Outdoor outfitters in Moab rent equipment, sell maps and cold-weather gear, and can arrange self-guided overnight trips.
The only downhill skiing in the region is at Brian Head, northwest of Zion. While no big hitter, it's still respectable with 71 trails and two terrain parks on Navajo Mountain and Giant Steps Mountain, which both summit over 10,000ft. The winter sports season usually runs from December to mid-April, when it offers opportunities for skiing, snowboarding, tubing and more. Rental equipment, lessons, outdoor clothing and gear shops, dining and lodging are all available at the full-service resort.
And even if they're not in southern Utah, it would be criminal not to mention the state's big resorts, like Deer Valley, Park City, Snowbird and Alta, which boast some of the best snow in the country.
Ski Utah (www.skiutah.com) has updated snow reports, detailed statistics and helpful travel info and deals for skiing statewide, including at Brian Head and around Bryce Canyon.
Kayaking, Canoeing & Rafting
Folks with white-water fantasies should head directly to Moab. The main rafting season runs from April to September (jet-boating season lasts longer), with peak water flow usually occurring in May and June. Whatever your skill level, outfitters in Moab stand ready to provide everything you might need, from rental equipment, permits and shuttles to guided tours and lessons.
Moab offers a number of river trips, from family-friendly floats and mellow flatwater canoe trips to daredevil rapid-rafting and jet-boating tours. For the calmest trips, rent equipment and paddle the upper portion of the Green River through Labyrinth Canyon, starting from the town of Green River, or the Daily, aka Fisher Towers, a section of the Colorado River alongside Hwy 128.
More adventurous trips through Canyonlands National Park require a permit, and the easiest way to get one is to join a guided trip. Stillwater Canyon is a calm section of Green River that allows you to float through the park. Just past the confluence of the Green and Colorado is Cataract Canyon, the region’s ultimate challenge when it comes to technical white water.
For a shorter white-water rafting excursion, try Westwater Canyon for a one-day trip.
Swimming & Tubing
Zion’s Virgin River is the best option for swimming. While generally shallow and cold, it does offer lots of swimming holes and warms up just enough later in summer to enjoy a dip. Tubing is prohibited within the park, but outfitters in Springdale rent inner tubes for local floats in summer, unless water levels are too low. You’ll find more summer swimming holes along creeks in Capitol Reef, as well as at Calf Creek Recreation Area, where families can splash around and take a break from Grand Staircase–Escalante’s dusty 4WD tracks.