Multicolor rock formations on a dramatic scale make a tour from St. George to Moab a motorhome trip to remember.
By Claire Rogers, F244985
Utah boasts numerous jewels of parks that string together nicely on an RV tour across the southern half of the state. Gem tones range from amber to amethyst with abundant fiery ruby throughout. If you make this trek, be sure to reserve plenty of time, for the five national parks mentioned here “” Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches “” are more than you would want to tackle in a week. Add to these the area’s state parks, national monuments, and recreation areas, and you’ll find your days filled with discovery.
Begin at St. George Utah, only 1½ hours from Las Vegas, Nevada. From there you enter Zion National Park under the vigilant gaze of the Watchman, a towering monolith characteristic of Zion’s spectacular verticality. The nearby campground of the same name has no hookups, but it offers fire grates, picnic tables, water, rest rooms, and a sanitary disposal station, as do most of the national park campgrounds in southern Utah.
The Zion visitors center offers information, exhibits, and a 22-minute slide show that previews the sheer-cliffed canyons and delicate hanging gardens to come. National park visitors centers are always worth a stop to pick up a schedule of guided activities or talk with rangers who can help tailor your plans according to your interests.
A free shuttle down Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is available from early April through the end of October, and it’s the only permitted way to travel this road. It offers a break from driving so you can relax as the on-board guide gives an orientation to the theater of landmarks. It stops at eight points of interest in the park. Along the river bottom twists a verdant valley bordered by cliffs so tall you’ll have to peek at them through the shuttle’s rooftop air vents. Year-round, you can drive your own vehicle through other parts of the park.
Hike the length of the Riverside Walk to a view of the Zion Narrows, and feel the coolness of the mossy embankments. This is the time to enjoy the Virgin River’s lush sanctuary, as the desert of four more national parks beckons from beyond.
From Zion National Park, take State Route 9 to the junction with U.S. 89. It’s a bit of an adventure in itself, as the old 1930s tunnels were built for much smaller vehicles. Today the park coordinates one-way traffic through the low-clearance archways, as most motorhomes are too large to stay to one side of the road.
Bryce Canyon’s campgrounds tend to fill up early in the day, so if it’s later, you might want to make camp at Red Canyon, the first stop along Utah’s scenic State Route 12, which has been designated as a national Scenic Byway. Here, the Dixie National Forest maintains a campground with rest rooms, water, picnic tables, and fire grates. The friendly campground host is available to answer questions, offer tips on visiting the park, and share favorite trails. Enjoy the view from your RV’s “front porch” as the walls of Red Canyon flare with the setting sun.
Wake up to the sound of Red Canyon Creek and make plans for an early drive to Bryce Canyon National Park. The effort pays off as the morning sun illuminates Bryce’s hoodoos “” tall, knobby sandstone formations “” with an unearthly glow.
Bryce Canyon has had many names over time, and technically “canyon” isn’t an accurate description. The hoodoos, which were once called “rocks standing like men” by the Paiute Indians, are actually standing in amphitheaters that drain off to the east. To most people, “stunning” is the only word necessary to describe this magnificent landscape.
A free shuttle also is available at Bryce Canyon, and it makes perfect sense for avoiding congested areas. However, it operates only from Memorial Day weekend until Labor Day in 2006. You can still see the canyon in October; you’ll just have to use your own vehicle.
Plenty of hiking trails beckon in Bryce Canyon National Park. Whichever one you decide on, be sure it goes below the rim and among the hoodoos for a different perspective.
After a morning visit to Bryce, you may want to retreat to the service area of Ruby, just outside the entrance to the park, for restaurants, entertainment, and RV parks with full hookups.
Beyond Bryce along State Route 12 are a series of state parks that pale only slightly in comparison with the grandeur of the neighboring national parks. Kodachrome Basin State Park is just the first. A nine-mile detour south of Cannonville, the state park named by the National Geographic Society for its colorful sandstone spires features a campground, hiking trails, horseback riding, and mountain biking.
Keep in mind that state parks have different entrance fees, and a National Parks Pass, if you have one, works only at national parks. That said, the National Parks Pass is great to have when you tour this area, for it practically pays for itself after a couple of visits. (See the end of this article for information about obtaining a National Parks Pass.)
From Kodachrome Basin, continue northeastward on State Route 12 along the dazzling Kaiparowits Plateau to Escalante. The popularity of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has given a boost to the economies of Escalante and the next town, Boulder. Restaurants, grocery stores, and outfitters do a brisk business in the spring, summer, and fall. For something different, stretch your legs on the walking tour of Escalante’s pioneer homes using a guide available from the chamber of commerce.
One mile from town is Escalante Petrified Forest State Park, where hiking trails lead to fossil remnants of ancient trees and dinosaur bones. Camping is also available there.
Allow plenty of time and good light to drive the next section of State Route 12, as it’s especially dramatic, with a feature called The Hogback, a narrow ridge with steep drops on both sides of the road, as just one memorable example. Along the way, camping is available at the Bureau of Land Management’s Calf Creek Recreation Area. Because of the beautiful hike to Calf Creek Falls, this campground fills up quickly.
In Boulder, anyone interested in archaeology will want to stop at the Anasazi State Park museum for a tour among artifacts and ruins of the ancient Fremont and Kayenta Anasazi Indian cultures. With so many prehistoric sites in the region, this is a good place to find out what researchers have learned about these early people.
The drive up Boulder Mountain offers another change in scenery as you climb more than 9,000 feet above sea level. Your view to the east opens wider and farther with each curve of the highway. Near the road, groves of aspen trees shelter flocks of wild turkeys. Rustic campsites are available in this part of Dixie National Forest.
