Summer is here, and maybe it's time to plan a trip to some of the dozens of family-friendly wonders found in southeastern Utah.
So, in the interest of dropping a few jaws, creating some indelible memories and introducing you to some wonderful southern neighbors, we've compiled this list of family-friendly destinations in Utah. We've included sites that deliver a high payout of fun and beauty for a kid-friendly effort and grouped them around towns that offer plenty of inexpensive lodging and camping options.
We've also produced a list of 31 family summer destinations in Southwestern Utah for locations west of the Colorado.
Yes, Moab is touristy, but there's a reason for that — it's fun, it has some good restaurants and a variety of lodging and camping options and it's close to countless natural wonders and fun family activities.
Hotel rooms and camping spots fill up quickly in the summer. Timing-wise, if your family is not traveling to Moab to rock-crawl with your ultra-modified-4WD you might want to avoid the annual Moab Easter Jeep Safari.
This is one of the most photographed vistas in the world. The Colorado River never looked so good — except from maybe one of the Grand Canyon overlooks. The drive is less than an hour from Moab and you can easily tie in a visit to the Island in the Sky section of Canyonlands.
From the walled overlook you'll notice the very drivable, scenic Shafer Trail Road (next page) running between you and the Colorado River.
Starting just north of town, the Potash Road follows along the north side of the Colorado. Along the road are numerous ancient petroglyphs side-by-side with popular rock climbing routes. Just off the road is a turnoff to see dinosaur tracks (Poison Spider Mesa trail) and Corona Arch (next page).
As the pavement ends at the end of Potash you'll find the beginning of the scenic Shafer Trail Road which follows the rim of the Colorado River and then switches back and forth more than 1,000 feet up the mesa to the Canyonlands Island in the Sky area.
The drive is doable in a 2WD vehicle with high clearance. 4WD is best. The drop-offs on the switchbacks are not for the faint of heart but the road is wide and safe and delivers amazing views. This is our preferred route to get to Island in the Sky.
Around 10 miles down Potash Road you'll find the trailhead to Corona Arch — just across the road from the Gold Bar Campground. At approximately 3 miles round trip the well-maintained trail is a great hike for families. Bowtie is interesting and Corona is one of the most impressive arches in the area.
You might have seen a recent YouTube video of rock climbers swinging beneath Corona Arch.
Here's our story about the Corona Arch rope swing.
Here's the video:
From Moab it takes around 40 minutes to drive to the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands. It is also easy to tie in a side trip to Dead Horse Point.
At a minimum we'd suggest the very short hike to Mesa Arch and either the White Rim Overlook or the Grand View Point Overlook.
Entrance fee: $10/vehicle - valid for 7 days.
A video from the Grand View Point Overlook:
75 miles southwest of Moab is the Needles section of Canyonlands National Park. If your travels take you south of Moab, it is well worth the half-day side trip to drive out to Needles. On your way you'll want to pull over at the petroglyph-filled Newspaper Rock State Historical Monument.
Once in the park your kids will find the old cowboy camp at Cave Spring Trail and the ancestral Puebloan granary ruin fascinating. Both trails are less than 45 minutes round trip.
The backside of Needles is remote and amazing but difficult to access without backpacking or a highly modified 4WD vehicle.
Entrance fee: $10/vehicle - valid for 7 days.
Just a few miles northwest of Moab, Negro Bill Canyon offers a fun and level 5-mile round-trip hike to the massive Morning Glory Natural Bridge and back.
The trail runs in and out of the stream which makes it refreshing on a hot day. Hiking sandals or other water shoes work well on this hike. Kids love it.
Just across Highway 191 from the Arches National Park entrance, you'll notice the steep hillside is sand — about 100 feet high and 100 feet wide — of just sand.
Pull over, let the kids slog up and then roll down Sand Hill a couple of times and they'll be good and worn out for dinner in town. They'll also be ready for a shower.
The Arches Visitor Center is not large but does a great job of orienting you to what the park has to offer and how its attractions were formed. The knowledgeable rangers can help you create a custom plan based on your family's ages, abilities, interests, etc. This is also where you'll meet for any guided tours.
Entrance fee: $10/vehicle - valid for 7 days.
The Windows section of Arches has some of the most accessible trails and sites for very young hikers.
On the short loop trail you'll pass 3 different large arches: North and South Windows and Turret. Across the parking lot is Double Arch.
On the way in or out you'll want to pull over beneath the interesting Balanced Rock. Like most features in Arches, it photographs well in the afternoon.
If you want to stick to driving there is a distant overlook to Delicate Arch, but there is nothing like being right next to it. About one-third of the 1.5 mile hike in to the arch is steep. But the sandstone surface makes it relatively easy.
You'll never forget turning the corner and seeing that grooved sandstone basin with Delicate Arch rising from its far rim framed by the La Sal Mountains.
Half of the fun we have at Delicate is getting to know some of the many international visitors perched around the basin waiting for the perfect photo.
Approaching the Devils Garden trail at the end of the park road you'll see trails heading off to Sand Dune Arch, Skyline Arch and Broken Arch.
These trails are very easy and short and offer some great areas in which to climb and play around.
The Devils Garden trail may be the most popular trail in the park. Depending on what you want to see and your energy, you can make your hike short and easy or moderately strenuous.
If you have a few hours, we suggest you make it all the way to Double O Arch and include short side trips to Navajo and Partition Arches on the way back. That's 4 to 5 miles round trip with one somewhat steep spot in the middle, but that will seem easy when the trail itself is so beautiful, not to mention the amazing arches you'll see along the way.
If we could do only one half-day trip in Arches, it would be a visit to the Fiery Furnace.
Because of its maze-like structure and sensitive environment, first time Fiery Furnace visitors must accompany a ranger-guided tour. It is best to reserve your tour spot days in advance via the Arches National Park website.
The three-mile round trip hike is fine for anyone older than four. This area's beauty, variety and complexity never cease to amaze and inspire us.
Blanding is one of our favorite towns. We've never had a bad experience in any of the hotels or restaurants we've visited.
If you don't feel like camping, it makes an excellent and inexpensive base for exploring nearby ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) ruins, some of which are just a few minutes away in canyons bordering the town.
This is a great place to make some local friends and get tips for seeing some interesting ruins.
This museum features an excavated Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) village including a rebuilt kiva that you can climb into and the largest collection of Anasazi pottery and artifacts in the Four Corners Area.
Entrance fee: $5/adult and $3/child or $20/family.
Butler Wash Ruins are just off the side of Highway 95, 10.5 miles west of Blanding.
The trail to the ruin overlook is an easy and pretty 1/2 mile from the parking lot. This offers a lovely view of some extensive ruins.
About 100 yards north of the viewing area is a cute little natural bridge that the kids will find fun to walk over and explore around.
About 20 miles southwest of Blanding on Highway 95 you'll come to the Mule Canyon Ruins. Have you had enough of ruins yet? We didn't think so.
On the north side of the highway are the partially restored ruins of a village, kiva and tower along with displays. On the south side of the road are some short trails to tower ruins that used to overlook Mule Canyon.
If your young ones can handle a short hike, about a mile back from the main ruins there is a dirt road that doubles back down into Mule Canyon. A trail in this pretty canyon leads to a number of good ruins (including the photogenic House on Fire Ruin) within a mile or two of the trailhead.
Along with a developed campsite, Natural Bridges National Monument offers both easy and moderately strenuous routes from which to view a number of the large natural bridges in the monument.
You can get a lot out of simply driving the loop and stopping at each of the turnouts or you can venture a few hundred feet down into the canyon to see the bridges and the streams that formed them firsthand.
What about ruins, you ask? As a matter of fact, there are quite a few down in the canyons. Thanks for asking.
Speaking of Anasazi ruins...
If you drive from Blanding west to Lake Powell or southwest to Mexican Hat, you'll be crossing Cedar Mesa, home to some of the most beautiful country and best preserved remote Anasazi ruins.
Besides Butler Wash and Mule Canyon, Cedar Mesa contains numerous canyons such as Johns, Grand Gulch, Bullet, Sheiks, Arch, Fish, and Owl that are filled with fascinating ruins and rock art.
Access to almost all of these locations requires a 4WD vehicle and family members that will be extremely careful about not disturbing any ancient art, artifacts or structures. Cedar Mesa is one of our favorite destinations.
Bluff offers just a few motels and a couple of cafes. The pioneer settlers of Bluff are the ones that cut and traveled the infamous Hole-in-the-rock road from Escalante down into Glen Canyon and the across Cedar Mesa into the Four Corners Area.
And then their crops and settlements were flooded repeatedly by the San Juan River within a few years of arriving. The beautiful surroundings (and not a little faith) may explain why many refused to leave.
Montezuma Creek Road runs from near Monticello down to a point west of Bluff. It's an amazing drive — winding and dusty, but amazing.
Besides traveling through beautiful southern Utah canyons, it passes a number of excellent Anasazi ruins and kivas and an old trading post and crosses Montezuma Creek at a place that any kid — or adult, for that matter — will find as entertaining as a water park.
A 2WD vehicle with decent ground clearance should get by just fine.
East of Bluff toward the Colorado border is the network of archeological sites known as Hovenweep National Monument. The main visitor center is situated near the largest set of ruins, Square Tower.
If you don't mind a few more miles of driving and a bit of dirt road navigating, it is worth visiting the other outlier sites such as Holly and Horseshoe & Hackberry.
Remarkably well preserved and castle-like, these structures are sure to spark the imagination.
Entrance fee: $6/vehicle. Valid for 7 days.
There are a lot of ancient rock art sites and ruins along Comb Wash just 7 to 8 miles west of Bluff. Many of them still contain a number of artifacts such as potshards, metate stones, arrowheads and 800 year old corn cobs. One of the prettiest, most accessible and artifact-rich ruins is Monarch Cave.
Please remember that it is illegal and in very poor taste to disturb or remove any artifacts you come across. Look and leave them in place for the next person.
With a stock 4WD vehicle or SUV, the south end of Comb Wash is drivable all the way to the San Juan River and the well preserved/reconstructed River House Ruins. Hint: Maintain your momentum through the sand.
This is another place where the ruins provide an interesting destination but the surrounding area is just as fun to explore.
The Hole-in-the-rock pioneers encountered their toughest obstacle here at San Juan Hill. On parts of this road you'll be driving right where they drove their wagons and teams.
Mexican Hat is named after a peculiar hoodoo rock formation just east of town. This small town appears much as it did when it grew from booming tourist traffic in the '60s. It also boasts access to some of the most iconic vistas and old western movie backdrops in the West.
Our favorite restaurant in southeastern Utah is the Swingin' Steak in Mexican Hat — complete with a usually partially-shirted old cowboy cooking big rib eye steaks on a metal grate swinging over a fire on the dining patio. If you are lucky you may catch a live country-western band while you eat.
Moki Dugway is a series of switchbacks on SR 261 between Natural Bridges National Monument and Mexican Hat that drops more than 1,000 feet from Cedar Mesa down into Valley of the Gods.
Although we've driven it a half dozen times we can't help but get out of the car every time at the top turn out and gaze over the Valley of the Gods all the way into Monument Valley in Arizona.
Valley of the Gods is the smaller neighbor of the more famous Monument Valley.
It's impressive, isolated pinnacles and buttes make the views worth the loop drive that leaves Highway 163 a few miles east of Mexican Hat and deposits you at the base of Moki Dugway and just a few miles north of Goosenecks State Park.
Goosenecks gives an amazing return on your investment. Within a figurative stone's-throw of Mexican Hat, Valley of the Gods and Moki Dugway, it will take you a couple of minutes to drive there from the main road (SR 261) and you'll likely stay for no more than 10 minutes. But the view packed into that 10 minutes is fantastic.
There are a couple of slightly shaded picnic tables, gravel, no trees, barely a shrub and then the view of the San Juan River a thousand feet below you carving ribbons into the desert landscape.
Entrance is free.
Just over the Arizona border, south of Mexican Hat is Monument Valley, a cluster of majestic sandstone buttes rising from the desert floor.
Lying within the Navajo Nation, Monument Valley has been the location of many western films, especially John Ford films featuring John Wayne.
You'll not want to miss Goulding's Trading Post Museum which displays interesting movie, western and Navajo memorabilia within the Goulding home as it was in the 1940s and '50s.
Park admission: $5/person, children free. Museum admission: donation.