Upheaval Dome, photo by Fang Guo
In summer, Southern Utah competes with Death Valley for “Worst Place to Run Out of Water.” Visitors to Canyonlands and Arches find themselves on a death march through all-too-aptly named regions like Fiery Furnace and Devil’s Garden, armed only with a couple bottles of precious water, a granola bar, a sombrero and the burning question, “What the hell was I thinking?”
Make no mistake: A poorly planned day hike can turn deadly.
But in March and April, when mushy snow has taken the joy out of Wasatch skiing, the wise head south. They know that on into June, the daytime temperature in Utah’s breathtaking national-park zone bounces between a comfortable 65 and 82 degrees, and at night seldom drops below freezing, making spring the perfect red rock camping and trekking season.
So, now’s the time to pack up shorts, a down vest, stout shoes and a good sleeping bag and head south. To guide your vernal exodus, here are some of the highlights in Utah’s hot spots:
Upheaval Dome, by Fang Guo
There are two main theories to explain why Upheaval Dome is so drastically different from all the other wild formations in Canyonlands. One proposes a giant salt bubble in the stone dissolved, leaving behind a three-mile-wide hole in the ground. The other blames a massive meteor strike for the enormous geological oddity. Whatever the cause, the end result is a formation that sticks out like thoughtful dialogue in a Michael Bay film.
You can reach the folded layers of the 170 million-year-old crater with a quick, two-mile (out and back) walk from the overlook trailhead, found in the Island in the Sky section of the park. With only 50 feet of elevation gain from the parking lot to Upheaval’s warped walls, even those who prefer watching an episode of Planet Earth to the ardors of the outdoors will be impressed by the visuals and how easy it was to reach them. Those looking for the 360-degree experience can follow the Syncline Loop around the entire structure, though this eight-mile loop is considerably more strenuous, and boasts a 1,300-foot gain.
The Maze District, photo by Mike Renlund
Backpacker magazine rates The Maze as “the most dangerous hike in America,” but despite this hyperbole the region has a near-perfect survival rate. Perhaps it’s the intimidating reputation of this 300,000-acre labyrinth that accounts for its pristine safety record, as it frightens off all but the most hyperbolically experienced hikers to safer attractions.
Less than 3 percent of Canyonland's roughly 500,000 annual visitors ever make it deep enough into the park to gaze at the distinctive Chocolate Drops up close, or scramble into the disorienting warren of stone corridors. Exploring the The Maze can be done solely on foot, but four-wheel-drive vehicles are highly recommended due to the remote—it's a three- to six-hour off-road drive from Hans Flat Ranger Station (itself a lonely outpost)—nature of the canyons and the summer temperatures. Early spring is the perfect time to sidestep the heat, but nature has left behind plenty of other hurdles to protect this beauty from all but the dedicated elite.
Devil's Garden, photo by Ronnie Macdonald
The longest maintained trail in Arches National Park is also its most spectacular. In roughly three to five hours, hikers can follow the moderate 7.2 mile loop to eight different arches, the recently collapsed Wall Arch, the Dark Angel monolith and Fin Canyon. In hiking economics, the sheer density of features here will give visitors the maximum return for a minimal physical investment.
This ratio can also makes Devil's Garden a crowded experience, since popular features like Landscape Arch, the longest natural arch in the world, can be found among the myriad of other wind-carved hoodoos. Hit the trailhead early to beat the masses and the heat, and don't forget the $10 entrance fee (per vehicle) to the park.