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Utah Spring Break

It's the perfect time of year for the quintessential American road trip

Feb 19, 2016
Outside
Outside Magazine
Utah Spring Break

With warm weather, empty roads, and the bugs vacationing elsewhere, Utah is the ideal place to say goodbye to winter. Head down south, into the nooks and crannies of canyon country, and you’ll practically have the trails and sights to yourself. Perhaps you've been to The Mighty 5—the state's widely visited national parks—but there's plenty to explore outside of the National Parks System. Not sure where to start? Take a peek at the seven-day itinerary we cooked up below.

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Click to enlarge.

Day 1 | Salt Lake City to Boulder | 250 miles

With nonstop service to nearly everywhere (including Paris!), chances are you’ll kick off this week-long vacation in Utah’s biggest city, but the real adventure begins on the way to Boulder, one of the state’s coolest little towns. Along the way, stop in Torrey, a quiet hamlet tucked against Thousand Lake Mountain, and check out the Navajo Knobs Trail, near the historic Mormon settlement of Fruita. It’s a ten-mile round-trip hike that takes you deep into a world of wind-scoured sandstone with panoramic postcard views of the rainbow-hue desert.

Looking for something shorter just to stretch the legs? Take the Hickman Bridge option at a fork on the same trail for a three-mile, out-and-back hike. Or just keep rolling along Highway 12 toward Escalante for some of the most beautiful slickrock scenery anywhere. Down in Boulder, find time to explore Singing Canyon, a slot canyon with opera-worthy acoustics, off the Burr Trail, which leads into 242,000-acre Capitol Reef National Park to the north. The Boulder Mountain Lodge, an upscale roadside hotel, has a relaxed, family-friendly vibe and a great hot tub. Fuel up on some spicy cowgirl chipotle meatloaf at Hell's Backbone Grill in Boulder.

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Day 2 | Boulder to Moab | 250 miles

Get up early, when the colors are at their most vibrant, and take your time getting over to Moab. Break up the drive with a hike among the hoodoos in Goblin Valley State Park, where strange rock formations seem plucked out of a fantasy novel. There’s a three-mile hike back to a slot canyon called Goblin’s Lair, or you can rent some discs ($1 each) at the Goblin Valley Campground for a spectacular round of disc golf. Should you get hungry, stop at Ray’s Tavern in Green River for burgers and a Utah craft brew for lunch, otherwise continue on to Moab and stretch your legs on a hike along the seven-mile-long Devils Garden Primitive Loop in Arches National Park. Watch the crowds thin the farther back you go. Our favorite places to stay in town are 3 Dogs & A Moose, which has four cozy cottages and tons of hammocks, or the Gonzo Inn. With a 24-hour espresso bar and a tool-equipped wash-and-work station in the parking lot, this downtown 43-room Spanish-style hotel is the ideal resting place for slickrock pilgrims.

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Day 3 | Moab layover

All road trips need some down days, though don’t expect your time in Moab to be lazy. If it’s hot, cool off on a full-day whitewater rafting trip through Westwater Canyon on the Colorado with Sheri Griffith Expeditions. Of course, if you haven’t sampled Moab’s legendary mountain bike trails, have the guys at Rim Tours take you down The Whole Enchilada, a ripping, 33-mile-long mountain-bike ride of mostly downhill riding. Hikers should hit the Gooseberry Trail in Canyonlands National Park, a six-mile out-and-back outing that takes you 1,200 vertical feet down into the canyons that make this park famous. Any of those activities will require some serious refueling, which we recommend you do with The Fun Guy pizza—a white pizza with portabella mushrooms—at Paradox Pizza.

