South of Canyonlands National Park is isolated Natural Bridges National Monument. First established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, it was not accessible by road until uranium mining developed this part of Utah in the 1950s. As you may recall from our post on Arches National Park, bridges are created by flowing water, unlike arches that are primarily carved by wind.
The monument is home to 220-foot tall Sipapu Bridge, which is second only to Glen Canyon’s Rainbow Bridge as the largest in the world. Kachina Bridge, at 210 feet and growing, may catch up to it someday. Perhaps the most visually striking of the three standing bridges is the 180-foot span of Owachomo Bridge that is only nine feet thick at its center. Handicap accessible overlooks are available along Bridge View Drive.
A nine-mile loop hike connects all three natural bridges, which are also accessible by shorter trails from the rim drive. Do not attempt this rugged trek if you are not prepared; it is a rocky canyon bottom at high elevation with little shade.
Owachomo Bridge is the oldest of the three standing natural bridges in the National Monument.
The secluded nature of this region and its elevation of 6,500 feet were factors in naming it the first International Dark Sky Park in 2007. If you make it out this far, you might want to spend the night under the stars at the campground.
Arches National Park in Moab, Utah is home to 2,500 wind-carved holes in its famed orange sandstone, ranging in size from a minimum of three feet to 290-foot wide Landscape Arch (the fifth longest span in the world). As opposed to natural bridges which are carved by flowing water, arches are primarily wind formed, although water and ice can contribute.
Learn more in our guidebook to the National Parks, A Park to Yourself: Finding Adventure in America’s National Parks (available on Amazon).
We recommend you reserve a spot on a ranger led hike through the twisting labyrinth of Fiery Furnace (additional fee). You can get a permit to go alone, but we are glad we had a guide or we might still be trying to find our way out. The beautiful red rocks really show their color at sunrise and sunset, so find a nice place to watch the show when you come. As depicted on the state license plate for Utah, Delicate Arch is a popular venue for sunsets.
When the crowds in the park overwhelm you, take the easy 8.3-mile drive down dirt Salt Valley Road to the trailhead for less visited Tower Arch. Seeing Tower Arch is worth the strenuous 3.4-mile roundtrip hike, but it can be hard to photograph.
Double Arch is located near the North and South Windows and photographs well in the late afternoon.
The main road that dead ends at Devils Garden is paved, but there are some dirt roads in the park that require four-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicles.
Devils Garden Campground is a great place to spend the night, with easy trail access to Broken Arch and Sand Dune Arch. The public land around Moab under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management is often overrun by dispersed campers.
Canyonlands National Park was established in 1964, part of a large expansion of the National Park Service (NPS) system during the Johnson administration. It is divided into four distinct areas that are not easily connected by roads: The Needles District, The Maze District, Horseshoe Canyon Unit, and the most heavily-trafficked Island in the Sky District near Moab, Utah. Backpacking is a major draw to this park, as is whitewater rafting on the Colorado and Green Rivers.
Learn more in our guidebook to the 62 National Parks, A Park to Yourself: Finding Adventure in America’s National Parks (available on Amazon).
Mesa Arch, Grand View Point, Chesler Park, Druid Arch, The Maze, Great Gallery
Horseshoe Canyon is a separate unit of Canyonlands National Park accessible by good dirt road from Highway 24 southwest of Green River, Utah. Its main attractions are four large pictograph panels estimated at 3,000 years old at the bottom of the 800-foot deep canyon. The largest panel, dubbed the Great Gallery, stretches over 200 feet with numerous life-sized human figures painted in red and white on a sandstone wall. It is a 3.5-mile hike to get there from the trailhead on top of the canyon rim that drops down to and then follows a meandering stream which passes three smaller panels.
There are miles of incredibly scenic trails in The Needles District, many of which leave from Elephant Hill Trailhead. We recommend the six-mile roundtrip hike to Chesler Park where you will see the pointy formations that gave this district its name. Druid Arch or Angel Arch make great destinations for long day hikes, but you should at least stop at Slickrock Foot Nature Trail to get a feel for sandstone beneath your soles.
You may have never heard of the Island in the Sky District, but you have surely seen a sunrise photograph of Mesa Arch since it makes it on many calendars. Walk the half-mile loop to the edge of the cliff where this famous formation frames distant mountains.
There are seriously rough 4×4 roads throughout this park, so ask a park ranger about road conditions before attempting any drive. The scenic drive that dead ends at Grand View Point in the Island in the Sky District is entirely paved.
