Top

Another especially great winter trip – nearly empty of other people at this time of year. We borrowed a 4-wheel drive truck from friends and it was very handy in some of the rougher spots along the journey.

Recommendations for future trips:

This route worked well, but was not the most efficient due to hotel availability. If going to the same destinations, I’d recommend starting with Goblin Valley and ending in Moab, saving a few hours of driving.

Alternately, a more efficient route that covers most of the highlights:

  • Goblin Valley (visit on the way to Capital Reef)
  • Capital Reef (2-3 nights)
  • Burr Trail
  • Monument Valley
  • Canyon de Chelly
  • Chaco Canyon
  • Durango
  • Mesa Verde
  • Canyonlands/Moab

Day 1 (Salt Lake City to Moab)

Fly into Salt Lake City (not the closest, but generally the cheapest from the Bay Area). Flagstaff or Albuquerque would be other reasonable options. Our drive took 4 hours to Sorrel River Ranch, outside of Moab.

Sites along the way:

  • [SKIP] *Green River State Park: historically important, but basically defunct as of 2016. Not much to see/do.
  • ***Sego Canyon Rock Art: love! Drive through a creepy defunct town, then an equally creepy trailer park, drive a few more miles past hunters with guns, and you’ll arrive at a lovely canyon with spectacular Ute drawings on the rocks. It’s small, but majestic.
  • **Cisco: a ghost town; featured in Thelma & Louise. Very dead, not worth going out of your way to see, but vaguely interesting if nearby. However,  ***Highway 128 (Cisco – Moab) – gorgeous! It’s worth driving to Cisco to enter Moab this way – the views are incredible.

We stayed at *Sorrel River Ranch Resort and Spa. It’s a lovely place, and we really liked being outside of Moab. Service and food are a bit lacking, however, and I don’t think the cost is worth it.

Next time: La Sal Loop Road outside of Moab: We didn’t have time for this, but it looks awesome. It also has campgrounds in cooler locations for summer.

Full notes on Moab, including more Hotel options and food here.

Day 2 (Moab)

Really glad we didn’t stay in the town itself. It’s a crunchy outdoorsy town of the Lone Pine variety. Food was very uninspiring. The surrounding parks are the reason to visit though – given it two days, or more if you want to do serious sporting.

***Dead Horse Point State Park: at the entrance to Canyonlands, and really shouldn’t be missed. Allow about an hour to go to the point and walk around it.

***Canyonlands (Island in the Sky Side): awesome! Amazing scenery, we loved it in winter (light dusting of snow, almost no people). It’s a good driving park with a lot of opportunities for short hikes. It looks like it would be great for mountain biking, it’s huge, great terrain. As hikers, we did every lookout and minor hike along Sky Park Road, hiking about 5 miles over the course of the day. The one thing I’d call optional is Upheaval Dome, a must for serious geology nerds but not quite as interesting for the layman.

Day 3 (Moab to Capitol Reef)

***Arches National Park is quite something. It’s a Vegas showgirl of a park – everything on display. In many ways it’s the opposite of Canyonlands – the spires are up, versus the downward views in the canyons. You can drive it in 2 hours, or spend 4 and take a lot of short walks to the major sites. Do make sure to stop at Park Avenue, my favorite. If I went back a second time, I’d drive straight to the end and do a long hike. I’m not sure I’d consider this in the Spring-Fall at all – the crowds in December were almost too much to take. It’s wonderful, but clearly everyone thinks that.


***Goblin Valley is AWESOME! You only need an hour, but it’s so weird and fun. I’d love to go back to this in the summer – there’s a campground, and it claims to have some of the darkest nights in the country. No major electric lights for over 10 miles.

A bit further on, **Hollow Mountain Gas Station: the old gas station is open, and the shop is legitimately carved into the side of a mountain. It’s not that showy, but why not stop? Continuing – Highway 24, from Hanksville to Torrey, is beautiful.

Our stop for the next national park was **Capitol Reef Resort: by far the nicest hotel in the area, and we really liked it. “Splurge” for a cabin (ours was $135), or stay in a wagon or Teepee in the summer (seriously). Food was totally acceptable, there’s a pool, it’s a good location.

Note that food around Capitol Reef is very limited in winter – only our hotel and one restaurant (Red Cliffs) in Torrey were open.

Day 4 (Capitol Reef)

This park is world class – really so wonderful! I want to come back. There’s a lot to see, 2-3 days would be ideal, especially with a few nights in an isolated campground to see the stars.

