Utah’s landscape is as varied as it is colorful to describe. Shaped by waves and sediments, the rich colors and shapes are endlessly fascinating as they change from moment to moment while road tripping through.
The clouds turn red, reflecting the ground as they pass overhead. The rocks form into hat and mushroom shapes, and with a dusting of snow, it all turns even more magical.
Parts of Utah such as Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, and the famed Mesa Arch in Canyonlands are mega-popular, and it’s almost impossible to get the amazing parts of those to yourself. However the great thing about Utah is the adventure potential is almost endless. There are equally impressive sights all over the state that are just begging to be explored. Plus, there’s almost nobody around.
My friend Kristen and I took her camper van out for a week in February and managed to go for days without seeing any other people in the natural places we visited. That gets harder and harder to do these days and is one of the reasons why the American Southwest is so special. There are still plenty of wide open spaces and lack of cell signal. If you’re looking for an off the beaten path experience in Southern Utah, here are some of the best places to see:
1. Dead Horse Point State Park
Sometimes the easiest way to avoid the crowds is to avoid the national parks. This is particularly true in Moab, Utah. This area is practically overflowing with rock arches, beautiful canyons, and impressive overlooks and plenty of them are hidden and uncrowded. My personal favorite is Dead Horse Point at sunset. It’s an easy, drive up view and is just as impressive as the Grand Canyon if you ask me!
There are hiking trails in the park, which you can see in the photo above. It’s also super close to Canyonlands National Park and practically across the street from Arches. Entrance is $15 and it’s best at sunset.
2. Needles Overlook, Canyonlands
Canyonlands is a huge national park and although it has some very crowded spots, like the Mesa Arch at sunrise, other parts are practically deserted. Heading south out of Moab, you’ll pass by a road offshoot (linked in the map below) that takes you to the Needles Overlook. The drive itself is gorgeous, and the payoff at the end is incredible. The Overlook is a large area that allows you to see almost 360°. If you have the time, it’s worth working in a stop here to see the incredible view. No hiking required.
The Needles area also offers several hiking trails of varying lengths and difficulty if you can invest the time, and weather-permitting.
3. Bears Ears National Monument
This national monument started to appear in the headlines recently due to some conflict over whether it should remain protected land or not. This otherwise unheard of part of Utah is worth stopping into if you love being able to interact and look at ancient cave drawings and ruins without having a barrier between you and ancient history. We did not stop in here but heard great things about some of the hikes. The visitor’s center is only open in the warmer months.
4. Valley of the Gods
This blink-and-you’ll-miss-it turnoff on the way south into Arizona is one of my favorite parts of Utah because it’s so beautiful and yet so uncrowded. The Valley of the Gods is BLM land, meaning you can camp in any of the road pull-offs provided you leave no trace.
The rocks in this area look like chimney stacks and sombreros. Though it’s close to Monument Valley with similar formations, this area is completely free and open to the public. Just be careful if there has been rain or heavy snow as the road is dirt and can easily turn into mud.
5. Goosenecks State Park
When you get to the end of the road in the Valley of the Gods, take a right towards Goosenecks State Park for an overlook onto the Colorado River weaving through the canyon as far as the eye can see.
If you continue to head north from there, you’ll wind your way up a steep, gravel canyon wall which is an incredible drive for the views, though not ideal if in an RV or if it’s dumping rain or snow. There’s some awesome BLM camping at the top, too. I considered linking where we camped here but I feel that takes so much of the fun and discovery out of finding your own campsite, which was half the fun for Kristen and me.
6. Natural Bridges National Monument
Another under the radar and relatively small area, this national monument has three major bridges that can each be done as an out and back hike or a loop to see all three. Each hike has steps down to its respective bridge which would be totally fine in the summer, but when I went in the winter, parts of it were icy. Bring along spikes for your shoes if attempting this in the winter months. Be sure to stop by the visitor center to inquire about the conditions of the trails as well.
