The Week In Utah Trip

7 Days of hiking and sightseeing in Utah

I knew I wasn't going to cover any new ground on this trip, but I was okay with that. I've visited Utah several times over the past few years -- in fact, my first vacation (way back in 2004) was to Utah. Because of those previous trips, I knew exactly where I wanted to go, and exactly which places deserved more time.

This trip starts and ends in Salt Lake City. It includes stops in Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, and Kodachrome Basin State Park. The drives down Utah Highway 12 and Hole-in-the-Rock Road are extraordinary.

Day 1

Salt Lake City to Zion National Park

Since I was taking this trip in March, I knew my options for northern Utah were limited. It was still quite snowy in the mountains, and Salt Lake City even saw a snowstorm during my trip. By heading south, I avoided the snow, and had weather so perfect I didn't even turn on my windshield wipers.

I could have taken a scenic route, say, US 89 southbound, but I decided my best bet was to power down I-15 as quickly as possible, and get to a good starting point for Day Two. My flight arrived just before lunchtime, giving me plenty of time to stock up on supplies for the week ahead, then hit the road.

The drive down Interstate 15 is a mix of boredom and excellent scenery. It's about 300 miles from downtown Salt Lake City to the Arizona border, so you can count on a good four to five hours before reaching the turnoff for Zion. The entire way, you're traveling through a mostly-flat, wide valley (the boring part), but that valley is lined with mountains. In March most of the peaks to my left were snow-capped. I spent a lot of time staring at them as I sped by.

As I made my way south, and the sunset was approaching, I weighed my options. I could search for a good photo spot along Utah 14, which heads into those snow-capped mountains near Cedar City, or I could try to make it all the way into Zion Canyon. Instead, I detoured into the Kolob Canyons section of Zion -- the entrance is along I-15 at exit 40. A short scenic drive heads east, to a number of good viewpoints.

This was my first "WOW" moment of the trip. I had been here before, back in 2007, when I hiked up the Middle Fork of Taylor Creek, but I had forgotten the majesty of Kolob, and of Zion, and for that matter, all of Utah. As towering red-rock mountains appeared out of nowhere, I started taking pictures, and I didn't quit until the sun had set.

Then, it was a dark drive on to Springdale, where I would spend the first two nights.

Day 2

Devoted entirely to Zion National Park

It's always great to get a motel in Springdale, if you can. You'll pay more, but you don't have to worry about making a long drive into the park.

I left my motel and went for a drive into Zion Canyon. Throughout most of the year, that's something you can't do -- Zion operates a shuttle service into the canyon from the visitor center. When the shuttles are running - between April and mid-November, normally - private vehicles aren't allowed on the canyon road. I was a week early, so I was able to drive in, and stop wherever I wanted. I was also able to shoot a Drivelapse video of Zion Canyon.

After the drive, I headed east on Utah Route 9. I had heard about some waterfalls below the Great Arch of Zion. Unmarked trails, beginning at the switchbacks, lead into the wilderness. I found one waterfall -- not tremendous, but still quite nice.

From there, I headed through the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel into the east side of Zion, to search out another unmarked trail. This one leads to the "Many Pools" trail, also known as the Root Canals. The trail follows a flood drainage, over sculpted red-rock, into a valley that resembles the root of a tooth on a topographical map. Over the centuries, water rushing down the drainage has carved out potholes -- dozens of them. These fascinating holes remain filled with water throughout the year.

The only bad thing about Day Two was the weather. I would have loved to have seen the Many Pools Trail under blue skies. Unfortunately, it was cloudy. Fortunately, this was the only day plagued with grey skies.

Day 3

More time in Zion, then a drive up to Bryce Canyon

I had an ambitious goal for this day. I hoped to follow an unmarked trail up a nearly-vertical slope, then down the other side of the mountain. The first part was relatively easy: hiking the Canyon Overlook Trail, which begins at the east side of the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel. It's a moderately steep, but short, trail that leads to a spectacular viewpoint, directly above the Great Arch of Zion.

The tricky part came at the end of that trail. I had read that you can continue uphill, climbing the steep slope that leads towards the East Temple (the mountain to your right, that looms over the Canyon Overlook viewpoint), then cross the saddle, and navigate down into the next canyon, which leads back to Route 9. It's been called the East Temple Loop on other websites, but I wasn't able to find the route down, so my hike wasn't a loop. Even so, it was a breathtaking hike that took an incredible effort. And, it had an added benefit -- knowing that people at Canyon Overlook must have been watching and judging my level of craziness.

That hike took up half the day, and the rest was devoted to a leisurely drive through Zion's east side, and on out to US 89, then north to Utah 12. I would spend parts of the next four days on U-12, a road with so much incredible scenery that four days still isn't enough. First up was Red Canyon, a brief encounter with red-rock hoodoos and a couple of awesome little tunnels, that sets the tone for the entire byway.

By evening, I had arrived at Ruby's Inn, at the entrance to Bryce Canyon National Park, with enough time to drive in. Sunset isn't necessarily the best time to view Bryce's natural amphitheaters, since they face the east, but it was still shadowy and dramatic.

