Utah, Colorado trip planning
March 28, 2021 5:25 PM   Subscribe

In the very early stages of planning a trip to Utah/Colorado in June. Planning to go to Zion and some combination of Moab/Capitol Reef/Bryce/Grand Escalante. Then Colorado. More details inside.

Assume that if this doesn't feel safe due to COVID we'll postpone...

The basics:
Dates are June 18-July 3.

Nine days of roadtripping around, followed by five days of staying in one (or two) places with me working during the day and hiking/exploring after I am done with work around 3pm.

6-7 days to bop around Utah
2-3 days to make our way from Moab through CO
5 days based somewhere in CO with hikes/climbing in easy proximity for after-work hours
1 additional full day in CO before heading home

Our plans
Two people. We would like to spend our time hiking and climbing (sport climbing mostly, bouldering also fine, easy trad okay). Also like hot springs, food, other adventure-y activities. Will have gear for overnight hiking/ backpacking if needed.

Planning to car camp (in a tent) in campgrounds and BLM land, and then pay for some sort of wifi and shower enabled place to stay for the five days I'm working.

Would like to avoid crowds when possible but we don't need/expect solitude either. We'll be on East Coast time, so will be getting up early to beat the crowds and heat.


-Does it make sense to fly into Vegas or SLC? Vegas is shorter, but a scenic drive or lots of things to do en route could sway me toward SLC.

-What should we prioritize out of the Utah parks for our purposes? We'll have around 6 full days for the Utah portion. We are both pretty smitten with the idea of Zion so I think that's a must-do, but I'm not sure what makes sense in terms of prioritizing Bryce, Grand Escalante, Capitol Reef, Arches, the other smaller parks... it's so much! Would also love specific hike recommendations, though I think there's a lot of those in the archived questions once we narrow down the itinerary.

-Where should we base ourselves for the five days that I'm working? Looking for somewhere with hikes/climbing within a shortish drive, and maybe good food and fun to wander around? Thinking Boulder or somewhere else outside of Denver right now.

-What is the most interesting way to make our way from Grand Junction to Denver?

-Is it bananas to not go to the Grand Canyon or Rocky Mountain National Park?

Thank you!
posted by geegollygosh to Travel & Transportation around Salt Lake City, UT (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Do the 5 days have to come at the end or can they be shifted to the middle, or can you adjust the trip to put them in the middle?

Moab is central and would make sense for a home base for your 5 days. If you start in Vegas, you can go to Zion, Bryce and Capitol Reef. Then you could spend 7-8 days, in Moab (5 of them working) and from there you are near Arches and both parts of Canyonlands plus Dead Horse state park. Then you could head out to Colorado for climbing.
posted by soelo at 5:52 PM on March 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Should have noted that: 5 days of working could easily be shifted to the beginning. Maybe could be in the middle, would have to think about it. Not sure it would be as relaxing.
posted by geegollygosh at 6:05 PM on March 28, 2021

I enjoyed my stay in tiny Boulder, Utah...I stayed at Pole's Place, it was basic but affordable and agreeable. Boulder's between Capitol Reef and Bryce, on a curvy stretch of highway 12. When I was there a good coffee shop and decent restaurant were part of the scene. Kind of a "hippy" vibe, not like, er, the other small town vibe we got in a lot of Utah communities, if you catch my drift. The Anasazi museum in is Boulder. It would be fairly central to a lot of stuff. (There is a website.)

I was on a motorcycle tour so didn't do much hiking, but the Burr trail road is pretty cool--a drive through the bottom of a slot canyon.

Bryce was amazing and you can still drive yourself through the park. Zion, I believe, prohibits private vehicles, which is probably better for the park but may or may not fit into your plans.
posted by maxwelton at 6:48 PM on March 28, 2021 [2 favorites]

Grand Canyon and RMNP will still be there even if you don't go this time.

Zion, Capitol Reef are my favorites in Utah.

The Goblin Valley State Park is also worth visiting.

