The Best Alternatives to Utah's Popular State Parks
It's no question Utah hosts some of the most beautiful landscape in the U.S. However many of Utah’s unique spots are often overlooked due to the wealth of awe-inspiring locations all over the Beehive State.
With Utah’s “Mighty 5″ national parks continuing to see record crowds, here are a few alternative options, so you can reconnect with the natural world without rubbing shoulders with dozens, if not hundreds, of other people on the trail.
Kodachrome Basin State Park
Despite its relatively small size, you will not be disappointed. Named by National Geographic photographers in 1948, the park is worthy of its namesake film. Nearly 6 miles long, Panorama Trail (long loop) winds its way through much of the park’s most famous spires and rock formations.
After a short but steep rise to a hilltop you get a 360-degree view of the surrounding beauty. You can either hike the trail or ride a mountain bike. The 1.5-mile Angel’s Palace hike takes visitors up to the ridgeline with more incredible views. The trail is reasonably marked and has some steep drop-offs.
How to Get There and Where to Stay:
Take Utah State Road 12, or Scenic Byway 12 which is the main road that passes by Kodachrome Basin State Park. There are a couple of towns along the way where you can get fuel and supplies.
Inside the park, there are a total of 63 campsites along three loops, including the Arch Campground. Most of the sites can accommodate larger rigs and offer full or partial hookups and fire rings. There’s also a laundry facility on site.
Dixie National Forest
Located less than 30 minutes from Bryce Canyon National Park, Dixie National Forest is an alternative for travelers overwhelmed by the larger park’s onslaught of crowds. You won’t be losing out on scenery either; in fact, the seemingly never-ending columns of hoodoos inside the national forest can easily be mistaken for Bryce.
The main Red Canyon trailhead is located about 1.5 miles from the visitor center and is poorly marked from the road. The road to the parking area looks more like a driveway than a trailhead so be sure to keep your eyes peeled.
The Cassidy Trail is named for the infamous outlaw Butch Cassidy, who according to legend once hid in these canyons. While horse riding is popular on this trail, I opted for a mountain bike.
At the visitor center, you can explore the Hoodoos and Pink Ledges hike. A brochure offers info on 13 different stops along the hike, with details about the area’s trees, plants, and geology. This trail is a great hike and learning experience for kids.
How to get there & where to stay:
Taking Highway 12 is the best route, and this section of the road may be one of the prettiest stretches of highway in the state—and that’s saying something!
Almost directly across the road from the visitor center, you’ll find the Red Canyon Campground. This campground has a reputation for being one of the better U.S. Forest Service sites in the state.
Tom’s Best Spring is also about 5 miles away and highly recommended by the Dixie National Forest Visitor Center. The main dispersed camping area is an open field with no amenities. Cliffside spots are available if you’re willing to drive a little further.
Red Cliffs National Conservation Area
Located a short drive from St. George, Utah, the 60,000-acre Red Cliffs National Conservation Area offers 130 miles of non-motorized trails across three ecosystems: the Mojave Desert, Great Basin, and Colorado Plateau.
On the 2-mile Red Reef Trail, a path gives way to small waterfalls, remnants of the flowing waterways that carved the canyons millions of years ago. Using a nylon rope and Moqui steps—created by ancient Native Americans who notched holes into the side of the rock to use as a ladder—we were able to swing around the fast-moving creek and into a clearing. The pools of water serve as an incentive for both hikers and pups.
If you’re arch-hunting, be sure to seek out Elephant and Babylon Arches, both of which require fairly short, moderate to easy hikes.
Mountain bikers will love the 10-mile Dino Cliffs and Church Rock Loop that takes riders up some easy slickrock to spectacular vistas. Don’t go too fast though, or you’ll miss the fossilized dinosaur tracks.
Snow Canyon State Park falls within the Red Cliffs Preservation Area, which includes the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area. Burnt sandstone perfectly contrasts with the scattered black lava rock and white, snow-capped mountains in the distance. Be sure to hike into Jenny Canyon—although it’s less than the length of a football field, it’s a nice way for families to experience a real slot canyon.
