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Southern Utah Road Trip: 4x4 Required
Transform a four-by-four into your roving, all-terrain base camp as you hike, bike, and paddle through this string of stashes that locals know best.
Text by Christopher Percy Collier   Photograph by Steve Macaulay
Photo: Utah's Confluence Overlook
SELF-POWERED EXPLORER: Enjoying Confluence Overlook after biking up Elephant Hill. 

Road Trips:  California  |  New York  |  North Carolina-Tennessee  |  Utah

Southern Utah is a veritable snake pit of dusty, lonesome jeep roads wrapping around sandstone pinnacles and steep, red-orange canyons. Go ahead, cruise a few. But to best explore the Canyonlands (and conserve fuel), you've got to fire up your own God-given engine. Transform a battle-tested four-by-four into your roving, all-terrain base camp as you hike, bike, and paddle through this string of stashes that locals know best and guides are less likely to mention.

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Map: Utah road trip

1) MOUNTAIN BIKE: Elephant Hill
Turn off of the pavement 70 miles (113 kilometers) south of Moab and follow sandy, three-mile (5-kilometer) Elephant Hill Road to the base of Elephant Hill, a legendary four-wheeling destination that doubles as a lesser known mountain biking spot. "Elephant Hill got its reputation as a superburly four-by-four trail about 20 years ago," says Moab resident Ben Garthwait. "But it's perfect for a mountain bike." At the base of the hill, park the car at Squaw Flat Campground and crank up the 5,300-foot (1,615-meter) hunk of slickrock. Once past the Elephant's hump, push on for another four miles (6 kilometers) to Confluence Overlook, where the Green River merges with the cappuccino-colored Colorado. Back at your car, pick a spot and crash at the campground.

2) KAYAK: Glen Canyon
Lake Powell is a hydro-Houdini. Each year its water levels rise and fall to reveal more or less of long-lost Glen Canyon. Natural arches come in and out of view. Waterfalls are born, then cease to exist. See the magic act by taking a car ferry from Halls Crossing, 160 miles (257.5 kilometers) west of Elephant Hill, to Bullfrog Marina, where you can rent a kayak and arrange for a shuttle to one of the 96 side canyons. Ask the status of the famed Cathedral in the Desert, in Clear Creek Canyon, 23 miles (37 kilometers) out. This gaping sandstone wonder emerged from the lake in the spring of 2004, revealing a 50-foot (15-meter) waterfall. But chances are, due to rising water levels, the falls will be gone by press time. "You'll kayak right over the top of them and never know they are there," says Provo, Utah, boater Dave Webb. Still, venturing into this reborn canyon—a new favorite even for locals—is reward enough. Primitive camping, away from the RV hubbub, can be found two miles (3 kilometers) from the marina, at the Stanton Creek Campground.

3) HIKE: Cottonwood Wash
Wading through waist-deep water is a rite of passage on Capitol Reef National Park's three-mile-long (5-kilometer-long) Cottonwood Wash, a slot-canyon trail accessed along Notom Road before Highway 24. There's no parking lot; just pull off on the side of the road 55 miles (88.5 kilometers) north of Bullfrog Marina while still on Bureau of Land Management terrain. The wash forms part of the Waterpocket Fold: a hundred-mile-long (161-kilometer-long) hunk of earth jutting up some 7,000 feet (2,134 meters). Out here, scrambling over large boulders, slogging through deep pools, and squeezing through high-walled passageways become second nature—as does checking the weather (flash floods are frequent). At the end of the day, pitch your tent back on BLM property.

4) SELF-GUIDE: The Colorado
Forget the crowded rafting trip; you've got a big-wheeled vehicle built for hauling
a couple of "duckies" (single-person rafts). Rent boats from Moab's Tag-A-Long Expeditions and run 12 miles (19 kilometers) of Class II rapids starting at Hittle Bottom Campground, 24 miles (39 kilometers) northeast of Moab on Route 128. On these slow-going wave trains, minimal paddling prowess will suffice. Or, for a bigger, longer, and more pampered day trip, stick with the guides from Tag-A-Long and put in at Westwater for 17 miles (27 kilometers) of Class III and IV rapids.

5) ROAD BIKE:  La Sal Mountain Loop
Finish on solid ground with a 63-mile (101-kilometer) ride on La Sal Mountain Loop Road, a pockmarked route that runs from Moab, through national forest land, and ascends into the La Sal Mountains, the second highest range in Utah. "The road's bumpy, but that's Utah for you," says custom road bike designer Lee Bridgers, who named one of his more rugged bikes after the loop. Shoot past red rock canyons, climb hills lined with aspen and scrub oak, and make the technical descent into Castle Valley, where pinnacle rocks reign supreme. At ride's end, kick back on the deck of Red Cliffs Lodge, 14 miles (22.5 kilometers) northeast of Moab on State Route 18, overlooking the Colorado River and hulking Fisher Towers.
Outfitters:  Poison Spider Bicycles ($40 a day;; Bullfrog Marina ($25 a day for a kayak; $112 an hour for shuttle service;; Tag-A-Long Expeditions ($10 a day for a "ducky"; $135 for a day-long rafting trip;
Parks and PermitsCanyonlands National Park (; Capitol Reef National Park (
LodgingSquaw Flat Campground ($15;; Red Cliffs Lodge ($170;; Stanton Creek Campground ($6;

Road Gear

The 4x4
There's no getting around it: If you want a vehicle that can perform off-pavement, you're going to pay at the pump. The Toyota FJ Cruiser ($21,710; gets a respectable 21 miles (34 kilometers) per gallon
on the highway. And the 239-horsepower beast worked brilliantly in our off-road tests, pulling us through deep mud and up steep hills with aplomb. It'll get you to pretty much any trailhead we can think of. After that it's up to you.

The Organizer
The Thule Go Box Express ($99; is a rollable depository for all your adventure gear. Its waterproof base makes it raftworthy too.

The Route Finder

Power up the portable Alpine Blackbird GPS system ($750; and you'll get your navigation and music (just plug in a flash memory card)
all in one place.

The Ice Saver
The Igloo MaxCold 60 ($80; keeps ice solid
for up to five days melting heat. Take that, Canyonlands!

More Energy-Smart Adventure Road Trips and Gear
California: The Green Miles >>
New York: Family Values >>
North Carolina-Tennessee: Motorcycle Diaries >>

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Map by Steve Stankiewicz

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