The astounding desert landscapes of Southwestern Utah are almost overwhelming, not only for their beauty, but for the sheer sense of scale involved. Utah is home to an enviable five national parks ("the Mighty 5"), six national forests, and seven national monuments, some of which total close to two million acres. You could travel for a month through the surprisingly diverse terrain and still have a sense of only scratching the surface. With such an embarrassment of outdoor riches, it can be hard to know where and how to immerse yourself. If you have only four or so days and you want to pack in as much as possible, here's how we'd do it: Road trip!
Day 1: Ease Into It
Begin your exploration in the arty little town of Springdale, less than an hour's drive from St George in Utah's most southwesterly corner. Stop by Sol Foods to stock up on trail mix and some of Barbara's homemade cookies for later, and then hop on the free National Park Service shuttle that stops right outside the store. Zion National Park is the nation's sixth most visited national park and offers a huge range of terrain, from trails where you can bring a stroller and the dog, to jaw-dropping cliff faces and gorges that will bring to mind uncomfortable scenes from 127 Hours. Our advice? Ease into it with a beautiful and not-too-taxing hike to the lush and serene Emerald Pools.
Insider Tip: It may sound obvious, but while you're shopping, stock up on water. During the summer at these elevations, you'll need a gallon a day per person.
Day 2: Like a Lion in Zion
Carb up at the Hampton Inn's free hot breakfast and head over to the supremely knowledgeable guys at the Zion Adventure company. Canyoneering is one of the most exhilarating ways to get off the established trails and really explore this breathtaking topography. Hike the narrows, rappel down 15-ft-plus gorges, and free climb the smooth red rocks. We promise it's not as intimidating as it sounds, and the subsequent bragging rights (not to mention the stunning scenery you'll encounter) more than compensate for any initial nerves. After a quick lunch back in Springdale and a stop in one of the many cute places selling homemade fudge, hit the road.
The drive to Bryce Canyon National Park is certainly no hardship, as route 89 rolls through some truly spectacular scenery to become the glorious National Scenic Byway 12. Make sure to get out of the car in Red Canyon to take in the deep colors of the sandstone spires and arches, then continue east up onto the Paunsaugunt Plateau to reach Bryce. If you're not lucky enough to have reservations at the historic Bryce Canyon Lodge, there are several decent options in the small town of Tropic. For a warm welcome, cowboy poetry around the campfire (and did we mention that each cabin has an outdoor hot tub?) we like the Stone Canyon Inn.
Day 3: Hoodoo Voodoo
Whether this is your first encounter with Bryce or your seventh, it's almost impossible to tear yourself away from the dramatic vistas that open up from Sunset Peak, at the rim of the canyon. Once you've regained the power of speech, begin the gentle hike down. Take some time to marvel at the endless twisting hoodoos that spike the bright blue sky—the climb back up will leave you a good deal shorter of breath for exclaiming over their wonder. Spend at least four hours in the park if you can, and then hit Route 12 again. Get your caffeine fix along the way at Esca-Latte, and stretch your legs with a gentle hike along the Escalante River. Continue on route 12, holding your breath over a notorious stretch called Hell's Backbone, to Boulder, where dinner at one of Southeastern Utah's best restaurants, the Hell's Backbone Grill is a must. Soak in the luxury hot tub and stay overnight at the attached Boulder Mountain Lodge.
Day 4: Mars Rover
After breakfast, stop off at the Anasazi State Park Museum, which punches above its weight with some excellent interactive exhibits around the region's Ancestral Puebloan heritage. Drive on to Capitol Reef National Park, the least visited of Utah's national parks, where the landscape is often compared to the surface of Mars. Trails here are wilder and less populated, often marked only with rock cairns, making it the perfect place for some solitary rambling. A favorite is the Cohab Canyon trail (named after its former use as a hiding place for cohabiting families, or polygamists), which takes in a hidden canyon with spur trails and gorgeous overlooks. Stop by the historic Gifford homestead for pie made from the many pioneer orchards that blanket this valley. If you're still feeling adventurous, continue on to the Hickman Bridge, a self-guiding nature trail that leads to the base of a 133-ft natural rock bridge. Post-hike, wind down with a plate of rattlesnake cakes and a mango margarita on the outdoor patio of Café Diablo in the nearby town of Torrey, and start planning your return trip.
Photo credits: Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park via Shutterstock.com; Capitol Reef National Park courtesy of VisitUtah