Day 4

Bryce Canyon and Kodachrome Basin

Yes, sunrise would have been the ideal time to view Bryce's hoodoos, but as Day 4 started, I was lazy, and didn't get out of bed until well after the sun was up. I still drove into the park, but only checked out a couple of viewpoints, then moved on.

I was happy to discover a worthwhile stop on U-12, where the highway cuts through the corner of Bryce Canyon National Park. A short hike leads to a very tiny waterfall, and Mossy Cave, which really should be called Icy Cave for at least half the year, thanks to the giant icicles that had filled the cave.

From there, I explored the town of Tropic briefly, then made a stop at the visitor center for Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Cannonville. There, I turned off U-12, headed down Cottonwood Canyon Road. It's a sometimes- rough dirt road I've traveled twice before, including that first vacation to Utah in 2004, when one of my most daring goals was to travel its entire length. This time, I only drove south to my favorite part, the Cottonwood Narrows.

With a few hours remaining before sunset, I checked into my "motel" -- a cabin in Kodachrome Basin State Park (at the northern end of Cottonwood Canyon Road). There are six cabins inside the park, with all the comforts of a real hotel, coupled with an unbeatable view, and an amazing measure of solitude. I had enough time to hike the Panorama Trail, a loop with several side-paths, that begins and ends across the street from the cabins.

Day 5

Kodachrome Basin and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

I started the day with a hike on the Angels Palace Trail, which meanders around on a sandstone plateau, slightly above the basin floor, providing great views of just about everything nearby. Before leaving the park, I drove out to Chimney Rock, then to the Shakespeare Arch/Sentinel trail. This hike takes you below Shakespeare Arch, and around the base of The Sentinel (one of Kodachrome Basin's 67 sandstone chimneys, formed by ancient geysers). Then, it takes you over the top of the huge lump of sandstone, allowing you to look down on all the stuff you were just looking up at.

Before heading back to Utah 12 for the drive north to Escalante, I had one more dirt road to explore. It's called Skutumpah Road, and in just a few miles, it leads to two worthwhile attractions: Willis Creek (a hike-able creek-bed that passes through several slot canyons) and Bull Valley Gorge (the road runs directly over the top of this slot canyon, and you can hike down into it). I spent an hour and a half or so, hiking Willis Creek's slots. I also drove over Bull Valley Gorge, but didn't bother to hike into it, since it was still somewhat filled with snow.

By the end of the day, I had arrived in Escalante, and spent the final hour looking for something to do. I ended up driving down Smokey Mountain Road, BLM 300, for a few miles. The road passes through Alvey Wash Canyon, then eventually climbs to the top of the Kaiparowits Plateau and on to US 89. I didn't go very far, because I had no idea where I was headed, and the scenery seemed a bit monotonous (pretty, but not overwhelming). And, I was hitting a few patches of deep sand on the dirt road. Even though I had a 4-wheel-drive car, it wasn't high-clearance, and I didn't think it was worth the risk to go any further.

Day 6

The drive out Hole-In-The-Rock Road

If there was one objective on this trip that made me a little nervous, this was it. I had devoted almost all of Day 6 to traveling just one road -- the 56-mile dirt track to Hole In The Rock. This road runs along a shelf, below the Kaiparowits Plateau (known as 50-mile Mountain, because it goes on, and on, and on...), leading out to Lake Powell.

A century ago, before the lake was formed by the Glen Canyon Dam, Mormon settlers needed to find a way to get across the Colorado River. They spent months, blasting and chiseling, to turn a natural gap in the cliff into a nearly-vertical road. Remarkably, they succeeded, and managed to lower their wagons through the gap, without losing a single one. Hole-In-The-Rock Road ends here, at this gap in the cliff.

There is plenty more to see along Hole In the Rock Road, than just the cliff at the end. The road itself is wildly scenic. Devil's Garden is a bizarre collection of hundreds of sculpted rocks. Spooky and Peek-A-Boo slot canyons are fun, too. You can stop at Dance Hall Rock to see the natural red-rock dance floor used by the Mormons. Numerous other hikes can be found on side-roads that branch off from the main route.

I finished Hole-In-The-Rock Road with just enough time left in the day to drive on up Utah 12 to the end, at Torrey, Utah, outside Capitol Reef National Park.

Day 7

Hiking in Capitol Reef National Park

I had to be back in Salt Lake City by the end of Day 7, in order to catch a painfully early flight out, the next morning. So, I only had half of the day to enjoy in Capitol Reef National Park. Even though I'd been here before, I had never driven the scenic road that runs into the middle of the Waterpocket Fold, directly south of the visitor center. This time, I drove the scenic road, and had time for an excellent hike up the Golden Throne Trail.

After snagging a scone and a soda at the Gifford Farmhouse (part of the old Mormon settlement at Fruita, inside the park), I left Capitol Reef behind, driving up Utah 24 to US 50, and I-15, for the final push into Salt Lake City. My hotel room had a fantastic view to the west, and I watched the sun set without taking a single picture. Sadly, I didn't have time for any more fun. I had to get to bed.