A reunion with Southern Utah reveals bigger crowds than ever, but you can still find pockets of solitude among the fabulous geology.
GRAND STAIRCASE-ESCALANTE NATIONAL MONUMENT, Utah — The old, dead tree trunk lodged between two stone walls was about four stories above us. For the past three hours, my wife and I had been hiking through Buckskin Gulch, a psychedelic, narrow and twisting slot canyon, but this stopped us.
This tight crevice ran for miles and was cut like a wavy slit hundreds of feet into sandstone. The glowing, layered walls were nothing short of otherworldly.
But while the colors and tightness of the canyon were impressive, that sky-high tree held our attention for a long time.
10 ways to get the most out of a Red Rock road trip
1. Off-peak travel: Plan your trip in the late spring or early fall when the crowds are (somewhat) smaller.
2. Sunrise and sunset: Many tour groups won’t rally for early mornings, and they’re at dinner during sunset. But this is when the colors of the desert come alive. Waking before dawn is rough, but it’s totally worth it for the quiet awe.
3. Sample the outer edges: The Grand Canyon and Utah’s Big 5 national parks are all enormous. But the vast majority of people only focus on the highlights. See the hits, but then ask rangers about good locations on the fringes.
4. Go analog: You won’t have phone reception during most of your trip, so invest in a guidebook and an old-fashioned map.
5. Go small: Almost as good as the national parks, smaller campgrounds and state parks are good alternatives. Try Monument Valley, Calf Creek, Goblin Valley, Kodachrome Basin, Dead Horse Point or Red Canyon.
6. Camp outside national parks: To camp within national parks, reservations are a must. But at times you can find first-come, first-served dispersed camping in national forests, BLM campgrounds or even state parks, allowing you to keep your plans flexible.
7. Dress warmly: A surprise to many, Southwest parks are quite high and it can be chilly at night.
8. Cowboy up: Spend time in the middle of nowhere at a ranch or cowboy camp. Cook dinner on cast-iron stoves, learn to wrangle and ride horses among the cactus. They’re usually family run and lack a strong online presence, so ask locals for good suggestions.
9. Watch the stars: Many campgrounds in the Southwest are designated Dark Sky Places, and on moonless nights, star-watching programs are frequently run by volunteers with expensive telescopes. Learn about astronomy, but also appreciate a night sky devoid of light pollution.
10. Travel with a backpacker stove: Enjoy early mornings with hot cocoa, or a bowl of chili at sunset. Backpacking stoves extend your time outside and give you the freedom to camp almost anywhere.
— Jeff Layton
What kind of torrent would shove a tree into a crevice more than 40 feet in the air?
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Most of our path had been filled with ankle-deep water, and we were using the narrowness of the canyon walls to brace ourselves as we traveled.
During heavy rains, our muddy trail would become a raging flash flood. And that tree wedged high above was a spine-tingling reminder that when you’re traveling through the Southwest, your surroundings are like an adventure theme park, but at times there aren’t many guardrails.
Best. Job. Ever.
The best job I’ve ever had was the three summers I spent guiding small group camping tours with Trek America.
I piloted a 15-passenger van stuffed to the brim with camping gear and European backpackers, and together we road-tripped around the nation.
By far, the biggest concentration of natural-wonder highlights in the United States is in the Southwest canyon country — especially southern Utah and northern Arizona.
Veteran guides were allowed a long leash to customize our trips, and through a word-of-mouth network, we explored secret swimming holes and off-grid camping spots that put us all alone in the desert.
A decade later, I returned to the Southwest to visit some of my favorite corners and see what had changed in the land of red rock.
National Parks are packed
Twenty-four hours before our Buckskin Gulch trek, I’d been standing shoulder to shoulder with a crowd from a dozen nations. We were all enjoying the brilliant afternoon colors on a slowly eroding hillside at Bryce Canyon National Park. Over millions of years, a mixture of hard and soft rock have weathered to form unending castle walls and delicate sentinels known as “hoodoos.”
The site’s popularity is well deserved. Not only are the viewpoints stunning, but it’s easy to hike through winding switchback canyons among vivid layered sediment.
But spending a day around busloads of people is also exhausting. Instead of taking in the majesty, we were spending a lot of time people-watching.
National parks in the Southwest are amazing, and the world knows it. At all the big parks, you can expect mobs of visitors. Much of the wonder of the region is the vast emptiness — something that gets lost when you’re among selfie-snapping crowds.
The national parks are definitely worth it, but one of the biggest take-aways from my time as a guide was learning to design trips that blended famous sights with pockets of solitude in the desert.
The Cottonwood Canyon Road through this national monument was a notorious Trek shortcut back in the day: stunningly beautiful, but also a bit of a gamble. The 47-mile unpaved road links the Grand Canyon with Bryce Canyon National Park, and during dry conditions, it’s a lolling roller coaster of multihued canyons, natural arches and ranch land.
But get caught in a thunderstorm or push your luck after a big rain, and your van could bog down in slurping mud.
It hadn’t rained in over a week, so my wife and I decided to risk it one morning on a dawn adventure. As the sun broke the horizon, we approached a section of road called the Cottonwood Narrows, like a fairy kingdom of eroding stone draped in quilts with zig-zaggy patterns.
We stopped our Jeep next to what looked like a glob of wet sand the size of a locomotive. We hadn’t seen another car in an hour, so we parked in the middle of the road, and listened as the smallest noises roared with an echo.
As the sun rose higher, the colors changed from pinks to reds to blinding whites.
These are the moments I love most in the Southwest: out in the middle of nowhere, unexpected and stunning.
We continued on through a landscape that was a knitter’s basket of magentas and reds. An hour down the road, we spotted a dust cloud on a steep hill and slammed on the brakes. Bighorn sheep — a large group — were traversing a slope. We pulled out the zoom lens and started snapping away.
Quiet moments are great, but it’s also pretty exciting to see unusual creatures such as pronghorns, scorpions and prairie dogs in their natural habitat.
Campervans allow flexibility
One of the biggest changes in the Southwest over the past decade has been the explosion in the number of small hybrid camping vehicles.
At Capitol Reef National Park, I met Allison and Thom McCorkle, from Indianapolis, who were in the middle of a two-week trip through Utah’s “Big Five” national parks.
They gave me a quick tour of their van, rented from Escape Campervans, which included everything they needed to rough it in the desert: a small solar panel, refrigerator, foldout bed, sink and cooking gear.
Most companies in the business rent vehicles out of Las Vegas or Salt Lake City, and this one cost them just over $100 per day, so it was cheaper than renting a car and staying in hotels.
But the biggest upside was the flexibility it gave them.
“It’s a great way to go,” said Thom. “We got into Bryce Canyon National Park late and there was no camping available. So we talked to the ranger and she told us where to go. It was two left turns on a dirt road and suddenly we were by ourselves in the middle of the Dixie National Forest. There was nobody around, but us and the antelope.”
Zag when others zig
While the national parks are busy, it’s still possible to escape the crowds if you’re willing to explore at unusual times.
As the sun went down, the tourists vanished and we cooked our dinner on my portable campstove beneath the glowing arch, which we had all to ourselves.
Under the light of our headlamps we hiked out while listening to the yips of coyotes on nearby hills.
Driving out of the park, a rising full moon cast enough light that it was possible to see the empty road using only our parking lights. For miles around us, sandstone fins, arches and balancing rock formations glowed with a pale, surreal light.
The German girl in the passenger seat next to me started sobbing. I was worried something terrible had happened, and asked what was wrong. But she shook her head and muttered, “Everything is just so … beautiful.”