By Michael Lanza
The Grand Canyon. The Narrows in Zion National Park. Paria Canyon. The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. These are among the best backpacking trips in the Southwest—arguably in the country. But you have to plan those trips and apply for a backcountry permit months in advance. If you haven’t done that, your chances are slim for ticking off one of them in the next couple of months.
No worries. I have a Plan B for you. (In fact, I have Plans B, C, D, E, F, G, and H for you.)
There are gorgeous hiking and backpacking trips you can still take in the Southwest right now, even if you haven’t done any planning yet. From Utah’s five national parks to lesser-known spots in between, like the Escalante and San Rafael Swell, here are seven of the best.
Go explore one of the most enchanting regions of America. With a week or more of time, you can combine some of these parks in a multi-adventure tour of the Southwest.
And please let me know what you think of my suggestions, or suggest your favorite trips in the comments section at the bottom of this story.
Arches National Park
Many of the biggest and most fascinating of the more than 2,000 catalogued arches in Arches National Park can be seen on short dayhikes, making it very friendly to young families—like the Windows Section’s North and South Windows, Turret Arch, and Double Arch.
The Devils Garden hosts the park’s largest, 306-foot-long Landscape Arch, and numerous others that can be seen without hiking far. But you can also explore a little deeper into Devils Garden, beyond where most dayhikers venture, to quieter corners harboring the very cool Navajo Arch and Partition Arch.
Tip: Time your visits to extremely popular Delicate Arch for sunset, and Balanced Rock for a dark, starry night.
See my story “No Straight Lines: Backpacking and Hiking in Canyonlands and Arches National Parks,” and all of my stories about Arches and Canyonlands national parks at The Big Outside.
Needles District, Canyonlands National Park
Erosional forces working over unfathomable gulfs of time formed the bizarre towers and cliffs of The Needles District of Canyonlands; but it looks more like the work of giant children squeezing mud from their fists.
With its trail network and backcountry campsites, the Needles is the district of Canyonlands most conducive to backpacking. But much of this area can be explored on easy to moderate dayhikes, including the 7.5-mile loop up Big Spring Canyon and down Squaw Canyon from Big Flat campground, and the 11-mile, out-and-back hike to spectacular Chesler Park. The Island in the Sky District also has trails for dayhikes high above the canyons of the Colorado and Green rivers.
Arches and Canyonlands can be explored from campgrounds in either park or the Moab area, or from lodging in Moab.
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Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon’s sea of hoodoos—the multi-colored, limestone, sandstone, and mudstone spires that look like giant, melting candles—is one of the most unique geological features of the Southwest. The park’s location between Zion National Park and parks farther north along Utah Highway 12—one of America’s most-scenic roads—makes it a must-do stop for a dayhike or even a half-day hike during a multi-day road trip.
Bryce’s relatively short Navajo Loop/Queens Garden Loop is popular for good reason, winding through a sea of hoodoos. Combine it with the less-traveled Peek-a-Boo Loop for a six-mile hike and you lose the crowds—and discover the scenic heart of Bryce Canyon while hiking below the Wall of Windows and row after row of towers in fluorescent shades of red and orange.
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Capitol Reef National Park
One of the largely overlooked gems of the National Park System, situated between more-famous Zion and Bryce national parks to the southwest and Arches to the east, Capitol Reef sees a fraction of the visitors that flood those other parks. But Capitol Reef harbors scenery that compares with its better-known neighbors.
So few people venture into the backcountry that you can show up at the visitor center’s backcountry desk on the day you want to start a multi-day trip and grab a free permit, no reservation needed. With little advance planning, you can explore Capitol Reef on dayhikes or short backpacking trips.
Find out what to do there in my stories “Plunging Into Solitude: Dayhiking, Slot Canyoneering, and Backpacking in Capitol Reef,” “Playing the Memory Game in Southern Utah’s Escalante, Capitol Reef, and Bryce Canyon,” and all of my stories about Capitol Reef National Park at The Big Outside.
Explore the best of the Southwest. See my stories “The 12 Best Hikes in Utah’s National Parks” and
“The 10 Best Backpacking Trips in the Southwest.”
