Desert Escapes

Utah Canyons

   

There are places on every map that are best visited on a whim, unfettered by careful planning. Southeastern Utah's maze of twisting canyons and sprawling mesatops is one of them. A friend and I had no particular destination in mind, just a guiding mantra—"anywhere but Moab"—when we stumbled into a pocket of the state inexplicably overlooked by nearly everyone.
Our entry point was the shady village of Bluff on the San Juan River. It's home to a couple of trading posts-cum-cafes and serves as the put-in for Wild Rivers Expeditions's (800.422.7654) full- and multiday raft trips on the Class II-IV San Juan. From Bluff, we took deserted Utah 261 west about five miles north to where it began switchbacking 1,110 feet up to the top of Cedar Mesa, a sandstone escarpment with views all the way south to Monument Valley.

Here a thick pinon and juniper scrub masks the snaking canyon system of Grand Gulch Primitive Area, just west of Utah 261. A three- to four-day hike starts from the Kane Gulch Ranger Station (435.587.2141) on Utah 261 and cuts a winding, 23-mile route down Kane Gulch to Grand Gulch, up Bullet Canyon, and back to Utah 261. Pick up a $2 topo map and an $8-per-person backcountry permit (reserved by calling 435.587.1532) and check on shuttle options. Fifteen miles north of Kane Gulch is Natural Bridges National Monument, home to three massive sandstone bridges accessed via an 8.2-mile loop hike. The sole campground has 13 first-come, first-served sites ($10).
The closest thing to civilization is Fry Canyon Lodge (435.259.5334), a café/motel/general store a half hour northwest of Natural Bridge on Utah 95. While you can down lemonade and hamburgers, you can contemplate your next move on the gigantic wall map of Fry County. But don't study it too carefully—your best approach is simply to let the byways lead you.

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