The days are getting shorter, there’s a hint of snow in the forecast and ski resorts fewer 40 days away from opening. Still, the specter of shoulder season’s doldrums looms. Don’t cower under a blanket and succumb to a Netflix binge, because shoulder season just so happens to be desert season! These three desert getaways near SLC all feature the warm weather and unique geology Utah’s desert landscapes are known for but with shorter drive times and fewer crowds than the Fab Five National Parks.
Vernal is oft overlooked as an oil and gas town with dinosaur statues along on Main Street that’s on the way to Colorado. It’s also a sneaky good desert destination for families and adventurers of all types.
Drive Time from SLC: 3 Hours
Ride: The Mountain Bike trails at McCoy Flats are right off U.S. 40 on the outskirts of Vernal. The trails there replicate the chunky, rock-strewn character of Moab’s Mag 7 trail system with punchy climbs, ledge-filled descents and Dali-esque red rock formations. Slippery When Wet is a must hit for all riders intermediate and above. There’s dispersed BLM camping in the area for those looking to slumber near the trails.
Hike: The Dinosaur Trackway hike into Red Fleet State Park is a relatively easy 1.7 mile out on back hike along slick rock and through desert washes. As the name implies, there’s numerous spots to see dinosaur tracks along the route. The turnaround point is Red Fleet Reservoir, where you can take a dip if the weather’s warm enough.
Check Out: Nearby Dinosaur National Monument straddles the Utah and Colorado border at the confluence of the Green and Yampa Rivers. Hike trails along exposed rock walls while searching for fossils and petroglyphs, and be sure to check out the “Wall of Bones” dinosaur quarry. Hundreds of fossils have been chipped away at and are visible embedded in the steeply-tilted quarry wall.
Eat Pizza: Antiqua Forma’s artisan, wood-fired pizzas are a delicacy you wouldn’t expect to find tucked into the same building as the Dinosaur Inn. A couple slices from here will hit the spot after a day exploring the trails around Vernal.
Best known as the home to Southern Utah University and the Utah Shakespeare Festival, Cedar City is an underutilized recreation destination that’s an easy drive south of Salt Lake City.
Drive Time from SLC: 3.5 Hours
Ride: The Iron Hills trail system is accessible right off I-15 in Cedar City. The iron lending its name to the area is present in high quantities in the soil as well, resulting deep red colors throughout the trails. The Greens Lake Trail features berms and flow you won’t usually find in the desert.
Hike: Cedar Breaks National Monument may not be a secret, but there’s a reason it’s such an attraction. Hike out the Spectra Point Trail. The full trail is a 1.9 mile out and back with stunning vistas from Spectra Point, but if you’re feeling a bit more leisurely you can see incredible views of the amphitheater just a few hundred yards from the parking lot at Point Supreme Overlook.
Check Out: Frontier Homestead State Park Museum features pioneer artifacts from when early Mormon settlers attempted to create an iron industry in the area. See historic cabins, horse-drawn vehicles and farm implements and the ruins of Old Iron Town.
Eat Pizza: Centro Woodfired Pizzeria uses traditional Italian methods to crank out delicious thin-crust pies along with gourmet salads and an impressive wine and beer selection.
Most cars pass right by Price on the way to Moab or the San Rafael Swell, but there’s a lot to do in Price itself. It’s close enough to Salt Lake City that ambitious folks can make a day trip out of it.
Drive Time from SLC: 2 Hours
Ride: Luke’s Loop is a nice intermediate singletrack trail that starts right off 900 N in Price in the Wood Hill Mountain Bike Trail system. A few technical sections and expansive views of the surrounding Book Cliffs will keep you on your toes. Add on Allen’s Alley for a little extra distance and keep an eye out for the Tin Can Man.
Hike: Nine Mile Canyon is just a few miles from Price and is home to thousands of Native American petroglyphs. Many people take a driving tour through Nine Mile Canyon, but you can stretch your legs at sites throughout the Canyon’s fifty-plus miles and link together short hikes to see historic rock art.
Check Out: Just up the road in the nearby town of Helper—named for the helper engines formerly housed there to help get freight trains over the pass—is the world’s tallest coal miner. “Big John” is as tall as a two story building and is every bit as impressive as promised in the Jimmy Dean song.
Eat Pizza: Big Don’s Pizza is there to help you indulge your more esoteric tastes. Their extensive specialty pizza menu features enough options like Kaluan Pig and the Toninator to steer you away from the section they’ve titled “Boring Classics.”
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