South Utah wonderments close to the road?
October 9, 2017 9:35 AM   Subscribe

Later this month I, KerfSpouse, and Li'l Kerf will fly to Vegas, rent a camper van, and drive to southern Utah national parks for a week. We don't have bikes and the child is just about 10. We are all fairly fit. What's close to the road and amazing? I want to step out of the van, walk 100 feet, and gasp. Thanks!
posted by kerf to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Arches National Park near Moab is great for this. You can't really see Delicate Arch up close like this, but, you'll see plenty of other arches. Also, Dead Horse Point and Confluence Overlook are amazing vistas steps from the parking lot and are in the same area.

Zion is a great choice with lots of cool stuff close to the road. And a little farther north you'll find that Bryce Canyon has great views right from the parking lot.

That said, I would suggest walking a little ways, especially at Arches. It's definitely worth it.
posted by trbrts at 9:49 AM on October 9, 2017

A quick note: Bring plenty of water to all the sites you see. No matter the walkability.

Zion National Park is probably the closest you'll get to a "southern" spot. I've never been there, so I can't speak to its walkability.

In central Utah, you can see two parks, Canyonlands and Arches that are a 10-minute drive from one another. I remember Arches being remarkable in its walkability, with Canyonlands not far from that mark.

If you decide to drive a few hours to the town of Moab (where Arches and Canyonlands meet), see the San Rafael Swell on your way.

Here are quick directions on the drive from Vegas to Zion to San Rafael Swell to Arches to Canyonlands.
posted by mr_bovis at 9:54 AM on October 9, 2017

Kolob Canyon is right off 15, and has some stunning views. It's driveable, with several turnouts and a parking lot at the top. It easily meets the 'less than 100 feet to stunning' criteria. It's the North-West corner of Zion National Park, but (AFIAK) it's not reachable from the Zion entrance.
posted by dws at 9:56 AM on October 9, 2017

Arches is right off the road, and you can drive through, walk up to Delicate Arch, it is not such a long walk on sandstone. The Fiery Furnace is worth looking at. If you go all the way to Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, you can drive right up and look over at the Mittens, way amazing! You can lunch at The View, there and the food is good, I recommend the Roast Beef Sandwich on Blue Corn Navajo ash bread, you kid might like the hot wings, there is plenty to eat. The jewelry counter is outrageous, bring money. If you go the other way down 89 you can visit the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and the road through the pine forest there is beautiful, you do down onto Marble Canyon. There you can dip your toes in the Colorado River, and go back up onto the plateau to Monument Valley from that way. A longer drive is near the entrance to Arches, and the 27 mile drive out onto the Island In The Sky.

But hear me here. If you are going to go to Moab, from the North, from Green River. There is a place called Crescent Junction. At Crescent Junction go five miles more to the east, and visit Thompson Springs, and the Sego Canyon Petroglyph site. This site is one of the more amazing things I have ever seen and felt. It is only 5 miles out of your way, and then you come back west, and drop onto Moab, Utah.
posted by Oyéah at 10:11 AM on October 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

The drive on Route 12 across Southern Utah from Bryce Canyon almost to Moab (I think you have to get on the interstate for the last stretch) was one of the highlights of my Utah trip. It's basically 100% amazing views, with occasional EXTRAORDINARY views. It passes by/through Capitol Reef NP, which we didn't really spend time in but I wish we had.
posted by mskyle at 10:13 AM on October 9, 2017

Red rock canyon (just outside vegas) should be your first stop. When I was driving through it I had to stop because there was a large fur glove in the road ahead of me. And it was moving. Yup. Tarantula.
posted by sexyrobot at 10:33 AM on October 9, 2017

(Also the canyon is super beautiful and bright red)
posted by sexyrobot at 10:34 AM on October 9, 2017

I went to Canyonlands and Arches on a family trip when I was a few years older than your kid and we sure as heck wouldn't have hiked anywhere. 30 years later I remember the sights very vividly. We also stayed in Moab (camping, which I cannot recommend due to all the sand that got in our tents and sleeping bags).
posted by AFABulous at 10:45 AM on October 9, 2017

Also, my dad has been to Zion and Bryce a number of times and he's definitely not a hiker, he's a "pull into the scenic lookout and take pictures" guy.
posted by AFABulous at 10:47 AM on October 9, 2017

In central Utah, you can see two parks, Canyonlands and Arches that are a 10-minute drive from one another.

