Southern Utah is arguably the most incredible natural spot in the United States. This area is absolutely unique and stunningly beautiful. Filled with crazy-cut terrain, dramatic slot canyons, and sandstone cliffs that range in color from chocolate to a warm dove gray, this is an ideal place to explore. You’ll find incredible vistas, brilliant orange and topaz hills, ancient ruins, and solitary wildflowers that pop up in the most unexpected places. Southern Utah is so incredible, it’s home to five national parks—more than you’ll find in any other state—and countless National Monuments, refuges, and preserved Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land.
For an unforgettable driving tour, start on Highway 191 south of Interstate 70 (the junction near Green River) and head to Moab, home of Arches National Park. From there you’ll progress to the south and west, passing through three national parks and the startlingly beautiful Lake Powell. If you enjoy hikes, gorgeous views, winery tours, and mountain biking, you can easily spend a week or a month covering this route.
Arches National Park is the most accessible of Utah’s great parks. With just short day hikes, you’ll see a variety of arches, narrow arcs of stone that have been created by centuries of wind erosion. Don’t miss the hike to the famous Delicate Arch, the formation that’s featured on Utah’s license plates and tourist materials. The naturalist Edward Abbey wrote his famous book Desert Solitaire about his time in Arches, and reading this book during your stay will add depth to your understanding of this unusual ecosystem.
The nearby town of Moab, set on Highway 191, is known as the “slick rock capital” of the U.S. Slick rock is the term for Utah’s sheets of sandstone. Mountain bike tires and rubber-soled shoes grip this rock remarkably well, letting bikes and people walk up surprisingly steep slopes. Whether you’re on foot or on your bike, it’s well worth checking out some slick rock. Ask if there are any mountain biking demonstrations going on, so you can see the serious bikers do their thing on the rock! Moab is also filled with delightful restaurants, a winery, craft shops, and amazing views of the surrounding canyon walls.
Southwest of Arches lies Canyonlands National Park, a broader park that’s divided into four sections: Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze, and the Colorado River district. You can reach the park by taking Highway 191 south to Highway 95 NE (or ask locally about smaller access roads). The best way to explore Canyonlands is by heading into the backcountry, either on foot, on a mountain bike, or a four-wheel drive vehicle. The park also has areas for fishing, photography, visitor’s stations, and breathtaking scenery. With a high-altitude view, you can see how – over time – the Colorado River has created this network of canyons, some of which are a hundred feet deep.
Driving south from Canyonlands, take Highway 95 and Highway 261 S to Highway 163 S and enter the beautiful and bizarre Monument Valley, a land of hoodoos, plinths, towering mesas, and natural stone structures that look like they were placed by giants. Years of erosion created these formations, as the wind and water whittled away all but the hardest columns of sandstone. Brilliant stripes of color make each colossal plinth unique, towering above the desert floor. You won’t want to miss the chance to photograph Monument Valley!
Highway 160 will take you on a jaunt through Arizona, winding northwest on Highway 98 to Page, Arizona, the town that sits on the high banks of the Colorado River. Page was created during the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam, when dam workers needed a place to live. Today, the thriving community of Page features terrific restaurants, craft shops, churches, and plenty of rental facilities for visitors heading to Lake Powell, which lies just across the Colorado River in the southernmost part of Utah.
Lake Powell, a man-made lake that was created by the Glen Canyon Dam, is a shocking robins-egg-blue pool in the middle of umber and orange hills. The color combination is almost as striking as the idea of finding a mammoth lake in the middle of a desert. Lake Powell is a popular spot for boating, water skiing, swimming, and house-boating. There are a number of boat ramps, picnic areas, and campgrounds around the lake. The Glen Canyon National Recreation Area offers terrific activities like boating and fishing, hiking the Spencer Trail, and kayaking around the lake. This is a popular spot for mountain biking and for scenic drives to the Burr Trail or along the Hole-in-the-Rock Road.
From here, follow Highway 89 north of Kanab to Highway 9 west and into Zion National Park. Zion is filled with variety. This one park contains desert landscapes, snow-capped peaks, moist cliff gardens, and bountiful wildlife. You’ll find towering cliffs, deep valleys, and sheer canyon walls. This is a phenomenal place to go bird-watching, biking, hiking, or to settle back with your camera. Be sure to visit the Emerald Pools and the Grotto, and to catch a ranger talk to learn more about Zion’s one-of-a-kind ecosystem.
If you’d like to extend your Utah visit a little longer, consider a side trip to Bryce Canyon National Park or Capitol Reef National Park. Set at 8,000 feet, Bryce Canyon offers brilliant red-orange cliffs, high-elevation pine forests, and a cool respite from hot summer days. Capitol Reef is a stunning geological wonder, a place where you can actually see the way the earth works with your naked eye. Capitol Reef, like all the Utah National Parks, has miles of trails for horseback riding, biking, and hiking, as well as outstanding scenic drives.