Southern and central Utah is about as wide-open as spaces get, and the combo of the red rock, pale-green scrub and bright-blue sky is pretty outstanding. But come summer, this wanderer’s paradise is hot as blazes. So, hit the high desert in high spring (late April to late May) for a chance of magical desert flower displays and perfect post-winter weather temps. But don’t just take in the enchanting vistas; hike them. Here are a few of our springtime favorites.
This is good country to get lost in so bring your map, compass and GPS. Don’t forget a gallon of water per person per day, lots of layers (spring weather = unpredictable), a hat, sun shirt, sunglasses and sunscreen.
Hoodoos of Goblin Valley @ San Rafael Swell, near Green River
Cowboys were the first folk to stumble upon this valley of eerily eroded sandstone hoodoos, spinning legends of ghosts and goblins. Check out the monsters up close as you amble around with the same freedom those rustlers once enjoyed. Take a choose-your-own-adventure hike across the largely trail-less valley floor. Climbing, jumping, hide & seek; it’s all allowed. Keep your eyes peeled for pronghorn antelope; they’re frequent springtime visitors.
Best: March through May (come June, midday means temps in the mid-90s) for pretty much everyone. Mileage is up to you. $8 day-use fee.
Goblin Valley State Park, 18630 Goblin Valley Road, Green River, 435-275-4584
Syncline Loop @ Island in the Sky, near Moab
The Island in the Sky is an undulating mesa dropping down steep cliff faces to the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers 1,000 feet below. Enjoy the heady perspective while hiking the Syncline Loop, which circumnavigates the three-mile-wide Upheaval Dome. No one knows what created this giant crater—guesses range from a meteorite to a dissolved salt dome, but everyone agrees that the views of the Green River and otherworld geology you’ll find on the trail are well worth the journey.
Best: March to May for hearty folks comfortable with wilderness route-finding. 8.3 miles and 1,300 feet of challenge. $10 vehicle entrance fee.
Canyonlands National Park, call the visitors center for directions and information, 435-259-4712
The Fairyland Loop @ Bryce Canyon,
Embarking from Fairyland Point, you’ll head past rainbow-hued hoodoos and expansive vistas of Bryce’s stratified towers, stopping by Sunset Point or possibly taking the spur to Tower Bridge. This well-marked trail is no cakewalk (and can take four to five hours), but completing any section of this stellar loop will provide many a magical memory.
Best: March to June for all; suitable for less-wilderness-savvy adventurers. At eight miles and 2,300 feet of climbing, know your limits and take it slow. $25 vehicle entrance fee.
Bryce Canyon National Park, Highway 63, Bryce Canyon, 435-834-5322
Brimhall Natural Bridge @ Capitol Reef,
Pause at the Halls Creek Overlook to gaze across the Waterpocket Fold formation and spot your destination: the double arch of Brimhall Natural Bridge. Let its beauty fuel your steep descent into the canyon. When you reach the bottom, pay close attention; there are no official markings to guide your return. This narrow canyon hike requires route-finding, scrabbling, stemming and, potentially, swimming. Be sure you’re ready for it.
Best: March to May for those comfortable with slightly technical canyon travel. 4.6 miles of maneuvering. $5 vehicle entrance fee.
Capitol Reef National Park, 16 Scenic Drive, Torrey, 435-425-4111
The Wave @ Coyote Buttes, Paria Canyon/Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, near Kanab
OK, OK, so the actual hike strays into Arizona, but borders run wide in big country, so it rates an honorable-mention entry. This hike’s phenomenal geologic reward is a skate-park-like chute carved from thinly laid layers of red, pink and while sandstone that swoop and swirl like waves—seriously stunning. The relatively mellow hike is in the heart of high-stakes country (read: dry and desolate), so don’t take it for granted. You’ll need to plan four months ahead: A lottery determines which 20 hikers are allowed each day. Or, take your chances as a walk-in the day before you hike. Map and directions are provided upon admission.
Best: Late March to early June for those willing to take a casual stroll through a serious landscape. It’s six miles of mellow, but you’ll need a sharp eye to keep track of the trail. Permit fee $5-$7 per person, depending on area.
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Visitor Center, 745 E. Highway 89, Kanab, permits available online or at 435-644-1300