Road Trip: Utah Canyon Country

Zion National Park
Zion National Park, Veer Images
Three days, four parks, and lots of ice cream: A road trip through southern Utah.
Canyonlands, Photograph by Ty Milford
Canyonlands, Photograph by Ty Milford

"If the sheriff catches up with us, we'll have to ditch the loot," I tell my kids, as they peer out the car windows at the desert landscape.

My son, Cooper, gives me a puzzled look.

"We're on the lam," I say, pointing out the rock buttes on either side of us. "Like in a Wild West movie."

They've never seen a Wild West movie. They're only four.

"No, Dad," says my daughter, Addie. "It looks like Radiator Springs in Cars!"

I'm not proud that Pixar is their only reference point for this dramatic terrain, but I can't fault the analogy. It does look just like Lightning McQueen's stomping ground.

My wife, Liz, and I dove into this road trip through southern Utah in an effort to give our kids something more than a movie-screen taste of America's iconic West. At first, I kept pushing for more adventure ("Look, honey, the Grand Canyon is only 110 miles away!"), while Liz countered that happiness hinges on moderation, especially in desert excursions with 4-year-old twins. In the end, we kept it simple: three days, four parks, and lots of ice cream -- all within a five-hour drive of Moab. Here's how we did it.

Originally published in the August 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

Arches National Park, Photograph by Ty Milford
Arches National Park, Photograph by Ty Milford

Arches National Park

Some of the Arches trails are surprisingly kid-friendly -- short and flat, with massive boulders and lizards scurrying around the rocks ($10 per car; 435-719-2299; nps.gov/arch). The park is famous for its arid landscape and more than 2,000 red rock arches. We chose the 1.6-mile round-trip to Landscape Arch, a skinny, 290-foot-long formation that Addie said looked like a rainbow.

We packed a ridiculous amount of water and stopped every couple of minutes to rehydrate because we didn't want to end up on the news as the parents who dragged their kids into the desert with only a can of Coke to share. We also made the kids wear wide-brimmed hats, quick-drying shirts, and those zip-off hiking pants. They looked ready for big-game hunting in Africa.

Originally published in the August 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

A wall of old license plates at Hole N" the Rock, Photograph by Ty Milford
A wall of old license plates at Hole N" the Rock, Photograph by Ty Milford

Moab

Our first stop in town was the Moab Diner, a 1950s-themed restaurant with kitschy decor, where we indulged in massive ice cream sundaes (435-259-4006; moabdiner.com).

I was convinced the kids needed to experience sleeping in the desert, so we spent the night in Oak Grove Campground on Highway 128, one of 29 Moab campgrounds operated by the Bureau of Land Management ($15 a night; 435-259-2100). As I set up the tent in the dark, Liz read me TripAdvisor descriptions of the hotels just down the road, such as Red Cliffs Lodge, whose rooms and cabins sounded increasingly tempting (from $239 a night; 435-259-2002; redcliffslodge.com).

Overnight, sand found its way into every crevice, and Liz spent the wee hours worrying about snakes. But we woke up near the Colorado River, with rose-colored bluffs rising high on either side of us, and started our day with a cold dip (check that off the Life List). We followed it up with a lazy breakfast at Peace Tree Juice Café, which features excellent smoothies (435-259-0101; peacetreecafe.com). Had we an hour to spare, we might have popped down to Hole N" the Rock (the unusual punctuation is theirs), a quirky underground home and tourist shop.

Originally published in the August 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

A short hike offers big rewards on the Mesa Arch Trail in Canyonlands National Park, Photograph by Ty Milford
A short hike offers big rewards on the Mesa Arch Trail in Canyonlands National Park, Photograph by Ty Milford

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands is a collection of buttes and plateaus rising 1,000 feet above the surrounding desert ($10 per car; 435-719-2100; nps.gov/cany). The park is split by the Colorado and Green Rivers into three distinct sections, of which Island in the Sky is the easiest to get to and the most appealing for families. We knocked out a quick half-mile hike to Mesa Arch, a sandstone semicircle that clings to the edge of a cliff overlooking a deep canyon -- the view was stunning. We took a family photo standing in front of the arch on the rim of the plateau.

Originally published in the August 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

On the rocks by the Colorado River, Photograph by Ty Milford
On the rocks by the Colorado River, Photograph by Ty Milford

Dead Horse Point State Park

Just 20 minutes east of Canyonlands sits Dead Horse Point, a peninsular mesa perched above a 2,000-foot-deep canyon, carved by the Colorado River, that could substitute for the Grand Canyon in a pinch. We spent almost an hour peering into what was surely the deepest hole my kids had ever seen. The East Rim Trail along the mesa's edge offers views of the river and canyon below and gave my kids a chance to examine desert flora and scramble up boulders ($10 per car; 435-259-2614; deadhorsepoint.utah.gov).

Originally published in the August 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

Prickly flora in the desert, Photograph by Ty Milford
Prickly flora in the desert, Photograph by Ty Milford

Springdale

The thought of taking back roads from Moab to Springdale, a funky gateway town on the edge of Zion National Park, was enticing (as was the idea of a stop at Capitol Reef National Park), but we opted for the quicker (five-hour) shot down I-70 and I-15. They actually felt like back roads, with few rest stops and plenty of Radiator Springs-like scenery. We pulled into Springdale just in time to eat at Bumbleberry Inn, which serves ice cream and sweet pie made from fresh, local bumbleberries (800-828-1534; bumbleberry.com). Liz was finally able to talk some sense into me, and instead of camping, we took a room at La Quinta Inn & Suites Zion Park-Springdale, about a mile from the park, with a great pool (from $199 a night; 435-627-5280; lq.com).

Originally published in the August 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

Zion National Park, Veer Images
Zion National Park, Veer Images

Zion National Park

We entered Zion through a broad valley bordered by rock monoliths and massive sandstone cliffs. It looked like a more colorful version of Yosemite ($25 per car; 435-772-3256; nps.gov/zion). My son thought I'd made up the word monolith and said it over and over as we drove along the Virgin River, where families drifted downstream in brightly colored tubes. If the kids had been older, we might have tried The Narrows, a famous hike through a shallow river between sheer, sandstone cliffs. Instead, we headed for the Canyon Overlook Trail and discovered a cave with colorful hanging gardens. When the heat proved too much, we headed back to the river, where we found a quiet pool and splashed and looked for fish -- until it was time for more ice cream.

Originally published in the August 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each hotel and attraction for up-to-date rates and information before taking your trip.

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