In a previous story, 30 family summer destinations in Southeastern Utah, we covered locations south of I-70 and east of the Colorado River that are beautiful, fun and kid-friendly.
In this list we cover destinations in Southern Utah that lie west of the Colorado River. Like the previous locations, these are easily accessible and enjoyable for all sorts of families and centered around towns that offer inexpensive lodging and camping.
No matter which of these amazing places you choose to visit, don't miss getting to know some of the local residents, guides, rangers and fellow travelers around you. You'll gain wonderful insight and friendships that are sure to make your vacation more memorable.
Around 35 miles north of Hanksville lies family-famous Goblin Valley. For kids, it is an exploring paradise. The only regrets for most adults is that we didn't get taken here years ago when we had all that energy. It is most enjoyable during the spring or fall.
Most people play around in the area closest to the parking lot, and there's plenty of fun to be had there. But you might consider venturing back into the 2nd "valley" and maybe even the 3rd. They are less crowded and the hoodoos become a little larger and the mini-canyons a little deeper.
Entrance fee: $7/vehicle. The campsite is excellent but book well in advance.
If you find yourself north of Hanksville near the junction of Highway 24 and I-70, you owe it to yourself to head just a few miles northwest to visit Black Dragon Canyon. Black Dragon has some fantastic panels of pictograph rock art, including one that resembles a... nope, it's a RED dragon. No, I don't know who named the canyon.
To get there, go west on I-70 just past mile marker 147 and turn north through a gate (which you should close behind you) onto a dirt road. Continue north for about a mile and turn left. Drive the rough road as far as your vehicle allows and walk up the canyon from there. Depending on your vehicle, the hike will be a short, level and beautiful 0 to 1/4 mile up a surprisingly deep canyon.
About 1/3 of a mile back from the Goblin Valley State Park entrance station is the turn off west to Wild Horse Road. Driving 5.5 miles down this road will bring you to the ever popular Little Wild Horse Canyon which cuts into the striking San Rafael Swell. Because of its proximity to Goblin, many families tie the two destinations into the same day or weekend.
Little Wild Horse is a very accessible, beautiful and relatively long narrows canyon. It is quite crowded during vacations, but that can be a lot of fun. Not the parking — that's pretty painful. But running into grinning hoards of people squeezing their way through the canyon can be a blast.
Your kids will spider-man (or "stem") their way up the canyon walls to let people pass beneath them. You will envy their agility while making some new friends up close down at the 3 foot-wide canyon floor. The adventure also often includes navigating shallow pools of water in various spots in the canyon. We usually hike a mile or two up the canyon and then come back the same way (those are the best narrows) but you can make an 8 mile day hike out of looping back into Bell Canyon from the inside of the Swell.
If you are driving in to Hanksville on Highway 95 from the south, you should consider turning out at the Hite Marina Overlook — 40+ miles south of Hanksville. The walk along the mesa top to the overlook is just a couple hundred yards, but the views are stunning. We can spend an hour or two just sitting and staring over the north end of Lake Powell from around 800 feet straight up.
Far below you'll see where the Colorado and Dirty Devil rivers flow into Lake Powell. You'll also see Hite "Marina" — in quotes because it is often more theoretical than functional since Powell's water level is typically well below the ramps.
Capitol Reef National Park doesn't get the attention it deserves. It may not possess the geographical icons of Zion and Bryce but its accessible natural, historical and archeological sites combine to make it an excellent family destination. You and the children will get a lot of value out of at least a 1/2 day here.
Fruita was a pioneer town that became more of a ghost town in the mid-1900s. There is nothing spooky (oh, I'm so sorry to have punished you like that) about its hundreds of fruit trees, however. In season you can pick and eat what you like. You'll enjoy the many interesting structures and educational displays.
This large and varied petroglyph panel runs for hundreds of feet along the cliffs on the north side of town and the Fremont River. A long wooden walkway makes the panels accessible but a little distant in some places. You might want to bring binoculars to get a close up look.
