The Best of Southern Utah

Home to stunning parks, wilderness areas, and national forests, Southern Utah offers an otherworldly landscape for the adventurous traveler to explore. In every season, this dramatically beautiful part of the world will leave you breathless.

Capitol Reef National Park, Scenic Dr, Teasdale, UT 84773, USA
Located within Capitol Reef National Park, the Gifford Homestead brings to life the historic Mormon settlement of Fruita. While its fascinating past makes this place unique in and of itself, the Gifford home now also includes a small café that sells some of the best homemade pies in Southern Utah. Head here early and fuel up with cinnamon rolls before exploring the park, or wrap up a day of hiking with one of the many flavors of single-serving pies. The towering crimson buttes surrounding the property provide the perfect setting for enjoying these culinary delights. The café is open from mid-March through the end of October; if you visit during the summer, though, you may just get to pick your own fruit in the orchard next door.
599 West Main Street
Just outside Capitol Reef National Park, Cafe Diablo serves Southwestern fare with a local twist. From pumpkin-seed-crusted trout to rattlesnake cakes with ancho-rosemary aioli, the dishes are classics in an unexpected way. Casual and family-friendly, the restaurant offers a taste of big-city dining in a low-key atmosphere. Ask the knowledgeable staff to recommend the perfect wine or beer for your meal, or choose something from the extensive selection of tequilas.
20 Utah 12
If you don’t think dinner reservations are necessary in a little hamlet with a population of 225, think again. An award-winning spot in Boulder, Hell’s Backbone Grill has been consistently packed since its opening in 1999. Here, chef-owners Jen Castle and Blake Spalding are known for their excellent food as well as the way they grow, source, cook, and serve their ingredients, many of which come from their own six-acre farm just south of town. Their frequently changing menu can be described as American (meat loaf, roasted chicken with buttermilk biscuits), but also is known to include Southwestern fare like pozole and quesadillas. It’s worth basing your Southern Utah trip in the town of Boulder just to try Hell’s Backbone—just remember the farm-to-table cuisine here is in high demand, so definitely call ahead.
150 E 100 N, Hanksville, UT 84734, USA
In the little town of Hanksville in Utah’s southeast quadrant, you’ll find the unassuming Stan’s Burger Shak. It’s an unremarkable place at first glance, with its plastic and faux-wood furniture, but that impression quickly changes when the food arrives at your table. Made from a long list of ice cream flavors, the shakes here are so thick that they can barely be contained by their cup, and the burgers and fries are the perfect kind of greasy. One visit and you’ll be done with Dairy Queen forever.
597 NM-597, Teec Nos Pos, AZ 86514, USA
This spot is only significant because of arbitrary political boundaries, but it still draws tourists wanting to see the only place in the United States where four states meet. Desolate as it is—aside from the monument that stands at the intersection of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah—Four Corners is worth the visit if you happen to be passing through on Highway 160. Just know that the monument and marker are about a third of a mile further east than they would be if the borders had been set with modern surveying equipment.
Utah, USA
Only accessible by foot or horseback, Grand Gulch is a tributary canyon where water eventually flows to the San Juan River, which then ultimately flows into the Colorado River and Lake Powell. Home to the Anasazi people between 700 and 2,000 years ago, the area is rife with artifacts, from dwelling structures to artwork—all in impressive condition thanks to the cautious and respectful treatment of those who visited before you. Baskets were among the earliest relics to be found and potsherds can still be discovered here, hidden in the right spots to protect them from the weather.
A breathtaking location, the Valley of the Gods is filled with stone pinnacles and jutting buttes that dot the mostly flat valley floor. A scenic 17-mile gravel and dirt road loops through the area and, while there are no designated campgrounds, camping is allowed, as is backcountry hiking. The area is north of the town of Mexican Hat, which has some lodging and food options as well as a gas station, but there are no services or facilities in the Valley of the Gods itself.
Oljato-Monument Valley, UT 84536, USA
Nuzzled up against the Arizona border about 100 miles west of Four Corners are some 30 square miles of the most iconic scenery in the American West. Monument Valley is one of those places that you’ll recognize as soon as you see it, even if you’ve never been there before, as dozens of movies, TV shows, and even video games have used the area as a setting. It’s made up of mesas both small and large reaching up from the valley floor, some rising as high as 1,000 feet into the sky. Part of the Navajo Reservation, the area charges a $20-per-vehicle entrance fee to drive the dirt-road loop. Once in, however, you can also enjoy a number of hikes, or hire a guide for a horseback tour.
