How to Spend 9 Days Adventuring in Southern Utah
Sometimes I think I enjoy planning a trip as much as I enjoy taking the trip. Over the years, I’ve honed the planning to a careful craft. There are spreadsheets, methods to the madness, and research that includes checking to see if anyone else has shared an itinerary for the trip I’m attempting. Usually, they haven’t. There are so many options, so many places to see, trails to hike, roads to travel down, it’s hard to imagine two people coming up with the exact same plan.
I took this trip in May 2022, and it covers about 1,000 road miles, 75 trail miles and nine or so days, starting and ending in Las Vegas, Nevada, which has repeatedly proven to be an excellent gateway to the wilds of Utah, Arizona and California, bright lights and loud noises be damned.
Day 1: Las Vegas, St. George & Zion National Park
(Two keys to a successful first day of travel: don’t expect too much of yourself, especially if you’ve switched time zones, and place a pickup order at Target for all your snacks and supplies, otherwise you’ll spend an hour wandering the aisles looking for Pringles.)
I touched down in Vegas just before noon, spent over an hour in the rental car shuttle line and less than five minutes in the actual car rental line and then, finally, I was off to St. George, Utah (130 miles, 2 hrs. drive time) to pick up supplies at Target and the Desert Rat, a local outdoor retailer. Just before skipping town, I devoured a burger from Morty’s Cafe, then continued on to Zion National Park (36 miles, 45 mins. drive time).
I set up my campsite at one of the walk-in sites at the Watchman Campground ($20) then wandered down the Pa’rus Trail for a low-key evening stroll. I’d visited Zion in 2019 and managed to hit the greatest hiking hits then, and was mostly using the park as a scenic and convenient stopover this time around.
As the sun started to set, I went for a few beers at Zion Brewery, just outside the park gate, before calling it an early night.
For first time visitors, Angel’s Landing is one of the top-rated hikes in the park (required permit issued by lottery, strenuous 5.4 mile out and back), as is The Narrows (easy-hard, travels through the Virgin River). I’d also recommend the Watchman Trail (moderate 3.1 mile out and back) if you’re looking for something closer to the campgrounds.
Day 2: Kanarra Falls & Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
First up for day two was Kanarra Falls (moderate 5 miles out & back, $12 permit required; 48 miles & 1 hr. drive time from ZNP), a hike I’d seen photographed all over the internet and wanted desperately to explore myself.
After those first falls, I settled in for one of my longest drives of the trip (162 miles, 3 hrs. drive time) and headed for Lower Calf Creek Falls (moderate 6.7 mile out & back), part of the staggeringly beautiful Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, where I planned to stay for the following few days.
Spent from a day well-traveled, I ventured down Hole-in-the-Rock Road to find a dispersed campsite. My dispersed camping experience was, at that point, pretty light, so I was a little nervous about finding a spot, but there are tons of campsites along Hole-in-the-Rock Road and I a great one pretty quickly.
Day 3: Escalante Slot Canyons
I popped out of my tent that morning without pants on before realizing there was a van parked not too far from me at a nearby campsite. There’d been no one in sight the night before and I’d woken with the false confidence of feral creature assuming solitude, but quickly corrected myself, got dressed, broke camp and went to hike Peekaboo and Spooky Slot Canyons, along with Dry Fork Narrows (moderate 6 mile loop). This was my first foray into really narrow slot canyons, and it was like being in nature’s jungle gym climbing up, over and around rock formations.
Next, it was on to Zebra Canyon (moderate, 5.2 mile out & back), just 20 minutes down the road. Zebra is narrowing that the others, but if you’re short on time, I’d prioritize Peekaboo and Spooky.
In need for fuel for both me and my truck, I drove into Escalante, had a hot dog at Ranch Dog Kitchen, a few beers at West 4th Pub then drove out to Spencer Flat Road and settled into another dispersed campsite for the night where I was joined by two cows who slept under a nearby tree.
Day 4: The Cosmic Ashtray
That morning, I sat on my truck’s tailgate and watched the sun come up while I ate breakfast. I’d camped within 20 minutes of the trailhead and I was the first car in the roughly outlined, rock-ridden parking area.
There’s a handful of ways to get to the Cosmic Ashtray (hard 8 mile out & back), and I opted for one that didn’t require the use of 4WD. All options are unmarked desert trails in the full sun over at least a few miles of slick rock, and, depending on your route, a mile or so of deep sand on the way in and out. It is worth the effort, but if you go, take more water than you think you’ll need, wear sun protection and take multiple navigation aids, like a GPS device, as this trail is largely unmarked save for a sporadic cairn.
When I got back to the truck, I kicked off my boots, cracked a beer, grabbed a pile of snacks and sat on the tailgate for a solid 30 minutes reveling in my accomplishment. By that point, there were three vehicles in the parking area, including my own.
Once sated, it took me about 40 minutes to get back into Escalante, where I’d booked a campsite at Escalante Outfitters, an outdoor retailer with cabin and campsite rentals, hot showers, and a restaurant. Once I checked in, I pitched my tent, showered and then gorged myself on pizza and beer before crawling into my tent at sunset. I cannot recommend this place enough; the showers were clean and hot, the pizza was incredible and the shop is well-stocked with supplies, gear and gifts.
