Take advantage of some of the most remarkable natural wonders in the Southwest with a three-day itinerary through southeastern Utah and Colorado. Complete with stunningly epic landscapes and National Parks—from vast and deep canyons to sprawling desert vistas; national monuments full of historical impact and genuine geological gems—this adventure is an iconic way to experience this region’s singular natural beauty, cultural history, and enduring geological marvels.
DAY 1 – CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK
Over 300,000 acres of Utah’s most distinctive desert scenery await travelers on the first day of this road trip. With a rugged landscape dominated by mesas, buttes, spires, and of course, canyons, the sprawling Canyonlands National Park is divided into four districts divided by both the Green and Colorado Rivers—each with a character all their own and filled with a plethora of opportunities for outdoor adventure.
White Rim Road
Easily the most accessible of the park’s districts, Island In The Sky offers visitors a snapshot of some of Canyonlands’ most scenic views. Appropriately named for its towering sandstone location 1,000-feet above the surrounding landscape, Island In The Sky has several scenic lookouts along the 100-mile long White Rim Road that are accessible by both car and bike.
While the entire drive may take multiple days, it’s still possible to see some of the area’s most spectacular scenery over the course of a couple of hours (four-wheel-drive required). Visitors should be sure to stop at the scenic Grand View Point, one of the best places to take in panoramic views of the entire White Rim.
Some of the best trails in Canyonlands can also be found in Island In The Sky: from short hikes that explore the mesa top to longer, more strenuous hikes that descend the mesa via White Rim. Those with limited time will want to focus on the short and moderate trails, which offer glimpses of some of the park’s most distinctive views and geological features.
The Mesa Arch is undoubtedly one of the park’s most popular trails; an easy hike that’s only a half-mile long, the trail leads to a cliff edge and offers stunning views of the arch itself—especially during sunset. The White Rim Overlook is another great hike, a less than two-mile trail culminating in breathtaking views of the Colorado River and the La Sal Mountains. Because this trail is generally best in the late afternoon, it’s a great way to spend a couple of hours soaking up the scenery after a leisurely morning in Mesa Arch.
Island In The Sky is also a great place to travel back in time with a hike to the Aztec Butte, a two-mile moderate trail that has the best of both worlds—spectacular views ascending the butte itself and archeological sites below the rim that contain two ancestral Puebloan structures.
Where to Eat & Stay Near Canyonlands National Park
The closest town to Canyonlands National Park is Moab. This small town of 5,500 is renowned for being the central basecamp for adventures in the nearby National Parks. One of the great things about staying in Moab are all the great restaurants. A couple of our favorites are Moab Brewery, which has fantastic burgers and sandwiches—perfect after a long day of exploring. On the vegetarian and vegan side, Arches Thai is exceptional. There are all sorts of accommodation options from branded hotels like Holiday Inn Express to more historic stays such as Moab Springs Ranch.
DAY 2 – FRY CANYON
Begin day two of your trip bright and early. Today, you’ll be going on a guided canyoneering excursion into Fry Canyon with Wild Expeditions, which begins in Bluff, Utah.
If Canyonlands is the perfect intro to Utah’s most distinctive geology, Fry Canyon is a great way to get up close and personal with the state’s picturesque slot canyons. This hidden gem along the roadside is one of the smaller tributaries of the iconic White Canyon, which passes through the Natural Bridges National Monument.
This guided excursion is suited for beginners and experts ages 10 and older, and will teach you the basics of rappelling. The full-day adventure includes six miles of hiking, a 250-foot swim and incredible views you won’t likely see again soon. Wild Expeditions will provide you with all the canyoneering gear required, including snacks and lunch!
Note: Fry Canyon is only accessible for visitors traveling with a guide or experienced in canyoneering. Rappelling and swimming are required to access the area.
Where to Stay in Bluff
At the end of your adventure return to Bluff, where you’ll be staying for night two of your trip. We love the Desert Rose Resort and Cabins for its full-service amenities, central location, and varied room types. In nearby Blanding is a fully renovated Stone Lizard Lodge for those seeking a modern take on 1940s style. Stone Lizard Lodge offers homemade breakfast, which is an absolute must if you’re staying with them. For dinner, the Homestead Steakhouse in Blanding is a local favorite, for good reason.
DAY 3 – CANYONS OF THE ANCIENTS NATIONAL MONUMENT
Located in southwest Colorado, the next stop on our canyon-filled itinerary is the majestic Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. Boasting the highest-known archaeological site density in the United States, the National Monument is a well-known spot to explore this cultural landscape that has been inhabited by humans for over 10,000 years. There are plenty of opportunities for discovery here, along with trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding.
The perfect place to start an adventure at the monument is through a visit to its Visitor Center and Museum where travelers can learn about the Anasazi people (also known as the Ancestral Puebloans) who once populated the area through artifacts, demonstrations, and other hands-on exhibits—be sure to grab a map here, too, as many of the sites are difficult to find without one.
Next, head to the Lowry Pueblo National Historic Landmark, a 1,000-year-old ancestral Puebloan site. The only developed recreation site within Canyons of the Ancients, this area is a fantastic way to explore the area’s kivas (round, subterranean caverns), including the impressive Great Kiva once used for both religious and political purposes. There’s also a picnic area and short nature trail, Lowry Run Trail, here too for those that want to explore further.
While most of the hiking and biking opportunities at the Canyons are not for novices due to their very rocky and steep switchbacks, there are a few for less experienced adventurers. Once such trail is the 0.5-mile Painted Hand Pueblo Trail which explores another smaller village and offers walkers a chance to enjoy the scenic area.
Considered moderate in difficulty, the Sand Canyon East Rock Creek Loop is a portion of the Sand Canyon Trail that offers both historic ruins and natural wonders galore. Beginning at the Sand Canyon Trailhead, the six-mile-long trail takes visitors through Castle Rock Pueblo and Saddlehorn Pueblo, both of which are incredibly picturesque. The trail culminates at the scenic East Rock Creek Canyon Arch, a natural arch high on the cliffside. There are many interesting spots along the way, so be sure to keep your eyes open to some of the site’s most impressive ruins.
Where to Stay in Cortez
Along Main Street, there are more than a dozen restaurants to choose from too—many within an easy walk of the hotels. La Casita de Cortez is well known for its outstanding Chile Rellenos, and many visitors and locals alike say this is some of the best Mexican food in Colorado. WildEdge Brewing Collective on Market Street, not only do they have plenty of great drafts on tap, but their small plates menu is excellent.
The town of Cortez has several independent properties to choose from. Consider staying at the Retro Inn at Mesa Verde for its pet-friendly and colorful rooms, or the Starry Nights Ranch Bed & Breakfast for its locally sourced, homemade breakfasts and rustic charm.