Bluejohn Canyon, Utah, USA
Blue John has been a favorite of canyon explorers for many years, but it became widely known after a large boulder fell and trapped climber Aron Ralston’s arm. (He survived, and his story was told on film in 127 Hours, starring James Franco). Where Ralston got caught, and the route to get there, is not particularly scenic; that said, there are a number of other beautiful spots to see in the canyon, many of which are linked via the East/Main Fork Loop. There are a few rappels and technical gear is required, but you can hire a guide if you want to explore with an expert by your side.
San Rafael Swell, Utah, USA
Since the San Rafael Swell was created between 40 and 60 million years ago, various erosional forces have shaped the 40-by-75-mile expanse into a fascinating jumble of canyons, arches, hills, and valleys. Some have likened the topography to parts of Mars, which may explain why the Mars Desert Research Station was established in the vicinity. For us earthlings, the swell offers a fascinating place to explore through hiking, canyoneering, camping, and more.
For those looking to try more-involved canyoneering, this five-mile stretch through White Canyon is a thrill. Just a few miles upriver from where White Canyon Creek flows into the Colorado River, you’ll find an easy-to-access section of the canyon that makes for a spectacular adventure. In the Canyon Rating System, the area is classified as a 2B III, meaning you don’t need a rope but you can expect to swim. At an average pace, it makes for a solid day trip. First-timers will want to hire a guide, or at least go with a canyoneering veteran.
These fun slot canyons are just under 30 miles from the town of Escalante down the unpaved Hole-in-the-Rock Road. Easy day—or even half-day—adventures, the canyons are carved from the iconic red Navajo sandstone and are usually completely dry. There’s some light scrambling involved, but nothing kids can’t handle. However, the walls get so narrow at some points that most adults need to turn sideways to get through. For the ultimate experience, connect the two slots by going up one and down the other.
The Wave Trail, Kanab, AZ 84741, USA
At this unique formation, Navajo sandstone in shades of deep red to white was first eroded by water and then primarily by wind to create smooth, rolling terrain that resembles ocean waves. The differing densities of stone have caused the structure to erode at varying speeds, resulting in undulating fins of rock along the entire surface. Made up of two separate U-shaped troughs, the Wave is as narrow as seven feet, as wide as 60 feet, and more than 100 feet long. To preserve its serene nature, the Bureau of Land Management only issues 20 permits per day to visitors. If you’re lucky enough to secure one, you must then hike nearly three miles across the open desert from the trailhead closest to the site to reach it.
Skimming along the Arizona border in the Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Buckskin Gulch is considered the longest slot canyon in the Southwest. After entering the intimate narrows of the canyon, the route continues on for about 15 miles until it reaches the Paria River. Along those 15 miles, the walls get as narrow as 10 feet and as tall as 500 feet above the canyon floor. While the route can be done in a day, many visitors take overnight gear and camp near the confluence before hiking out the next morning.
Utah, USA
This canyon makes you work hard for its awesome views. After driving south from Escalante down 50 miles of unpaved road, visitors must hike about 10 miles along an unmarked route to reach the rim of the Glen Canyon Area, where Reflection Canyon, an extension of Lake Powell, is tucked away. The area is so remote that it wasn’t widely known until as recently as 2006, when National Geographic published photos of it by Michael Melford. There isn’t any water along the hike, nor is there a reliable way down to the lake once you’ve arrived. The hike can be done in a day but it’s best to camp above the canyon, especially to catch the sunset and sunrise.
Dammeron Valley, UT 84783, USA
In 2009, the U.S. Congress designated nearly 19,000 acres as the Red Mountain Wilderness, which is located just north of St. George between Snow Canyon and Gunlock state parks. Here, mountain peaks sporadically poke up from the upland plateau. There are no roads and only a handful of casual trails, most of which are located on the east side. To make the most of your visit, take the Red Mountain Trail, which runs just under 10 miles from one end of the wilderness area to the other. Parts of the trail skirt the western lip above Snow Canyon, offering incredible views of the surrounding landscape.
Named after a Paiute word meaning “big fish,” Panguitch Lake originally served as a fishery for the area’s native people. The U.S. government built a dam to nearly double the lake’s surface area to 1,248 acres, increasing the shoreline to around 10 miles. It’s now a prime spot to set up camp and visit the three nearby national parks as well as Cedar Breaks National Monument. Thanks to its high-country location in Dixie National Forest, the area also stays relatively cooler than the surrounding lower elevations. The closest accommodations include three campgrounds; activities in the vicinity range from angling and hiking to ATV rides.
