Story and photos by Jeff and Stephanie Sylva
You’ve heard the quote many times – “It doesn’t get any better than this.” This was what we said to each other during a trip to southern Utah. The only problem was this is what we said on our first day in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. Little did we know on that first day that we would be repeating this same refrain each day we spent in the scenic wonder that is Utah’s Canyon Country. Each day’s experience of being immersed in the natural beauty of Canyon Country was better than the day before.
Southern Utah has five national parks, each with its own unique scenic splendor – Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion. As if these “Mighty Five” natural wonderlands weren’t enough, this area of red rock splendor and awe-inspiring scenic vistas is packed with state parks, national monuments, national recreation areas, and national forests, all offering unlimited opportunities for outdoor recreation and breath-taking sightseeing.
We focused our first six days in San Juan County. From the unique desert landscapes of Monument Valley and Glen Canyon, to the high mountain lakes and forests of the La Sal and Abajo Mountains, San Juan County has a diverse topography offering the outdoor enthusiast a vast playground of unsurpassed beauty and excitement.
Our first stop was Canyonlands National Park. Canyonlands is divided into four districts by the Green and Colorado Rivers: the Island in the Sky, the Maze, the Needles, and the rivers themselves. The Island in the Sky district is the most accessible and offers numerous overlooks and several short trails that provide a good introduction to the park. The walk to Mesa Arch is short and very easy – and the views of the arch with the canyons in the background are awesome.
Be sure to stop at one of the Visitors’ Centers to get a copy of the park’s newspaper, as it has great information about the park’s different sections and helpful suggestions for activities depending on the amount of time you have to spend at Canyonlands.
One experience we enjoyed was driving part of the White Rim Road, a dirt road that winds its way down the canyon on narrow switchbacks. We took someone’s advice to rent a four-wheel drive car because it would give us
opportunities to explore some of the less traveled, more remote spots throughout Canyon Country.
The Needles, named for the colorful sandstone spires that dominate the district, has an extensive trail system providing many opportunities for long day hikes and overnight trips. The Needles also has a scenic drive with some great overlooks. The Maze is the least accessible district. Because of its remoteness, visitors to the Maze generally spend three days or more in this section.
After leaving Canyonlands NP, we made a short stop at Dead Horse Point State Park, although we could have used more time there. The visitor center and main viewpoint are very accessible. The park also offers eight miles of hiking trails and nine miles of mountain bike trails which lead to spectacular overlooks.
Dead Horse Point State Park is just one example of the outstanding scenic and recreational opportunities available throughout San Juan County. The National Parks like Canyonlands and Arches are magnificent, but we were amazed at the natural beauty and myriad activities available year round just about anywhere in Southeast Utah. Great hiking trails, whether for just a short jaunt or for overnight backpacking, abound. Mountain biking, 4-wheel and ATV trails, rock climbing and canyoneering, horseback riding, hunting and fishing, whitewater rafting, and cross-country skiing and snowmobiling in the winter, all in dazzling natural settings, are readily available.
Those interested in visiting and exploring Ancestral Puebloan ruins and rock art will find San Juan County to have the greatest archaeological site density in North America. Edge of the Cedars State Park and Museum and Hovenweep National Monument are two of the many outstanding sites with a wealth of Anasazi artifacts, ruins, and exhibits.
A great way to truly immerse yourself in this natural playground and fully experience what this area has to offer is to work with an adventure outfitter whose excursions will take you off the beaten path. We enjoyed two outstanding days with Jared Berrett and his family at Four Corners Adventures located in Blanding.
Four Corners Adventures offers a variety of adventures and excursions, whether you prefer jeeping, ATV’s, hiking, biking, canyoneering, or boating. With three categories of activities based on comfort level and ability, Four Corners can get you off the beaten path and into some of the most pristine and beautiful country in the world. Four
Corners specializes in creating personalized adventures to suit your interests.
On our first day with Four Corners we set out in their Jeep for the backcountry. After skillfully maneuvering the jeep down the Comb Ridge Dugway – what looked to us like an impassable path hugging the cliffs of the ridge – to the canyon floor, our guides took us to Arch Canyon to explore some Anasazi ruins. We then traveled over some more dirt trails and slickrock to enjoy a picnic lunch at the head of Mule Canyon with outstanding views of the canyon and the ruins of seven towers that the Ancients had constructed to protect their water source in the canyon.
Our last stop was Natural Bridges National Monument where we hiked a short, vigorous trail to the bottom of Sipapu Bridge, taking a little time to relax and reflect on the awesome view of White Canyon and the azure sky from under the bridge. After hiking back up the canyon to the Jeep, we completed the 9-mile scenic drive to observe Kachina and Owachomo Bridges from the overlooks. Natural Bridges NM may not share the enormity of the larger national and state parks, but it is certainly their equal when it comes to natural beauty.
