By Susan Taylor

Where in the world is San Juan County? Not the San Juan Islands in Washington State, not San Juan, Puerto Rico, and not the San Juan Mountains in Colorado – although they’re close.

This San Juan is in Utah’s Canyon Country – the southeast corner of the state, and one of the most interesting and diverse geographic areas in the world. From mountain peaks of nearly 3,962 metres to desert canyons at 914 metres, from high desert farm land to mesa top and cliff dwelling ruins of the Ancestral Puebloan people who once thrived here, San Juan County is unique.

Recreational opportunities abound. Hike stellar trails, camp in hidden canyons, run the river, bicycle challenging or fun routes, drive scenic byways and backways, enjoy off road adventure, and experience the world’s greatest outdoor museum. The place might be slightly out of the way but aren’t the very best things found where you least expect them?

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park Mesa ArchTsai Project (CCby2.0)

A good place to begin your journey is in Canyonlands National Park.

Wild, remote and exquisitely beautiful, Canyonlands offers even the casual visitor a wilderness experience. The Needles District of the park contains hiking trails and 4WD roads into quiet canyons or paved roads to sweeping vistas of the park’s warped red rock landscape. A well-stocked visitor centre and knowledgeable staff can assist with sight-seeing, hiking, biking, or 4 wheeling. 

And just down the road from Canyonlands, you’ll find Canyon Rims Recreation Area. Immense and diverse, Canyon Rims offers scenic overlooks accessible by highway vehicle, OHV trails, hiking and bicycle routes and rock climbing venues. In addition to recreational uses, visitors may also see livestock, wildlife and mineral development in the area. Easily accessible overlooks give way to more difficult routes like that into Beef Basin where 4-wheel-drive is necessary.

Lockhart Basin, directly below the popular Needles Overlook provides one of the most challenging 4 wheel drive routes in Canyon Country. Penetration into the area is for the stalwart and prepared visitor, but viewing the scenery from the signed overlooks is accessible to almost everyone on the paved route to Needles Overlook. 

Newspaper Rock Recreation Area

Newspaper Rock Recreation AreaBob Wick, Bureau of Land Management

Included in Canyon Rims is Newspaper Rock Recreation Area where rock art representing many cultures and time periods covers a sheltered cliff face. Some of the carvings date from 1,500 years ago while others were placed there at the turn of the 20th century.

The images include animals, figures riding horses and broad shouldered figures with elaborate head decoration. Some of the images are hiding among others, some are prominent and easy to see, but all are an enduring record of people who lived here long ago and passed through this narrow canyon 

Manti La Sal National Forest

Nearby Newspaper Rock you’ll find the Manti La Sal National Forest (Abajo Mountains). Sight-see, hike, bike, tour on your ATV, picnic, or camp under the stars in the National Forest where elevations climb to over 3,659 metres and offer a cool summer get-away. Fish in trout laden ponds and lakes, listen to the sighing of the wind in the tall fir and pine forest, watch for wildlife, or enjoy winter sports during snow season.

National Forest Service campgrounds offer comfortable spaces easily reached with all vehicles. 

Dark Canyon Wilderness Area

And if you really like exploring the mountain outback, head to Dark Canyon Wilderness Area.

A unique and colourful canyon system that begins on Elk Ridge at an elevation of 2,682 metres, Dark Canyon cuts through sandstone and limestone descending to the Colorado River at 1,128 metres. The higher elevations provide far-reaching views amid a forest dominated by ponderosa pine. As the canyon descends, both environment and vegetation change to desert.

The canyon system provides outstanding opportunities for backpacking or horse packing; the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and US Forest Service (USFS) provide permits for hiking and packing into the remote wilderness/primitive area.

Edge Of The Cedars State Park & Museum

edge of cedarsUtah’s Canyon Country/Stuart Smith

If something a little less adventurous is more to your liking Edge Of The Cedars State Park & Museum will fill the bill.

Hidden gems are found throughout Canyon Country and this museum is one of the best, offering an intimate look at the life of the ancient people who once thrived in this region, through both indoor and outdoor displays.

Exceptionally rare and well-preserved artifacts are the heart of the indoor exhibits, including a sash of macaw feathers from Mexico, an original kiva ladder and prehistoric knives and plates. Pots, bowls, pitchers and other items are beautifully interpreted. Walk along paths through the actual residence or climb down the ladder into the ceremonial chamber and imagine ancient celebrations.

The museum holds a wide array of events and activities like Native American dance, atlatl (throwing stick) contests and youth programs. An active changing exhibits program assures that every trip to Edge of the Cedars offers new experiences. 


Natural Bridges National Monument

sipapu bridgeUtah’s Canyon Country

Close by you’ll find Natural Bridges National Monument. Three of the world’s five largest natural stone bridges are in this park.

Trails descend from Bridge View Drive to each of the bridges: Kachina, heavy and massive, a powerful presence and youngest in geologic age, dominates the landscape from the canyon floor; Sipapu, middle aged and settled, is balanced and strong, its sturdy presence competent and utilitarian; and Owachomo, worn, graceful and elegant, all pretense eroded into simple lines, is the oldest of the three and delicately traces it fragile arc against the sky.

Follow a trail as it meanders along the canyon bottom through oak and cottonwood groves, connecting the three bridges and allowing you get close to each massive bridge. Scenic Bridge View Drive circumnavigates the park on the mesa. Overlooks along the drive allow views of each of the bridges.