Like most petroglyph panels, at first you might have trouble seeing the images. Keep looking and they'll start popping out at you. To us this particular panel is interesting because it includes geometric figures associated with cultures living in the area thousands of years ago.
Set aside an extra hour or so to take the scenic drive south from the visitor center (where you will want to have picked up a virtual tour guide). You'll pass a number of interesting pioneer and geographic sites. Along the way you'll come across a number of great places, such as Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge, to climb around and explore.
Scenic Drive Fee: $5/vehicle.
Just a short drive east of the old schoolhouse and petroglyphs is the parking lot and trailhead for the Hickman Bridge Trail. While it continues for a few miles and more than 1,500 feet of elevation gain, the trail to Hickman is only 2 miles round trip with just a few hundred feet of elevation gain.
The short trail includes a self-guided nature tour. The natural bridge is as beautiful as the views all around.
Yes, we've created a page for driving into the town of Boulder. There is simply no boring way in or out of this place.
North of Boulder, Scenic Highway 12 wraps around the alpine Boulder Mountain at an elevation close to 10,000 feet. It's pretty fun to go from a hot sandstone canyon to a cool pine-covered mountain pass within the same hour.
South of Boulder, Highway 12 takes you across Hogsback Road with drop-offs of 1,000+ feet on either side of you. The only real danger here is that the stunning views keep you rubber-necking from side to side. Pull over at one of the turn outs and get your visual fill there. Eyes on the road, my friend.
For those of you with 4WD vehicles we'll suggest using the Burr Trail Road which enters town from the east coming from the south end of Capitol Reef N.P. The switchbacks up and down the Cockscomb are amazing.
Below is a video of the Hogsback Road. Unless you are a fan of the band Tool, you might want to mute your speakers.
Right in downtown Boulder you'll find the Anasazi State Park Museum. Besides educational artifact-filled displays inside, just outside the museum there is an excavated and partially restored Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) village.
Entrance fee: $10/family or $5/individual
While the award-winning Hell's Backbone Grill is not necessarily "friendly" to most families' pocketbooks, we had to include it. This is a gourmet restaurant with dinner entrees in the mid $20-range. However, in the culinary desert of cold cereal, DIY lunches and local diners that are our typical family road trip fare, the Hell's Backbone Grill is an oasis. Most ingredients are from their own farm or the local area.
We came here reservation-less, hungry and dirty after a long day of hiking along the Escalante River and driving the Burr Trail Road and they were happy to fit us in. It was worth every penny.
The less-famous cousin of Lower Calf Creek Falls, the upper falls is a lot of fun. The trail is shorter but more strenuous than that of the lower falls. About 2 miles round trip, most of it is fairly steep but lies on easy-to-tread sandstone.
The pool at the bottom of the falls is okay to swim in (watch for a patch of poison ivy on the east side) but we think the real treasure is just above the falls, where the stream ripples over the sandstone, creating holes, pools and drop-offs that are a blast to play around in.
The trailhead parking area is just under 6 miles south of where the Burr Trail Road hits Highway 12 in Boulder.
What a great town in a great area. Impress the locals by calling it "Escalant" — no "ay" at the end. Be sure to visit the BLM Visitor Center just west of town for trail conditions and activity options to fit your time and interests.
Escalante is now about as developed and touristy as Moab was maybe 30 years ago. There are a few tour outfitters and a couple of new-age-esque cafes, but you still have the hometown grocery store, the local pizza place and a local diner or two. As proof that Escalante is still somewhat "local," the last time we were there we had plain cheese pizza on a picnic bench and tater tots — although not in the same place.
For a break from sandstone, driving and hiking, you might consider visiting the local school fields, park or playground some early evening with whatever Frisbee or ball you may have brought along. We tend to do that in most towns we visit; it's strange how refreshing a park can be on a desert road trip.
A few miles west of town is Petrified Forest State Park and Wide Hollow Reservoir. Adjacent to the fishable reservoir, the state campground has some good shady sites with running water, flushing toilets and showers.
Don't miss the couple of short hikes that wind through an ancient fallen petrified forest. Check the message board near the ranger station for evidence of the curse for taking away any souvenirs. Love 'em and leave 'em.
Entrance fee: $6/vehicle.
Related: Are felonious fossil fanciers plagued by an ancient curse?
About 16 miles west of Escalante, heading toward Boulder on Highway 12 is the trail to Lower Calf Creek Falls. Because of its relatively easy hike and amazingly beautiful destination, this is one of the most popular family hikes in the area. At 5 miles round trip, though, it can be a bit long for very young children.
The payoff is a tall waterfall cascading down multi-hued sandstone into a sandy wading pool surrounded by a lush tropical environment Ok, that may have been excessively superlative. Sorry. But you'll understand when you get there.
Ahh, Spooky Gulch and Peek-a-boo Gulch. We are not sure there are any destinations that give you a better payout for the effort than the hike into Dry Fork of Coyote Gulch that loops through these two famous narrows canyons. We've been through with dozens of people of all ages and we've never known one who hasn't laughed out loud at the constant fun.
The hike is about 3 miles round trip but a very good portion of that is spent scrambling through these super fun narrows. This hike is doable for most kids older than toddlers. Very wide adults might get stuck in the bottom portion of Spooky. Hint: if actually stuck, try getting down on one hand and knee and shimmy along the canyon floor where there is usually a little more space.
The trailhead is about 26 miles down the graded Hole-in-the-rock road from Highway 12 just south of Escalante. You'll find more detailed directions and an excellent printable map at Tom's Canyoneering Guide. Browse around Tom's site for more maps and guides for trails in this area.
On the opposite side of the Hole-in-the-Rock Road from the turn off to Spooky and Peek-a-boo you'll see a turnoff heading south to the Batty Pass Caves. This 1 or 2 mile dirt road is navigable for most vehicles.
These shallow caves were dug out of the hillside by a couple of German rock-hounding brothers in the 50s and 60s. Much of their equipment and furniture is still there. Besides taking an hour or so to explore this interesting area (and throwing rocks at the old rusted car), many people camp around and even right in the caves. Kids love this place. If you are in the area it is worth including in your itinerary.
On your way to or from Spooky and Peek-a-boo or Batty Pass Caves you must pull off the Hole-in-the-Rock road to see Devils Garden. An all-natural playground, it's like a mini Goblin Valley complete with a maze of sandstone hoodoos and a pretty little arch. It only takes an hour or so to explore.
If you are traveling with a larger group, we would suggest a game of steal-the-flag here. It's perfect. With many hoodoos within leaping distance of each other, you can attack and defend on two levels while there are plenty of holes and cracks for hiding and escaping.
Kodachrome Basin is an interesting place to visit, with a good campground, pretty trails and unique topography. It is also definitely worth driving down the road a few miles to see Grosvenor Arch.
In the off chance you haven't had your fill of off-road driving, you can continue down the Cottonwood Canyon Road past an interesting little narrow side canyon called Cottonwood Wash to Highway 89 between Kanab and Page, AZ. A few miles west from here along 89 you'll see a turnoff north to the old Paria (Pareah) ghost town and western movie set.
The Bryce Canyon Visitor Center has some interesting educational displays on the formation of Bryce and the area's wildlife. While there is usually plenty of lodging at or near Ruby's Inn at the entrance to the park, there are less expensive, good quality alternatives in neighboring towns like Panguitch, Tropic and Cannonville.
Entrance fee: $25/vehicle, valid for 7 days
Bryce Canyon from the rim trail may not offer a lot of solitude but the views are breathtaking.
You've seen other people's amazing photos of Bryce. Well, most are taken from the Rim Trail or one of viewpoints it connects.
You can do a great job of imitating a professional photographer at dusk or dawn from either Sunset or Sunrise Points respectively... Now that is some logical location naming. Remember "Black" Dragon Canyon? Sheesh.
We think one of the best ways to get the most of Bryce Canyon is to get down into the rocks by combining the first leg of the Navajo Loop Trail and the Queens Garden Trail. This relatively moderate 3-mile combination loop starts at Sunset Point and ends at Sunrise Point, which are quite close to each other.
