Utah Road Trip
Last week, Louise and I took yet another trip down to Las Vegas, but this time we were there for a different reason. Our plan was to do a little Utah road trip and head a little further afield to Zion, Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.
Without thinking too much about logistics, Louise and I flew into Las Vegas and quickly realized we’d have about 7 hours of driving to get through before we arrived in Moab. That was fine with us because it meant we could make quick stops at Valley of Fire State Park and Zion National Park, but if we ever do this again we’ll be flying in to Salt Lake City (3 hours vs. 7 hours driving).
Having visited Vegas the month before we already knew it was going to be pushing 40 degrees (approx 110F) during our trip, but we never really considered just how ridiculously hot the desert sun would be. It seems pretty obvious right? But sometimes you have to actually experience it for yourself before you fully get the picture. We did a short hike to the Fire Wave in the Valley of Fire at around 11am and immediately swore that we’d never do a summer desert hike ever again.
So, before we get into the details, here are 3 things we learnt about visiting Nevada, Arizona and Utah in mid/late July:
- Fly in to Salt Lake City, not Las Vegas (unless you plan to also visit Valley of Fire NP and Zion along the way).
- It is SERIOUSLY hot. If you plan to hike during the day, you’d better be willing to get up before sunrise or stay out after sunset. Also, water is so important. Bring a camelbak full of water if you have one.
- July is the wet/storm season. Every day we had enormous thunderstorms which had a big effect on our ability to do any water based hiking. We scrapped plans for Grand Staircase Escalante and felt a little dodgy doing the Narrows in Zion.
Once we’d made our quick stops in Nevada and in Zion, we eventually made it to Moab, the closest town to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.
Arches National Park:
If there’s one place that deserves to be at the top of your Utah road trip list, it’s Arches National Park. It’s absolutely bursting with…wait for it.. natural arches, and most of them are easily accessible without having to hike.
One thing we heard over and over again was that we should visit Arches for sunrise. Firstly because the sunrises there are incredible. Secondly because it gets unbearably hot during the day, and finally because Arches gets absurdly busy.
I would 100% echo that advice. If you’re visiting Arches, you NEED to go before the sun rises. Obviously the sun rises around 6am in the summer, but I promise it’s worth it. The way the sun lights up the arches as it peaks the horizon is unforgettable, and it’s easily the least crowded part of the day.
Even when we visited at 6am, there were more than a dozen photographers scurrying around. I dread to think how busy it is at 10am.
We visited Double Arch, Turret Arch and the Windows for sunrise and would recommend doing it in the following order:
- The North Window – Incredible view of Turret Arch through the North Window, and the light will pour onto the widow as it rises. Unfortunately, you’ll have a lot of people sitting in the north window soaking in the sunrise, so don’t expect to have a clean shot. I spent a lot of time shooting through the window, and almost missed looking back through the window at the actual sunrise. Don’t forget to move around!
- Walk to Turret Arch – Nobody else seemed to be interested in doing this, and you can get some interesting shots up close.
- Walk to Double Arch – Don’t bother trying to get this for sunrise; it’s facing completely the wrong direction for any decent light. It might be better for sunset but we didn’t stick around. With that in mind, it was clear that nobody goes there for sunrise, so you can have the run of the place without other people getting in the way. We walked there right after sunrise and had about 20 minutes without anybody else there.
Make sure you take in the incredible sights on the way back to Moab, like Park Avenue and the Organ. This is one of those places where the drive is just as impressive as the stops along the way!
Breakfast and a nap:
After sunrise, it was clear that everyone was pouring into the area and the best of the light was behind us. We headed back into town to grab breakfast and have a nap. We ended up at the jailhouse cafe, and had a pretty hefty, greasy breakfast with a southwestern twist. It was pretty great.
With 4 hours of sleep and bellies full of food, we headed to bed for a while to skip the hottest/brightest part of the day. I’d highly recommend this; save yourself the trauma of wandering around in the midday sun!
After our nap we decided to do something a little different and check out Moab’s dinosaur museum; Moab Giants. It had rave reviews and we had time to kill before sunset, so figured why not!
There were 2 things we loved at the Moab Giants museum:
- The outdoor trail: Although it was still over 100 degrees outside, we decided to walk the interpretive trail and take a look at some of the life-size dinosaur sculptures outside. Totally worth it, honestly! We learnt lots (we stopped as much as we could handle in the heat), and some of the dinosaur sculptures were pretty funny (not sure if they were supposed to be).
- The 5D Aquarium – This was the highlight for me. Imagine a real life aquarium with fish tanks along the walls, but instead of tanks there are 3D screens showing different prehistoric aquatic monsters. It’s really well done, and it almost feels like you’re looking in on real fish tanks. At the end there’s a Megalodon simulator that involves water sprays and moving floors. It’s pretty fun but left a couple of young kids visibly scarred by the experience!
Aside from these two things there was also a 3D movie, which kind of left me feeling a bit sick (3D intro didn’t seem to be aligned properly) and was so, so jargon heavy that we started giggling. The movie rattled off facts about how the universe started, blowing through things like protons, neutron stars, dark matter etc. It was definitely not dumbed down for the kids in the audience. There was about 10 seconds of talk about dinosaurs so the premise of the video was also a little confusing.