They really aren't. In what is highly typical out here, they are next to each other if you look on a map, but the entrance to canyonlands is ~40 miles from the entrance to Arches. It's another hour to the Confluence Overlook.

Arches is nice. The delicate arch hike is 3ish miles round trip - it's big ups to get there, and some exposure. How comfortable are you walking along a 6' wide ledge 45 feet in the air ? There's a 3-400 foot section like that.

Canyonlands has some hikes in the 1-3 mile range. My favorite is upheaval dome.

Along the way to Canyonlands you can pull off and go to Gemini Bridges - it's a basic dirt road from hwy 313. Again, a shortish hike, but some spectacular scenery.

A very pretty drive is the La Salle Mountain Loop. There are some neat hikes and such along that route as well, depending on what you want to do.

Moab is a neat area. I've lived an hour from it for 4 years, and haven't seen everything. The main driver will be weather. If it is raining, stick to pavement, unless you know how to use 4wd.

South from Moab is Bears Ears, and Natural Bridges.. Also, Newspaper Rock.

Grand Staircase Escalante has some really neat shorter hikes, too - like 20 mile Dinosaur Tracks.

The list goes on and on and on. Honestly, you can't swing a dead cat without hitting something neat to look at and see.

Bring more water than you think you'll need. Temps are cooler, but the sun is much more intense at this elevation - lots of sunscreen, and floppy hats and sunglasses. Crowds are a thing - especially at Arches, Bryce, and Zion. Get an early start. The people who staff the visitors centers are excellent guides and friendly as hell. They can get you off the beaten path a little bit and away from the crowds.

If you want to have a mefi meetup for lunch or something, let me know - I'm always down to meet mefites.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 10:47 AM on October 9, 2017

Since I just got back from the same trip about an hour ago, I'm going to chime in that most of the parks have EXCELLENT shuttle services, run by dad-joke-spouting, super-informative bus drivers. The visitor centers are useful resources with maps, restrooms, and water refill stations. At multiple sites, we would just ask rangers "where can we get the best views with X amount of exertion?" The recommended routes never disappointed. Also, be aware that the parks have a $30 entrance fee per car, and for $80 gets you an annual pass.
posted by roger ackroyd at 10:53 AM on October 9, 2017

Seconding the drive across route 12, it's jawdroppingly awesome around seemingly every bend. I have criss-crossed this area half a dozen times and this drive has the most bang for the buck.

Arches is also great but far from Vegas
posted by OHenryPacey at 11:41 AM on October 9, 2017

Best answer: Zion's best views are from its hikes. You also won't be driving on the most scenic part of the Scenic Drive, as it is closed to private vehicles (unless you're staying in the lodge within the park – they mail you a pass you have to show the ranger at the gate). If you can swing it the Zion-Mt. Carmel highway is pretty absurdly scenic as you drive in and out of canyon spurs. Zion was our last park before returning to Vegas, and we approached from the east, but we were driving a car, not a camper. There are limitations on vehicle size, so check before you plan to drive through it; there's a narrow tunnel they have to operate as one-way for wide/oversized vehicles. Even if your rented camper is within the allowed size, they still might want you to wait until they're running it one way, and that will slow you down.

Bryce Canyon's Scenic Drive has a number of overlooks that aren't much more than pullouts with tiny parking lots. They advise you to drive to the far end (the shared parking lot for Rainbow Point and Yovimpa Point) without stopping, because all the overlooks will be on your right as you drive back. You could also … not stop at many of them (having stopped at them all, I think my short list would be Rainbow and Yovimpa, Natural Bridge, Farview/Piracy, and the short paved trail between Sunrise and Sunset Points, but it also takes like three minutes to stop at most of the other pullouts, so if you're not crunched for time you may think they're more exciting than I did). Bryce Canyon is more rewarding if you can hike down into the hoodoos (you get a better concept of the size of them, and you see more detail) but it's also not so mind blowing that you need to plan around a day hike. Also it's a down-and-up hike, and coming back up everything seems farther away than it did on the way down.