We toured:

***Cathedral Valley, via Cathedral Road & Hartnet Road (60 mile loop, well maintained dirt road). You definitely need a high clearance car, but the road is not difficult. The total loop is spectacular (out to the Temple of the Sun), lots of mini hikes along the way, huge amounts of diversity in scenery. We didn’t see a single person or car.

***Capitol Gorge to the Pioneer Register: At the end of the Capitol Reef Scenic Drive, you should definitely drive out to the end of the unpaved but well-maintained Capitol Gorge spur, a few miles farther along the scenic drive. This 2.2- mile road is a little narrow for RVs, and nothing you would want to pull a trailer through, but other vehicles will make it without difficulty. An easy and interesting 1-mile hike from the trailhead at the end of the Capitol Gorge drive takes you into this slot canyon, where on a rock wall called Pioneer Register you can see the names of miners, settlers, and other adventurers who passed through here starting in 1871. The Capitol Gorge road here was the main transport route through this region from 1884 until UT Highway 24 was opened in 1962. Pioneers had to remove boulders and other debris after every flash flood, and at its best, it was a tight fit for big wagons or trucks.

While in the Fruita area, make sure you check out other historic attractions such as the Fruita Schoolhouse, old Blacksmith Shop, the Fremont petroglyphs and the Gifford Homestead (note: closed in winter), which offer a snapshot of early Mormon pioneer life. The Gifford farm lies in the heart of the Fruita valley, a desert oasis described by Wallace Stegner as “…a sudden, intensely green little valley among the cliffs of the Waterpocket Fold, opulent with cherries, peaches, and apples in season, inhabited by a few families who were about equally good Mormons and good frontiersmen and good farmers.”¹ We did this, but they’re pretty quiet in winter, likely more active at other points of year.

Just after the old schoolhouse, also on the left, is a petroglyph trail; beyond the petroglyph trail is the trailhead for the easy to moderate (2 miles round-trip) hike to **Hickman Natural Bridge. It’s pretty; worthwhile: a great view of the large white sandstone domes that inspired the park’s name. 

Day 5 (Capitol Reef to Monument Valley)

SPECTACULAR driving day (about 7 hours). Also a really good reminder that South Eastern Utah basically shuts down from Nov-Mar and it’s hard to find gas and just about impossible to eat. We didn’t find a single restaurant open – or a grocery store – for nearly 300 miles.

  • Highway 12, from Torrey to Boulder, UT – incredible! Aspen groves, wide vistas, high altitude – over 10,000 ft in places.
  • **Anasazi State Park Museum – this is more designed for children, but it’s a pleasant 20 minute stop, so why not?
  • ***Burr Trail. This was truly stunning and very worth it – if a bit scary at times! Spanning 66 miles, the only partially paved road winds through dramatic portions of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Capitol Reef National Park, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. We drove the “traditional” route from Boulder to Bullfrog. The  switchbacks in particular are worth doing. Requires a fairly sturdy car – it would be a long walk out. From Bullfrog, you may be able to save an hour or so of driving by taking the ferry, which operates on the weekends, we’re told (wasn’t operating as we passed by). 
  • Allow an hour to detour to **Natural Bridges National Monument. 9 mile driving loop to three natural bridge-rock formations. I’d stop here if in the area for the drive, and even better come back for a hike through the canyons – a full day activity. It looks to be one of the better hikes in Utah.
  • Continuing south, you’ll find yourself at the ***Moki Dugway. Holy switchbacks Batman! I totally didn’t see it coming – a 5 mile switchback to the valley floor, overlooking Monument Valley. A dirt road, no less! I think this, and the valley floor, are the best part of the valley. Approaching from the south would be a total waste.

We didn’t see Goosenecks State Park, but it’s right in this area if you have more time (and gas).

Our destination for the night, ***Monument Valley, is very impressive, but I think it would be a better stop on the way to somewhere – not an overnight. We found everything in the area to be a bit lackluster – bad food, slightly surly, slightly rundown. The same could be said for everywhere we went in Arizona and New Mexico. Note that alcohol is not sold/served in the Monument Valley area.

We stayed at the *View Hotel. This was the right choice – the view is really awesome – but it’s not a great experience. Under no circumstances try the restaurant. Gross.

We did check out **Goulding’s Lodge. It’s cute in a dated sort of way, and has much better food (if not particularly good food). Views of the monuments aren’t very good.

