Camping smack dab in the middle of the great outdoors? Use this five-day, budget-friendly itinerary to explore wild places around Capitol Reef National Park and the San Rafael Swell.
Start: Salt Lake City | Driving to first destination: about 3 hours
Required: High-clearance, 4WD vehicle, wayfinding skills and self-sufficiency
Extras: Plan an urban day in Salt Lake and shower days or overnights along the way
Willing to bring a sleeping bag and leave the pavement behind every once in a while? If you can handle getting your car a little dusty (oh, and have a well-maintained, high-clearance vehicle), this five- or six-day itinerary will put you smack dab in the middle of the great outdoors. And with 300 days of sunshine a year, Southern Utah offers a pretty dang good chance of perfect camping weather. And the best part? This itinerary is designed for budget-conscious travelers.
Just make sure you come prepared because some of the stops along the way are backcountry in the truest sense of the word.
We like spending a day in Salt Lake City to kick off this trip — the Natural History Museum of Utah to learn the geological ropes followed by a night out on the town. Then, start your road trip in the canyons and mountains around Capitol Reef National Park. You’ll see everything from towering monoliths and stark desert landscapes to alpine meadows and panoramic vistas. You can scramble to the top of cliffs, hike through the river in a slot canyon, or explore the many lakes of a high plateau. You’ll even find some of the most scenic and popular fishing spots in the state.
The second half of your trip unfolds around Goblin Valley and the San Rafael Swell in some of the most ruggedly beautiful terrain in the world — a jumble of incredible buttes, pinnacles, canyons and mesas. You’ll have opportunities to tackle more slot canyons, off-road to hidden arches, climb 500-foot slabs of slickrock, or just enjoy a lifetime’s worth of views from the comfort of your car.
Welcome to Salt Lake City
Below are a few stories and ideas to introduce you to Utah's capital city and flesh out your itinerary, whether you stay in the city or explore its backyard mountains. For this itinerary, a trip to the Natural History Museum of Utah is a must. There's a reason why it's known as the "trailhead to Utah." And while you're in Salt Lake, be sure to hit one of the city's "backyard" hikes. As for the nightlife, watch Salt of Sound in the Musical Tour to get a taste of the city's live music scene.
Oh, and here's a pro tip: As you're navigating the city (walking, bike share, taxi, Uber, Lyft, public transit or car), if you know that part of Temple Square is essentially (0,0) on the grid, each street heading north or south adds 100 and each street heading east or west adds 100. Thus, nine blocks south and nine blocks east you'll be at 900 South and 900 East, locally known as 9th and 9th. (Read about more Salt Lake City neighborhoods and browse accommodations here.)
It's about three hours to the Fish Lake area, so an overnight in Salt Lake City is appropriate, depending on your Salt Lake agenda.
Fish Lake to Cathedral Valley
About 200 miles south of Salt Lake, leave the interstate for the Fishlake Loop, a paved scenic byway that is worth the drive alone. But we’ll soon leave the pavement for the gravel roads of Thousand Lakes Mountain and the Cathedral Valley Scenic Backway of Capitol Reef National Park. If you don’t have a high-clearance vehicle, you’ll have to skip Cathedral Valley and return down Thousand Lakes for the paved route. Regardless, road conditions could be challenging during spring visits or trips after heavy rain. Check at the visitor center for current conditions.
Capitol Reef National Park
Today is a full day dedicated to the best hikes of Capitol Reef National Park. Well-conditioned and prepared hikers who start early may be able to tackle the lot, but Navajo Knobs itself is a 9.5-mile round-trip journey that climbs more than 1,500 feet. Regardless, if conditions permit, you’ll appreciate the cooling waters of the Sulpur Creek Trail as you scramble down the canyon back to your campsite after a full day of hiking. Camp in Capitol Reef or book a room in Torrey for a mid-trip mattress and shower.
Capitol Reef to San Rafael Swell
Today completes a full-day backcountry loop through a defining feature of Capitol Reef: the Waterpocket Fold. Turn down the All-American Road Scenic Byway 12 and consider a stop to explore the expansive timbered plateau of Boulder Mountain. At Boulder, veer east down the Burr Trail. It starts paved then turns to gravel before dropping down some eye-popping switchbacks into the national park. Turn north on Notom Road to complete your backcountry tour of Capitol Reef. Back on S.R. 24 you’ll head northeast toward the San Rafael Swell’s introduction to canyoneering: Little Wild Horse and Ding and Dang canyons.
The San Rafael Swell
The San Rafael Swell is a 70 by 40-mile geological upheaval located in Southeastern Utah. Relentless forces of erosion have cut, shaped and formed the land over thousands of years into a crazy assembly of sandstone buttresses, canyons and plateaus. This is your destination today. Start with a backcountry tour of the southern part of the swell then head north for the grand view of the Little Grand Canyon from the Wedge Overlook. Tempting, right? It’s a good hike. There’s a short option on nearby Buckhorn Draw or you could use this whole day and a car shuttle to hike the whole 14 miles.
San Rafael Swell to Moab
No outdoor trip in Utah is complete without a visit to the Moab area. If you wish, explore the two national parks that happen to be in the neighborhood. But this itinerary pushes you off the beaten path, exploring both sides of the Lower Colorado River on Kane Creek and the Potash Road before heading northeast along the Upper Colorado River toward Fisher Towers, one of the BLM’s premier hikes.
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