As the most popular national parks get more crowded, where do you go to escape?
In this post, we’ll explore two such parks in Utah.
The attraction: Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah (2.6 million visits)
The alternative: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah (983,000 visits)
Location: Southern Utah
Best places to camp: Anywhere in the backcountry (with a permit) or at the developed campgrounds near the town of Boulder
Best hikes: Explore a classic slot canyon like Zebra, Peek-a-Boo, or Spooky
Utah is unrivaled for awesome landscapes—untamed scenery that has defined the west in John Ford’s films. We fell hard for this land of red rock and sculpted geology during our first visit many years ago, and we’ve never tired of exploring it—along with the millions who visit Utah’s marquee national parks each year.
But for an equally unforgettable experience, visit the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which was designated 22 years ago by the former president Bill Clinton. The monument includes literally the last lands to be mapped in the continental US, and most of them remain just how the cartographers found them.
Grand Staircase–Escalante is huge and wild, so stop at one of the visitor centers on the monument’s two main paved highways to get oriented. You’ll find them in the towns of Kanab and Big Water (Highway 89) and in Escalante and Cannonville (Highway 12). Just driving these highways is astoundingly scenic.
In dry weather, most cars can manage the gravel loop known as Hell’s Backbone between the town of Boulder near the monument’s northern border and Escalante, 30 miles to the south, but don’t expect to make good time no matter what you’re driving. You’ll want to stop at every scenic viewpoint to gape anyway.
Hell’s Backbone might whet your appetite to investigate more of the monument’s unpaved byways, such as Hole-in-the-Rock Road, which dates back to the Mormon wagon trains. It’s located about five miles south-east of Escalante on Highway 12. Four-wheel drive is recommended for such explorations, but even then be aware that wet weather could turn your track into a quagmire or worse.
Hikers and backpackers will want to check out some of the monument’s gorgeous slot canyons. Several spectacular ones are accessible from Hole in the Rock Road. Bring paper maps—your phone won’t help you here and your GSP may lead you astray.
The attraction: Zion National Park, Utah (4.5 million visits)
The alternative: Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah (910,000 visits)
Location: Southern Utah; about 70 miles north-east of St. George
Best place to stay: Point Supreme campground (tents and RVs), amid epic summer wildflowers
Best hike: To the Spectra Point overlook, for the jaw-dropping view into the Cedar Breaks amphitheater
In lovely Cedar Breaks, the air is startlingly clear at its over 10,000-foot elevation. This means the daytime views are grand and the nighttime stars are crisp at this marvelous place.
The first time I gazed out over the deep bowl of its natural amphitheater containing fantastic sandstone fins and hoodoos, the landscape spoke to my soul as eloquently as any in southern Utah. I also happened to be there at the height of the summer season, which meant the wildflowers were at their peak. Outrageously colorful displays demand attention from one’s camera at every turn. White cushion phlox blanket the ground, purple silvery lupine sway and nod in lush patches, and orange-red scarlet paintbrush dots the landscape as you wander along trails.
For maximum exposure, plan to arrive during the annual Wildflower Festival in July. You can download the monument’s very own wildflowers app to help you identify more than 100 types.
To take in the full grandeur of Cedar Breaks, stroll down the Spectra/Ramparts trail. The two-mile round trip to Spectra Point overlook lets you gape into the geologic beauty of the amphitheater. Maintained by subtle yet powerful weathering and erosion processes, the amphitheater is really spectacular, even if you’ve seen the far more famous nearby Bryce Canyon.
Oh, I could have lived anywhere in the world, if I hadn’t seen the West.