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How to escape the crowds in Utah’s Canyon Country parks

Goblin State Park, Utah Utah’s Goblin Valley State Park is home to thousands of inviting sandstone hoodoos. | Photo by Stanislav Moroz/stock.adobe.com

Southern Utah’s national parks consistently rank among the most-heavily visited in the country, and during the pandemic, the parks’ attendance has only gone up.

In 2021, Arches National Park has routinely closed its front gate to vehicles by midday to prevent overcrowding, and in 2022, Zion National Park plans to require advance permit reservations for its highly trafficked Angels Landing hiking trail.

Fortunately, with a little planning and foresight, you can escape the crowds. Here are spots to find peace and quiet in the Canyonlands region—and tips to help dodge the masses in Zion and Arches.

Goblin Valley State Park

A hiker walks among the hoodoos at Utah’s Goblin Valley State Park.

A hiker walks among the hoodoos at Goblin Valley State Park. | Photo by JFL Photography/stock.adobe.com

Otherworldly sandstone hoodoos abound in under-the-radar Goblin Valley State Park, an easy half-day trip from Arches and Canyonlands national parks, or nearby Capitol Reef National Park.

A filming location for flicks ranging from Galaxy Quest to City Slickers II, the main, spooky-looking spread of rock formations (once dubbed “Mushroom Valley”) has no formal hiking trails and makes for a fun hide-and-seek playground—especially for families with kids in tow.

San Juan River Rafting

The San Juan River near Bluff, Utah, offers rafters a welcome alternative to the popular Colorado River.

The San Juan River near Bluff, Utah, offers rafters a welcome alternative to the popular Colorado River. | Photo by Courtesy Matt Morgan/Visit Utah

The stretch of Colorado River near Moab is often choked with rafts and kayaks on guided outings. For a less-crowded river scene, drive about two hours south to the town of Bluff  and climb into a kayak or raft for a serene 1-, 3-, 4-, or  7-day trip on the San Juan River with local outfitter Wild Expeditions.

The canyon scenery is wild and the rapids never get too wild, so it’s perfect for families. And happily, your guide will likely lead you to the River House ruin, a two-story, Puebloan cliff dwelling etched with intriguing petroglyphs. 

Kodachrome Basin State Park

A hiker explores Utah’s Kodachrome Basin State Park

A hiker explores Utah’s Kodachrome Basin State Park. | Photo by Maygutyak/stock.adobe.com

From spring through fall, Bryce Canyon National Park draws crowds. Seek sweet relief in nearby Kodachrome Basin State Park, where towering redrock-chimney formations (or pipes) stand in crisp contrast to wide-open blue skies.

Most impressive is 170-foot-tall Chimney Rock. The park has a handful of hiking trails. Two of the paths designated as multiuse are open to mountain bikers and horseback riders, including guided rides on the Panorama Trail offered by Red Canyon Trail Rides.

Optional side trip: If time permits, drive about 11 miles south of the park on a graded dirt road to gape at the soaring 150-foot-high Grosvenor Arch, located in Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument

Zion National Park: Kolob Canyons

Kolob Canyons provide visitors to Zion National Park with a break from the crowds.

Kolob Canyons provide Zion visitors with a break from the crowds. | Photo by Vadim/stock.adobe.com

Zion Canyon ranks among the nation’s most spectacular natural wonders. Much of the year, it’s also a zoo of humanity. If the canyon’s jam-packed shuttle buses and hiking trails aren’t your cup of tea, opt for the overlooked Kolob Canyons section of the park off Interstate 15, near Cedar City.

A 5-mile scenic drive has viewpoints overlooking brilliant crimson rock formations and narrow “finger” canyons. Hikers will find exceptional solace on the moderate, 5-mile roundtrip Taylor Creek Trail leading to impressive Double Arch Alcove.

Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument

Sunlight illuminates a rocky wonderland at Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.

Sunlight illuminates a rocky wonderland at Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. | Photo by Paulista/stock.adobe.com

Geology on an epic scale, Grand Staircase  refers to the escalating geologic rock layers of the Colorado Plateau that stretch from the Grand Canyon to Bryce Canyon.

A vast high-desert wilderness held dear by Southwest aficionados, the monument can be sampled with a roughly 2-hour, crowd-free detour off Scenic Byway 12. A 24-mile-roundtrip dirt road (graded and sometimes suitable for passenger cars) takes in Devil’s Garden—a compact area with enchanting sandstone hoodoo formations and small arches. 

Arches National Park

Arrive early for an uncrowded glimpse of The Windows at Arches National Park.

Arrive early for an uncrowded glimpse of The Windows at Arches National Park. | Photo by Anthony Heflin/stock.adobe.com

From early spring through late fall, serenity can prove elusive in busy Arches. But peace can be had if your wake-up alarm is set for before the rooster crows.

Arrive at the park early—even before sunrise—and set your sights (and lights) on The Windows area. Enjoy short, kid-friendly trails to the Window arches, Turret Arch, and Double Arch, minus the maddening midday hunt for a scarce trailhead-parking spot. 

Moab Giants

Moab Giants interactive dinosaur park

Moab Giants interactive dinosaur park. | Photo by Leslie Mieko Yap

Located minutes from Arches, this interactive dinosaur park provides a fun break for kids tired of wandering amid red rocks. T-Rex meets the 21st century here with hands-on exhibits, a 3-D movie theater, and a 5-D “virtual aquarium.” Outdoors, turn the little ones loose on the half-mile Dinosaur Trail, lined with more than 100 full-size dino replicas.

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park is awash in redrock vistas and lightly trafficked trails.

Capitol Reef National Park is awash in redrock vistas and lightly trafficked trails. | Photo by Jeffrey Banke/stock.adobe.com

Though Capitol Reef is the second-least-visited of Utah’s “Mighty Five” national parks, it’s no slouch in the redrock scenery department. Many who do visit this fairly remote park cruise the Scenic Drive paralleling the golden cliffs of the geologic Waterpocket Fold formation (the reef in the park’s name) and then leave.

Stay a while (there’s lodging in the nearby town of Torrey) and hike some of the 15 lightly trafficked day-hiking trails. And if you’re driving a sturdy high-clearance vehicle, don’t miss the scenic dirt road to the skyscraping sandstone monoliths of spectacular Cathedral Valley. Awe, guaranteed.

Important tip: Consult park rangers on current Cathedral Valley dirt-road conditions before embarking.

Canyonlands National Park 

A dramatic, chiseled landscape awaits Canyonlands National Park visitors.

A chiseled landscape awaits Canyonlands National Park visitors. | Photo by Delphotostock/stock.adobe.com

When Arches National Park closes its main entrance due to overcrowding (disappointing, but it does happen), park rangers might point you to neighboring Canyonlands—a blessing in disguise. Canyonlands sees only a fraction of Arches’ visitor numbers, yet it is arguably the most starkly beautiful, beguiling high-desert wilderness in North America.

Near Moab, the park’s Island in the Sky mesa floors you with expansive, contemplative vistas that stretch for miles. Flee the hubbub entirely and venture 90 minutes southwest to the park’s Needles district, a wonderland of sandstone pinnacle formations.        

Bears Ears National Monument

Bears Ears National Monument

A hiker surveys House on Fire Ruin at Bears Ears. | Photo by sumikophoto/stock.adobe.com

While some iconic sites can be reached by paved road, much of Bears Ears’ lands can be accessed only via dirt roads requiring a high-clearance or 4x4 vehicle. This 1.35 million-acre monument in southeastern Utah—whose boundaries have been debated and recently redrawn by presidential proclamation—contains ancient Native American ruins and rock art. Among the most easily accessed ruins are the Puebloan House on Fire granaries, reached by a short dirt road and a 2-mile round-trip hike. The monument’s namesake “Bears Ears” are a pair of mountain buttes sacred to Native Americans.

 

Eli Ellison often escapes his Southern California home and the Canyon Country crowds on visits to Utah.

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AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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