NorCal Roadtrips

An Explorer's Guide to Northern California


Southern Utah Itinerary

View- Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park

There are several ways to get to the area and more than one way to take the tour. We'll recount our way, which we rather like. We start at Zion's National Park. To get there from the San Francisco Bay Area we like to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains at Tioga Pass in Yosemite National Park, head south on Hwy. 395 to the village of Lone Pine, head east from there on Hwy. 136 to Death Valley National Park, play there for awhile, leave Death Valley on Route 374 east near Scotty's Castle to Beatty, NV, drive south on Hwy. 96 to Las Vegas and Interstate 15 north, thence to the junction with Hwy. 9 east to the village of Springdale, UT and the entrance to Zion's National Park. Do not pass go. Rest up at Zion's. You may check our write-up on Death Valley National Park and our road trip titled Hwy. 395 South for places to camp enroute. If you've got dust in your mouth you can spend a night or two at the Furnace Creek Inn in Death Valley- highly recommended.

Furnace Creek Inn

Furnace Creek Inn- Death Valley

Zion's is a popular place so if you arrive unannounced after 10 or 11AM looking to camp you'll likely be out of luck. At about that time people leave and camping spots open up. You and others will vie for those spots. Watchman Campground is open year-round and is the logical first choice. South Campground (open March-September) is nearby. If you get aced out, backtrack toward Interstate 15 on Hwy. 9. If you are driving a smaller vehicle there's a poorly marked remote campground signed Mosquito Cove (on the left heading from Zion's to I-15) with 20 sites on the sand. If rain is in the forecast take a pass; this area is prone to flash floods and could get mushy. A more civilized choice would be to continue heading to I-15 and spend the night at Sand Hollow State Park (well marked- reservations at www.reserveamerica.com or 800-322-3770). Its popular with off-road ATV types so you may not wish to linger, but its okay for a night. Early in the AM head back to Zion's and wait your turn. Plan to stay at least 2 or 3 days. Zion's campgrounds can be reserved at some times of the year at www.recreation.gov.

Zion's National ParkZion's is a major park and you get around by foot, bike or shuttle bus. The main entrance is at the village of Springdale, and the main attractions are located along the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. It's best to bike it or take the bus. The bus carries bikes, so you can bike in and bus out. The shuttle is actually quite good, and stops virtually everyplace you would want to go, so you can take it in stages. Hikes are available at virtually all stops. The last stop is near "the narrows" where you can hike thru a narrow box canyon in a wetsuit if you so desire. Then you can buy a T-shirt proclaiming that you did it. Its not treacherous as long as the water level is normal. Check conditions where you rent your wetsuit (and hiking staff). If you want a more rustic experience, there's a section of Zion's called Kolob Terrace accessed via the well-marked Kolob Terrace Road that makes for a nice day-trip and there is a primitive 6 site campground (Lava Point) with no drinking water if that suits you more than dealing with the madding crowds at the main part of the park. Elevations within the park range from 3,600 feet in the canyon where precipitation averages 14 inches per year, to 8,700 feet and annual precipitation averages 25 inches. If you are not camping, or need a break, the semi-rustic Zion Lodge will take good care of you.

Red CanyonWhen you tire of Zion's (or run out of time) begin the next leg of the tour. Drive east on Hwy. 9 to the junction with Hwy. 89 and head north on it to the junction of Hwy. 12. Hwy. 12 has been designated an All-American Road and wanders for 124 miles from Hwy. 89 to Torrey, UT. A highly recommended drive. Turn right (east). Shortly after the turn you will encounter Red Canyon. You'll need no encouragement from us to stop and linger once you see it. Grab a hiking map at the visitor center and hit the trail. Buckhorn Trail, at about 1 mile with very little elevation change, is a nice introduction to the area. Between mid-May and early October the campground (no reservations) is open and will be hard to resist. There are 37 sites for tents or RV's to 45 feet with all of the amenities including showers.