There was also an interesting museum about fossils and how they’re formed, focusing on the story of a single dinosaur footprint that was found to have other smaller dinosaurs inside it. It was a very interesting angle, but seemed a little excessive for such a specific topic. It was pretty interesting though regardless.
Overall, it’s an interesting park that easily exceeded our expectations and we think it definitely deserves to be on your Utah road trip bucketlist. Kids and big kids (like us) would love this.
Dead Horse State Park
After waiting out the midday heat at the dinosaur museum, we met up with some friends and headed to Dead Horse State Park. We took our friend’s jeep off road, and headed to a GPS Point they’d wanted to visit for a while. Eventually we came to a clearing and walked to the edge of one of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen. Storms crawled past in the distance as we hopped around the rocks enjoying the evening light and the breathtaking views. If you want to fully experience Dead Horse, make sure you bring a 4×4 and have access to GPS!
Men’s Gear from Sporting Life Canada.
- Men’s Freedom Shirt by Saucony – this shirt is seriously a lifesaver on a hot day. So light!
- Arc’teryx Men’s Lefroy Shorts – tough shorts for outdoor adventures
Women’s Gear from Sporting Life Canada:
Nike Women’s classic Swoosh Cooling Sports Bra – Great lightweight gear for bounding around in the hot summer sun!
Salomon Women’s Crossamphibian Swift Hiking Shoe – Ultra lightweight shoes that you can run through rivers and streams and can expect to dry super quickly. Great for exploring the mountains too!
Canyonlands National Park:
I didn’t really know what to expect from Canyonlands, but to me it was like a real life version of the Road Runner and Wiley Coyote cartoons. Expansive grassy plains and scrubland that suddenly drop off into impossibly deep canyons. Incredibly wild and rugged terrain that you could access with barely any effort at all.
We visited 3 stops at Canyonlands National Park; here’s our advice for getting the most out of them:
- Shafer Trail Lookout – This is a stunning viewpoint that overlooks a windy road down into the valley. It perfectly faces the sunrise and is a great place to stop as the sun is rising. It is insanely wide though, so if you’re a photographer you’ll need to bring the widest lens you have (even my 14mm wasn’t really wide enough), and be prepared to stand very close to the edge (not recommended).
- Mesa Arch – This is the ‘must-do’ sunrise spot for a lot of photographers, and the incredible orange light that glows under the arch has become very inconic. The only issue is that every photographer and his dog is there at sunrise. If you want to get the famous sun-flare as the sun rises, be prepared to get there 30-60 minutes before the sun comes up. We weren’t interested in jostling around so we came immediately after sunrise at Shafer Trail Lookout. The arch was still glowing orange but all of the photographers had cleared out. Was definitely worth doing in that order.
- Green River Overlook – You cannot miss this view. Sunset is supposed to be breathtaking, but unfortunately there was a storm blowing through when we arrived. We did our best with the rain, but would love to come back again on a sunny day.
And that was really all the time we had for our Utah road trip! It was a break-neck speed couple of days and we did our best to cram in as much as possible. We could have easily spent a week there, honestly! We wanted to do Delicate Arch and Corona Arch but didn’t really have enough time.
I know it won’t be long before we’re back again, but we’ll definitely be headed back in Winter next time. Cold weather and fewer people would make this area absolutely perfect.
Where we stayed:
Moab is a quaint little desert town with plenty of food and hotels to choose from. We picked the cheapest deal in town at the Red Stone Inn, and found it to be pretty basic but reasonable for the price. It had a hot tub (there were people using this which blew my mind), a BBQ area and the use of a pool in the hotel opposite. There was air conditioning, which was a big plus, but it made the bed feel a bit damp and sticky.
Food in Moab:
Finding food in Moab was super easy and there were dozens of restaurants to choose from along the main drag. We were actually super impressed with all the food we came across, and our favourites were Bangkok House Too (a confusingly named sushi/fusion restaurant), and El Charro Loco (Mexican food).
Louise and I are always craving sushi, and the bento Box at Bangkok House Too was honestly one of the best bentos I’ve ever had (I recommend the neotokyo box). The sashimi was actually fresh and for once, the tuna was a deep red colour and not the pale crap that you’re often offered at mid-range sushi restaurants. Considering this restaurant is so far from the ocean, the quality of the seafood was exceptional.
El Charro Loco was another highlight for us. Finding decent Mexican food in Canada is a real challenge, so we were out to scratch a pretty big itch. Fortunately, El Charro Loco has enormous, delicious portions that kept us going for breakfast the next day as well! The chicken and beef chimichangas were also some of the best I’ve ever had. 100% recommend both of these spots if you’re in Moab.
Other tips for your Utah Road Trip:
- Always make sure you have plenty of gas in your tank and refill whenever you can. There was one stretch in Utah where I didn’t see a town for about a hundred miles. It would have been quite easy to get caught out.
- Bring lots of water. Even with air conditioning, driving through 110 degree heat will dry you out!
- Pick a good podcast and the drive will fly by.
- If possible, make the drive during the day. The scenery is incredible and you won’t want to miss any of it!