There is running water at Squaw Flat Campground in The Needles District, but none available at the small Willow Flat Campground in the Island in the Sky District. White Rim Road and Chesler Park are also famous for their backcountry campsites accessible by 4×4 vehicles (permit required). Due to high demand, backpacking permits within this park are among the most expensive in the entire NPS system.
Bryce Canyon is not really a canyon at all, but instead a cliffside amphitheater eroded away into extravagant creamsicle-colored hoodoos. Your first view from Sunrise or Sunset Point will surely take your breath away and not just because you are standing above 7,000 feet in elevation. A portion of the main park road is only open during the busy summer season, but seeing the amphitheater under a fresh carpet of white snow makes the effort worthwhile to get here in the winter. Learn more about the logistics of a winter visit in our first travel guidebook to the National Parks (available on Amazon).
Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, Navajo Loop Trail, Queens Garden Trail, Natural Bridge, Rainbow Point
The amphitheater is beautiful from the overlooks, but to really experience this park you have to hike down from the rim. Peakaboo Loop is a strenuous four-mile hike with approximately 1,700 feet cumulative elevation gain that offers up close views of the hoodoos. It is accessed from Sunset Point or Bryce Point. You could easily spend your whole trip in this northern section of the park and not be disappointed, but be sure to take a slow drive south with stops at Natural Bridge and Rainbow Point to complete the experience.
It is four miles out and back on the Under-the-Rim Trail from Bryce Point to the Hat Shop, in the quiet backcountry area where hoodoos are topped with boulders (like they are wearing hats). Ask a park ranger about the “I Hiked the Hoodoos” program to earn a prize.
Douglas-fir trees snake their way to the light in the narrow Wall Street section of the Navajo Loop Trail. A photograph of Tiff walking into a snowy Wall Street made the cover (see below) of our first travel guidebook to the National Parks (available on Amazon).
Summer due to long, snowy winters at this elevation.
The main park road is paved, but there are dirt roads that access the lower elevations of the park, though we have been warned that they are in rough shape.
The National Park Service has a campground that is open year round, but we prefer camping along the dirt roads in adjacent Dixie National Forest. A free permit is required to camp in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
As its name suggests, Dinosaur National Monument was first created in 1915 to protect an archaeological dig. The 200-foot long wall of unexcavated fossils at Dinosaur Quarry outside Jensen, Utah is still the park’s main attraction. A major addition of 200,000 acres was added in 1938, stretching into the neighboring state of Colorado. More than 90% of the National Monument (click here to see where it ranks in our Top 10) is managed as wilderness and is best explored by whitewater rafting the Green and Yampa Rivers.
Whitewater rafting trips on the Green River can last a few hours or multiple days depending upon where you put in. We highly recommend a three night trip starting at the Gates of Lodore with Adrift Dinosaur or one of several other outfitters. They also offer multi-day trips down the Yampa River, which is undammed and only navigable during the spring snowmelt. If you do not feel like getting wet, simply enjoy a quiet picnic on the shoreline at easily-accessible Split Mountain (or take a high-clearance vehicle down the rough road to scenic Echo Park).
The 4-mile long Jones Hole Trail is accessible to rafters on
the Green River and from a fish hatchery at the end of a paved road near the
Utah-Colorado border. It provides access
to Ely Creek Falls and the Deluge Shelter pictographs, which are approximately
800 to 1,400 years old.
Dinosaur Quarry may be the only mountainside in America surrounded by its own glass-enclosed, air-conditioned building. It contains thousands of fossilized bones of giant creatures sitting in the same place they have been for the past 148-million years. It is a completely different experience than seeing dinosaur skeletons reconstructed in a museum, although they have those, too.
No entrance fees for the Colorado side, but $25 per vehicle to enter the Utah side to view the Dinosaur Quarry.
There are many dirt roads in the National Monument, some of
which are impassable when wet, so check at a visitor center before entering. The roads to the Dinosaur Quarry, Jones Hole
Trailhead, Deerlodge Park, and Harpers Corner are paved.
There are several campgrounds within the park accessible by paved or unpaved roads, as well as numerous backcountry campsites located along the Green and Yampa Rivers (plus, one on the Jones Hole Trail).
Explore More – Who was the one-armed Civil War veteran that led the first exploration of the Green River (and named the Gates of Lodore after a poem) in 1869?