Footsteps of Explorers
Southern Utah is unique in that much of it seems as raw, unspoiled and unexplored as it did hundreds of years ago. It’s easy to put yourself in the shoes of the area’s first inhabitants and imagine their excitement and awe at the same views that stretch before you. This six-day itinerary will put you in the footsteps of Utah’s earliest people, explorers and settlers.
Around Moab you’ll find the stomping grounds of John Wesley Powell and a museum dedicated to him and his three-month river trip down the Green and Colorado rivers. You can meander the scenic Potash Road with its dinosaur tracks and several panels of petroglyphs. Or hike to Cave Springs Cowboy Camp, still blackened from the fires of cowboys keeping warm.
Heading west, you can live like the pioneers who settled this once-barren area at Bluff Fort. Or imagine what life was like farming in desert country at the well-preserved Gifford Homestead. Explore an ancient Ancestral Pueblo village or take a Jeep tour through the majestic Navajo lands of Monument Valley. Explore the ruins of an ancient Fremont Indian village rich with rock art sites and well-preserved artifacts.
Follow the route of pioneer explorers as you drive Hole-in-the-Rock Road. Visit Cove Fort, which was built 150 years ago as a safe stop for travelers. Wander around historic downtown Panguitch and discover vintage cowboy mementos to take home with you.
- John Wesley Powell Museum
- Moab Music Festival
- Potash–Lower Colorado Drive
See the Colorado Plateau through the historic lens of the John Wesley Powell expedition, then tour a fascinating scenic byway where unblemished public lands meet modern industry. If you’ve planned this trip right (say, for early September), you’ll have multiple options to catch live music both in pristine nature and at indoor venues. If possible, reserve a seat at the Grotto, an open-air red rock venue known for having acoustics as stunning as the scenery. Overnight in Moab.
This famous explorer of the American West took an enviable three-month trip down the Green and Colorado rivers gathering specimens, data and stories that forever shaped this land’s reputation for adventure. Learn about the life and times of John Wesley Powell through a variety of fascinating exhibits.
The Moab Music Festival annually serenades audiences with live chamber music, jazz, Latin and other styles in several indoor and outdoor venues around Moab. The centerpiece, however, is the pristine wilderness Grotto reached by boat on the Colorado River. Here, you’ll experience “music in concert with the landscape.”
If Arches is just the first stop on a bigger national park vacation, take the quieter 17-mile scenic byway of the Lower Colorado-Potash Road between Moab and the outer boundary of Canyonlands National Park. This road follows the winding path of the Colorado River, and has many places to stop and view native petroglyphs, fossilized dinosaur tracks and even more arches.
- Cave Spring Hike
- Bluff Fort Historic Site
- Monument Valley Jeep Tour
Many visit Canyonlands National Park for endless vistas of deep-carved channels, mesas and spires as well as backcountry solace. You’ve come for the human history. Cave Spring has it, with remnants of a cowboy camp from when grazing was attempted on this landscape and pictographs left by the hand of Canyon Country’s more ancient dwellers. Moving on to Bluff Fort, you’ll discover the end of an improbable journey across slickrock expanses and a raging river. Finish the day with a guided Jeep tour through Monument Valley and overnight there or in nearby Mexican Hat.
Take a journey through the ancient past and slickrock flats on this small, family-friendly loop trail that goes by ruins of historic ranching operations and rock art of Ancestral Puebloans. A couple of safety ladders may make the trail unsuitable for smaller children. Photo courtesy Casey Schreiner / Modern Hiker
Bluff is the terminus of the well known Hole-in-the-Rock Trail on which Mormon pioneers traveled from Southwestern to Southeastern Utah over a daunting route in one of the most extraordinary wagon trips ever undertaken. Portions of the original fort are interpreted at the Bluff Fort Historic Site.
Book a tour of Valley Drive (which you can also drive on your own if you have the right vehicle) or a longer trek such as Mystery Valley, accessible only with a licensed guide. A Jeep tour visits the iconic sites, but is accompanied by a Navajo narrative.
- Fruita and U-Pick Orchards
- Gifford Homestead
- Anasazi State Park Museum
Capitol Reef National Park is home to unbelievable monoliths of red rock standing watch over distinctively warped and remote landscapes. Imagine, then, setting up shop here as both early indigenous cultures (see Capitol Reef Petroglyphs) and 19th century pioneers did. The lush orchards and Gifford Homestead are both surviving testaments to the hardy settlers of the scenic valley. Continue to Anasazi State Park Museum for an even more complete understanding of the region’s ancient lifestyle.
