Although Arches and Canyonlands National Parks capture more attention, Utah’s southeastern corner contains an incredible wealth of scenic and culturally significant sites. Consider rounding out your trip to this part of Utah with a tour of Ancestral Puebloan ruins, remote desert washes, soaring natural bridges, snowy mountain peaks, and a vast reservoir.
Highway 191 runs south from Moab between Canyonlands National Park and the surprisingly tall Abajo Mountains to the west and the La Sal Mountains to the east. In the heat of the summer, these mountains are cool refuges. Also east of the highway, nearly to the Colorado border, is Hovenweep National Monument, an Ancestral Puebloan site with an astounding collection of masonry buildings. Here the Ancestral Puebloans lived in more or less of a city until they suddenly departed about 900 years ago.
The San Juan River runs across the southern tier of the region, with Cedar Mesa to the north and Monument Valley and Navajo tribal land to the south. Bluff, a charming village that’s the put-in for many river trips on the San Juan, was settled in 1880 by Mormon pioneers who made the incredible wagon train trip from Escalante through steep canyons, including Hole-in-the-Rock.
Cedar Mesa is a place to explore on foot; canyons here often shelter Ancestral Puebloan ruins. To the west of the mesa, Natural Bridges National Monument is often overlooked, probably because it’s rather remote. But its soaring stone bridges (carved by streams and spanning a streambed) are beautiful, even elegant, and a night in the campground will allow you to see stars in one of the nation’s darkest places.
At Lake Powell the Colorado River is backed up by the Glen Canyon Dam. Lake Powell draws boaters—including visitors who rent houseboats to motor to the huge reservoir’s remote inlets and canyons—but for a quick look, the car ferry across the lake is far less expensive. The surrounding Glen Canyon National Recreation Area encompasses the rugged canyons that drop down toward Lake Powell; before the dam was built, Glen Canyon was considered the equal of the Grand Canyon for drama and beauty, and in low-water years, a few peeks into the past are possible. A popular side trip—usually visited via tour boats from one of the lake’s marinas—is to Rainbow Bridge National Monument, where the enormous stone bridge spans an arm of the lake.
On the western edge of the region, about 25 miles south of I-70, Goblin Valley State Park has rock formations that would be worthy of national park status if they weren’t so close to Arches. Here you can hike among hoodoos, spires, and balancing rocks, many with wind-carved “eyes” that explain the area’s supernatural moniker.
Remember that this is remote country and fill your gas tank when you have the opportunity. Hanksville and Blanding are good places to check your gauge; if it’s showing less than half a tank, definitely fill up. Likewise, pack a lunch and plenty of water when exploring remote areas such as Cedar Mesa, Hovenweep, or Glen Canyon.
Planning Your Time
Although it’s possible to spend many days exploring the backcountry of Cedar Mesa, floating the San Juan River, houseboating to remote reaches of Lake Powell, or really getting to understand the ancient dwellings at Hovenweep National Monument, most travelers will, at least initially, just pass through. Be sure to allow a day to visit Hovenweep and the Edge of the Cedars Museum in Blanding. From there, if you are short on time, head west across Cedar Mesa to Natural Bridges National Monument and north through Hanksville to Goblin Valley State Park.
Although there are motels in all of the towns nearby, you’ll have more flexibility if you are camping. There are many campgrounds and even more de facto primitive campsites, where you can make your own camp; however, be certain that you have the necessary permits before camping in the Cedar Mesa area.
Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon Zion & Bryce.