This loop out of St. George, Utah, explores an out-of-the-way corner of the U.S. Southwest. Even in the shadows of Zion and Grand Canyon National Parks, it’s easy to lose the crowds and find your own relatively private pocket of high desert—including a campsite on the rim of America’s most famous gorge that you might very well have all to yourself. So grab a coffee and sandwich en route at River Rock Roasting Company in La Verkin (dig the view off the back patio) and head east into a sandstone wonderland.
It’s 61 bumpy, unpaved miles across the Arizona Strip to reach the little-known “back door” entrance to Grand Canyon National Park called Tuweep. You have to be fully self-sufficient—and driving a high-clearance vehicle for the final few bone-shaking miles—but you’ll never forget the views from the Toroweap Overlook (the terms are used somewhat interchangeably), with the Colorado River a winking ribbon at the bottom of a narrow, 3,000-foot-deep chasm. There’s a small ranger station, a primitive campground (you need a backcountry permit to stay here), and a few short trails along the edge, but more than anything the draw here is isolation; where else can you enjoy one of the geologic wonders of the world with at most a dozen or two other people within a 50-mile radius? (The Park Service highly discourages the trail down to the river, a white-knuckled descent through jagged lava boulders that has claimed lives.)
The perennial waters of Pipe Spring have sustained Native Americans, early Mormon settlers, and travelers on the Old Spanish Trail between Santa Fe and southern California. Today, Pipe Spring National Monument offers living history demonstrations and tours at Winsor Castle, a fortified 1870 ranch house at the foot of the Vermillion Cliffs. The Kaibab Band of Paiute Indians runs a visitor center, museum, and small campground together with the Park Service. In the summer, the garden and orchard are full of tasty (and mostly historically accurate) crops, including peaches, apricots, plums, and apples.
If the scenery around Kanab, Utah, looks familiar, you’ve probably seen it in one of the dozens of movies and TV shows filmed nearby—everything from Stagecoach and Gunsmoke to Planet of the Apes and John Carter. “Little Hollywood” is a funky little stopover with enough lodging and dining options to make a good alternate base for exploring the area. For offbeat fun, check out Little Hollywood Land, a conglomeration of buildings and memorabilia from various movie sets, and Moqui Cave, a former tavern and dance hall that has been turned into a museum turned gift shop full of ancient artifacts, fluorescent minerals, and kitschy souvenirs. Animal lovers won’t want to miss the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, the country’s largest no-kill animal sanctuary, home to some 1,700 cats, dogs, and other critters. You can grab a bite, spend the night, and maybe even leave with a new companion.
Of the many geologic layers that make up southern Utah, the vertical walls of salmon-tinted Navajo sandstone are the most unmistakable. Huge hills of sand eroded from this formation have accumulated in a small basin west of Kanab, forming Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park. Much of the park is open to off-road vehicles, but 265 acres have been made off-limits to motorized traffic to protect the coral pink tiger beetle, found nowhere else. (Keep an eye out for jackrabbits and kit foxes, too.) This section is where you’ll find visitors trekking up the dunes and a few sliding back down on sandboards. There’s also a small campground and visitor center.
The impossibly huge stone monoliths of Zion National Park attracted a record 3.6 million visitors in 2015. Most head straight to the canyon of the Virgin River in the heart of the park, and for good reason: the combination of thousand-foot cliffs and cottonwood-lined riverbanks is hard to top. But venture beyond Zion Canyon to experience Utah’s most popular national park without the teeming masses.
From the town of Virgin on UT-9, head north on Kolob Terrace Road to access the park’s high western flank. From the Wildcat Canyon trailhead it’s 2.25 miles through ponderosa pine forest to a viewpoint of three sandstone mountains, the twin Northgate peaks and 7,395-foot North Guardian Angel. It’s a steep but short descent to reach the Right Fork of North Creek, perfect for a quick splash on a hot day.
Just outside the commercial corridor of Springdale at the park’s entrance, a side road leads from Rockville on UT-9 to the photo-worthy ghost town of Grafton. Settled in the 1860s, Grafton fell victim to regular floods before the last resident left in the ‘40s. It has since been restored and featured as a backdrop in numerous Westerns, including the bicycle scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.