How to get there and where to stay:
Interstate 15 traverses the southern edge of Red Cliffs National Conservation Area and Highway 18 bisects it north to south.
Red Cliffs Campground offers a handful of RV-friendly sites, and you can’t beat the location. Multiple hiking trails leave from the campground, and visitors have the standard fire pit and picnic table amenities. If you have a tall rig, look elsewhere; reaching the campground requires passing below two underpasses with a maximum height of about 11.5 feet.
Leeds Canyon is a great (and free) dispersed camping option located along a well-maintained road within Red Cliffs National Conservation Area. Several spots have canyon backdrops.
Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest
Located a short drive from Salt Lake City, Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest offers visitors a myriad of outdoor activities, including hiking, skiing, fishing, and mountain biking, within its more than 2.1 million acres.
If you’re looking for a challenge, the 7.4-mile (roundtrip) Lake Blanche Trail takes you up more than 2,500 feet over difficult terrain to reach the namesake alpine lake.
Tackling the 3.4-mile (roundtrip) hike to Donut Falls takes you to one of the most unique waterfalls in the state. While the bulk of the trail can be considered fairly easy, the final push includes a somewhat steep climb up a slippery boulder field. The Donut Falls gets its name from the hole in the cliffside cave where water gushes through.
If you feel more like a casual stroll, the 0.2-mile Devils Kitchen Trail near the Nebo Scenic Loop takes you to red rock formations resembling a miniature Bryce Canyon.How to get there and where to stay:
Many of the campgrounds and recreation areas are located less than 20 minutes off of Interstate 15. The 37-mile Mount Nebo National Scenic Byway intersects a section of the forest between Nephi and Payson, with gorgeous overlooks of the Wasatch Mountains and Mount Nebo.
National forest campgrounds have limited windows of availability, so be sure to check the website if you’re planning to visit in early spring or late fall. We stayed at Cottonwood Campground, where the sites are well-spaced and many are pull-throughs. Some even have a stream running nearby.
Jolley’s Ranch offers electric and water hookups, as well as the typical amenities, in this pleasant campground within Hobble Creek Canyon. Although the restrooms have running water, there are no shower facilities.
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Grand Staircase-Escalante begins near the highest point of the Grand Canyon and rises in a series of multi-colored cliffs and rock benches. Grand Staircase’s trails and scenery rivals—and, some might argue, surpasses—many national parks.
If you’re up for a pre-dawn trek to the Toadstools to catch the sunrise, hiking a short mile or two through a sandy wash will be more than worth it. Bathed in the soft pink light, the hoodoos are absolutely stunning in the morning light. This is an easy hike and great for families at all times of the day as well.
There are two Peekaboo Canyons located in and around Grand Staircase-Escalante, one is 26 miles south of the town of Escalante and a second is just north of Kanab, Utah (also called Red Canyon).
Getting to Peekaboo (Red) Canyon requires a 9-mile sandy out-and-back hike or a four-wheel drive vehicle. The short half-mile canyon hike will remind you of the more famous Antelope Canyon to the south, without the crowds.
The near 5-mile Mansard Trail leads visitors up a wash, some easy rock scrambles, and switchbacks before reaching a set of well-preserved petroglyphs.
In Paria, Utah, little remains of either the real-life ghost town or the movie set where they filmed The Outlaw Josey Wales and other Hollywood Westerns. There’s still plenty of natural scenery to enjoy.
How to get there and where to stay:
Grand Staircase-Escalante is massive, so there’s no shortage of roads running through the national monument. Highway 12 traverses much of the western edge of the park, while U.S. Route 89 takes you to the southwestern tip of the state before crossing into Arizona.
The Bureau of Land Management dispersed camping area just off Hole-in-the-Rock Road offers plenty of open space and stone fire pits. Despite two dozen other RVs and campervans, it was peaceful.