You are itching to sink your feet and trekking poles into the Narrows in Zion National Park and to take a selfie with a hoodoo in Bryce Canyon National Park. You also want to get off the beaten path a little and explore the state differently, and divvying up your time is more difficult than you anticipated. Don’t skip the big parks. They’re tourist attractions because they really are worth the visit (and the Instagram photos). But put your own spin on a national park vacation in Utah by exploring your own way.
Canyonlands National Park is made up of canyons and rock formations created by the Colorado River, erosion and time. Though the formations are nothing short of impressive, the sky is what will put you in a state of awe. Because of low light pollution and clean air, this area has some of the darkest skies in the contiguous 48 states, according to the National Park Service, and was even recognised by the International Dark-Sky Association. Whether you drag out your telescope or just bring out some binoculars, moonless nights create the perfect viewing conditions. Spot Saturn and its rings, or catch a peek of the international space station; sometimes you won’t even need equipment. And keep looking up during the day. Canyonlands has 273 bird species within the park. See how many you can check off your list. Be quiet and you might hear Canyon Wrens nested in the steep walls around you.
Take The Geotour
Explore Southern Utah’s Mighty 5® by geocaching, which works by using GPS coordinates to locate a hidden object. It’s like a statewide scavenger hunt. With five geocache locations in each of Southern Utah’s counties, this region is bursting with hidden treasures. (The whole state has 145 geocaches, but these southern counties include the national parks.) Find the stash, sign the logbook and write down the code. Once you find three out of five in each county, you’re eligible for a patch. Some of these caches may be trickier than others, and might even involve a puzzle to open them. Request an official GeoPassport here.
Discover Arches on Horseback
Delicate Arch, Balanced Rock and Landscape Arch are all panoramic, photographic marvels. You’ll see hikers, probably some backpackers, and while this is a gorgeous way to explore Arches National Park, if you want to try something a little different why not experience it on a horse? Select day-use is permitted in the park including Salt Wash, Courthouse Wash and Seven-Mile Canyon. Moab-Horses.com includes dozens of trailrides within Arches. Note: Riding rules changed a bit in 2016, so not all of the trails listed on this site are rideable anymore. Check out this detailed catalog of the Seven-Mile Canyon ride that’ll take you about 16 kilometres, starting from the parking lot, through multiple water crossings and past a shady grotto. If you don’t own your own horses, consider staying at a lodge that has horses available for use, like Red Cliffs Lodge.
Pick Fruit at Capitol Reef
Want an authentic experience? Try picking apples and cherries and apricots on a three-legged ladder. Planted by early settlers in 1880, no one has lived at the orchard since 1969. Today these orchards are protected and part of the National Register of Historic Places. More than 3,000 fruit and nut trees are maintained by the National Park Service and are open to park visitors. If an orchard is unlocked, you can sample fruit for free, pick and pay to take home what you want. This PDF contains both dates of harvest as well as a map of where to find these sweet treasures in Capitol Reef National Park. Just want the pie? Capitol Reef’s Gifford Homestead bakes them fresh every day.
Venture to Horseshoe Canyon
Horseshoe Canyon, part of Canyonlands National Park, is a remote extension, added in 1971. Horseshoe Canyon Trail is no picnic to access. In fact, you’ll have to travel between 50 and 80 kilometres on a dirt road (depending on from what direction you’re coming). But those who’ve made the journey can vouch for its stunning beauty. The Great Gallery contains well-preserved art painted on the sandstone walls of the canyon. Depending on the season, you may see wildflowers, cottonwoods or vibrant fall foliage. You’ll need about four hours for the 10.5 kilometre hike. Be sure to pack in water on this hiking trail because it’s availability in the canyon is unpredictable. If you’re unsure about doing this hike on your own, ranger-led hikes are available at 9 a.m. on weekend days April through November. Visitors should be prepared for unpredictable weather. Check conditions.