Natural Bridges National Monument was named the world’s first International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association.

Rainbow Bridge National Monument

Rainbow Bridge National MonumentAndy Morffew (CC by 2.0)

Round out your bucket list of natural bridges with Rainbow Bridge National Monument, the world’s largest natural stone bridge.

Sheltered in Bridge Canyon leading from Navajo Mountain to Lake Powell, the bridge is easily accessible by boat from the lake and tours visit it daily. It can also be reached by foot from Navajo Mountain (26 kilometres). Hiking permits are required from the Navajo Nation. 

This trail is arduous and recommended for seasoned hikers. The best months to hike the trail are April, May, early June, September and October while a trip by boat is possible throughout the year.

Lake Powell/Glen Canyon

Lake Powell/Glen CanyonWolfgang Staudt (CCby2.0)

And since Rainbow Bridge is along the shore of Lake Powell/Glen Canyon you should experience the lake. Crystal blue juxtaposed with rusty red sandstone make Glen Canyon National Recreation Area/Lake Powell a delight in every season.

With over 2,880 kilometres of shoreline, there is no difficulty finding a place to dock your houseboat or fish below the towering canyon walls. Five marinas care for every need so you are free to explore the vast stretches and hidden canyons. Limited tours are available. 

Grand Gulch Primitive Area

Quite close to Natural Bridges National Monument is Grand Gulch Primitive Area, a special and fragile canyon system that offers a unique desert experience.

Hiking the 80-kilometre long canyon is extra ordinary as you glimpse the ruins and artifacts of the ancient ones who lived here long ago. Ruins and artifacts are present throughout the canyon representing the ancient Puebloan culture. Rock art abounds, both petroglyphs (pecked into the surface) and pictographs (painted on the surface) art can be found in Grand Gulch. Because the ruins and artifacts are so fragile, the area may be entered by BLM permit only. 

Goosenecks State Park

Goosenecks State ParkBureau of Land Management

Just off the edge of the mesa on which Grand Gulch is found is Goosenecks State Park. Out where the highways end lies an astonishing view of the great Goosenecks of the San Juan River.

The river flows 300 metres below the overlook winding almost 10 kilometres through the twists and turns of the ‘goosenecks’ at the same time flowing only 1.6 kilometres west toward its confluence with Lake Powell. Because the layers of the earth are exposed so clearly, the park provides an opportunity to study the earth’s skeleton.

The desert landscape reveals the underlying structure not easily seen where flora obscures the earth’s bones. Alhambra Rock, the Raplee Anticline, and a tantalizing hint of Monument Valley are all visible from the overlook. 

Valley of the Gods

Valley of the GodsBob Wick, Bureau of Land Management

Adjacent to Goosenecks State Park is Valley of the Gods.

Many travellers are familiar with the iconic vistas of Monument Valley, but few know that just up the road from the iconic Monument Valley is another mini-monument valley – Valley of the Gods.

Although smaller than it’s famous neighbour it shelters freestanding monoliths, delicate spires, and long rock “fins” rising from the valley floor toward the improbable blue of our southwestern sky. The monuments may be smaller than those in Monument Valley but they make up for that in colour and variation. And, best of all, you’re unlikely to see a tour bus on the scenic drive through the valley.

Valley of the GodsBob Wick, Bureau of Land Management 

Colourful canyons, rising mesas, sturdy buttes, and unique shapes are sculpted into the landscape and bear fanciful names – The Seven Sailors, Southern Lady, Rooster Butte, and Battleship Rock. Multi-coloured sandstone and other sedimentary rocks in subtle shades of pink, red, gold, orange, and purple are abundant on the 25-kilometre loop drive. The native surface road is accessible by high clearance vehicle. 

Hovenweep National Monument
hovenweekUtah’s Canyon Country/Oculus Media

Back up the road and a little east of Valley of the Gods is Hovenweep National Monument. Leave the hustle and bustle of modern life and embark upon a journey into the mysteries of the past.

For more than a century visitors have wondered why the round, square, and ‘D’ shaped towers were built in what is known today as the Four Corners region of the southwest. After seven centuries of weathering, the structures are still balanced atop huge boulders or perched on canyon rims.

Walk along the quiet, primitive trails and wonder what village life might have been like so long ago. The Hovenweep villages were part of a much larger ancestral Puebloan society that occupied the Four Corners region of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico until nearly 1300. The community consisted of pueblos near Blanding and Bluff as well as larger communities at what is now Mesa Verde National Park and Navajo National Monument. 

Four Corners Monument

The world changes south of Hovenweep where four states meet at one point. Four Corners Monument is the only place in the U.S.A. where four states share a common point. The Monument was originally surveyed and established by government surveyors and astronomers. This is the only place in the U.S. where a person can be in four states at one time and children love to twist themselves into funny shapes to do so. 

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

promise keptUtah’s Canyon Country/Anna Day

And last but by no means least is the quintessential western landmark – Monument Valley with its sweeping blue sky and impossibly free-standing sandstone monoliths. One of the most photographed places on earth, the valley attracts film-makers and photographers from around the world.

While the pictures are stunning, the soaring impact of the scenery can only be truly felt in person. A drive through the valley offers views of the most familiar formations. A guided trip into Navajo Tribal Park provides unique scenes and the opportunity to tour the deeper reaches of the valley. 


More Utah on Canadian Traveller: