A few years ago, two hikers set off from I-15 in southern Utah to walk to Moab. It took them
123 days. I recommend driving.
You can fly into Moab, but its expensive. Salt Lake City is the closest major gateway and
the trip to Canyonlands, about 4 hours to several days, is impressively scenic.
The fastest route is I-15 south to US 6 east to I-70 east to US 191 south. The scenery on this
route features the trip over the Wasatch Mtn. Range and the desert landscape east of the Wasatch.
From Helper to I-170, the long mesa on the left is the Book Cliffs. You will be impressed with
the isolation of Canyonlands, but Canyonlands is nothing compared to the Book Cliffs, perhaps
the most isolated place in the country. A side roads off US 6 ends in less than 20 miles at a ranch
house. 60 years ago the rancher discovered the largest prehistoric Indian ruins in North America
on one corner of his ranch. Fifty years later he donated the land to the State Archeologist. That
was the first the world knew of his discovery. For a half a century, nobody else came across this
Desolation Canyon is in the Book Cliffs. Desolation Canyon is 2/3 the size of the Grand Canyon
and a mile deep. That’s big. Did you ever hear of Desolation Canyon? The closest road
access(dirt) ends 35 miles from the canyon rim.
Zipping along at 65 mph for 84 miles along the base of the Book Cliffs in your air conditioned
car with MP3 player, cell phone, and laptop, look over at the Book Cliffs and reflect on the
vastness of nature with Ozymandias, "gaze on my works ye mighty and despair."
The problem with US 6 is that it is a very dangerous road, the number one killer in Utah because
the State Legislature would rather see people slaughtered in head on collisions than raise the gas
tax to make it an expressway.
Safer, but less scenic and a bit longer is to take I-70 south to US 50 to I-70 east. The Book Cliffs
are on the left after passing the intersection with US 6 on I-70.
Another pleasant alternative that misses the most dangerous half of Rt 6 is to leave Salt Lake
City on I-80 east to US 40 east to US 191 south. If you do this in early October, stop at the
Strawberry Visitor’s center to see the salmon run.
After US 40 passes Strawberry Reservoir (the big lake on the right), it climbs a hill. There is
usually a Beaver Dam in the little stream along right side of the road on the downhill trip. If the
front seat passenger watches closely, he should spot it. I can spot it while driving, but I know
what to look for. Do you?
From Las Vegas
I-15 to UT Rt 9 to US Rt 89 to UT Rt 12 to UT Rt 24 to I-70 to US 191 to Canyonlands.
This trip is described in detail below. Its about 460 miles. It can be done in one long day, but
that would be a big mistake.
From Salt Lake City
I-15 south to US 50 south to UT 24 to I-70 east to US 191 south. UT 24 is a scenic road
whose highlights, and these are impressive, are Capitol Reef National Park and the badlands just
east of Capitol Reef. Canyonlands is a hole in the surface of the Colorado Plateau. Capitol Reef
is an odd rock formation 100 miles long on top of the Colorado Plateau. Rt 24 goes through
Hanksville, a strong candidate for the title ‘arm pit of America’. Hanksville is at the intersection
of UT 24 and UT 95. Don’t blink or you will miss it. Hanksville’s economy depends on a gas
station, a couple motels at the intersection, and 240 cows on small ranches. A few years ago, the
river running through Capitol Reef flooded and wiped out Hanksville’s irrigation canals, without
which the 240 cows can’t live. The Federal government gave Hanksville $5,000,000 to rebuild
the canals. And you thought Kobe Beef was expensive! Four years later, every Republican
member of Utah’s Congressional delegation who engineered this pork barrel voted against Pres.
Obama’s economic stimulus package.
From Las Vegas
Drive over to Lake Mead and follow the road along the lake to Valley of Fire State Park–
well worth a visit– and then to I-15. Near the Arizona-Utah border, I-15 runs through the very
scenic Virgin River Gorge, so rugged that I-15 is the first road to go through the gorge.
Unfortunately, there is only one parking area in the gorge, near the north end and mostly out of
the really scenic stuff.
Somewhere north of Las Vegas, the scenery changes from the Mojave Desert to the Colorado
Plateau. Neatly shown on maps, these places in reality merge into each other in a messy fashion.
The Valley of Fire has elements of both, but when you come out of the Virgin River Gorge, you
are definitely on the Colorado Plateau, 135,000 sq. miles of the most scenic landscapes in the
world. Local slang for the Colorado Plateau is "red rock country", and you will soon know why.
Turn right, east, on UT Rt 9 just north of St George. This is one of the world’s most scenic
roads, especially when driven in the other direction, which you can do on your return to Las
Vegas. Rt 9 cuts through spectacular Zion National Park– stay at least for day.
Rt 9 ends at US 89, another scenic road at Mt Carmel Jct. Go north, left, to UT Rt 12(see
review of) which rivals Rt 9 for spectacular scenery. Twenty miles down Rt 12 is the turnoff for
Bryce Canyon National Park, requiring five hours for a quick visit. Back on Rt 12 going east, the
road crosses the vast and desolate Grand Staircase- Escalante National Monument. Rt 12 joins
UT Rt 24 just before Capitol Reef National Park (see above for the rest of the trip).
The shortest way back to Las Vegas is to reverse this drive, but if that is what you are going to
do, make this modification when going to c*. Stay on I-15 past Rt 9 for another 50 miles to UT
Rt 14, another scenic route, although not in the same league as Rts 12 and 9, which goes by
Cedar Breaks National Monument and joins US 89 about 25 miles from Rt 12. Then return via
Rt 9, to go in the direction on Rt 9 that has the best views (east to west).
This trip can be done in about seven days, minimum, or you can spend the better part of lifetime
For a longer return from Canyonlands head south on US 191 through Monument Valley, perhaps
with a 60 miles detour to see the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park to Petrified Wood
National Park and then across the Navajo Reservation to the Grand Canyon National Park, then
across Hoover dam and to Las Vegas.
This is a long haul, but a pleasantly scenic mountain drive. Head west on I-70 from the
Denver airport– I recommend skipping Denver, a pretty dull place, in favor of spending more
time visiting the outstanding scenery in the Colorado mountains. Georgetown, about 50 miles
from the airport is an attractive well preserved old west mining town. Give it a look. Turn south
on scenic CO Rt 91 six miles west of Frisco to US 285 to US 50 west The Black Canyon of the
Gunnison National Park. Both the Black Canyon and Canyonlands are big holes in the ground,
but they are as different as different can be. At Montrose head south on US 550. In 20 miles at
the intersection CO 26 comes a dilemma. Here starts the loop road around the San Juan Mtns.,
one of the best mountain drives in North America. If you don’t have time for the whole loop,
which way to go? US 550 to Durango(home of the famed Silverton Train) is a bit more scenic,
but the other side of the loop enables a visit to Telluride. Whichever way you choose, at US
160, go see Mesa Verde National Park. Then contiune west on US 491 (until a few years ago,
this was US 666, but the right wing religious nuts got GW Bush to ban the "Devil’s sign" as a
highway number). US 491, né 666, crosses the heart of the America’s pinto bean farms. North
on US 191 brings you to Canyonlands.
For the return to Denver, take scenic UT 126 just north of Moab to I-70 east to Denver, with a
visit to Colorado National Monument.