Utah’s best desert hikes

Virgin River, Zion Narrows

Heading upstream near the start of the Narrows, Zion National Park

The deserts of the American southwest, and southern Utah in particular, are probably my favorite hiking area. It’s just a day’s drive, or less, from my home in Boulder, Colorado, and I’ve lost count of the number of hiking trips I’ve made there. Although I’ve only seen a fraction of this vast region I reckon I’ve seen enough to offer some recommendations to my top day hikes. In that spirit, this post includes some (newly reprocessed!) photos, videos, and short descriptions of the hikes I’ve enjoyed most in the parks and wilderness areas of southern Utah.

Click on any of the photos for large versions

Overview of Utah’s desert hiking areas

Moab, Arches and Canyonlands National Parksbring a bike… in addition to being the gateway town for Arches and Canyonlands National Parks (excepting Canyonlands’ Maze District), Moab is a celebrated mountain biking destination. It’s the largest of the gateway towns, and the only one with a full range of hotels, restaurants, shops and adventure-oriented businesses. Arches National Park is right outside town, and although it’s a must-see for photography and to hike the wonderful Delicate Arch trail it’s a small and often crowded park. The best long day hikes are to be found an hour and a half’s drive south, in the Needles District of Canyonlands.

Something is going on in Moab pretty much every month of the year, and if you happen to visit on the weekend of a large event accommodation can be surprisingly hard to come by. In recent years I’ve taken to renting a condo rather than staying in a hotel, which is often more comfortable and certainly cheaper for a group of two or more.

Blandingsober up, as this is the one hiking destination that conforms to the Utah stereotype by being dry. Booze aside, Blanding is not a notably exciting town. It is, however, the best base for a bunch of interesting hikes. I like hiking in the oft-overlooked Natural Bridges National Monument, and some of the best Native American ruins can be found in Grand Gulch and other sparsely visited canyons in the south-east corner of Utah.

Zion and the Paria – Springdale, at the entrance to Zion Canyon, is the main place to stay for visiting Zion… in my opinion the most spectacular of the Big Four Utah parks (Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands and Zion). It’s a nice town, but if rooms are scarce you could also stay a bit further away in St George. The centerpiece of Zion is Zion Canyon, which is super-popular but simply unmissable. Try the separate Kolob Canyons area for relative peace and quiet, or venture east to the Paria-Vermilion Cliffs wilderness. In this region you’ll find three singular destinations – Buckskin Gulch (the longest slot canyon in the world), the Paria Canyon (a famous backpacking route), and the Wave (an oft-photographed rock formation). Make advanced plans if you want to see the Wave, which requires a permit even for a day hike. Kanab is an alternative and closer base for exploring the Paria.

Capitol Reef and Boulder, Utah – in recent years Capitol Reef National Park, along with the nearby Box-Death Hollow wilderness and the Escalante, have become my favorite Utah destinations. Capitol Reef is more remote and less famous than the other Utah parks, but it has stunning if slightly less picture-postcard scenery, great hiking, and a small fraction of the visitors of the Big Four. Torrey, an OK but unremarkable town with plenty of accommodation, makes a good base. Even better, in many ways, is the tiny settlement of Boulder (Utah), from where you can explore the southern reaches of Capitol Reef, the wonderful Box-Death Hollow wilderness, and the Escalante. Boulder Mountain Lodge makes for a good, slightly upscale, place to stay in Boulder.

The Escalante – Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, easily visited in conjunction with Capitol Reef, is the place to go for world-class desert hiking in a remote environment. There are few marked trails in the Escalante, but there are plenty of hikes in canyon bottoms that are relatively moderate non-technical adventures. Solitude is the rule here, not because the hiking is difficult, but because the trailheads require typically 20-30 miles of driving on dirt roads to access. The towns of Escalante and Boulder (Utah) make the best base. The Escalante is also home to the most famous of Utah’s non-technical slot canyons.

Bryce Canyon – I’m not a big fan. Stop by if you’re passing, for certain, and consider visiting at sunrise or sunset if you’re a photographer. I reckon the hiking is better elsewhere.

