If you’ve been RVing for a while or taken any kind of road trip out west, there’s a good chance you’ve visited one or more of Utah’s epic five national parks. These parks are unique, memorable, and with millions of visitors a year… busy. So if you’re looking for a break from the crowds, here are five lesser known, but still awe-inspiring areas to visit in Utah.
1. Valley of the Gods
This little valley near Bluff, Utah is filled with sandstone formations and starry night skies. Located in the southeastern corner of Utah it is out of the way of the main national park loop. Similar to Monument Valley, but only a quarter of the size, it remains quiet and peaceful.
A pleasant surprise is the free BLM camping offered within the valley. There are dirt roads that veer off the main loop and lead to small individual campsites. These are pack-in/pack-out boondocking sites and do not offer any amenities. Rolling out of bed and watching the sunrise behind the silhouettes of these monoliths and pinnacles with no one else in sight is a unique opportunity not to be missed.
To drive through the Valley of the Gods you will take a 17-mile, unpaved loop. Although it’s unpaved, the road is pretty accessible, but do your research to ensure it will work for your rig.
2. Natural Bridges National Monument
Also in the southeastern part of Utah, near Blanding, this national monument is out of the way enough to keep it low-key and quiet. There is a nice visitor center and several hiking opportunities to see the natural bridges up close and from the base of the canyon as well as hikes to historic ruins. There are also several overlooks that offer some amazing views of these interesting geological structures.
If you are traveling with Junior Rangers, this national monument offers the opportunity for both a National Monument Badge and a Dark Sky Park Badge as this monument was the first International Dark Sky Park certified by the International Dark-Sky Association.
3. John Burr Trail
This road is one of the most beautiful drives in Utah and yet remains lightly traveled. It extends from Boulder, Utah, through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, through a southern portion of Capitol Reef National Park and into Glen Canyon Recreational Area until it reaches Bullfrog Marina.
The section through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is paved and passes through Long Canyon with it’s towering red cliffs. Nestled in this canyon is Deer Creek Campground, quiet, picturesque and easily accessible. There are also many opportunities for hikes in this area.
Once you reach Capitol Reef National Park the road turns to dirt and you are awarded with an amazing view at the top of a pretty wicked switchback. Right now you are at the top of the Waterpocket Fold and the road continues down through it.
If you can travel the switchback safely with your rig continue down it as it offers one rewarding view after another as well as a pretty good story to tell as it might be one of the most switchbacky of switchbacks you’ll ever drive.
Now that you’re at the bottom of the switchback, take time to explore this crowd-free part of Capitol Reef National Park. There are several hikes in this area including slot canyon hikes that are eerily beautiful when experienced without the hustle and bustle of fellow tourists. We had a picnic and spent several hours exploring without seeing a single car or person.
The John Burr Trail exits the east side of Capitol Reef National Park and continues on unpaved, but grated, into the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. This part of the road is pretty much completely empty of travelers but full of views, including a view of all five peaks of the Henry Mountains. We drove the entire stretch without seeing another vehicle.
We drove the entire John Burr Trail in our 21-foot motorhome without a problem, however, there are parts that are not recommended for RVs and bad weather can make parts impassable. Here is a great resource for mile-by-mile information on the road.
4. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
The John Burr Trail is a great way to experience the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, but another paved option is taking Highway 89 from Kanab to Page, Arizona. Along this road, there are several side roads of varying quality leading you further into the monument. We took the Paria River Valley Road and were rewarded with a drive through colorful layered cliffs and beautiful painted rocks. There is parking at the end of the road with plenty of areas to explore. Several hikes also start from this area.
There are also numerous guided tours, backpacking and backcountry hiking opportunities in this national monument.
Being the last place in the contiguous United States to be mapped, the Grande Staircase-Escalante National Monument remains quiet, vast and empty of crowds.
5. Goblin Valley State Park
This is one of the most fun areas of Utah you will find. This appropriately-named valley is filled with small rock formations (hoodoos) that are great for climbing, hiking around, and if you have little ones (or maybe even if you don’t) playing hide and seek.
Spend your time roaming around the three-square-mile valley or venture outside this area on six miles of hiking trails. There is a campground in the state park which although not situated in the valley is still surrounded by interesting formations as well as easily accessible free BLM camping in the area.
We’ve visited all the spots above in our 21-foot motorhome, but please do your research before heading out as some may not be accessible to larger rigs and are out of cell and WiFi service. We love national parks and think they are a worthwhile visit even with the crowds, but hopefully this list will help you find some peace and quiet and space to breath in Utah’s amazing landscape.