In Colorado, consider Ouray, Glenwood Springs, Salida as places to stay with work close to hiking.
posted by nickggully at 7:24 PM on March 28, 2021 [3 favorites]

boulder, co sounds right. climbing in the flatirons and eldorado canyon. every level, sport and trad. ok, i dunno if there are 5.15+ in eldo, i haven't been in years, but it wouldn't surprise me.

pearl street mall is open. but colorado is still pretty covid-strict.

if you are acclimatizing, antero, quandary peak and grays/torry combo are really straightforward non-technical walk-ups. if not, mccullough gulch trail is nice and has a lake at the end. arrive *early* am.

rmnp is a pretty easy drive from boulder.

stop in buena vista on your way across the state for guided rafting in brown's canyon. or further south, royal gorge is a more dramatic ride.

the red rocks amphitheater schedule is out if you are music people.
posted by j_curiouser at 7:28 PM on March 28, 2021

You don't need to go to Rocky Mountain National Park, but I wonder why then you plan to head to Denver/Boulder? That's far more north than everything you mention. I stayed in Crestone a bit and enjoyed it - sleepy little town, very close to lots of hiking and the dunes, which are fun.

That said, if you do want to go to Rocky Mountain National Park (which was my favorite part of my Colorado vacation, but everyone has different preferences), I'd stay in Allenspark - waaaay less touristy than Estes Park, and it's very close to the Wild Basin trailheads - I actually enjoyed those trails the most, as they tend to be less crowded.
posted by coffeecat at 8:34 PM on March 28, 2021 [2 favorites]

(BTW, the best food of that two week road trip was the taco trailer in the parking lot of the Anasazi Museum. But that was in 2016, so who knows now.)
posted by maxwelton at 9:12 PM on March 28, 2021

Do be prepared for the heat - Moab in late June/early July can be really HOT, and make rock climbing uncomfortable at best.
posted by dbmcd at 10:06 PM on March 28, 2021 [2 favorites]

Zion is beautiful, but I went on a weekday in September 2019 and it was so crowded that I left early to visit Bryce. I talked to some Zion rangers and they said if you want to do popular hikes like Angels Landing or the Narrows you should start as early as possible if you want to avoid crowds. Being on east coast time will give you an advantage, it's a beautiful place, see as much of it as you can in the morning!

Bryce was crowded right off the main roads, but about a quarter mile into the hikes I did it thinned out and was lovely.
posted by lepus at 10:47 PM on March 28, 2021

Fly into Vegas unless you want to see SLC. In my opinion, SLC has a bad vibe. It feels totally different than southern UT to me. Vegas actually isn't closer to Moab, but you could even detour to see the Grand Canyon on your way past. I think bopping along the AZ / UT border is an interesting and less-traveled way to go. You could see Monument Valley.

If you want to add some historical depth to what you're seeing, read up on the uranium / nuclear history of the area. This podcast on the forgotten downwinders focuses more on Nevada, but it's a good intro, and then one of the speakers, Sarah Alisabeth Fox has a good website with links to some of what's going on and went on in Utah.

I agree that unless it's possible to move this to May, you're going to want to do your Moab area hiking in the morning and late afternoon.

The drive to Denver might be fun to do along the southern part of the state. If I'm remembering right, 160 is really scenic. You could check out Telluride. Oh, the Bluegrass Festival there is June 17-20, if you wanted to fly into CO and reverse the order and catch a bit of that or move your trip forward by a few weeks.

Enjoy your trip!
posted by slidell at 3:11 AM on March 29, 2021

I have two dear friends whose advice I am going to seek - they own two rental properties in Moab and he leads photo tours of the national parks near there, and the pair of them now live in a town between Denver and Boulder and he also leads photo tours near THOSE parks. Please stand by, I'm sure they will have some advice after I send them this link...
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:27 AM on March 29, 2021

Agree that Boulder would be a pretty good place to work and play, as the outdoors stuff is very accessible.

I did a similar trip to your Utah portion in May 2006. I flew to Vegas, spent three days at Zion, then drove to Moab and did a day or two at Arches and Canyonlands, then road tripped back through the scenic highway, stopping at Goblin Valley, Escalante (check out Kiva), Capitol reef and Kodachrome. I slept in Zion the last night before going back to Vegas. This itinerary felt great and not rushed.

One thing I would note is that by late June, it will be pretty hot, so plan accordingly and try to do anything strenuous early or late. Also probably a good idea because Utah's most popular places (including, most of all, Zion) are pretty packed these days.
posted by benbenson at 8:21 AM on March 29, 2021

If you go to Arches, I highly recommend doing the ranger-led Fiery Furnace hike. It is one of the most amazing places I have ever been.
We skipped Grand Canyon and did Dead Horse Point instead.
posted by Ochre,Hugh at 9:24 AM on March 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

+1 vote for Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon - not as well known as Zion or Arches but insanely beautiful and huge.