Green River and the San Rafael Swell – there are plenty of canyons in the San Rafael swell area, accessed from Green River off I70. Most of this region is unprotected and little-known, and the only hike I’ve done is the fabulous Chute of Muddy Creek. Expect long drives on remote dirt roads, and to see few if any other hikers, if you explore this area. When Chris and I visited, I took a few gallons of extra water in the car just in case of a break down.

Hanksvillebring a sharp knife, for Hanksville is the gateway to some of the wildest country in Utah. Blue John Canyon, where Aron Ralston famously had to saw off his own arm, is apparently now notorious enough to be pretty well-trafficked, but other canyons in the Robbers Roost area remain little-visited. I’ve no experience in these graduate-level canyons, but I have done the great (and easy, and very popular) loop in Little Wild Horse, which is probably the best introduction to slot canyon hiking in Utah. I wouldn’t stay in Hanksville – Green River is close enough and more interesting. Green River could also be the jumping off point for a trip into Canyonlands’ Maze District (not accessible from Moab, unless you plan on swimming or rafting the Green River), though pretty much any visit to the Maze will involve camping as it’s too far from the pavement to sensibly day hike.

My favorite day hikes

I’ve grouped these roughly by location. For each region I list a handful of my favorite hikes, along with brief mentions of a few other possibilities (in some case, the “other” hikes include ones still on my to-do list, though anything I’ve not done personally is clearly flagged). I’ve not tried to give detailed directions to trailheads, or route descriptions… if any of these hikes takes your fancy a Google search will readily return better info than I can provide.

Moab, Arches and Canyonlands National Parks

Druid Arch hike

Druid Arch and Elephant Canyon, Canyonlands’ Needles District

You can’t really go wrong in Canyonlands’ Needles District, but if you only do one hike make it the out and back to Druid Arch from the Elephant Hill trailhead. A wonderfully varied and scenic ten miles, ending in a steep-ish ascent to a spot with a great view of the arch and of Elephant Canyon.

Utah's Fisher Towers

Hiking the Fisher Towers outside Moab

The Fisher towers hike, just off Highway 128 east of Moab, is the trail I’ve repeated most times in Utah. In part that’s because it’s a short (4 mile) trail that’s on the way back to Denver, which makes for a good half-day (or less) hike before driving home. But it’s also one of the best easy hikes in the state, winding its way past the base of the towers to end up at an expansive viewpoint on a ridge overlooking Castle Valley and the Colorado. You normally get to watch climbers at work on the towers.

Delicate Arch

Delicate Arch

Crowded, and brutally hot in the summer, the hike to Delicate Arch in Arches National Park is still unmissable. You couldn’t make a more scenic setting and backdrop for Utah’s signature arch if you were doing special effects for a movie. Best at sunset, but don’t expect to be alone even (perhaps especially!) then…

Other options – in Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky District I’m partial to the Murphy Trail, a fairly strenuous 10 mile partial loop that descends down to the White Rim road. Avoid this one on a hot day, however, as there’s precious little shade. Near Moab Onion Creek and its side drainages – which are the canyons that lie underneath the Fisher towers – are a good option if you want a hike in this popular area with fewer people.

Blanding, Utah

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I’ve not done much hiking out of Blanding, in part because I prefer staying in other, more lively, Utah towns. The 9 mile loop in Natural Bridges national monument is, however, a gem. Natural Bridges is a rather old-fashioned feeling park that’s well off most tourists’ radar, with a hike that connects three spectacular bridges (they’re called bridges rather than arches as they were eroded largely by water) via pleasant and quiet canyons. Highly recommended!

Other options – this area of Utah is rich in Native American history, and many of the canyons have ruins set amidst remote scenery. I had a great day out hiking into Grand Gulch from the Kane Gulch Ranger Station, but the Gulch (which can be accessed from several points) is perhaps better suited to a backpacking trip. Dark Canyon, Mule Canyon, Fish Canyon and Slickhorn Canyon are among the destinations in the same general area that I haven’t personally explored.