Red Canyon

Red Canyon

Next up Bryce Canyon National Park. You're still on Hwy. 12. Bryce is very different than Zion's and we would say the prettiest of all of these southern Utah destinations. The scenery is beautiful, the hikes numerous and the total experience great. Bryce is known for "hoodoos", picturesque spires of all sorts caused by erosion and scattered everywhere and named hoodoo because they cast a spell. They are indeed beautiful. The park is well suited to people with physical limitations as the 18 mile main park road will get you close to many beautiful vistas. For those without limitations there are 50 miles of trail to explore to allow you to get up close and personal with the hoodoos. For a meal or a night off the ground there's the Bryce Canyon Lodge. Two hikes not to be missed are the Rim Trail and the 3 mile Queens/Navajo Loop. When hiking, always carry water. There are 2 campgrounds: North campground has 101 sites for tents or RV's and some sites can be reserved at some times at www.recreation.gov or 877-444-6777. Some sites are open year-round. Sunset campground has 102 sites with 20 tent sites available for reservation and the others first-come first-served. It is open late Spring to early fall.

Hoodoo- Bryce Canyon National Park

Hoodoos- Bryce Canyon National Park

Time to move along to Kodachrome Basin State Park; from Hwy. 12 at Cannonville drive south 9 miles (well marked) to the park. This area is known for its sandstone chimneys, which when matched against a dark blue sky are pretty enough that the view inspired the National Geographic Society (in 1949)to get permission from the then Kodak Film Corp. to name the park after that company's famous film of the same name. There are 27 campsites for tents or RV's of any size complete with quality amenities, including showers. For the uninitiated, Utah has some of the nicest state parks on earth. Reservations are available at www.reserveamerica.com or 800-322-3770. Open year-round.

Grand Staircase- Escalante National MonumentBack at Hwy. 12, you are now driving thru the Grand-Staircase-Escalante National Monument area; 2 million acres of mostly open space managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Like many scenic drives, there is no single spectacular landmark, simply mile-after-mile of pretty country that is largely undeveloped and unsettled. Most roads within the monument are unpaved and if you intend to explore the backcountry a high clearance 4 wheel-drive vehicle is recommended and permits are required for overnight camping. Calf Creek Campground (see below) is a nice camping choice for those desiring to stay on paved roads.

Calf Creek FallsContinue east and consider a stop at Calf Creek, about 45 miles from Kodachrome. The major attraction is the 126 foot Lower Calf Creek Falls, accessed via a 5.5 mile round trip hike. Its level terrain and for much of the way parallels a nice stream. Also on site is a nice 14 site campground suitable for vehicles to about 25 feet set amongst canyon walls and very private. Pit toilets are in the campground but flush toilets and drinking water are available in the day-use area. Nearby, the Anasazi State Park displays some native American ruins, as well as a few modern versions of traditional buildings used by the local tribes. There are quite a number of paved/unpaved roads in the area that are great for getting off the beaten path, as well as day hikes along the Escalante River. The hamlet of Boulder is a bit of a throwback to the counterculture days and makes you want to find some tie-dyed clothes.

 Capital Reef National ParkContinuing northeast on Hwy. 12 you will dead-end at Hwy. 24 and turn right (east) and next encounter Capitol Reef National Park, home of the surprise (code word "fruit") noted in the opening paragraph. The park is noted for, and protects, the Waterpocket Fold, a 100 mile long stretch of buckled earth that frankly, is difficult to get your arms around from ground level. An aerial view is quite impressive but unless you brought something to get you aloft you're out of luck. So ground level visitors can enjoy several worldly things; some fine native American petroglyphs, a fascinating wall of rock where early American passers-by engraved their names and dates of passage, and what remains of the settlement founded by Mormon settlers in the late 1800's, including a school and some impressive orchards. If you camp at the 71-site Fruita campground you will be surrounded by fruit trees, many of them still bearing fruit and you can legally pick them as long as you are camping. Choose from apples, apricots, cherry, peach and pear. If "farming" is not your thing, stop in the small store and buy a fresh pie or a jar of jam or syrup to enliven your next meal. The park, while nice, cannot compete with Bryce Canyon, Zion's or Arches National Parks but is well worth a visit.

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park

To this point attractions have been pretty close together and its been hard to get very far because you can't miss things in the name of making time. From here, however, you need to hit the accelerator pedal and drive about 150 miles to the Moab/ Arches National Park area. You do this by continuing north on Hwy. 24 to Interstate 70, east on I-70 to the junction of Hwy. 191, and then south on Hwy. 191. Now its decision time.