Our second day was an experience we will always cherish – a “bucket list” one. Four Corners gave us a sneak peek
of the boating adventure they will offer in 2014 cruising the clear blue waters of Lake Powell and its intriguing side canyons. Having long been intrigued with the grandeur of Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon Recreational Area depicted in pictures, we were overwhelmed with just how awesome this area really is. The highlight of the day was Rainbow Bridge National Monument, the world’s largest natural bridge.
Canyon Country, with its many rivers which have helped sculpt its natural wonders, is a perfect area for river rafting. We spent a day floating the San Juan River with Wild Rivers Expeditions, an outfitter that has that specialized in raft trips on the San Juan for fifty years. Our guide expertly interpreted the river’s exquisite Ancestral Puebloan culture and textbook geology, prepared a delicious riverside lunch, and skillfully guided us through the 26 miles of the rugged canyon from Bluff to Mexican Hat.
The San Juan River has a few lively rapids but is not known for its whitewater. This relatively calm river makes it perfect for families and others looking to enjoy the cultural and natural beauty of this remote canyon region. We enjoyed the short hike to view the Anasazi ruins at River House and the petroglyphs of Butler Wash; and we
enjoyed spotting the many big horn sheep deftly climbing the rocky crags of the canyon. Wild Rivers offers a variety of river trips, from one-day to as much as a ten-day trip. All food and gear, except for personal gear like sleeping bags, pads and tents (which can be rented), are provided.
A true highlight of our tour of Southeast Utah was our day in Monument Valley, a Navajo Tribal Park located on the border of Utah and Arizona. Monument Valley is one of the most photographed landmarks in the United States, internationally famous for its quintessential western scenery. Its crimson mesas and buttes and surreal sandstone towers are captivating in their beauty and have been featured in numerous movies and commercials. The iconic images of the East and West Mittens, Totem Pole, and John Ford’s Point have attracted visitors worldwide who want to view firsthand the “Old West” where John Wayne and director John Ford came to film Stagecoach in 1938.
Visitors can drive the 17-mile dirt road to view the valley’s rock formations. But the best way to fully experience Monument Valley is with a guided tour. We took the full-day tour offered by Goulding’s Lodge and Tours, and we thoroughly enjoyed the full eight hours of the tour. Our Navajo guide was very informative as he provided some fascinating insight to his culture as well as a wealth of geological and historical information about this area known as the “Land of Long Shadows.”
The full-day tour starts with a morning excursion into Mystery Valley where we viewed a number of Anasazi ruins and rock art and made a few short hikes to some outstanding views of this mesmerizing landscape. After a barbeque lunch prepared by our guide, we continued on to experience the iconic views of Monument Valley and made a stop at an authentic Navajo hogan, the traditional Navajo residence.
Goulding’s Lodge has a long and interesting history at Monument Valley. It was Harry and Leone (affectionately called “Mike”) Goulding who established their Trading Post in 1928 and ten years later, in a desperate attempt to bring some financial help to the Navajo people, convinced John Ford that Monument Valley was the perfect spot to film his next movie. From these humble beginnings sprang Goulding’s Lodge and the hospitality enterprise it is today.
On our last day in San Juan County we stopped at Goosenecks State Park for an intriguing view of the twisting
San Juan River and the longest entrenched river meander in North America. We then drove the dirt road through the Valley of the Gods, a miniature Monument Valley; negotiated the Moki Dugway, a gravel road not for those with a fear of heights; and then stopped for the awesome view from Muley Point.
A visit to Southeast Utah and San Juan County is not for anyone looking for luxury resorts and fine dining. But we found the accommodations and eating establishments during our travels to be quite good. The towns we visited were small communities with some very good local restaurants; clean, quite comfortable lodgings; and very friendly people. We would particularly recommend the brand new La Posada Pintada, a boutique B&B in Bluff, and Stone Lizard Lodging in Blanding (they have taken over a roadside motel and totally renovated the rooms into some very comfortable lodging).
A few of the restaurants we enjoyed include the Line Camp Steakhouse in Monticello, Twin Rocks Café (try their Navajo Taco to experience some regional cuisine) and the Cottonwood Steakhouse in Bluff, and Tuscan Gardens in Blanding.
For anyone looking to fulfill their desire for adventure, to explore vestiges of an ancient culture, or simply to gaze at awe-inspiring natural beauty, San Juan County in southeastern Utah is a land of unlimited outdoor opportunities.