Utah's Canyon Country 3-Day Itinerary
Oct 9, 2017
By: Maggie Franz
San Juan County is remote, reddish, rocky and rich with history, cliffs, canyons, gorges, and more golden arches than Ronald McDonald himself could dream up. There are so many parks, natural wonders and atrractions in Utah’s largest county, we had trouble narrowing it down to a three-day itinerary. If this turns into four days, #SorryNotSorry. Load up the crew and get started!
Day 1: Salt Lake — Moab — Canyonlands — Monticello
If your trip is starting north of your destination, kick off your three-day adventure by road tripping to the place that gave us our license plates: the ever-enchanting Moab, UT.
Moab is the perfect lunch break. It may be small in population, but what it lacks in tax-paying permanent residents, it makes up for in good views and good eats. And for lunch, you get both. Spend the afternoon walking Moab’s charming Main Street, admiring the red rock as you go. Stop at any restaurant that grabs your attention. We like The Blu Pig (BBQ), Pasta Jay’s (Chinese) (just kidding, pasta) and Eklecticafe, off the top of our heads.
Afternoon: So much to see
Now it’s time to get serious. The goal is to get down to San Juan, but there are some must-sees along the way.
First up: Wilson Arch. It’s about 24 miles south out of Moab on US-191 and a quick (but steep) 5–10 min hike to the arch. Trust us, the payoff is worth any sweat you may incur.
Next, backtrack 2.5 miles on 191 and head left/southwest on Looking Glass Road/Co. Rd. 131. Looking Glass Rock is located just off the road. Take a moment, admire its beauty, and then continue down 131. Give your kids a quarter for every abandoned cave house they can spot from the car. Or just a high five, because it could get pricey. If you have the time and inclination you can hop out and explore some of them.
Continue south on 131 for 9.2 miles and turn right onto Needles Overlook Road/Co. Rd. 133. Follow it 14.4 miles until you hit Needles Overlook, which — be warned — hits back. This is another you’re-crazy-if-you-don’t-get-out-of-the-car-and-gape-for-a-while viewpoint. You’re looking into Canyonlands National Park’s Needles District, which, of course, deserves three days on its own, but that’ll have to wait for another weekend. Take it in and then head back down the road.
To continue the all-American road trip, go back east on 133 until you hit 191, turn right and go 6.8 miles until you turn right again onto UT-211. That’ll take you to Newspaper Rock, an official state historic monument, where you can see thousands of years of history pecked into the rocks by people who came before. (Please don’t make us explain why your own contributions don’t belong next to theirs.)
Let the road trip continue as you make your way toward Monticello, your destination for Day 1. Grab dinner and find lodging for the night. Tomorrow’s a big day.
Day 2: Monticello — Blanding
Pack a lunch before you leave Monticello. There is a lot to see and not a lot of places to stop for food. Today will be a picnic day, and picnic days tend to be the best days.
First stop: House On Fire. As awesome as it sounds and not nearly as dangerous. A little over an hour outside Monticello on Cedar Mesa, located in the South Fork of Mule Canyon, you’ll find a nice 1.5-mile hike to the ruin. If you hit it just at the right time of morning, the blazing sun hits the rock and the whole thing conflagrates.
Up next is a popular Anasazi site at the Butler Wash ruin. It’s an easy hike to an overlook where you can admire the remains of a Pueblo III ruin. This is a good time to upack that picnic and take a front-row seat for some of Utah’s richest history.
Afternoon/Evening: Natural Bridges
For the afternoon, head an hour west to Natural Bridges National Monument and spend the afternoon exploring multi-colored rock bridges and Anasazi Indian ruins. If camping is an option for you, we highly recommend the developed campground at the monument for some serious stargazing. The area was the world’s first International Dark Sky Park, designated by the International Dark Sky Association, because there is little-to-no light pollution. The dazzling stars backdropping the shadowy arches is a site you’ll never forget.
If camping isn’t your thing, plan to drive one more hour into Blanding and find a hotel for the night.
Day 3: Blanding — Valley of the Gods — Home
Morning: Pueblo Ruins
You’ve got some choices to make here, but either way you spin it, you’ll be coming out on top.
Spend the morning in Blanding and head to Edge of the Cedars State Park. This area used to be home to a large number of native people, who left behind a trove of compelling artifacts. Spend a few hours examining relics and exploring ruins. If you need a minute to cool off inside, there’s a really beautiful museum on site with the largest collection of ancestral Puebloan pottery in the Four Corners region.
An hour east is Hovenweep (meaning deserted valley), a national monument with a quiet splendor. This sacred place is home to five well-preserved village ruins. The castle-like structures cover a 20-mile radius and are a spectacular to behold.
Either way you go, on your way to Valley of the Gods, you’ll pass through Bluff, which is a good spot to stop for lunch at one of the cafes in town.
Afternoon: Valley of the Gods
From Bluff, take US-191 which turns into US-163 toward Valley of the Gods. This is a very remote part of the state, and considered a mini Monument Valley without the hiking and camping restrictions. Explore the backcountry on a 17-mile scenic drive through the valley and its incredible rock formations. If there’s time, get out of the car for some hiking. There’s a good chance you’ll have whole swaths of it to yourselves.
Make the trek back home with a whole lot of memories that’ll last almost as long as that pottery.