Southern Utah is arguably the most scenic area of the state. It is home to 7 state parks, 5 national parks, and many national monuments, forests, and rec areas. This area boasts the largest concentration of slot canyons and natural arches in the world. Arches National Park alone has over 2,000 documented ones. With all these unique geological features, it's no wonder that so many people flock to this region for hiking, backpacking, and general sightseeing.
Today, we're looking at some of the best southern Utah backpacking trails to get up close and personal with these natural wonders.
Featured Photo: Reflection Canyon Sunrise by Ken Xu
Looking to make the most of your time at Canyonlands National Park? This 32-mile, 3-day loop is your best bet. Plus, you won't have to worry about spotting a car or setting up a shuttle! This trip is leisurely, allowing for extra time to explore. The path takes you past several geological highlights, including Devils Kitchen and Druid Arch. You can also add a spur to Peekaboo Arch. (Just a few miles extra.) On top of that, you'll hike through a different canyon each day. So, the scenery is always changing!
Camping is allowed in designated areas only. Make sure to get your reservations early. A good map is also highly recommended. For more details, head over to our detailed Hike of the Week: Canyonlands article.
Coyote Gulch Loop
Located in the Glen Canyon Rec Area, this short 13.5-mile trip is great for a quick overnight. This trail features towering rock faces and even a small waterfall, an unusual find in the desert. Other features include Coyote Natural Bridge, Crack in the Wall, and Jacob Hamblin Arch. (The best camping spots are near the latter.) Be sure to bring some rope to lower your pack down through Crack in the Wall. That should give you an idea of how tight it is. It's also worth noting that there are several areas where walking through water is unavoidable. Looking for a longer trip? There are several trails in this area to extend your stay.
Ready to immerse yourself in everything Zion NP has to offer? The 47-mile Trans-Zion Trek takes most people 3-5 days to complete. It offers a mix of all the park has to share, including “creeks, desert, meadows, pine forests, and sprawling views from rim tops”. Make time for side trips to Kolob Arch and the duly popular Angels Landing. Expect several hard days, especially the steep incline in and out of Zion Canyon.
A shuttle is needed for this trail. It's located in a remote area of the park. You will have plenty of privacy, but you should also be prepared with plenty of water and a good map.
Owl Creek-Fish Creek Loop
Need a quick getaway, but still want something challenging? This 17-mile overnight is perfect for that. Or, set a leisurely pace and stay two nights to enjoy the stark beauty longer. This route is also great if you're looking to avoid the crowds at nearby Grand Gulch. The downfall is that the trail is not maintained. Again, be familiar with reading maps. (There are rock cairns too, but those can be unreliable.)
The Owl Creek-Fish Creek Loop follows a streambed. The valley is full of juniper, prickly pear, and yucca. Major highlights include excellent views of Cedar Mesa, Neville's Arch (and several other unnamed ones), and ancient Puebloan cliff dwellings and rock paintings. Small springs are found along the way, so fill up when you can. There are some long stretches without any water.
Buckskin Gulch/Paria Canyon
Want to explore the longest slot canyon in the U.S.? Prepare for a 44-mile, 4-day trip in the remote Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness. There are all kinds of neat geological features along the way. These include petroglyphs and fossils, beautiful orange, yellow, and purple canyon walls, and plenty of nooks and crannies to explore. (Be prepared for some boulder scrambling in a couple of spots too!) You could also add a side trip to Wrather Arch.
It's very important to check flash flood warnings ahead of time. You will be traveling along a river bed. Several freshwater springs are available to fill up at. There are a limited amount of permits, so plan accordingly. Check out our full article on Buckskin Gulch / Paria Canyon for more details.
Bullet Canyon to Grand Gulch
Sure, we mentioned above that Grand Gulch can become crowded, but it's still a great hike. Like most areas, you can get to these highlights several different ways. Most range between 14 and 20 miles round-trip. You could get this done as an overnight, but you'll likely want to spend more time exploring all the area has to offer.
Grand Gulch is one of the most popular hiking destinations in southern Utah. Looking for more than the stunning scenery of the sandstone cliffs rising above you and the pinon-juniper covered valleys? Grand Gulch is an archaeology lover's dream too. Many Anasazi cliff dwellings and art are found here. Bullet Canyon, which is an off-shoot of Grand Gulch, houses Perfect Kiva and Jailhouse Ruin. Several other ruins, including some granaries, are found along the way too.
This iconic spot in the Glen Canyon Rec Area has gained popularity over the past decade or two. You've likely seen pictures of this secluded section of Lake Powell, winding through the multi-colored canyon walls. The journey is about 20 miles, but difficult. Lengths vary as there is no set trail. This is also a good reason to make sure your wayfinding skills are on par! The route offers great views of Navajo Mountain. Reflection Canyon itself is a magnificent backdrop for sunsets and sunrises. Be sure to take a camera!
Permits are free, but you'll still need to get one at the Escalante Visitor Center. It's also one of the few trails you can bring your K-9 friend along. There is no water at all, though, so make sure you bring plenty, even if it's just you.
Under the Rim Trail
Bryce Canyon is another popular national park in the region. This 23-mile trail gives you a different view of the park than most see. The park is famous for its tall rock spires, known as hoodoos. You'll get an up-close and personal look at these unique geologic anomalies. Other highlights include Hat Shop (white-capped hoodoos), Natural Bridge, and the popular Bryce Point. The campgrounds near Yellow Creek are shaded, forested spots. Nice for a break and water, at the least. The trail also offers unique views of the “amphitheater”. You'll also find that the scenery is very different and lusher than other areas of southern Utah.
There are many access points if you need to bail along the way. You will also need to spot a vehicle for the end of your journey.
If you're looking for more hike ideas, read our "Best Backpacking Trips in the Desert Southwest" roundup post. Also, the following “Hike of the Week” articles cover other great hikes in the region.
For even more amazing backpacking trips, visit The Trailhead, our interactive hike map. It contains a curated list of dozens of hikes, each with a detailed write-up.
Finally, check out our comprehensive list of backpacking articles that cover just about everything there is to know about backpacking. If you're just starting out, our Backpacking 101 section covers all the basics. If you already have a few trips under your belt, you can find more advanced topics covered in our Expert Articles.