Also, one other thing my daughter loved when we went a few years ago was the dinosaur tracks near Moab - it's a small detour off the main road you'll be driving (between Moab and I-70) and a short short hike from the trailhead to get an up-close view of real dinosaur tracks. Make sure to check it out!

posted by _DB_ at 10:48 AM on March 29, 2021

This is going to be a great trip. I did something similar in late May a few years ago, and have to agree with others to be prepared for the heat in Moab. When I was there it wasn't too hot to walk around in the middle of the day or do longer hikes in the morning or evening, but since I was camping, the inability to escape the heat for longer than a restaurant meal or stroll through a visitor's center made the long days feel unrelenting. Due to the heat factor, a surplus of food and amenities catering to exactly your needs, and how much there is to do in the immediate vicinity, I'd echo soelo to consider Moab as your home base when you're working. However, you should be aware that hotel prices, even for your cheap little roadside motel, were insane last I looked. After baking in Moab (and to a lesser extent Zion), Bryce was a huge relief. I really enjoyed the Fairyland Loop hike in particular. Bryce is a Dark Sky park, and there was lots of programming around stargazing and astronomy when I visited - unfortunately you'll just miss the Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festival.

Although it is much more driving, if you can find the time I strongly recommend taking the southern route from Grand Junction to Denver. Southwest Colorado is one of my favorite places in the world, and although that stretch of I-70 is pretty striking and has plenty of worthwhile stops, it does not compare to the Million Dollar Highway. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a 30 minute detour in Montrose, and you don't need to spend much time there to get a sense of the stunning vistas (and enjoy a fraction of the crowds you'll find in other national parks), though I understand the climbing might make it worth a longer stop. Keep going and then spend a day or two based out of Ouray or Silverton and explore the San Juans. In Ouray, the Amphitheater Campground is lovely, nestled up in the hills overlooking a very picturesque town, and the Ouray Hot Springs are both a nice chance to relax sore mucles and a good chance to take a warm, clean shower (note this is more like a community pool than a nature experience, but still a nice pick-me-up). Silverton has amazing dispersed camping along Forest RD 585 on the way to Mineral Creek Campground - look for one of the spots a few hundred feet from the road, near a stream and with views of imposing cliffs. This will put you only a mile or two from the Ice Lakes trailhead, one of my favorite hikes in the country. This site is great for all of southwest Colorado.

From there, it's a beautiful drive to Durango, a fun town in its own right and just down the road from Mesa Verde. The rest of the drive to Denver is a bit more barren and desert-like. You'll pass through Pagosa Springs, which has several venues to enjoy the hot water if you like, and then you have two route options - either go through Alamosa to stop by the otherworldly Great Sand Dunes and then maybe another climb at Garden of the Gods, or break north on 285 and experience some fantastic whitewater rafting around Buena Vista and Salida.
posted by exutima at 10:56 AM on March 29, 2021 [5 favorites]

Tripadvisor will have forums for where you want to visit. Check the already-posted questions and sidebar Top Questions for help/ideas and then post any specific questions you have.

For example, the Tripadvisor forum for Glacier National Park has an amazing amount of advice. There are several Destination Experts on there. The tone of the forum is very nice - jerks aren't tolerated.

posted by ITravelMontana at 5:10 PM on March 29, 2021

I suggested southwestern CO above and agree with exutima.
posted by slidell at 9:11 PM on March 29, 2021

Sounds like a fantastic trip! I just returned today from a short trip to Bryce Canyon and Zion- both were wonderful but I preferred Bryce. Zion is very crowded, if I had done more research in advance I probably would have gone to Capitol Reef instead. Two things to be aware of- it will be hot in June/July and late afternoons are the hottest part of the day. If possible, you might want to consider shifting your work schedule and hiking in the mornings and working in the afternoons. Secondly, Wi-Fi and mobile phone service were poor in Bryce and basically non-existent in Zion. Sounds like the work portion of your trip will likely be in CO but something to be aware of.
posted by emd3737 at 4:37 AM on March 31, 2021

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