710 Reservoir Rd, Escalante, UT 84726, USA
Around two miles north of the town of Escalante, this state park is famous for its stone trees. Visitors can hike a one-mile loop through the petrified forest, winding up the side of the mesa to its top, where most of the fossilized wood can be found. Also on this spot is the Wide Hollow Reservoir—popular for boating, fishing, and water sports—as well as a developed campground with RV sites and a picnic area. When you’re done exploring outdoors, head to the visitor center, where you can view plant and marine specimens, dinosaur fossils that are over 100 million years old, and of course more petrified wood.
472 N 5300 W
Just 30 miles from the southern gate of Zion National Park, Quail Creek State Park surrounds a 600-acre reservoir that boasts some of the warmest waters in Utah. Its consistently mild climate draws year-round tourists and day-trippers eager to boat, fish, and swim in the clear blue water. The park is also home to a spacious campground, which proves a popular alternative for Zion visitors who want to stay in a red-rock-desert setting.
Cannonville, UT 84718, USA
Within striking distance of Bryce Canyon lies a landscape full of monolithic stone spires known as sedimentary pipes. Here, the stone towers complement multicolored sandstone layers, hinting at 180 million years of geologic time. In 1948, a National Geographic Society expedition was so taken with Kodachrome Basin’s vibrant beauty that it named the area after the popular color film. Now, visitors come from all over to camp, hike, and ride horses through the enchanting setting.
Gunlock Rd, Gunlock, UT 84733, USA
Way out in southwestern Utah, this state park includes much of the Gunlock Reservoir, meaning there’s ample opportunity here for boating, water sports, and fishing for bass and catfish. Its relatively low elevation and southerly location keep temperatures mild throughout the winter, making it a great all-year destination. The spillway from the dam sends the overflow cascading down a series of red rocks, where visitors often gather around the rushing water in search of natural waterslides. Just be sure to bring a change of dry clothes.
Goblin Valley Rd, Green River, UT 84525, USA
Goblin Valley State Park is famous for its series of mushroom-shaped rock formations, also known as hoodoos. While there are a few established trails within the park, the namesake attraction offers three square miles of open landscape, which visitors are free to explore on their own. Beyond the Valley of Goblins, there are seven miles of easy-to-moderate mountain-biking paths, which make five separate loops in various corners of the park. Since it’s so far from any population centers, the area also offers incredible stargazing.
12500 Sand Dune Road, Kanab, UT 84741, USA
Just a stone’s throw from the Arizona border, the eponymous main draw at Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park is the result of rose-hued Navajo sandstone eroding over time. Like any dunes, the ones here constantly shift under the wind’s influence, but when the breeze isn’t blowing, they offer a fascinating landscape to explore. Divided up into motorized and nonmotorized areas, the park is a favorite of ATV riders, especially because, when the wind picks up, all the tracks are erased, leaving a clean slate for new adventurers. Visitors can additionally hike, ride horses, watch wildlife, and—of course—capture breathtaking photos.
UT-143, Brian Head, UT 84719, USA
Centered around a natural amphitheater, where a plateau breaks into a series of mini canyons, this intimate national monument is often compared to Bryce Canyon. Along the ridgelines between the carved canyons, visitors can observe interesting rock formations with whimsical names like Chessman Ridge, Point Supreme, Shooting Star Ridge, and the Bartizan. Hiking options here range from the easy, paved Sunset Trail, which stays above the rim, to the nearly 10-mile Rattlesnake Creek Trail, which drops below the rim and offers the chance to explore in the canyons.
Utah, USA
This national park is centered along the spine plateau above Bryce Canyon, which drops to the east from the main park road. Along the road are numerous pull-offs for enjoying views down into the canyon, with its miles and miles of awe-inspiring sandstone hoodoo spires. Drive to the far south end of the park where the road terminates for the best views of Rainbow Point, named for the colorful rocks that lead into the Grand Staircase National Monument, then get away from the crowds by hiking one of the many trails that drop into the canyon. Visitors can also pick up a backcountry permit and stay overnight to see the stars. While most tourists come during the spring and summer months, Bryce is particularly stunning in the winter when it’s covered in snow.
Utah, USA
Deep in the red-rock country of central Southern Utah, this hidden gem of a national park doesn’t draw much attention to itself, making it a great place to avoid the crowds. It’s situated along most of the nearly 100-mile-long Waterpocket Fold, a classic geologic monocline created by a shift in the rock layers. The majority of guests here drive the main road through the north-central section, where the visitor center is located, but there’s lots to see in Cathedral Valley in the far north and Strike Valley in the far south as well.