Zion and the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs wilderness

Zion Narrows

The finest stretch of the Zion Narrows

If possible, time a visit to Zion National Park so that you have a decent chance of being able to hike the Narrows. It’s that special. Autumn (September and early October) is probably best, along with June. You can also hike at other times, but in the winter it will be cold (a wet suit for the legs will be useful), in the spring snow melt will often lead to un-hikeable water levels, and in summer caution is needed to be sure to avoid flash floods. The best Narrows’ experience is probably a one way descent of the canyon, for which a permit is needed, but you can readily see the best section on an out and back day hike starting from the end of the Zion Canyon road. Make sure to continue past the junction with Orderville Canyon for the absolute best scenery.

Zion Canyon from Angels Landing

Zion Canyon from Scout Landing

Zion’s other signature hike – to Angels Landing – is famous in part for a short but spectacularly exposed section where the trail traverses a narrow fin of rock with a thousand plus feet of drop on either side. It’s perfectly safe, but avoid this hike if you have any fear of heights (opt for the only slightly less awesome Observation Point trail on the opposite side of the valley). Angels Landing is a great hike quite apart from the “exciting” section though, with almost fairytale views of Zion Canyon from both Scout Landing (see the picture above) and at the conclusion of the trail. It’s only about 5 miles round trip, but moderately strenuous with 1500 feet of climbing to the top.

Buckskin Gulch hike

Hiking into Buckskin, at the junction with Paria Canyon

The Zion Narrows would indisputably be the best non-technical canyon hike in Utah, were it not for the combo of Paria Canyon and Buckskin Gulch a little bit further east. Buckskin is the longest and deepest slot canyon to be found anywhere, and rather improbably it can be traversed for its full 12 miles down to the confluence with the Paria without need for technical gear. Needless to say, don’t step inside if there’s the slightest chance of rain anywhere in the region. The very best options for exploring these canyons involve camping – either a short trip down Buckskin and back up the Paria, overnighting near the junction, or a longer backpack down the Paria to Lee’s Ferry with a side trip up and back into Buckskin. I haven’t done either of those, but rather did an out and back day hike down the Paria followed by maybe 2-3 miles into the lower reaches of Buckskin. The Paria is frankly not as incredible as Buckskin, but still it made for a great (if long) day out.

Other options – in Zion, try the hike to Kolob arch in the Kolob Canyons area of the park for something a little less crowded than the hikes off Zion Canyon. Alternatively, take a private shuttle and approach Angels Landing via a one way hike (or short backpack) along the West Rim trail. For something more adventurous (which I haven’t done), consider the trail-less route into Parunuweap Canyon.

Photography – this region also has a couple of well-known photographic locations. I’ve hiked to the “Subway” in Zion, which can be reached either via a non-technical out and back from the bottom (this is what I did), or via one way descent (requiring ropes and swimming) from the top. The hike from the bottom – which requires a permit – is pleasant but be aware that the most photogenic section is just the last hundred yards or so before you encounter an impassable obstacle. If you want to see all the best sections of the canyon you’ll have to master the technical version of the hike. The “Crack” – where the creek flows for a stretch though a very narrow joint in the rock of the creek bed – is just downstream of the “Subway”. I’ve not been to the “Wave”, in the Paria-Vermilion Cliffs wilderness, but if you want to see it be sure to make advance plans so that you can snag the scarce permits.

Boulder (Utah), Capitol Reef and the Box-Death Hollow wilderness

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The Box-Death Hollow wilderness lies to the west of Capitol Reef National Park, and is easily accessed from the small town of Boulder, Utah. Several hikes here visit the wonderfully named Death Hollow, catering for most levels of adventure. The easiest – and the only one I’ve done – is an out-and-back day hike from the Boulder airstrip to Death Hollow and back. This hike, shown in the video above, makes for a memorable day out with some excellent stretches of slickrock hiking. It’s also possible to hike all the way from Boulder to Escalante, and to descend Death Hollow to the Escalante river via a long but not too-technical route. Both of the latter options would require a shuttle, and are typically done as backpacks.

