Early on an October morning, the snowcapped Henry Mountains glisten against a blue sky. Down every wash, a stalwart line of cottonwoods has turned a glowing gold. Flocks of tiny Berwick's wrens, exuberant after the rain, flutter up past our windshield and across the Bicentennial Highway. Water shines from holes and grooves in slickrock, and snow dusts the red mesas and buttes and throws twisted black junipers into sharp relief. As we begin to climb toward Natural Bridges National Monument, the whole desert forest of pinon pines and sagebrush is covered with puffy white clumps of snow. Everything is breathtakingly beautiful.
Because so much of Utah is public land, it makes an ideal getaway for RVers, especially those who enjoy self-contained camping in parklands and the wilderness. Driving through the state, we always imagine the pioneers and early Mormon settlers moving through the eerie terrain with plenty of time on their hands and a little creative daydreaming. It's the only way some of the geological landmarks could have been named. We stare at spots like Capitol Reef's Capitol Dome or Zion's Great White Throne and wonder who could have thought that particular rock really looks like a dome or a throne.
The state tourism people have divided southern Utah into four different areas—Color Country in the south central and southwest, including Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks; Canyonlands to the southeast, including Canyonlands and Arches National Parks; Panoramaland in the west central region, including Capitol Reef National Park; and Castle Country in the east central sector, the terrain where Butch Cassidy used to ride.
Northern Utah is divided into Golden Spike Empire, named for the spot where the first transcontinental railroad was finished in 1869, the extreme northwest corner reaching from the Nevada border east to Ogden; Bridgerland, named for mountain man Jim Bridger, the northeastern corner surrounding Logan; Great Salt Lake Country, which includes Great Salt Lake, the Bonneville Salt Flats, and Salt Lake City; Mountainland, with Utah's best ski country and Sundance Resort; and Dinosaurland, notable for dinosaur digs, Green River rafting, and dude ranches. You'll need to remember the divisions when using the state travel guides.
One of the newest recreation areas in Utah is Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the first to be administered by the Bureau of Land Management instead of the National Park Service. Gateways to the new national monument are Escalante and Boulder on Route 12 and Kanab on Route 89, in the south central area of Utah. With world-class paleontological sites and a panoramic geologic sampler, Escalante attracts adventuresome hikers and four-wheel-drive explorers. Few services and facilities are available yet inside the monument.
I-70 is the only paved road accessing the spectacular scenery of the San Rafael Swell, Utah's most inaccessible wilderness area. We've done the drive in both directions, and strongly urge you to go west to east for the most dramatic impact. There are numerous scenic turnouts on the 100-mile route between Salina and Green River, but no services, so be sure to top off the gas tank before crossing the reefs.
Utah state parks accept advance reservations. Call tel. 800/322-3770 or 801/322-3770 weekdays between 8am and 5pm mountain time. For Utah national forests reservations, call tel. 877/444-6777; www.recreation.gov.
Hitting the Highlights
The roads are generally very good in Utah, so you'll be able to move along as briskly as necessary, except when the first snow begins to fall in late October or early November. The highlights could be covered in as little as 7 days, but you'd have very little time to hike and explore.
Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks require a minimum of a full day each, with 2 days in each allowing time to hike a bit as well.
RVers who choose not to take the tunnel route from Zion to Bryce can return to I-15, make the short detour into Kolob Canyons from the interstate, then exit at Cedar City to drive through Cedar Breaks and along Route 143 past Panguitch Lake, a very scenic route, before turning south on U.S. 89 to connect with Route 12 to Bryce.
Although geology buffs will enjoy the dead-end scenic drive that delves more deeply into Capitol Reef National Park, travelers pressed for time can skip it. But everyone should take the time to drive into the orchards and campground area at Fruita, as well as make roadside stops along the way at the old schoolhouse and the cliff petroglyphs.
If time permits, swing south from the junction at Hanksville to drive Bicentennial Highway, which allows you a good look at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area at Hites Crossing and a visit to Natural Bridges National Monument. Otherwise, head north to I-70 and take U.S. 191 south at exit 180 to drop down in Moab, Arches, and Canyonlands.
Allow a full day each for Arches, The Needles, and Islands in the Sky, adding to the latter a side detour into Dead Horse Point State Park.
Going for the Long Haul
We ran across quite a few people in Utah who came out on a vacation and never went home, so consider yourself warned. One could certainly spend a long, happy season RVing, hiking, and biking in and around the public lands with an occasional hop into town to restock the larder, fill up with gas, top off the water, and dump the holding tanks.
Two weeks in each park or national monument, taking into consideration the 14-day camping limit, would give plenty of time to explore, and a week or two on a houseboat in Lake Powell would provide pure pleasure. Add another 2 weeks at particularly scenic BLM areas, such as the Colorado River outside Moab, and you'll find an entire season filled with things to do.
The temporary employment scene in Moab is usually active, so full-timers can find seasonal shops looking for clerks and restaurants hiring waiters. In winter, ski areas are good sources of seasonal employment.
When to Go: Any time of year, some part of Utah is in its prime. In winter, skiers flock to "the greatest snow on earth," Utah's champagne powder. Most of its dozen major ski areas are clustered to the east of Salt Lake City, but Brian Head ski resort, nearly 10,000 feet with a long snow season, is 12 miles off I-15 at Parowan, near Cedar City. St. George in the southwest's Dixie area is mild in winter. Fall and spring are the ideal times for RVers to visit Utah's national parks; summer is hot in the lower elevations, but cooler at Brian Head, Cedar Breaks, and Bryce Canyon. All the national parks, however, are jam-packed in summer with Americans and Europeans.
What to Take: Sunblock, a sun hat, good walking or hiking shoes, an adequate supply of favorite spirits, a camera, and if you're still using film, take at least twice as much as you'd expect to use, or make sure you have enough memory for your digital camera (it's that photogenic!).
What to Wear: Take layered clothing for all of Utah's parks. In late fall and winter, you'll want heavy parkas and boots or shoes with snow-safe treads. We encountered considerable snow in mid-October at Bryce Canyon and Cedar Breaks, while Zion, Canyonlands, Arches, and Capitol Reef still had sunny, shirtsleeve weather. In summer's heat, natural fibers help absorb perspiration.
Trimming Costs on the Road
As a state, Utah is much less expensive than many, although sparsely settled southern Utah does not offer frequent or varied shopping opportunities. Keep your larder well stocked and your gas and water tanks topped off when venturing into less-traveled territory.
With so much of southern Utah's most scenic terrain under Bureau of Land Management (BLM) administration, RVers will find some no-fee undeveloped campsites where camping is permitted under the following conditions: Camping in one site is limited to 14 days; campers must pack out all trash; campfires may not be left unattended; and camping is not permitted within 300 feet of springs or ponds so that water is accessible to wildlife. Self-contained RVs meet with BLM's regulations as long as dumping of gray or black water takes place only in designated sanitary dump stations and never on the ground. Call the BLM in Salt Lake City for information at tel. 801/539-4001; www.ut.blm.gov/salt_lake.