Kolob Canyons, Zion National Park
Hiking in Zion’s Kolob Canyons area of Zion National Park, the five-star scenery begins with the first step from your car. At the Taylor Creek Trailhead, Lee Pass Trailhead, or the Kolob Canyons Viewpoint, you’re immediately greeted with views of crimson cliffs soaring hundreds of feet tall. Then it just keeps getting better.
Located in the northwest corner of Zion, far from the crush of tourists at the park’s south entrance in Springdale, the Kolob Canyons consist of a series of narrow, parallel canyons with walls up to 2,000 feet tall. Higher in elevation, it’s a cooler destination for hiking and backpacking when trails starting in Zion Canyon are too hot—not to mention considerably less crowded.
The easy and really scenic Taylor Creek Trail extends two-and-a-half miles up Taylor Creek Canyon, gaining only 450 feet in elevation, to Double Arch Alcove, a pair of giant arches in the Navajo sandstone beneath the 1,700-foot-tall walls of Tucupit Tower and Paria Tower. The trail passes by two historic homestead cabins built in the early 1930s, the Larson Cabin and the Fife Cabin.
See more photos, a video, and information in my “Photo Gallery: Hiking the Kolob Canyons of Zion National Park,” and all of my stories about Zion National Park at The Big Outside.
I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life. Find out more here.
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
While a misguided presidential order has greatly reduced this beloved national monument, the Escalante area holds more natural wonders than a person might be able to explore in a long and active life. So start anywhere you want and just keep going back.
My family and another spent part of a weeklong Southwest trip there backpacking three days through Coyote Gulch—one of the more family- and beginner-friendly canyon country backpacking trips, and a beauty (see this photo gallery)—and dayhiking a pair of classic slot canyons, Peek-a-Boo Gulch and Spooky Gulch (watch this video). And you can just show up and knock off any of those hikes, as well as explore deeper into the Escalante area, without having to jump through any permitting hoops.
Gear up right for hikes in the Southwest. See my reviews of the best hiking shoes and the 8 best daypacks.
Horseshoe Canyon and the San Rafael Swell
Horseshoe Canyon, least-well-known of the four districts of Canyonlands National Park, protects what is widely considered the best prehistoric Indian rock art in America. And just reaching the trailhead is an adventure in driving a sometimes rocky, sometimes sandy road which can become impassable in heavy rain or when wind piles sand drifts across it.
But take the nearly seven-mile, out-and-back hike up Horseshoe Canyon—located in the vast desert between the rugged spine of the San Rafael Reef and the deep, isolated canyons of the Green and Dirty Devil rivers—and you will be treated to a canyon with 200-foot-tall, burnt-red walls, fossilized dinosaur tracks (watch for them marked in circles of small stones on the 800-vertical-foot descent of the trail into Horseshoe Canyon), and four elaborate pictograph panels. The last of them, the Great Gallery, spans 200 horizontal feet and features colorful human-like and animal figures, the largest measuring over seven feet tall.
Find out more about this hike and see more photos in my blog post “3-Minute Read: The Great Gallery Pictographs of Horseshoe Canyon in Canyonlands National Park.”
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Use as a base the campground at nearby Goblin Valley State Park (reserve a campsite in advance; stateparks.utah.gov/parks/goblin-valley)—pitching your tents below blood-red stone spires—explore Horseshoe Canyon one day, and then dayhike some of the narrow canyons carving through the San Rafael Reef, which looms right above Goblin Valley.
The out-and-back hike down Crack Canyon involves a bit of scrambling, but generally just walking down a dry canyon of walls a couple hundred feet tall, narrowing in spots to slot-canyon dimensions. Hikers typically go about 2.5 miles down the canyon, turning back at an impassable pour-off (right before it, watch for a rough path ascending steeply up the right wall of the canyon to an overlook in a notch atop that wall).
To reach the Crack Canyon Trailhead: From UT 24, follow the Goblin Valley road west for 5.2 miles to Temple Junction and a BLM information kiosk. At Temple Junction, the road heading south leads to Goblin Valley State Park. Take the road heading west through the reef for 2.2 miles to the unsigned junction with the Behind the Reef Road. Follow that road south for 4.2 miles to the signed turn-off to Crack Canyon. The Crack Canyon road is located in the bottom of a wash and easy to locate if you have correctly noted your mileage; drive that short road as far as possible, then park.