Sandstone Spires & Swimming Holes
Walk the paths of dinosaurs and descend through 200 million years of geologic history in this six-day road trip from Vernal to Kodachrome Basin. It’s a kid-friendly desert drive in search of dino tracks, slot canyons and swimming.
If you have kids, you are well-acquainted with the infamous words, “are we there yet?” — which is why this road trip will get you out of the car every two hours. The memorable drive includes dinosaurs, geology, hikes that kids will like, minimal crowds, and maybe most importantly, swimming. The trip begins in the north eastern town of Vernal and snakes its way down through the Ashley National Forest towards the plains near Green River, observing 200 million years of geologic history as you pass between the San Rafael Swell and the Book Cliffs. Capitol Reef and Escalante are perfect points to stop for an afternoon, or to land for a day or two. If you’re up for the full adventure, plan a day at Kodachrome Basin State Park.
Itinerary designed by Provo local, Ashley Mae Hoiland. Read her first-hand narrative of her family's travels: A Family Drive Through Utah’s Quiet Places
Start the morning in downtown Vernal at the The Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum. The colorful dinosaur statues outside of the museum are gigantic and it’s interesting to note the relic status of their tails — designed with their tails hanging down. More recent science suggests that dino tails would have been raised and horizontal to the ground. This museum is a perfect mix of education, charm and aesthetic design throughout. After the museum, when the afternoon is hottest, head to Red Fleet State Park and rent a paddle board at the campground or just jump from the low rocky cliffs into the water. The reservoir feels like a mini Lake Powell with its red canyon walls reaching into the blue sky. You could easily spend an entire day here, and if you plan in advance, there’s a campground that overlooks the water. When the sun is near setting and the air has cooled off, there’s a three-mile round trip hike to Moonshine Arch that’s about halfway between Red Fleet and the town of Vernal. The trailhead turn-off isn’t well-marked and you have to follow a dirt road for a mile or so. The trail itself isn’t shaded, so wait until evening, but the arch is breathtaking and worth the trek.
Where to Stay: Red Fleet State Park has a little campground overlooking the reservoir. There are also a number of hotels along Main Street in Vernal.
Tip: Antica Forma in Vernal offers artisanal pizza, and of course, don’t forget custard from Freddy’s on your way out of town.
Pinnacles, Pillars, Arches and Knobs
If you have some extra time on your way out of Vernal, a stop at Fantasy Canyon is a beautiful way to see the morning light. The drive is definitely off the beaten path and the landscape reflects that. It feels as if you’ve driven onto the plains of a different planet, as the pronghorn antelope eye your car with curiosity. It will add about 1.5 hours to your driving time, but Fantasy Canyon is certainly a destination you won’t forget, especially if you go when the lighting is good. From either Vernal, or after Fantasy Canyon, drive through Ashley National Forest, which is a stunning drive on its own, and you’ll arrive in Helper just in time for lunch. Helper, while small, has a historic Main Street lined with art galleries, shops and patio dining.
Drive on between the San Rafael Swell and the Book Cliffs until you reach the town of Green River. If you’re lucky, it will be melon season and the stands will be open. About 10 miles out of town, down another windy dirt road and butted up against the Green River, there’s an anomaly of nature called Crystal Geyser. It’s a cold-water carbon dioxide geyser — the aftermath of an exploratory oil well — that erupts every eight to 22 hours. Even if you don’t catch it erupt, the mineral deposits have turned the surrounding landscape into a vibrant watercolor painting that’s worth a look.
Where to stay: Green River
Tip: For a glimpse at the early exploration of the Green River by those who lived to tell the tale, visit the John Wesley Powell River Museum.
Hoodoos & Slots
This day breaks up the drive a bit. As you head south from Green River the scenery initially might not seem like much, but if you follow along with a roadside geology, you’ll recognize that the geologic structures you can see on either side tell a fascinating story spanning millions of years. The first stop is Temple Mountain. This can be a brief passing or you can find the trailheads to hike or rock climb. If the day is too hot to venture out on an intense trail, take some time to visit the site, learn about the mountain's mining history and connection to Marie Curie. There’s also an incredible panel of ancient native pictographs high up on the rock wall.