Evenings here can be cool in the in spring and fall, so if you spend the night in the mountains, be sure your coach’s furnace is ready for a workout.
Torrey is another nice small town that exists for the spring, summer, and autumn tourist trade. It mostly closes up in the winter. Here you’ll find espresso bars, galleries, gift shops, and a bookstore where you also can check e-mail.
The descent into Capitol Reef National Park via State Route 24 serves up more inspiring scenery. Just when you thought you’d seen it all, here you’ll find powdery greens and amethysts sifting down from the cliffs. The real appeal of this preserve is the fruit. A variety of remnant orchards are maintained by the park to interpret the history of the pioneers in this productive river bottom. Cherries, apricots, peaches, pears, and apples grow in several orchards that open for self-service during picking season. Harvest season runs from June through early October, with a brief lull in late July. With the hikes, scenic drives, beautiful campground, and fruit trees, this is a place to consider staying an extra day. Taking a break from constantly moving will give you the energy to continue on and enjoy a national monument and two more national parks.
From here, head eastward through Capitol Reef National Park. At the crossroads of Hanksville, where State Route 24 north and State Route 95 south meet, you’ll have to make a choice, as a literal maze of canyons separates you from Canyonlands National Park. The shorter route is to go north to Interstate 70 through Green River and on to Moab via U.S. 191 south. A fun spot along this route, especially for kids, is Goblin Valley State Park.
To see more, break up the longer, 200-mile drive down State Route 95 to the south with a stopover at Natural Bridges National Monument. From your campsite, enjoy the juniper and pine scents of the Colorado Plateau. The nine-mile loop drive offers plentiful viewpoints of bridges along Armstrong and White canyons.
State Route 95 ends near Blanding, a full-service town with another great state park. Edge of the Cedars State Park’s museum houses a region-wide display of ancient Pueblo pottery as well as traditional village structures. The farming community and nearby Abajo Mountains offer another change of scenery from the plateau’s high desert mesas, but that will all change again as you continue north on U.S. 191 into the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.
Any visit to Canyonlands will involve a drive into and out of an overlook, but this detour is well worthwhile, not only for the serene red embers of the Needles District (reached via State Route 211), but also for the chatty Newspaper Rock you pass on the way in. Hundreds of people from ancient tribes have left stories written on one stone face. Images of humans, animals, and cryptic symbols all mingle in a cacophony of pronouncements.
If you like hiking, the Needles District is an especially good place to stay an extra day, as many trails and canyons surround the Squaw Flat Campground. Clamber along the slick ledges of Lost and Squaw canyons and take in the scenery like nourishment for the soul. The small campground is another one that fills up early, so if you get caught without a site, camping is available at several locations just outside the park. Water is scarce in this area, so fill up in Blanding. Summers are usually hot, but spring and fall offer great hiking weather throughout the Southwest. Just be prepared for cool nights.
Farther north on U.S. 191 is southern Utah’s recreation capital: Moab. If the crowds of four-wheelers and mountain bikers become too much for you, you can stock up on information and supplies and keep going north. Otherwise, stay and explore.
Another section of Canyonlands National Park that is entirely different and a river away is the Island in the Sky District. Access is via another in-and-out road that leads off of U.S. 191. Diversions along the way include Needles Overlook. Your goal, Deadhorse Point State Park, has a visitors center, campground, trails, and a spectacular view of the Colorado River. This unique mesa served as a natural corral for early cowboys, as the precipitous cliffs kept herds contained. For the sheer thrill of it, lie on your belly at the top of the Kayenta sandstone and peer over the edge straight down a 1,000-foot wall of Wingate sandstone. Most of the overlooks are not fenced, so this is the only reasonably safe way to look straight down.
The Island in the Sky District is a large mesa above the convergence of the Colorado and Green rivers with viewpoints in all directions. The rangers at the visitors center can offer advice on the best opportunities for photos as well as views of sunset and sunrise. Most of the hikes here involve an uphill return, so plan accordingly.
Your final destination on this tour is Arches National Park. Its campground is very popular, so check in at the visitors center to register. Guided hikes available at the park include a tour of Fiery Furnace, wherein you scramble along with the group through a maze of deep, red-ochre crevices.
From here your options are to follow the Dinosaur Diamond Scenic Byway (U.S. 6/U.S. 50) toward Grand Junction, Colorado, or loop back toward Las Vegas via interstates 70 and 15.
Later in the day, the clouds may gather, billow, and finally release their outburst. The storm outside gives some downtime to reflect on your whirlwind tour through some of the most beautiful national parks America has to offer.
If You Go
For more information, contact:
Utah Travel Council
P.O. Box 147420
Salt Lake City, UT 84114-7420
The National Park Service provides details about its parks’ campgrounds, as well as tours, maps, and more at its Web site: www.nps.gov. Another helpful Web site regarding national parks is www.utahnationalparks.com.
The National Parks Pass is an annual pass that provides admission to any national park that charges an entrance fee. The pass costs $50 and is valid for one full year from first use in a park. If the park has a per-vehicle entrance fee, the pass covers the pass owner and any occupying passengers in a private vehicle. For parks with a per-person fee, the pass covers the pass owner, spouse, children, and parents. To learn more about the National Parks Pass and other related passes, such as the Golden Age pass for seniors and the Golden Access pass for handicapped individuals, call (888) 467-2757 or visit www.nps.gov/fees_passes.htm.