You are ultimately going to Arches National Park. The one campground (Devil's Garden) is popular. Of the 52 individual tent and RV sites (up to 30 feet) 28 can be, and often are, reserved. If that doesn't include you, that leaves 24 available on a first-come first-served basis. Some, or all, of those will be occupied by somebody who got there before you. So if you don't have a reserved site you need to get to the entrance to the park at 7:30AM and get in line. As people leave, others get in. If that drill doesn't resonate with you we have another plan.

View from Dead Horse State Park

View from Dead Horse Point State Park

When you turned south on Hwy. 191 you could have continued on to Arches. But you can also turn onto Hwy. 313. In about 20 miles you will see a turn (left) to Dead Horse Point State Park. Legend has it that cowboys once herded wild mustangs into the canyon (only 30 yards wide at the point), culled the herd and left the others to die here in the natural corral. This is a very nice park with views of the Colorado River below and less well-known than Arches. Staying there is not a hardship, except that to see Arches or go to Moab you need to drive about 25 miles. Each time. There are 21 sites for tents or RV's of any length, all with 20 amp electrical hook-ups. Amenities are fine, but no showers.

Another choice is to drive past the turn to Dead Horse Point and enter the Islands in the Sky section of Canyonlands National Park. The Willow Flat campground has 12 sites for tents or RV's to 28 feet with pit toilets and no drinking water. Even if you don't camp here, pay a visit for views of Mesa Arch. Canyonlands covers a huge expanse of territory in southeastern Utah and is divided into four districts; Islands in the Sky, the Maze, the Needles and the Rivers. There are virtually no paved roads connecting the various districts so they kind of stand alone. Islands in the Sky is the northern-most district, with stunning views of nearby mesas and the Colorado and Green Rivers below. It has a wonderful, desolate feel with few amenities but lots of trails and unpaved roads. You can see for a hundred miles on a clear day. The Maze is 30 square miles of even more desolate country, best known as having the most significant rock art in North America. The Needles is known for spires and arches, as well as native American ruins and artifacts, petroglyphs and pictographs and is a four-wheel drive paradise. The original native inhabitants were the same peoples who built their pueblo villages at Mesa Verde in Colorado and Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. The Rivers district is about rivers, the Colorado and the Green. Before they join forces there are stretches where mere mortals can paddle for awhile. After they meet, the water turns white and so begins a 14 mile stretch thru Cataract Canyon suited only to the brave- and experienced. Permits are required and guided trips are available in and around Moab.

Arches National Park entranceIf Bryce Canyon is about hoodoos, Arches is about- well you guess. There are more than 2,000 certified arches within the park, ranging from a few to hundreds of feet from base to base. Two of the best are Landscape Arch and Desolate Arch. As you view them you begin seeing things; this one looks like dinosaurs mating, that one a whale. You realize that the desert is getting to you. A nice aside is a visit to Wolfe Ranch, where a disabled Civil War veteran and his son built a cabin, root cellar and corral in the late 1800's and made a go of it for over 20 years. They must have gotten along pretty well. It takes at least 2 days to see the sites by vehicle, more if you want to hike. Whatever you do, you need to take the hike to Delicate Arch even though that's what everybody else does too. For people with ambulatory issues this is a pretty good park to visit as lots of nice things can be seen from paved areas or with relatively short walks.

Arches National Park

View of La Sal Mountains- Arches National Park

Moab itself is an outdoors hub, kind of dusty and scruffy, logical when you consider all of the parks and open space in the area. It's not particularly pretty or quaint, but its a needed respite from all of the beautiful countryside and campground meals, and a place to take a shower and do the laundry. If you need stuff, stop in the Gear Head outdoor store right on the main drag; nice folks with a comprehensive inventory of quality outdoor goods.

Got more time? You're in for a treat. Check out the nearby Natural Bridges, Hovenweep or Rainbow Bridge National Monuments. Head east into Colorado; the amazing Mesa Verde National Park is within easy range. Head south into Arizona. How about Vermilion Cliffs National Monument or the Grand Canyon? The Flagstaff area teems with red-rock attractions, or you can head to Sedona and come to grips with your inner self. Or follow us, due west to California, with a stop in the Mohave National Preserve before hitting the coast near Morro Bay and some fresh sea air. Can't beat those road trips.

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