Utah, we had been told, is the ultimate outdoor playground. It’s famous not only for the ‘Mighty 5’ National Parks but also for the vast amount of publicly owned land. Roughly two-thirds of the State’s landmass is owned by the Federal or State government and much of it is available to the public for recreation. Utah has been near the top of our travel bucket list for ages and this was to be the year of Utah. We had planned to spend at least a month hiking, backpacking, camping, and climbing throughout the state. Unfortunately, our transmission failure saga whittled our travel window down from a glorious month to a devastatingly short week.
We devised a route that we hoped would give us a taste of Utah and the most bang for our travel buck. With limited time available, we were picky about our destinations; they had to meet several important criteria:
- Not too far off our route home (sorry Northern Utah);
- Dog-friendly (sorry National Parks);
- Cheap or free camping options (gotta make up for that transmission repair somehow!);
- Not too hot (sorry Lake Powell, Glen Canyon, and Monument Valley); and
- Awe-inspiring landscapes that are unique to Utah.
Based on these criteria, we narrowed down our choices to… drumroll…
- The Red Canyon; and
- Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.
Utah’s state slogan promises a ‘life elevated’. Accordingly, our hopes for these destinations were sky-high. Did Utah deliver? Read on!
The Red Canyon
We entered the Red Canyon via the Highway 12 Scenic Byway, one of the most scenic routes in Utah. Red rocks… pink rocks… orange rocks… mind-blown! The map indicated ‘Red Canyon’ but my brain assured me we had landed on Mars. The scenery was stunning, and the rock formations looked unreal, as though they’d been sculpted by an artist. We chose the Red Canyon because Google assured us that it was a miniature version of Bryce Canyon National Park (located just 12 miles away) but with one huge advantage – all of the trails are dog-friendly.
Hikes – Golden Wall, Hoodoo & Pink Ledges
The drive along Highway 12 is so picturesque that you can admire the landscapes without even having to leave your car, but we were keen to explore on foot. The Ranger at the Red Canyon Visitor’s Centre recommended the Golden Wall trail to Buckhorn Loop for the most spectacular and varied scenery. We set out through the shaded pine forests early in the morning and spent the entire hike ooh-ing and ahh-ing with each new vista that came into view. We met only one other person on the trail – a fellow dog walker – and wound-up hiking most of the trail together. It was such a pleasant surprise for both us and Walter to meet a new friend.
All five of us (dogs included!) had plenty of energy left after our morning hike and decided to continue our adventure by exploring the short but equally stunning Hoodoo and Pink Ledges trails. By the end of the day, our thirst for a big hike had finally been quenched and we headed to our campground feeling tired but content.
Camping – Tom’s Best Spring
There’s a very reasonably priced campground located right in the Red Canyon but we had spied some free dispersed camping at Tom’s Best Spring, just east of the canyon. We were thrilled to discover tens, if not hundreds of campsites scattered along the maze of gravel roads. We chose a private campsite tucked into the pines – a perfect place to chill out after a sweaty hike and lounge in our camp chairs, admiring the quiet and natural beauty.
Grand Staircase Escalante
Grand Staircase Escalante was recommended to us by several travel friends. It’s a vast, sprawling, National Monument with endless hiking, backpacking, and camping opportunities. We left the Red Canyon early in the morning with growling stomachs and absolutely no food in the van. First stop: breakfast in the town of Escalante.
Town – Escalante
We were starved by the time we reached the small ranching town of Escalante and hoping desperately that the food at the Ranch Dog Kitchen was as good as described in the rave Google reviews. The little café was adorable with super welcoming staff, a dog-friendly patio sheltered from the wind, and delicious breakfast food. A perfect choice and one that we would definitely recommend. From there, it was time to stock up on much-needed supplies. A tiny town isn’t the best place to stock up but we did manage to find groceries, local beer, and some organic goodies. As a result of having consumed several cups of coffee at breakfast, we had to skip the lattes at the Esca-latte café (how fun is that name)… next time!
The last stop in town was the Visitor’s Centre. Visitor’s Centres are hands down the best way to gather intel on a place, especially if your time in the area is limited. The Ranger at the Escalante Visitor’s Centre had great recommendations for making the most of our short time in the National Monument. While at the Visitor’s Centre, we met 2 other Roadtrek vans in the parking lot, resulting in a mini-reunion and van tours. Our rigs spanned almost 20 years’ worth of vintages, with Sally being the oldest, most experienced, and least shiny van of the bunch.
Hikes – Lower Calf Creek & Long Slot Canyon
As per the Ranger’s recommendation, we arrived at the Lower Calf Creek trailhead early in the morning and were pleased to have the place almost to ourselves. The sandstone cliffs, lush green vegetation, and flowing creek became more beautiful with every slow, sandy step, leading us to the trail’s holy grail – a 126-foot waterfall spilling into a cold pool of water. I was so enamored with the scene that I took about 100 photos… I just couldn’t help myself. When we arrived back at the van at 11:30 am, the parking lot was packed and overflowing. An early start is definitely recommended.
Wanting to make the most of our day, we hopped back into the van and headed to Long Slot Canyon along Burr Trail Road. Escalante is famous for its slot canyons and I was insistent that we visit one before leaving the area. Long Slot is not the best slot canyon in Escalante, but it was the only feasible, dog-friendly option for us with the time available. The canyon is a short 3-min walk from the vehicle pull-off, making it appealing to … everyone! It was so busy that we had to wait in line (impatiently and grumpily in my case) to get a photo, but I have to admit, it was absolutely worth it. Not just for the slot canyon, but for the scenic drive along Burr Trail Road.
Camping – Hole in the Wall & Burr Trail Roads
There are free, dispersed campsites scattered generously throughout the National Monument, which is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). BLM lands are heaven to Vanlifers, and this area is no exception. We spent two nights camping in Escalante – the first along Hole in the Rock Road and the second along Burr Trail. Both sites were free, secluded, and had spectacular views of the surrounding landscapes.
So… Will we be Returning to Utah? Were we ‘Elevated’?
Absolutely! Utah was everything we hoped it would be and more. We don’t feel that we’ve seen enough of Utah to label the Red Canyon and Escalante “favourites” (yet!), but we would highly recommend both spots, especially to people that have travel criteria similar to ours.
Utah now sits higher than ever on our bucket list, and we plan to return in the near future for at least a month so that we can explore it properly (preferably earlier in the year when the temperatures at low elevations are cooler). There is still so much more to see, including the National Parks, and the vast geographic areas encompassed by the Rocky Mountains and Basin/Ridge region. We will be back.