Utah, USA
As its biblical name implies, Zion National Park has the appeal of a place out of time. Established on November 19, 1919, the canyon and its surrounding landscape feel like a natural temple, full of arches, hoodoos, and imposing walls, some of which stand more than 2,000 feet high. Jump on the shuttle and venture up canyon, hitting the side hikes along the way to the Narrows, or break away from the crowds and trek the backcountry trails for a more intimate experience. While it takes effort to reach, the more remote northern section of the park is worth the journey if you want to escape the tourist hordes.
Moab, UT 84532, USA
Covering nearly ten miles over the sandstone slickrock just outside of Moab, this 4x4 route is considered one of the best in the region, if not the country. The best part? A half-mile spur from the one-way loop brings visitors to a cliff-edge overlooking the Colorado River. Along the trail, check out Mickey’s Hot Tub, a deep depression in the sandstone where 4x4s drive through, and sometimes get stuck. If you get out of the Jeep, you may also see fossils preserved in the lower Jurassic Sandstone (about 190 million years ago). The route can be done on your own but requires a high-clearance 4x4 vehicle. A number of commercial guide outfits based in Moab provide tours with a driver or allow visitors to rent ATV’s and attempt the trip themselves.
Below Cedar Breaks National Monument
Down-canyon from the popular Cedar Breaks National Monument, the 7,085-acre Ashdown Gorge Wilderness Area offers many similarly spectacular natural wonders in a more accessible environment. The colorful Wasatch limestone, eroded to a soft edge, is not as steep. Nearly 10 miles of trails provide access to a number of ecosystems like meadows, forests, and the excellently named Twisted Forest, made up of bristlecone pines, one of the oldest life-forms still in existence. Water flows in the creeks year-round and provide for the many animals in the area like yellow-bellied marmots, golden-mantled ground squirrels, chipmunks, mice, mule deer, and voles. Winter snows add a whole new dimension of beauty.
345 E Riverside Dr, St. George, UT 84790, USA
Established primarily to help preserve the ecosystem and habitable zone of the desert tortoise, an endangered species, the Red Cliffs National Conservation area covers nearly 45,000 rugged acres just north of the city of St. George in the southwest corner of Utah. Beyond being interesting for the tortoise, the area’s geology is unique because it encompasses a large swath of the transition zone between three major geographical zones, the Mojave Desert, the Great Basin, and the Colorado Plateau. There are lots of hiking and mountain-biking trails (Church Rock Loop, a 9.5-mile round-trip hike, leads to dinosaur tracks!) but special caution must be taken depending on where you go and camp. Seeing a desert tortoise is rare, but they should be left alone.
669 U.S. 89, Kanab, UT 84741, USA
To get a taste of Utah’s famed canyoneering opportunities, Zebra Slot provides for a nice insight to what’s possible. The canyon itself can be a little tricky to find so check in with the BLM Visitor Center in Escalante to get a map and current conditions. Located down Hole-in-the-Rock Road south of the town of Escalante, the 5.5-mile round-trip hike starts on an easy rock and sand trail to Harris Wash (a usually dry river bed) in the canyon. Your feet (at the very least) will get wet but seeing the beautiful formations and striped layers of sedimentary rock which give the canyon its name will make you forget any discomfort.
Pine Valley Recreation Area Rd, Pine Valley, UT 84781, USA
Just north of the Red Cliffs National Conservation area and adjacent to the Pine Valley Mountain Wilderness, this recreation area is ready to accommodate day visitors and overnight campers in small or large groups. At 6,900 feet, it’s high enough to break the heat in the summer and provides lots of opportunities for hiking, horseback riding, and fishing. The camping and day-use areas are in a fragrant ponderosa pine forest with some oak trees in the mix. The camping possibilities are easy and inviting: picnic tables, fire rings with grills, tent pads, clean drinking water, public grills. Reservations can be made, but there are also a few first-come, first-serve sites available.
U.S. Hwy 89 A, Marble Canyon, AZ 86036, USA
Bordered on the south by its eponymous deep-red cliffs, the national monument is home to broad plateaus, endangered California condors, and some of the oldest petroglyphs in the United States. But the area’s greatest hit is the Wave, a dramatic, undulant orange rock formation. There are trailheads, maps, and minimally marked checkpoints along the trail leading to the famous spot, but unless you opt to hire an authorized guide, you’ll have to pick your way carefully across relatively untouched desert—that is, if you manage to snag one of the 20 daily hiking permits. Apply online four months in advance or enter the daily lottery at the visitor center in Kenab, Utah. Didn’t make it? Grab a map, make sure you have a spare tire, and explore the monument’s lesser-known slot canyons and gulches, or head to the Grand Canyon or Zion National Park; both are within a two-to-three-hour drive. You can always try again the next day. Permits are $6 and $7.
More from AFAR
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
AFAR Journeys
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: United States
Journeys: Sports + Adventure