A look at Utah’s less-heralded parks
Monday, August 24, 2020
Utah has fabulous five national parks (Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches) along with 43 state parks. Here are some other parks that are well worth a stop while visiting the state. These lesser-known spots should give you more room for hiking and sightseeing safely than some of the bigger parks.
Between Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks is the gorgeous Red Canyon within the Dixie National Forest. While there are fewer hoodoos here than the nearby Bryce Canyon, there are also fewer tourists. Start at the visitor center on Utah Scenic Byway 12. If it is closed, the kiosks outside give both context and a map of the area. Be sure to hike at least one of the shorter trails. Pink Ledges and Hoodoo Trails are short and worth the time.
If you have time, stay overnight at the campground (dry camping) so you have time to hike more trails.
Cedar Breaks National Monument
Be prepared for high elevation, since this park is at 10,000 feet above sea level. The views are spectacular across a half-mile-deep amphitheater. Make sure you watch for the over 260 species of wildflowers that grow here. The hiking trails take you to overlooks and through meadows of these wildflowers.
While several trails are short, given the elevation they may still provide a challenge. Or, just drive the five-mile road along the rim with several stunning overlooks which include hoodoos but without the crowds at Bryce Canyon. In 2017, Cedar Breaks had only 900,000 visitors while Bryce Canyon had 2,600,000.
Camping can be reserved online while some campsites are first-come, first-serve. Some sites can handle longer RVs. All sites are dry camping.
Natural Bridges National Monument
If you use Blanding as a home base, three national monuments are within driving distance.
Natural Bridges Natural Monument has a nine-mile, one-way drive with views and several hikes to see three large bridges. A natural bridge is formed by a current of water like a river versus arches that form more by freezing and thawing cycles. While water is scarce now, flash floods are thought to have formed these bridges.
You can also camp at the park when they reopen. There are 13 dry camping sites for RVs less than 26 feet long and are first-come, first-serve. Rangers can also direct you to another campground outside the park for longer RVs or for overflow. Be sure to step outside your RV at night. This park is one of the darkest in the U.S. and was the first certified International Dark Sky Park in the world.
Hovenweep National Monument
Another day trip from Blanding is Hovenweep National Monument. Less than 40,000 visitors were recorded in 2017 even though the park is fascinating. The park is unusual as it protects five different Ancestral Puebloan ruins in Utah and Colorado. The main section is the Square Tower Unit. The park recommends you have a high-clearance vehicle for the other four units.
The two-mile hike at the main unit leaves the visitor center and allows you to see all kinds and shapes of ruins. Some of the interesting ruins are square, rectangular, round, and D-shaped. Many of the ruins are along the top of a small canyon with some at the bottom.
Currently both the visitor center and camping are closed. When they open, this park has several sites at the campground that can handle shorter RVs. A few sites are said to handle up to 36-foot-long RVs. All are dry camping and first-come, first-serve.
Bears Ears National Monument
Bears Ears National Monument is rather controversial and a bit confusing. It was established by one president in 2015 with 1.35 million acres and then reduced by another president in 2017 to only 0.2 million acres. There are lawsuits in process challenging this reduction. The reduction split the areas into two much smaller parts. However, within those two sections are some excellent places to visit.
The most popular spot in the Indian Creek Unit is Newspaper Rock. This is a 12-mile drive off US 191. There are many petroglyph panels in Utah but this one is big. The most interesting part to me is the number of toes on the feet prints. Some have five toes while quite a few have six. Turns out Native Americans in the area tended to have the genetic anomaly of six toes or six fingers and were honored for that difference.
Bears Ears Butte East and West are within the Shash Jaa Unit. These rock “ears” can be seen for miles. An easy hiking trail within the unit is to the Butler Wash Ruins, which is less than a mile roundtrip. Other excellent trails in this section are longer and include the Mule Canyon to the unique House on Fire ruins, Arch Canyon, and Comb Wash.
Both units have multiple hiking trails, petroglyph art, ruins, and camping. There are no formal RV campgrounds, but several of the BLM campsites are large enough for smaller RVs to dry camp.
Utah is a terrific state to visit with plenty of open spaces. Right now, many people are crowding into the national parks, so you may want to plan your trip to spend more time at these spots that have a little more privacy while enjoying the stunning views and history of the area.
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