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Day 4 | Moab-Monument Valley-Lake Powell | 136 miles

Back in the saddle again. Start your day off amid the backdrop of so many car commercials and westerns: the otherworldly Monument ValleySacred Monument Jeep Tours is the only locally operated Navajo tour company that can take you on a three- to four-hour-long journey deep into the area at sunrise, a perfect time for photography. Guides will also introduce you to traditional songs sung under natural stone arches. Take a short 20-minute detour to Goosenecks State Park, a place where the meandering river cuts deeply into the land. Another 20 minutes past that, and you can access the Moki Dugway: a steep switchback of a road that was constructed in the 1950s to facilitate a route from a mine in Cedar Mesa to a mill in Halchita. The road is a scenic experience in itself, but the viewpoint is a true show-stopper. The dugway brings you to Muley Point, an overlook from which you can see all of your day's stopping points, both Goosenecks and Monument Valley. Less than 30 miles away, Natural Bridges National Monument is home to the second-largest natural rock bridge in the world—a trip to this part of Utah would be remiss without it. (Bonus: It's also the world's first international dark-sky park.) 

Continue on to Lake Powell: a man-made water marvel that draws 2 million visitors every year. Located just minutes from lake activities at Lake Powell's Bullfrog Marina is Defiance House Lodge, which offers beautiful views from the rooms and the restaurant on the marina. Order a Triple Chocolate Pecan Brownie Sundae while sitting on the deck of the Anasazi Restaurant and watch the sunset over the lake. 

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Day 5 | Lake Powell to Zion National Park | 104 miles

In the morning, get that paddle session in if you didn’t already, and then roll on out toward Kanab, “Utah’s Little Hollywood.” There you’ll want to take a detour to drive through Johnson Canyon to find those false-front movie sets used in films like “The Deadwood Coach” and “Have Gun—Will Travel.” Farther west you’ll find the Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, which really does have coral-pink sand dunes that are prime terrain for springtime sledding. (Rent one from the rangers and be sure to buy the wax, too.)

Even cooler, drive about three miles southwest of the park to the BLM’s field office to the Moccasin Mountain Trackways. There you’ll find a five-mile hike starting from the visitor center that takes you back to hundreds, maybe even thousands, of fossilized dinosaur footprints left by creatures like Eubrontes and Dilophosauripus that lived 185 million years ago. Grab the house speciality, the Kanab-A-Dabba-Doo burger, at the Rocking V Cafe, and then motor on over toward Zion to get a fresh jump on your last big day ahead. Note to parents and animal-lovers: The Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Angel Canyon north of Kanab has hundreds of dogs ready to go on a hike with you.

Less than three miles from the south entrance of Zion National Park is Majestic View Lodge, two-story hotel with rustic decor. Enjoy the scenery from your balcony or patio or head to Arkansas Al’s Steakhouse and look out their floor-to-ceiling windows while eating breakfast, lunch, or dinner. 

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Day 6 | Zion to Bryce Canyon National Park | 75 miles

These two national parks deliver a one-two wallop, with so many vistas and strange rock formations to see. In Zion, get away from the other visitors in Kanarra Creek Canyon outside the Kolob Canyons section of the park. It’s only a 3.5-mile round-trip hike, but it requires hiking in streams through a slot canyon that can turn many people away. Persevere and you’ll come to two waterfalls that you can climb up using boards and ropes fixed to the rock. Over in Bryce Canyon National Park, try the Fairyland Loop Trail, an eight-mile hike that takes you along the rim and down into the canyon for panoramic pictures of the funky organ-pipe shape hoodoos that will break your Facebook feed.

Already been to both of these parks? Then check out Cedar Breaks National Monument off Highway 89. Take a hike to Spectra Point (two miles round-trip) or to the Ramparts Overlook (four miles round-trip) among the Bristlecone pines, one of the longest-living species of trees on the planet.

Seven miles past the Bryce Canyon National Park turnoff sits Bryce Canyon Country Cabin, a 20-acre farm with individual- or family-sized cabins. From fruit trees to farm animals to a fire pit, there are plenty of opportunities to unwind after a day full of adventure. For dinner, walk to nearby restaurants or have your own barbecue, all while still enjoying views of the canyon. 

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Day 7 | Bryce Canyon National Park to Salt Lake City | 270 miles

That’s a wrap! Or a pizza slice as the case may be. On your way back north to the big city, stop at Centro Woodfired Pizzeria in Cedar City for gourmet slices stacked with roasted asparagus, fontina, parmesan, and pine nuts.

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