Monticello sits on the edge of Utah’s Canyon Country, a red land of towering sandstone cliffs and deep canyons. The quiet town is the gateway to natural wonders like Canyonlands National Park and the Abajo Mountains, and some of the state’s best hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, and exploring.
The southeastern Utah town of Monticello lies on the sheltered eastern slope of the Abajo Mountains, overlooking a maze of sandstone canyons and plateaus. The Abajos, topped by 11,360-foot Abajo Peak, are Monticello’s summer paradise, with mild temperatures, cooling rains, and recreation sites scattered through Manti-La Sal National Forest. Monticello is close to many natural wonders as well as the hiking, mountain biking, camping, fishing, and motorsports available in the area.
Monticello is a place where Utah’s past brushes against the present, with ruins and rock art from the Ancient Ones scattered in nearby Indian Creek Canyon, Comb Ridge, and Hovenweep National Monument. The town is also a starting point for the 480-mile Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway, a huge highway loop lined with scenic views and important archeological sites, including Edge of the Cedars State Park and Museum, Natural Bridges National Monument, and Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. Nearby is Canyon Country Discovery Center, a fun stop for kids and adults, with interactive science exhibits, a planetarium, climbing wall, hiking trails, and meditation area.
Monticello is in Southeast Utah, about an hour south of Moab (54 miles). It’s relatively close to the border and is 104 miles from the Colorado town of Durango.
Gateway to Canyonlands
Monticello is the gateway to the Needles District in Canyonlands National Park. This immense 527-square-mile parkland protects one of the planet’s most spectacular landscapes, with a maze of sandstone canyons, towering mesas and buttes, and the confluence of the mighty Colorado and Green rivers. The Needles District, accessed by state Route 211, boasts cliff-lined gorges, broad parks bordered by red-and-white-striped pinnacles, and stunning galleries of Anasazi rock art. Come for hiking, backpacking, camping, four-wheeling, and some of America’s darkest night skies—perfect for stargazing.
Harts Draw Road
Harts Draw Road, Monticello’s best scenic drive, twists across the northern flank of the Abajo Mountains from the Welcome Center to state route 211. After 10 miles, the 43-mile road passes the Harts Draw-Canyonlands Overlook with spacious vistas of Shay Mountain, the La Sal Mountains, and the corrugated Needles District in Canyonlands National Park. Visit in the fall for the best views of golden groves of aspen that ignite the hillsides.
Abajo Loop Scenic Backway
The 37-mile-long Abajo Loop, beginning north of Monticello, squiggles through the Abajo Mountains and then bends south in North Canyon. After passing Horsehead Peak, the narrow dirt road descends to Blanding. The scenic drive, open in summer and fall, is passable to most vehicles, but high clearance is recommended. Expect hiking trails, starry campsites, and views to distant horizons.
Monticello offers plenty of fun events through the summer and fall. June brings the Lazy Ace Triathlon, Arch & Horsehead Golf Tournament, and Bull Hollow Motocross Races. Come in July for Pioneer Days and an Antique Tractor Pull. August celebrates western traditions at the San Juan County Fair and Rodeo, while October attracts runners for the Newspaper Rock 10K Race.
Newspaper Rock, a State Historical Monument, whispers 2,000 years of silent stone stories carved into a dark sandstone panel in Indian Creek Canyon. These petroglyphs, one of Utah’s largest and best-preserved rock art sites, were created by Native Americans from the ancient Archaic and Fremont cultures to the historic Utes. The Navajos call it Tse' Hane, or “rock that tells a story.” The images depict bighorn sheep, elk, snakes, bear footprints, geometric designs, and mysterious figures that perhaps inhabited the dreams of the Old Ones.
The town of Monticello dates back to 1887, when ranchers and farmers first settled the area. Explore the town’s pioneer past by stepping into the free Frontier Museum next to the Southeast Utah Welcome Center on South Main Street. The museum, housed in an old barn, details how settlers dug irrigation ditches for fields of wheat, oats, and potatoes, and ran cattle on the sloping Great Sage Plain east of town.
Is there anything better than spending a summer night under star-studded skies in the Abajo Mountains? Campgrounds at Manti-La Sal National Forest west of Monticello provide a cool escape from the desert heat and urban grind. The best campgrounds are Nizhoni, Devil’s Canyon, Dalton Springs, and Buckboard, which include tent, trailer, and RV sites.
If you keep your rod and tackle box in your car trunk, stop by Lloyd’s Lake—Monticello’s best local fishing hole. While anglers cast lines for rainbow trout, walkers follow a trail around the lake and enjoy mountain views. Other great local lakes for fishermen are Monticello Lake and Foy Lake in the Abajos, and Dry Wash and Recapture reservoirs near Blanding.
Miles of trails lace the Abajo Mountains, making it an ideal destination for hikers. Set up base camp in Monticello or a forest campground and discover trails that lead to wildflower-strewn meadows, valleys lined with golden aspens, and mountaintops with forever views. Recommended hikes in the Manti-La Sal National Forest include Shay Mountain, Aspen Flat, Robertson Pasture, and Skyline trails.
If you’re a rock climber, Indian Creek Canyon is the place to go. The Creek is simply the best crack climbing area in the world, attracting experts as well as beginners. Thousands of routes with colorful names like Moon Goddess Revenge and Supercrack of the Desert ascend the canyon’s vertical sandstone cliffs. If you want to learn the ropes, hire a guide from a reputable service like Moab Desert Adventures and Moab Cliffs and Canyons.
- Monticello: 37.872610, -109.342870
- Newspaper Rock: 37.987995, -109.518033
- Indian Creek Canyon Climbing: 38.036999, -109.547758
- Canyonlands National Park—Needles District Visitor Center: 38.168100, -109.759401
- Lloyd’s Lake: 37.852906, -109.361941
- Dalton Springs Campground: 37.874318, -109.433215
- Buckboard Campground: 37.880680, -109.449269
- Devil’s Canyon Campground: 37.736682, -109.411439
- Nizhoni Campground: 37.781844, -109.539694
- Monticello Lake: 37.895034, -109.468192
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