As I jutted over the 90-foot drop, I thought hiking and climbing through sand storms, wind, rain and mud, with lightning flashing in the distance, was enough for one day. Yet, here I was being guided off a cliff into a dark and mysterious cavern, and I am afraid of heights.
As my feet guided over the rock precipice, I slowly rappelled with dangling legs down into Goblin’s Lair suspended by a rope. My comrades, who bravely vanished into the chasm before me, told me that the light from the rock crevice above started to shine down on me into our rock cathedral, offering a godly glow. My heart may have stopped in Goblin Valley, but feeling exhilarated and accomplished did not.
This was Utah.
Utah offers a dizzying landscape that changes dramatically every few miles. The juxtaposition of landscape is mind-boggling as you pass one natural wonder after another, all geologically impressive. Besides Utah’s 14 well-known ski resorts cradled by the Wasatch Mountains, much of southern Utah switches from alpine, evergreen forests dotted with aspen to a colorful sea of sandstone cliffs, domes, canyons, and spires. This time of year, fall’s hues explode across the landscape and it seems impossible to comprehend how wild rivers and erosive forces carved this land to create stunning rock formations. Gaze at mountains, waterfalls, and lingering animals all from the roadside, but to really experience Utah, make time to head into the wild outdoors.
THE WILD STOPS
Home to the “Mighty Five,” Utah’s five national parks include Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion, along with numerous national sites, vast public lands, revered tribal lands, and even more awe-inspiring state parks.
You can’t go wrong no matter where you end up because breathtaking scenery awaits at each turn. Mars-like terrain is a common scene in southern Utah, but instead of only stopping at the Big Five, also try to find solitude away from the crowds by venturing to some of the lesser traveled parks, or enjoying the Big Five in a different time of day or in a quieter season, like October.
“Nature often holds up a mirror so we can see more clearly the ongoing processes of growth, renewal, and transformation in our lives.” – Mary Ann Brussat
Goblin Valley State Park looks like miles of melted rock goblins made of sandstone. Walk down into the park to witness how weathering, erosion, and millions of years exposed these once deeply buried layers of rock. This land 170 million years ago was once a muddy tidal flat that left sand, silt, and clay. The land is often compared to Mars.
Get in the Wild Adventures, a company specializing in wilderness education and adventure, can lead you into Goblin’s Lair, a slot canyon also known as Chamber of the Basilisk. Led by technical canyoneering expert Christopher Hagedorn, he’ll patiently show you how to carefully maneuver into this rock chamber from a tethered rock.
San Rafael Swell is considered a local favorite 30 miles west of Green River and not far from Goblin Valley. Eons ago a giant dome of rock or “swell” formed and eroded into multicolored sandstone. San Rafael ATV provides a guided tour “behind the reef” into this rugged remote backcountry. Your mind will be dazzled as you feel part of nature as you fly by sweeping mesas, buttes, springs, canyons, and landscape grandeur.
Capitol Reef National Park is a hiker’s dream with less crowds than Bryce or Zion. This moderate two-mile roundtrip hike to 133 foot Hickman Bridge or rock arch climbs alongside the Fremont River, then escalates as you pass colorful rugged rock features made of contrasting red Entrada and white Navajo sandstone. The most pronounced geologic feature is a 100-mile long warp in the Earth’s crust known as the Waterpocket Fold. This exposed monocline in 65 million years old. Pay attention for the white sandstone domes like the U.S. Capitol, rocky ridges like marine reefs and ancient rock writings. There is an 8.2 mile scenic drive, too. You can even pick fruit and eat in the orchards for free.
Anasazi State Park Museum in Boulder, Utah features the ruins of an ancient Anasazi village as well as a tremendous artifact collection (pots, arrowheads, ceramic objects) from the ancestral Puebloans who are the ancestors of the Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, and Pueblo.
The juxtaposition of landscape is mind-boggling as you pass one natural wonder after another, all geologically impressive.
Escalante Scenic Byway or Highway 12 is a four-hour drive starting in Torrey near Capitol Reef National Park. The diverse geography switches back and forth through slickrock canyons, towering plateaus, red rock, and pioneer towns. View Grand Staircase-Escalante National Forest or hike down Calf Creek Falls. The road eventually brings you to Bryce Canyon (depending on your route).
Bryce Canyon, known for statuesque rock features called hoodoos, is best seen at 8 am, before the crowds. The light and colors reflecting against the hoodoos are constantly shifting in the rock amphitheater. Hoodoos are shaped by not only weathering and erosion, but by seeping water that refreezes causing cracks and movement. Two million people descend upon 22-mile long Bryce each year. Mule deer can be seen grazing the forested plateau along the road and the Dixie National Forest surrounding much of Bryce is a designated wilderness. Consider hiking it by moonlight with a guide for a less touristy experience.
Cedar Breaks National Monument is an overlooked natural amphitheater similar to Bryce near Cedar City that stretches across three miles with a depth of over 2,000 feet. Some say the colors there might even surpass those in Bryce.
THE EATING STOPS
Tamarisk in Green River offers massive cinnamon rolls that are an enjoyable car ride treat. Enjoy a hearty breakfast here with picturesque views from your booth or fuel up on their southwestern style dinner choices and local beers.
Stop at rustic tiny Mesa Farm Market near Cainville for a true farm to table experience. Randy, the farm owner felt more like a philosopher who seemed to hold the magic of the universe in his mind. Randy makes cheese in his cheese cave right behind the cafe (now sold in Salt Lake City at Tony Caputo’s Gourmet Market) and offers the freshest grown fruits and vegetables, salads, juices, and bread. You’ll want to devour the pickled ochre, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, hearty bread, goat cheese, peaches, and apples, all straight from the fertile soil.
Café Diablo in Torrey is the place to expand your palate with some rattlesnake cakes and a seasonally-inspired menu.
Hell’s Backbone Grill in the remote town of Boulder offers some true Americana as this restaurant sits on a farm run by two chef owners, Blake Spalding and Jennifer Castle. Their experienced backgrounds let nothing go to waste as the food that is not used for meals or the staff, or sold at the local farmer’s market, is preserved by being either dehydrated, frozen, or canned.
Lunch here is exquisite with their fresh goat cheese fondue and seasonal fruit and veggies, farm pickles, and stuffed farm zucchini. The chef’s second cookbook is coming out soon, but you can learn more from their first cookbook, With a Measure of Grace: The Story and Recipes of a Small Town Restaurant.
Kiva Koffeehouse and Kiva Kottage makes a memorable stop for an iced latte nestled in the Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument with mind-blowing views. Their full espresso bar with freshly ground coffees will have you buzzing along for your next hike. Need more time in nature? Spend a night at their two room cottage below with cliff-hanging panoramic scenery.
THE SLEEPING STOPS
Cougar Ridge Lodge in Torrey is a special property that sits on a 42-acre ranch with four stables with horses and llamas. Guests can choose to stay in one of their seven casitas or mini homes, and large groups can book their lodge for a private retreat, wedding, or company affair. The opportunities at this lodge are endless, ranging from private classes taught by well-known photographers and chefs, to guided outdoor adventures, a mini bowling lane, an indoor golf simulator, a pool table, theater, a wood and rock carving workshop, fitness games and gym, even a horse whisperer. You can also learn how to make your own wine or beer and take it home as a souvenir. Cougar Ridge is truly a wonderland.
Shooting Star RV Resort offers a unique form of lodging between Bryce and Capitol Reef. Sleep in an Airstream decorated to feel like an old school Hollywood movie set for around $129 a night. You can even watch a movie in a 1960’s convertible at their drive-in theater.