I intentionally kept the beauty of Southern Utah under wraps as we prepared for our cross-country road trip because I wished for my daughters to be in awe of the natural beauty; I didn’t want them to recognize it from a Google image. And so shortly after abandoning the relative safety of Highway 70 for the eerie desolation of Route 128, a moment when it looked as if there was the potential to become a hungry vulture’s next al fresco dinner, and after I’d called my parents to half-jokingly say “just in case this is the end, I want you to know how much I appreciate everything you’ve done for me”, we came upon the Colorado River and a massive red riverbank wall. I slammed on the brakes of our Toyota Sienna, red clay spraying forward in reply, and we climbed down into the muddy water, the same water that runs through the Grand Canyon and gets bottled up at the Hoover Dam, two sights we’ve already experienced together. My girls were flabbergasted at this information. We’d barely scratched the surface of what Southern Utah offers adventurous families and they were already aglow.
Arches and Moab National Park
We’d eventually dry off and make our way to Arches and Moab. The former was my number one most anticipated destination and the vast area of spires and, of course, arches didn’t disappoint. Having already been in water, my daughters were itchy to climb on something, anything, as they once had in the Valley of Fire outside Las Vegas a couple of years ago. They got their wish as the sun dipped and painted Arches National Park with a set of deeper hues. I pulled over to the side of the road, while the light of day was still strong enough for us to avoid cacti and spot any snakes or other creepy desert crawlers. My daughters attacked the rocks (not the fragile arches, of course, although many people were busy ignoring the emphatic ‘FRAGILE-KEEP OFF’ signs), sneaking into enclaves and climbing up high to enjoy a bird’s eye view.
Moab, a small desert town just south of Arches, was described to me as freaky and strange — so naturally I had to see it — but the string of budget chain hotels on the drive in and kitschy gift shops lining the main drag quickly convinced me that if Moab was once a haven for oddballs, it’s now just another tourist destination with cheaply made junk for sale at every turn. Still, the breakfast-for-dinner we enjoyed at the Moab Diner and the amazing ice cream from The Spoke on Center (try the Pralines and Cream) were worth the very short detour.
Bryce Canyon National Park
We didn’t open the door to our deluxe cabin at the Cannonville/Bryce Valley KOA until very late, but were excited to see an air conditioner, shower, toilet, and bunk beds for the kids. This is how I like to camp — in comfort and in some modicum of style. The girls have become fond of these non-hotel accommodations, too, and the prime location of this one made exploring Bryce Canyon the next day super easy.
The Bryce Canyon hike we took is 3 miles long — Queens Garden to the Navajo Loop trail — and has been described as the “best hike in the world.” While I admittedly have very few hikes under my belt to compare with it, this was certainly an outstanding way to spend three hours with my wife and two kids, challenging ourselves physically (but not too much) and experiencing the temperature and topographical changes. We saw chipmunks, Stellar Jays and prairie dogs, and had so much fun singing Okee Dokee Brothers adventure songs and telling corny jokes to keep our spirits up as we rationed water and pretzel Goldfish.
After I posted photos from our day hiking at Bryce, a few Facebook friends commented that they like that national park better than the Grand Canyon. The contrarian in me wanted to agree straightaway — I mean, who doesn’t cheer for the underdog — but those discerning online pals of mine have a point on merit alone. Bryce Canyon National Park is ridiculously stunning! It’s a deep canyon filled with a forest in some spots and hoodoos in others (picture dripped wet sand at the beach, and how it makes those lumpy towers in all kinds of curious shapes — and now picture all of those in bright orange and super tall!) Bryce is one of a kind.
Zion National Park
The finale of the Southern Utah National Park trilogy was Zion National Park, on our way to Vegas, but we got yet another late start (a bad habit we’d picked up on this exhausting road trip) and didn’t have time to find a parking spot outside the park, catch a shuttle in and then board another bus to cruise the scenic Zion byway no cars are allowed on. We saw a lot of Zion but not the famous bits, but even without the full experience, we all knew this was a magical place that deserves a proper visit.
Our few days in Southern Utah provided many jaw dropping moments for each member of my family. The contrasting colors, deep canyons, sharp mountains, rushing rivers below and dramatic skies above impressed us like nothing else we’d ever seen before or since (including Yosemite National Park, where this post was written). A Southern Utah encore is definitely in our future, and should be in yours, too.
— Jeff Bogle
Jeff Bogle is an at-home dad of two pre-tween daughters. He writes about parenthood, family travel and all things childhood on his site OutWithTheKids.com. He considers himself one of the luckiest guys in the world. Jeff also writes for PBS.