Day 5: The Burr Trail Road & Capitol Reef National Park
Leaving Escalante, I headed northeast to Boulder (30 miles, 40 mins. drive time) and then turned onto the Burr Trail Road, a scenic drive that passes through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Capitol Reef National Park. The entire Burr Trail Road runs for 67 miles from Boulder to Bullfrog, Utah. I took it to just past the Burr Trail Switchbacks and to Headquarters Canyon (easy 2.6-mile out and back) and Surprise Canyon (easy 2.2 mile out and back). From there, I dodged wayward tumbleweeds to get back to the main tourist hub of the park, the Fruita Historic District. This area has been inhabited by humans for thousands of years. Petroglyphs and pictographs from the Freemont Culture are seen throughout the park, and in the 1870s, a small group of Mormons moved in and established apple, pear and peach orchards where visitors can still harvest fruit today for a small fee. The Gifford Homestead offers pies for sale and they are said to be incredible, but they also sell out quickly and I’ve never managed to be there at the right time to secure myself a pie.
I set up my tent at the Fruita Campground ($25) and then headed into Torrey, the town closest to the park, to fuel my truck and eat an early dinner at Rim Rock Patio. After that, I went back to my campsite and tucked in early after some light star-gazing. Capitol Reef is the first place I ever saw Milky Way with my naked eyeballs.
Day 6: Capitol Reef National Park
This was my second visit to Capitol Reef and I’d already hiked some of the park’s more popular trails, like Cassidy Arch (moderate 3.1 mile out and back) and Hickman Bridge (moderate 1.7 mile out and back). I had grand delusions of hiking all the way to Navajo Knobs (hard 10 mile out and back), but the wind was beating the shit out of me and my body was tired, so I turned around at the Rim Overlook (moderate 4.3 mile out and back) then took the Scenic Drive to check out the Pioneer Register. On the way back, I spotted a trailhead next to a small pull-off and ended up hiking the Old Wagon Loop Trail (moderate/strenuous 3.7 mile loop), which provided some much needed solitude after spending time in the busier parts of the park.
After I made it back to camp, I wandered along the Fremont River Trail (easy, 2.1 mile out and back) and watched the starts come out until it was time for bed.
Day 7: Kodachrome State Park & the Willis Creek Narrows
Originally, I’d planned to spend the day visiting some more remote parts of Capitol Reef National Reef, but road conditions deteriorated to the point where that wasn’t feasible, so I improvised. I woke up early and headed to Kodachrome Basin State Park (118 miles, 2.5 hrs. drive time) and hiked the Panorama Trail Long Loop (easy 5.8 mile loop), then, after a tip from some other adventurers, the Willis Creek Narrows Trail (easy 5.8 mile out and back), also part of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
This was my last night in a tent and I had feelings about it. I camped dispersed along U.S. Route 89, near Mount Caramel, Utah, right next to the Virgin River. There were a lot of people there and right after I set up camp, the police rolled through. I couldn’t decide if that was a good thing or a bad thing. I was a good ways a way from other campers, but I was also very obviously a woman alone in a one-person tent. Still, I survived the night.
Day 8: Buckskin Gulch
I woke up extra early so I could pee under the cover of darkness and before the sun was up, I’d broken down my campsite for the last time. I drove west (63 miles, 1.5 hrs. drive time) to the Wire Pass Trailhead and set out toward Buckskin Gulch (easy-moderate 5+ mile out and back, permit required), part of Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area. Buckskin Gulch is (probably) the longest and deepest slot canyon in the world. It is breathtakingly beautiful, eerie and magnificent. I ambled maybe 4-5 miles through the Gulch, awed with every step, before I headed back to the truck.
That night, I stayed in Kanab, at Red Canyon Cabins, had an unremarkable dinner in town, and spent the evening itchy bug bites while trying to repack all my gear in my duffle.
Day 9: Red Cliffs & the Valley of Fire
Originally, I was going to spend the morning at Pipe Spring National Monument, in Arizona, but time zones are a hard thing to get right sometimes, and I ended up there an hour too early. Not wanting to sit for an hour, I continued on to my last Utah hike, the Red Reef Trail (moderate 2.2 mile out and back) in Red Cliffs National Conservation Area. This is an easy stop if you’re making the trekking back to Vegas from southeast Utah.
From Red Cliffs, I drove to Valley of Fire State Park (178 miles, 3.25 hrs. drive time), just outside of Las Vegas. I’d visited years ago, in 2008, but it was the day before I got married and I was traveling with family and hiking wasn’t yet 60% of my personality. I added it to this trip because I wanted to do it justice in a way I hadn’t on my first visit. I hiked the Fire Wave, White Domes and Seven Wonders Loop (easy 3.2 mile loop), passed a longhorn sheep on the way out, and popped into the Refuge Climbing Gym in Las Vegas (64 miles, 1 hr. drive time). I was there partly because I wanted to check out a new climbing gym and partly because I wanted to take a shower before getting on an airplane, which is exactly what I did.
I took a late flight home, leaving just before the day was over and arriving back in Richmond early the next morning where I went immediately to sleep for several hours.
& that’s it
Nine days, eight nights, six different campsites with just one hotel stay. 1,019 miles driven. 75 miles hiked on 16 different trails through two state parks, two national parks, one national monument, one wilderness area and one national conservation area. Three showers taken. Nine fire ant bites acquired, along with one giant bruise to my elbow and many, many scrapes and scratches.
- don’t attempt to hike slot canyons if rain is a possibility.
- don’t feed the wildlife.
- pack it in, pack it out.
- leave it as you found it, unless you find trash, in which case pick up the trash and leave it better than you found it.
- sunscreen is your friend.
- check park websites before venturing out into remote areas to ensure conditions are safe, roads are open, etc.
- permit requirements differ from spot to spot and matter a lot, so don’t be a sneaky shit biscuit, do your research and make good choices.