In the winter months, the trail to Sipapu Bridge can get icy since the trail is mostly in the shade, however Kachina was more accessible and brought us to a waterfall as well. When the trail is less icy, the entire loop would be incredible.
From there it’s a gorgeous drive that you won’t be sharing with many people at all through the northeast end of Glen Canyon through Hite.
7. Goblin Valley State Park
This is one of the trippiest parks we visited in terms of landscape. It looks like you’re walking amongst giant mushrooms at first, and then it feels like you’re walking through a watery underworld of clay that almost looks like coral formations as you progress further. This is a pretty small park but absolutely worth taking a walk through to see these unique formations. I’ve never seen anything like it before!
Entrance is $15 and there are nice bathrooms at the overlook, along with the campground that costs an extra $10.
8. Little Wild Horse Canyon
This is a slot canyon hike that is located on BLM land just outside of Goblin Valley. There are some free camping spots nearby which will put you in perfect positioning to do the entire loop hike, passing through two slot canyons. If you’ve always wanted to see Antelope Canyon without the crowds, Little Wild Horse delivers.
Unfortunately, it looked like rain was possible on the day that Kristen and I wanted to hike it. Please be aware that slot canyon hikes are incredibly dangerous if there is any rain not just in the area, but anywhere upstream. They can flash flood quickly and it’s not worth taking the risk. We just ventured into the first canyon part-way, which was probably already a stupid move, and then went out on our way.
9. Capitol Reef National Park
Kristen and I had both seen incredible photos of Capitol Reef and wondered where they were taken, since the more impressive things to see didn’t appear to be on the popular Scenic Drive. After speaking to a helpful volunteer at the visitor center, we learned that the coolest things to see were up a dirt road that can turn into a peanut buttery consistency when it rains. We were getting a little bit of snow but decided to go for it and it ended up being an incredible drive with nobody else around.
The best parts of it were the Temples of the Sun and the Moon, two sail-like rocks that seem to appear out of nowhere.
Even though this is a national park, this part of it doesn’t receive many visitors, as evidenced by the dirt road. It could become impassible in particularly wet weather, but when it’s dry a Prius could drive over it. Check in the visitor center to see what the conditions might be.
10. Coyote Gulch in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
This will be a sizable deviation if you decide to do it, but it’s so worth it! Grand Staircase-Escalante has some of the best adventures in southern Utah and Coyote Gulch is the crown jewel.
This hike has several access points and can be done as an overnight or single day trip if you take the sneaker route, which I did last time I passed through. The road out is mostly washboard dirt and gravel, and could become treacherous if it’s raining or muddy. If you decide to take the route I did, you will need a rope just in case. You can read more about the hike here.
Driving Conditions and Food
Kristen and I did the trip in her 4 x 4 Sprinter van and camped out in BLM land during the whole experience. When I previously drove through the American Southwest, I had a minivan camper van that did not have 4 x 4 capabilities and could have taken it on most of the roads that we went on. In both cases, I camped on BLM (Bureau of Land Management AKA public land with no facilities) and packed out absolutely all of my trash (including toilet paper!) and was completely self-sufficient. It’s important that when traveling in this part of Utah, you’re prepared to do the same.
You will want to do your grocery shopping in Salt Lake City, or whatever major area you’re departing from. Once you leave Moab, it will be nothing but tiny towns with gas stations for groceries and incredibly limited food selections. Even restaurants will be hard to find.
Your best bet is to either come prepared with a way to cook and store food like a camper van, or to have an ice chest and stove. If you choose to stop by Page in Arizona, or head out towards Zion, you’ll have a few more food options at that point.
Always be sure to keep your gas tank full as well, and bring an extra tire just in case. Cell signal can also be hard to come by out there, so I suggest downloading these stops onto an offline Google or maps.me map so that you have them at your disposal before you go:
Even though these off the beaten path gems are fantastic to see and check out, that’s not to say that other parts of Utah should be skipped just because they’re more popular. Kristen has a fantastic post about Utah’s best national parks worth taking a look at.
So pack your sense of adventure, download this map off-line, and get ready for an incredible journey through some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world.