Day 6 (Monument Valley to Winslow, AZ)

This was a very long driving day, arguably too long, but I’m glad we went to La Posada, which is wonderful.

Sites along the way:

  • **Burger King, Kayenta. The world’s best exhibit on the Navajo Code Talkers is located in a Burger King in Kayenta, Arizona. Worth a stop!
  • **Hubble Trading Post (Ganado, AZ): the oldest operating trading post on the Navajo Nation (since 1878) is fine for stop if you’re nearby, but not worth going out of your way for.

Our primary destination, ***Canyon de Chelly, is beautiful! It wasn’t exactly what I expected, more of a perfect hidden spot for farming. Quite idyllic. Note that the surrounding town is pretty grim and this doesn’t seem like a particularly nice place to stay or camp. In the park:

  • (Recommended) South Rim Drive (36-mile round trip — 2 hours): National Park Road 7 offers seven overlooks into Canyon de Chelly itself: Tsegi, Junction, White House, Sliding House, Wild Cherry, Face Rock and Spider. The spectacular Spider Rock is an 800-foot sandstone spire rising from the canyon floor at the junction of Canyon de Chelly and Monument Canyon. [did this]
  • White House Nature Trail (2.5-mile, 2-hour round trip). A scenic trail to White House from the overlook on South Rim Road descends 600 feet to the canyon floor, providing the only way visitors may enter the canyon without a ranger guide. [did this]
  • North Rim Drive (34-mile round trip — 2 hours): National Park Road 64 provides four overlooks into Canyon del Muerto: Ledge Ruin, Antelope House, Mummy Cave and Massacre Cave. [did not do]

Finally, ***La Posada: really out of the way! The town of Winslow is pretty grim, but the hotel is an oasis and really worth trekking to see. The restaurant and food are amazing! Designed by architect Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, this is one of the original US “destination hotels,” built in 1882.

Day 7 (Winslow to Mesa Verde)

This was a very long driving day, definitely too long – 7-8 hours in total. We backtracked to the east along the historic Route 66 before cutting north again.

Sites along the way:

  • **Jack Rabbitt Trading Post: historic route 66 destination. Not that interesting, but if you’re driving past why not stop?
  • Wigwam Motel (www.sleepinawigwam.com) – worth a quick drive by. On a time capsule of a block, historic route 66.
  • **Petrified Forest National Park: it’s worth a quick stop at the Painted Desert Inn, right off the road and a lovely picture spot (and interesting to tour the building). If you’ve been to a petrified forest, skip the park entirely. It’s pretty, but not worth the time if your itinerary is ambitious.
  • *El Rancho Hotel in Gallup: worth a stop (a National Historic Landmark), not necessarily a night. Billed as “a storied hotel where cowboy cool hosted Tinseltown glamor. For countless moviemakers Hotel El Rancho became their western home base and playground.” Restaurant is very mediocre. Hotel is interesting but not well maintained. Gallup itself is pretty tired.

Several hours later, we reached the wonderful ***Chaco Culture National Historical Park: a National Historical Park with a large concentration of pueblos – one of the most comprehensive collections of ancient ruins north of Mexico, and one of the most important pre-Columbian cultural and historical areas in the United States (circa 900-1150 AD). It’s very remote (LONG dirt roads from either entrance, not always passable). Fascinating ruins, some restored, not crowded at all. Plan for a few hours for your visit.

We stayed for 2 nights at a really nice Airbnb in Dolores, Colorado. While not the most central location, the hosts were great (made us dinner, very welcoming), and the house is wonderful. Very much a labor of love, extremely well executed.

The nearby town of Cortez is actually pretty great. Mix of ranchers and hippies, several good restaurants (try the **Loungin’ Lizard), more charming than you’d expect.

Rock Art Ranch: we didn’t have time for this, or the organization to be there at a specific time, but it looks interesting!

We didn’t make it to Shiprock or Four Corners due to time. Give this stretch a second day.

Day 8 (Mesa Verde to Salt Lake City)

The last stop before the long drive back to Salt Lake City was ***Mesa Verde National Park – a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with some of the best-preserved Ancestral Puebloan archaeological sites in the United States (more than 5,000 sites, including 600 cliff dwellings). We had the place  to ourselves, literally, on New Year’s Day. Not much was open, including the Spruce Tree House (closed due to instability of the ruins), but the Mesa Top Loop Road was very pleasant and you can see quite a lot.