In the spring, the blooming historic orchards of Capitol Reef splash mesmerizing colors against the sandstone backdrops. Come harvest, happy visitors wander unlocked orchards and sample ripe fruit in season. There’s a self-pay and bagging station to carry out ripe fruit for a nominal fee.
Take a walk back in time and learn about Capitol Reef’s early pioneer life at the Gifford Homestead Museum and store. Don’t forget to treat yourself to a freshly-baked piece of pie — your taste buds will thank you. Open March through November.
Inside the museum, you’ll find artifacts from the site and gain insight into how these people made a life for themselves in such a desolate environment. Outside, the kids will love being able to go inside the recreation of an Anasazi dwelling while parents can check out the original dig site.
- Hole-in-the-Rock Road
- Lower Calf Creek Falls
- Shooting Star Drive-In
Calf Creek Falls is a literal oasis in the desert. It’s no wonder ancient people traveled through and left their mark on the canyon walls. Refresh yourself at the scenic Kiva Koffeehouse, built beautifully into the magnificent landscape of the national monument. Next, having already seen Bluff, you’ll traverse some of the dramatic terrain that kept the early pioneer expedition in check. Stop at fascinating sites like Devils Garden and Peek-a-Boo Canyon or, with a high-clearance vehicle and the right conditions, drive the full 62 miles to where the road descends to present-day Lake Powell. Stay in Escalante or Bryce Canyon.
Hole-in-the-Rock is a 62-mile drive one way, and it follows the general route of the pioneer Hole-in-the-Rock Expedition to search for a route across the river (what is now Lake Powell). Most visitors travel the 11 miles to Devil's Garden and 26 miles to the turnoff for Peek-a-boo and Spooky Gulch.
At the lower falls of Calf Creek, a clear stream descends 126 feet into a pool, where happy folks take a swim after a 3-mile hike that is relatively flat, but frequently very sandy. It’s 6 miles total, and a great introduction to the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument.
Welcome to the Shooting Star RV Resort. Pull in your own home-on-the-go or saddle up in one of eight luxury Airstream accommodations decorated to resemble the Hollywood trailers of the stars. While you’re here, don’t miss a classic movie at the drive-in theater.
- Western Wildlife Museum
- Historic Panguitch
- Marysvale Miners Camp
The diversity of wildlife on the Paunsaugunt Plateau continues to astonish and delight visitors. The Western Wildlife Museum offers a snapshot of the region’s fauna. An early-morning stop in Bryce Canyon National Park can reinforce this pleasant surprise. After a stop in Panguitch, you’ll drive north on Utah’s Heritage Highway, U.S. 89, for a visit to the Marysvale Miners Camp. Overnight in Richfield or Fremont Indian State Park.
The Paunsaugunt region is named after the Paiute word for “home of the beavers.” Indeed, the land has always been known for its wildlife. Visit the fine selection of specimens at this natural history museum located just outside the entrance of Bryce Canyon.
Panguitch captures the enduring pioneer spirit of Utah with its welcoming rural charm and strong sense of heritage. Much of the town's main drag sits on the National Register of Historic Places and offers quaint, Western-themed local shopping and dining options and is close to many top destinations.
This historic miner’s community offers hiking trails, ATV access, and a mining exhibit. There’s a self-guided driving tour on the Forest Service Road that leads to Miner’s Park from Big Rock Candy Mountain and a 2-mile hike to a 50-foot waterfall.
- Fremont Indian State Park
- Cove Fort
- Territorial Statehouse
A trip to Fremont Indian State Park Museum uncovers extensive details about the distant past, just as construction of I-70 did when it unearthed much of what is on display in this museum. Stepping forward chronologically, your next two stops define the pioneer times of this sparsely populated land. The Territorial Statehouse is a glorious relic of an abandoned hope and nearby Cove Fort a testament to that dream. Spoiler alert: Salt Lake City became the capital of the state.
During construction of Interstate 70, the largest known Fremont Indian village was uncovered. Discover the artifacts, petroglyphs and pictographs left behind and gain a greater understanding of all the rock art you’ve spotted on your trip so far at this park’s museum. Spend a day at the museum, then camp at nearby Castle Rock Campground.
One of only three forts listed on the National Register of Historic sites, the mid-19th century Cove Fort lets you explore what accommodations for pioneers were like. This way station offered respite for pioneers traveling between Beaver and then-territorial capital Fillmore.
Get a feel for what life was like for those early pioneers establishing Utah. Visit Utah’s oldest governmental building, which was used briefly as Utah’s territorial capitol. Take a break from the outdoors and enjoy artifacts, exhibits, and a picnic in the garden.