We really liked Capitol Reef, and almost everything you want to see is right off the main park road. If you have the opportunity to spend the night there, check for a night sky program. Bryce Canyon has night sky programs as well, but they suffer from proximity to road traffic and headlights. Capitol Reef is said to have the darkest night skies of any National Parks, and it was so clear and so dark we could see a lot of detail in the Milky Way with our bare eyes. Also Capitol Reef has a few orchards where you can pick apples if there are still any to harvest.

Probably the biggest "right from the car" thing, though, is just to see the sum total of everything along Scenic Byway 12 between Torrey (just outside Capitol Reef NP) and Bryce (Bryce Canyon NP, natch). You can detour into Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument for as long as you care to drive, too. The experience of driving all of it is to pass through the many, many layers of the earth's crust and see all the different colors and erosion patterns. The top layer of rock at one park is the bottom of another, and Route 12 takes you through a lot of that.
posted by fedward at 11:49 AM on October 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Dead Horse Point State Park and Goosenecks State Park are both great views of a serpentine river and the surrounding rock formations. Petroglyphs will make you gasp - Capitol Reef has some cool ones, Newspaper Rock in the Needles section of Canyonlands and the ones at Sand Island campground are all near the road. In the Natl Parks, I'd say Bryce and Capitol Reef offer the most views right on the road. Both sections of Canyonlands are a close second.
posted by soelo at 12:19 PM on October 9, 2017

Zion is crazy beautiful and there is tons to see even if you don't hike far. As fedward mentioned there is a shuttle bus that is required norht of Canyon Junction which is marked as #3 on this map. In year's past late in the season the shuttle wasn't required but I can't find any information about that on the park web site for 2017. In any case, if your vehicle is larger than what would fit in a normal parking spot you aren't really going to want to venture north into the canyon any further because you won't be able to park. And you will want to venture north into canyon because it is specular from the canyon floor.

As for easy excursions, at the top of the canyon is the Temple of Sinawava and there is a easy paved walk along the Virgin River that leads you to The Narrows. As its name suggests it is a narrow walled canyon made from the eroding power of the river with cliffs walls that are 1500+ feet straight up. It is gorgeous and impressive and awe inspiring. You'll see people wading and hiking up river which is wonderful but it doesn't sound like you are ready for something like that.

Near the lodge in the park there is a short and not too strenuous hike to the Emerald pools which are serious small bodies of water and waterfalls that are green.

Lastly, if you are exiting the park to the east through the tunnel and onto Bryce, there is a trailhead immediately to your left as you exit the tunnel. From there it is short trail to the Canyon Overlook which is stunning. This is probably the fastest way to get to vantage point where you are high up and looking down on the canyon floor.

As for Bryce, you are in luck that the main road through the park sits on top of a narrow ridge and the bulk of the park spills out below you. Almost anywhere they have parking, there will likely be tremendous views from that vantage point. I'd highly recommend viewing the Bryce Amphitheater from above as well as wandering down into it to see the Hoodoos up close.

I realize you don't plan on being outside for long stretches of time but at the higher elevations there is a decent chance for it to be very brisk and it wouldn't be surprising to see snow so keep that in mind as you pack.
posted by mmascolino at 12:58 PM on October 9, 2017

You have to look at Zion's current park newspaper to learn the shuttle schedule. This year it's running every day through November 12, and then a couple more weekends in November. Bryce Canyon also has a shuttle but you're still allowed to drive on the Scenic Drive if you prefer. At Zion if the shuttle is in service the road will be closed to private vehicles.
posted by fedward at 1:51 PM on October 9, 2017

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! I marked one as "best answer" so others would know this was resolved but really they're all the best.
posted by kerf at 8:18 PM on October 9, 2017

Kodachrome Basin, the oasis of Fruita, Cathedral Valley and the Waterpocket Fold are worth seeing, assuming unpaved roads are OK for you. There are wild bison in the Henry Mountains, but being wild you can't be certain of spotting them.

And for somewhat-related advice: in Hanksville, eat at Blondie's and check out Hollow Mountain, a general store built in a cave.
posted by workerant at 11:10 AM on October 10, 2017

Also, pick up a Benchmark atlas of Utah. In the Western US Benchmark atlases are best. In the East, I prefer the Delorme Gazetteers.

posted by workerant at 11:14 AM on October 10, 2017

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