Escape Utah’s Mobbed National Parks at These 7 Lesser-Known Natural Wonders
The state’s “Mighty Five” national parks—Arches, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef—are among the most popular in the country. But there is plenty of natural beauty to be found outside their boarders, and most visitors miss it.
Dreaming of a trip to Utah’s high desert? Chances are, you’re picturing lonely highways, dizzying overlooks, and towering red sandstone landscapes. What you’re not picturing? The crowds of people. Lately, the area has reached such iconic status that record numbers of travelers have overwhelmed Utah’s Mighty Five national parks (Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Capitol Reef, and Canyonlands). Zion saw 4.5 million visitors in 2019, making it the fourth-most-popular U.S. national park. As a result, parks have raised fees and are considering caps on the number of visitors.
But many travelers don’t realize that the area’s beauty stretches far and wide beyond national park boundaries. Check out these lesser-known state parks, monuments, and landmarks to escape the crowds while still reveling in Utah’s famous beauty.
The Wave (and a detour to Buckskin Gulch)
If you haven’t heard of the Wave—a hallucinogenic cinnamon taffy swirl of sandstone in Coyote Buttes North on the border with Arizona—you’ve likely seen it on calendars, screensavers, and travel blogs. One of the most photographed spots in the Southwest, its popularity means competition is fierce for one of the 20 daily permits. An online lottery awards 10 spots, and an in-person melee at the Bureau of Land Management office in Kanab, Utah, doles out the remaining 10. With only 20 visitors allowed per day, the Wave may be uncrowded, but chances are you won’t get in.
However, there are plenty of less regulated and amazing hikes nearby. Buckskin Gulch, for example, is a slot canyon lover’s dream, a flash flood–sculpted corridor of stone with walls up to 500 feet high and widths of as few as 3 feet. It’s one of the longest slot canyons in the world. Backpackers savor its 15-mile narrows on two-days treks, but an easier day hike starts at Wire Pass, a short but spectacular feeder canyon. Take a right where the Pass meets the Gulch and revel in the magical way light plays on Buckskin’s sheer walls for a mile or two, then retrace your steps.
Think of Sego Canyon, a historic landmark in eastern Utah, as one big outdoor art gallery. Its Native American rock art is easy to access, uncrowded, and unforgettable. Petroglyphs (designs that have been chipped into rock) and pictographs (designs that were painted on rock) from three distinct cultures and eras are represented. Don’t miss the haunting 4,000-year-old Barrier Canyon–style artwork, which features near-life-size figures with huge insect eyes and curved horns or antennae. A few miles north you’ll find a forlorn cemetery perched on a canyon rim and the ghost town of Sego.
Pushing up out of the earth like the spine of a giant stegosaurus, Comb Ridge runs 80 miles from the Abajo Mountains to the San Juan River in the southeastern part of the state. Sections of the sandstone monocline are part of the new (and currently endangered) Bears Ears National Monument. Within the ridge’s east-facing folds, ancient Anasazi ruins and rock art sit along the unpaved Butler Wash Road. Blaze your own trail or follow established paths to archaeological sites like Cold Spring Cave Ruins, which features 1,000-year-old masonry towers, pictographs, and grinding stones.
The only unpaved section of Highway 261 in southeastern Utah, the Dugway is a three-mile stretch of graded dirt switchbacks carved into the face of the Cedar Mesa cliff. The views along the 1,200-foot, white-knuckle climb are exhilarating, but for even better views, take the first left at the top and drive the five-mile detour to Muley Point Overlook. From there you can gaze out over the sinuous bends of the San Juan River. Muley Point also has a fascinating petroglyph panel that features a birthing scene and a man with a duck for a head.
Natural Bridges National Monument
Avoiding the crowds at Arches National Park but still hungry for soaring spans of rock? Enjoy Natural Bridges National Monument, home to three natural bridges, for a few hours or for a leisurely day. (Geology geeks know the difference between a natural bridge and a natural arch. Bridges are formed by water, whereas arches are formed by other erosive forces, such as wind. Both formations make you wonder how rock can look so graceful and delicate.)
A number of trails lead from parking areas to overlooks and then down to where the bridges rise up from the canyon floor. The trail to Sipapu Bridge is especially thrilling, with stairs hacked into stone and even a few sturdy wooden ladders to contend with. An 8.6-mile loop trail brings you to all three bridges, as well as Horse Collar Ruins, without backtracking.
Goblin Valley State Park
Goblin Valley in central Utah is utterly original: a lunar landscape filled with eroded rocks that look like cartoon characters or contorted trolls. While similar whimsically shaped rock outcroppings are common around the state, you’ll only find this concentration of human-sized weirdness at Goblin Valley. There are established trails to various overlooks, but the best approach is to just wander down from the paved parking area into the dry basin. Before you know it, you’re hobnobbing with the goblins.
Cottonwood Canyon Road and Skutumpah Road
Cutting through the gorgeous desolation of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, these two unpaved, scenic backroads can be explored on their own or connected in a loop. Take Cottonwood Canyon Road and, around every bend, ogle wild rock formations with memorable names like Cad’s Crotch and Mollie’s Nipple. At the northern end of Cottonwood is Grosvenor Arch, a rare double arch that towers over the surrounding landscape like a monument to the forces of wind, rain, and geological upheaval. Best of all, you’ll probably have this majestic place to yourself.
Loop back south along Skutumpah Road, which passes through stands of pinyon and juniper trees. Break for a hike along the trail through Willis Creek Canyon (accessible from Skutumpah road), a sculptured slot canyon that echoes with the sound of running water. (Note: Wet weather can make these roads impassible.)
This article originally appeared online in June 2017; it was updated on June 12, 2020, to include current information.