7 Underrated Utah Parks and Monuments for Avoiding the Crowds

There is plenty of natural beauty to be found outside Utah’s “Mighty 5” national parks, and most visitors miss it.

Escape Utah’s Mobbed National Parks at These 7 Lesser-Known Natural Wonders

Only 20 people get permits to visit the Wave each day, so it’s always uncrowded.

Photo by Niels Fahrenkrog/Shutterstock

Dreaming of a trip to Utah’s high desert? Chances are, you’re picturing scenic drives on lonely highways, pit stops for a moment of civilization in Salt Lake City, and towering red rock landscapes. What you’re not picturing? The crowds of people.

Lately, the area’s iconic vistas have reached such popular status that record numbers of travelers have overwhelmed Utah’s Mighty Five national parks (Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Capitol Reef, and Canyonlands). Zion saw 4.7 million visitors in 2022, making it the third-most-popular national park across America. As a result, parks have raised fees and are considering caps on the number of visitors. While landmarks like The Narrows, Mesa Arch, and the Grand Canyon are well worth a visit, travelers may not realize that the area’s beauty stretches far and wide beyond national recreation areas and park boundaries.

Take a step out of Utah’s national parks and discover these lesser-known state parks, monuments, spires, and landmarks to escape the crowds while still reveling in Utah’s famous beauty.

1. 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, screen savers, 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, as well as some backcountry hiking trails. Buckskin Gulch, for example, is one of the longest slot canyons in the world and a corridor of stone with walls up to 500 feet high and widths of as few as 3 feet. Backpackers savor its 15-mile narrows on two-day treks, but an easier set of hiking trails 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.

Red drawings of figures on yellow rock.

Sego Canyon is known for its petroglyphs and pictographs.

Photo by Abbie Warnock Matthews/Shutterstock_

2. Sego Canyon

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.

Rock formations partly covered in grass during the daytime.

Comb Ridge was formed nearly 65 million years ago.

Photo by Chris Curtis/Shutterstock

3. Comb Ridge

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.

Canyon formation with road going through it.

Moki Dugway is just west of the Valley of the Gods.

Photo by James Orndorf/Shutterstock

4. Moki Dugway

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.

Red rock arch formation in the daytime.

Consider Natural Bridges National Monument to be a mini, crowd-free Arches National Park.

Photo by Marc Venema/Shutterstock

5. 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 [Kachina, Owachomo, and Sipapu], Devils Garden, and Landscape Arch—for a few hours or for a leisurely day. (Bridges are formed by water, whereas delicate 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. There’s also a visitor center with tons of information about the monument and its surrounding area.

Irregular formed rocks on top of a mesa formation.

The hoodoos at Goblin Valley State Park are larger than those at Bryce Canyon National Park.

Photo by Nina B/Shutterstock

6. 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.

Road through a field in front of mountains.

Part of Grand Escalante National Monument, Cottonwood Canyon Road boasts breathtaking views.

Photo by Benjamin Simeneta/Shutterstock

7. 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 (access 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 2017; it was updated on September 17, 2023, to include current information.

Erin Van Rheenen is the author of Living Abroad in Costa Rica and just finished a novel set in that country.
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