Upper Muley Twist hike

Capitol Reef from above Upper Muley Twist canyon

In Capitol Reef proper my favorite hike, by far, is the partial loop through Upper Muley Twist canyon, which starts just off the Burr trail road. I like this hike because of its exceptional variety. Upper Muley is a good canyon, with a couple of impressive arches and some groves of trees that are particularly pretty in the Fall. After hiking up canyon for a few miles, however, the trail takes off to the east and reaches a ridge with an amazing view of the Waterpocket Fold, a textbook example of a geological feature called a monocline. The trail, here marked mostly by cairns, then follows the ridge for some way before you drop back into the canyon to complete the hike. I’ve done this hike now a couple of times, and on neither occasion saw more than one or two other parties in the canyon.

Calf Creek Falls

Lower Calf Creek Falls

For something easier, you can’t beat the flat and beautiful trail to Lower Calf Creek Falls. This one is popular, but deservedly so. The area near the falls feels like an oasis in the desert.

Other options – in the Death Hollow wilderness, the one way (9 mile) hike through the Pine Creek Box is pleasant. It’s not nearly as spectacular as Death Hollow, but there’s plenty of shade in the upper reaches making this a good choice for a hot day. In Capitol Reef, the descent of Sulphur Creek (which is not very well advertised by the Park Service) is great as long as you’re up for an adventurous day… there are three waterfalls to down climb and although none are dangerously high or difficult they look tricky from the top!

The Escalante

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Coyote Gulch is one of the most memorable locations in the American Southwest. The Gulch – a tributary of the Escalante – features miles of sinuous canyon with enormous undercut alcoves at every bend that really have to be seen to be believed. As with Death Hollow, Coyote Gulch can be experienced in multiple ways, the easiest being an out and back day hike starting from the Hurricane Wash trailhead, 33 miles down the Hole in the Rock road. If you follow this option the hike itself poses no obstacles, but the remote starting point is enough to cut down on the number of casual visitors. It’s also possible to camp within the Gulch, or to access the lower part of the canyon from the Forty Mile Ridge trailhead starting further down the road.

However you do it, Coyote Gulch is one of the wonders of the Southwest and should not be missed!

Neon Canyon's Golden Cathedral

The “Golden Cathedral”, in the Escalante

Coyote Gulch is probably the most popular hike in the Escalante. For something a little more remote, try the largely unmarked but reasonably easy to follow route to the “Golden Cathedral” in “Neon Canyon” (these are unofficial, but widely used names). The hike starts at the Egypt trailhead, and descends first across slickrock and then via Fence Canyon to reach the main canyon of the Escalante river. From there, a mile or so of alternately walking and wading downstream brings you to Neon Canyon, which ends (hiking upstream) abruptly at the Golden Cathedral. It’s another singular location that does not disappoint in person.

Be aware that although the Hole in the Rock road is generally easily passable for any vehicle, the Egypt road is a good deal trickier, with some rocky and sandy sections that might give trouble, especially in the event of any rain.

Green River and the San Rafael swell

Chute of Muddy Creek, Utah

Hiking the Chute of Muddy Creek

Going one step further in remoteness are the hikes in the San Rafael swell, a large, unprotected but very wild area that’s accessed via dirt roads that lead off from I70 west of Green River. Information on hikes in the San Rafael is a bit sparse, and the only hike I’ve done here is a day hike in the Chute of Muddy Creek. Muddy Creek is a great canyon, with stretches of water-filled narrows that – although less spectacular than the Paria or the Zion Narrows – make up for it in solitude and remoteness. Visiting in the Fall, we saw no-one else – either on the lengthy dirt roads leading to and from the trailhead or on the hike itself.

Other options – if you’ve seen pictures of hikers squeezing through extremely narrow slot canyons, chances are they were in the Escalante. Spooky Gulch and Peek-a-Boo slots are readily reached from the Hole in the Rock road.


Little Wild Horse slot canyon

In Little Wild Horse canyon

Most of the canyons in the Hanksville area are also supremely remote. One easy hike, however, is the loop through Little Wild Horse and Bell Canyons, which starts close to Goblin Valley State Park. This makes for a wonderful introduction to slot canyon hiking (as usual, good weather is essential), and I challenge anyone to hike this loop without a silly grin at the sheer improbability and fun of the route!

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