Just up the road from Temple Mountain is Goblin Valley State Park, with great campsites that you will likely need to book in advance if you want to stop and spend a night. Goblin Valley is fun to explore, especially with kids. Just make sure you have sunscreen and water before you climb down into the hoodoos. If you stay for the day, Little Wild Horse Canyon is nearby and is a great hike for families, or you can take a longer loop with older kids. Be sure to check the weather beforehand and make sure that there’s no chance of rain anywhere nearby before you enter this slot canyon (read more on slot canyon safety). If you don’t camp, you can continue on to Capitol Reef (2.5 hours away) where there is both camping and lodging in nearby Torrey.
Where to stay: Goblin Valley State Park
The Red Cliffs of Capitol Reef
While Capitol Reef is a national park, it’s much quieter than its Utah counterparts. The park itself is beautiful to drive through. The deep red cliffs are stunning, both in color and in structure, and the park offers several hikes that are perfect for families. The Grand Wash Trail is 2.2 mile one-way that leads hikers down a deep canyon with spectacular narrows. The park's visitor center is situated in the Fruita Historic District. Behind the visitor center is a little cabin that sells delicious homemade pies and other food. You can picnic after a hike and let kids play in the water nearby. The nearby town of Torrey offers several lodging options, including Capitol Reef Resort, where you can stay in a guestroom, cabin, covered wagon or teepee, and enjoy fire pits, a swimming pool and unparalled views. You could spend a late afternoon here and still feel fully immersed in the outdoors you've come to enjoy.
Where to Stay: Torrey
The White Cliffs of Grand Staircase
The drive between Capitol Reef and Escalante is almost surreal. In the matter of an hour you drive high enough to see the landscape and foliage change from desert plants to forest. At lookout points along the way, you can see for miles and miles onto what almost looks like another planet. Boulder is a beautiful and flourishing town near the top of the range with food worth stopping for, farmer’s markets and a few local artisan shops. As you go beyond Boulder, you drive through some of the most beautiful scenery — wide expanses of white and red rock, marked often by a hawk diving into the deep canyons. En route to Escalante, you can either drive the paved route spiraling down through the area known as the Grand Staircase, or you can opt for the less traveled 38-mile Hell’s Backbone Road, a gravel route that connects Boulder and Escalante. Just be aware of weather conditions if you take the gravel road. Along the paved road, you can stop and hike or camp at Calf Creek Recreation Area, or continue on to the small city of Escalante. Just outside Escalante there are also slot canyons to explore — Zebra, Peek-a-Boo and Spooky canyons are accessible from this area.
Where to Stay: Escalante
On your last day, Kodachrome Basin State Park is an excellent destination to stop and play for the afternoon, or set up camp for one more night (fun fact: it's a certified Dark Sky Park). The geology of Kodachrome Basin is unlike any you’ll find in Utah. The giant pillars surrounding the park are direct evidence of ancient earthquakes, which caused material from deep inside the earth to rise up from the ground. There are several hikes, bike rides or places to play for an afternoon in the park itself. If you’re up for one more adventure and a ride on a somewhat bumpy dirt road for about 10 miles, Willis Creek Canyon is the perfect slot canyon experience for families or anyone not wanting to venture into a super narrow canyon. You don’t have to hike very far into the canyon to be engulfed by the rock walls, providing a shaded respite from the summer sun.
If you're heading north to Salt Lake City on your return trip, you can catch the tip of Bryce Canyon, or even make a small detour and drive right to it. For a more scenic route, you can follow state routes 62 and 25 through Fish Lake National Forest and stop at the lodge for an afternoon. From Fish Lake, you can take the I-15 north to Salt Lake City in about three hours.
Where to Stay: Kodachrome Basin State Park
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