5 Great Southwest Hiking Trips You Can Take This Spring (Even If You Haven’t Planned Ahead)
By Michael Lanza
The Grand Canyon. The Narrows in Zion National Park. Paria Canyon. The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. These are among the best backpacking trips in the Southwest—arguably in the country. But their renown demands that you plan those trips and apply for a backcountry permit months in advance. If you haven’t done that already, you’re likely out of luck for ticking off one of them this spring. But there are lesser-known, gorgeous hiking and backpacking trips you can still take in the Southwest this spring, even if you’re only getting around to planning a trip right now. Here are five of my favorites.
With a week or more of time, you can combine some of these parks in a multi-adventure tour of the Southwest. Enjoy.
Arches National Park
Many of the biggest and most fascinating of the more than 2,000 catalogued arches in Arches National Park can be seen on short dayhikes, making it very friendly to young families and adults who can’t walk very far—like the Windows Section’s North and South Windows, Turret Arch, and Double Arch. The Devils Garden hosts the park’s largest, 306-foot-long Landscape Arch, and numerous others that can be seen without hiking far. But you can also explore a little deeper into Devils Garden, beyond where most dayhikers venture, to quieter corners harboring the very cool Navajo and Partition arches.
Tip: Time your visits to extremely popular Delicate Arch for sunset, and Balanced Rock for a dark, starry night.
Canyonlands National Park
Erosional forces working over unfathomable gulfs of time formed the bizarre towers and cliffs of The Needles District of Canyonlands; but it looks more like the work of giant children squeezing mud from their fists. With its trail network and backcountry campsites, the Needles is the district of Canyonlands most conducive to backpacking. But much of this area can be explored on easy to moderate dayhikes, including the 7.5-mile loop up Big Spring Canyon and down Squaw Canyon from Big Flat campground, and the 11-mile, out-and-back hike to spectacular Chesler Park. The Island in the Sky District has more trails for dayhikes high above the canyons of the Colorado and Green rivers.
Arches and Canyonlands can be explored from campgrounds in either park or the Moab area or a variety of lodging options in Moab.
See my story “No Straight Lines: Backpacking and Hiking in Canyonlands and Arches National Parks,” and all of my stories about Arches and Canyonlands national parks at The Big Outside.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon’s sea of hoodoos—the multi-colored, limestone, sandstone, and mudstone spires that look like giant, melting candles—is one of the most unique geological features of the Southwest. The park’s location between Zion National Park and parks farther north along Utah Highway 12—one of America’s most-scenic roads—makes it a must-do stop for a dayhike or even a half-day hike during a multi-day road trip. Bryce’s relatively short Navajo Loop/Queens Garden Loop is popular for good reason, with constant views of hoodoos. Combine it with the less-traveled Peek-a-Boo Loop for a six-mile hike and you lose the crowds—and discover the scenic heart of Bryce Canyon while hiking below the Wall of Windows and row after row of towers in fluorescent shades of red and orange.
See my picks and a day-by-day itinerary for ticking off the Best Dayhikes in the Southwest.
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Capitol Reef National Park
One of the largely overlooked gems of the National Park System, situated between more-famous Zion and Bryce national parks to the southwest and Arches to the east, Capitol Reef sees a fraction of the visitors that flood those other parks. So few people venture into the backcountry that you can show up at the visitor center’s backcountry desk on the day you want to start a multi-day trip and grab a free permit, no reservation needed. But Capitol Reef harbors scenery that compares with its more famous neighbors. So with little advance planning, you can explore Capitol Reef on dayhikes or short backpacking trips.
See my stories “Plunging Into Solitude: Dayhiking, Slot Canyoneering, and Backpacking in Capitol Reef,” “Playing the Memory Game in Southern Utah’s Escalante, Capitol Reef, and Bryce Canyon,” and all of my stories about Capitol Reef National Park at The Big Outside.
Hike all of my “10 Best Backpacking Trips in the Southwest.”
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
The Escalante holds more natural wonders than a person might be able to explore in a long and active life. So start anywhere you want and just keep going back. My family and another spent part of a weeklong Southwest trip there a few years ago, backpacking three days through Coyote Gulch—one of the more family- and beginner-friendly canyon country backpacking trips, and a beauty (see this photo gallery)—and dayhiking a pair of classic slot canyons, Peek-a-Boo Gulch and Spooky Gulch (watch this video). And you can just show up and knock off any of those hikes, as well as explore deeper into the Escalante area, without having to jump through any permitting hoops.
Go to my All Trips By State page and scroll down to Arizona and Utah for a menu of all stories at The Big Outside about adventures in those states.
Do you like The Big Outside? I’m Michael Lanza, the creator of The Big Outside, recognized as a top outdoors blog by USA Today, a Trip Advisor site, and others. Subscribe for updates about new stories and free gear giveaways by entering your email address in the box at the top of the left sidebar or on my About page, and follow my adventures on Facebook and Twitter.
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