Whatever you do, take the time to walk down to Wall Street. The trail down may look intimidating but the number of switchbacks makes it pretty level.
Zion National Park is full of easy options to take in some beautiful nature. Zion is so striking and unique it's fun to just be in the canyon and look — everywhere.
After learning a bit about the park, make a plan of attack at the Visitor Center and then take the shuttle bus into the park. There are suitable kids' trails at nearly every stop.
There are a lot of lodging options in Springdale. However, when Zion is crowded you may have to find a place as far away as St. George. Plan your camping well in advance. The campgrounds in the park fill up fast.
Entrance fee: $25/vehicle, valid for 7 days
The Emerald Pools Trails are perfect for kids — not too long, not too steep with a fun playful payoff at your destination.
The vegetation surrounding the pools is almost tropical it's so lush. It also stays pretty cool on a hot day. You'll have fun hopping rocks to cross the stream and pool edges.
Weeping Rock Trail in Zion offers a refreshing hike on a warm day and an interesting geology lesson if your children are so inclined. Seeing water pouring out of a crack in a cliff of bare rock usually sparks some questions.
The observation platform also offers a pretty view across the canyon. Watch your step on the wet stone path.
At the end of the road up Zion Canyon is the final bus stop, Temple of Sinawava. The paved 1/2 mile trail from here follows along the Virgin River up to where the river exits its narrows gorge. If the water isn't running high and fast, this is a great place to let the kids splash around at the edge of the river. Older kids and adults may want to just start wading up river.
Although this is part of the Zion Narrows, the canyon walls are dozens of feet apart. However, you'll agree that "narrows" is a good descriptor with the Virgin River stretching from wall to wall and the sky just a sliver between 1,500 foot cliffs.
Just above the city of St. George is Pioneer Park. Don't think grass, swing sets and pavilions — this is a desert park with fun little box canyons, holes, hills, cracks and hoodoos to explore.
The park is just off of Red Hills Parkway on the north end of town. From its overlook of the city, you could probably throw a stone and hit St. George Boulevard. Okay, in this scenario you've got an Uncle Rico-like throwing arm. Still, it's very close to town; that's all we're saying.
A few miles northwest of St. George, Snow Canyon is becoming known for providing a great environment for peaceful nature walks and meditation. While that's nice, there is also plenty of space for families to explore.
Like many environmentally sensitive desert locations, Snow Canyon contains a lot of cryptobiotic soil holding the ground together while nourishing the local flora, so you'll want to stay on marked paths and sandstone.
Along with a number of easy hikes and beautiful scenery, Snow Canyon contains some lava tube caves you can explore. Bring flashlights.
Entrance fee: $6/vehicle
Silver Reef is a really interesting place to explore. While only the historic Wells Fargo & Company Express building has been fully restored, there are quite a few foundations and other structures plus old mining equipment dotting what used to be one of the largest towns in central and southern Utah.
The Wells Fargo Silver Reef Museum is the best place to start. If anyone in your family has an interest in the old West, Silver Reef should spark their imagination.
Formed to conserve and protect the special resources found in the region, the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area covers 45,000 acres north of St. George. The area contains more than 130 miles of non-motorized trails, many of them easy and fun for families.
One of the best of these is the Arch Trail, located a few miles east of Leeds. This is a fun area in which to explore and camp. If you look hard enough you might spot a rare desert tortoise. Here is some Arch Trail access information from the BLM.
We've saved one of the best family destinations in Southwestern Utah for the final item on our list. The Red Reef Trail begins in the Red Cliffs Recreation Area around 15 miles north of St. George in the Quail Creek area. The area encompasses a fine shady campground, an excavated Anasazi site, dinosaur tracks and an old pioneer house. You'll have no problem keeping everyone happily occupied here.
The Red Cliff Trail is the real gem, though. At around a mile round trip, the easy trail quickly brings you into a shady narrow canyon with wading pools and small waterfalls. It can get a bit crowded on certain days but it's near impossible to not have a great time.
Day use fee: $2/vehicle