Utah is covered by a blanket of remoteness. In any quadrant of the state, even along the Wasatch Front, you can conceivably strike out on foot, into the woods or desert, and find solitude. Hell, discovering a place absent of people is easy if you bushwhack far away from established trails, or beeline yourself to the furthest expanse of cactus and start exploring.
But you don’t have to be Everett Ruess astride a provisions-laden mule to put yourself in the middle of nowhere with only the sound of your breath for company. Utah is so vast, and in most places, unpopulated, that it’s easy to get away from the constant hum of connected, modern life. Best of all, you can get to Utah’s land-of-isolation in your own car.
Below are four locations in remote Utah that are easily reached by vehicle, have established trails, and are beautified by spectacular landscapes that attract those camera-clad hordes to our state. Except at these places, the hordes don’t exist. Of course there’s no guarantee you won’t see another soul in remote Utah, but if you time your trip right, and have a bit of luck, you may just find the solitude you seek.
Upper Muley Twist Canyon in Capitol Reef National Park
Upper Muley Twist Canyon is one of my all-time favorite hikes in Utah. It’s also the only time I’ve ever hiked in a national park and never saw another person the entire time. Although Capitol Reef enjoys its federal designation, the area is left mostly empty as tourists favor the more publicized parks like Zion or Arches. That’s good news for anyone who wants to enjoy national park-quality scenery and have it all to themselves. Upper Muley Twist Canyon will give you both scenery and solitude.
Sandy bottomed canyons, slickrock expanses, candy-colored red rock, several arches, and infinite views of the Waterpocket Fold and Grand Gulch all wait in Upper Muley Twist Canyon. The hiking can be more like a casual stroll at times, but the scenery and strange geologic features are the main reasons for exploring this section of Capitol Reef. In fact, you’ll find yourself standing in place more often than not as you constantly unholster your camera at every bend.
The hike itself is straightforward, even though there is no established trail. Upper Muley Twist is your guide as you walk the canyon floor for the first five miles. Arch hunting is the game here, as six of them line the west side of the canyon wall. Keep your eyes sharp, and try to find them all.
The flat, sandy stroll dramatically changes and some real hiking begins when the trail splits right and climbs up the side of the canyon. A sign that reads “Rim Trail” marks the way. “Trail” is a relative term here, but the ascent to the top is littered with cairns, so route-finding is easy if you pay attention. After climbing for 200 feet, the sandstone curtain rises, revealing one of the most magnificent views in all of Utah – the Waterpocket Fold.
This second section of the hike unveils the split personality of the Upper Muley Twist trail, as a vast expanse of Utah’s desert contrasts with the constrained, lower levels of the canyon bottom. Unending views of Grand Gulch, Tarantula Mesa and Swamp Mesa roll out from a slickrock ridge beneath your feet as you hike south along the top of the Waterpocket Fold for the next three miles. It is here, as you walk alone above Utah’s remote horizon, where no human signs can be seen for miles, that the feeling of pure solitude is found.
At the end of the loop, cairns lead the way back down to the canyon bottom, where you can retrace your steps back to the car, and return to civilization.
If You Go:
The hike in Upper Muley Twist Canyon can begin at one of two places, depending on how long you want your day to be. The trail is a nearly15-mile, lasso-style loop if started at the Upper Muley Twist Trailhead. For a shorter, nine-and-a-half mile hike, you can drive the canyon floor in a high-clearance vehicle to the Strike Valley Overlook. Sometimes the five mile section to the overlook isn’t passable with a car thanks to flash floods destroying the road. This eventuality can be solved if you bring your mountain bike and ride to the overlook instead. If you’re fortunate enough to arrive and find the road impassable, your chance of finding solitude will be vastly improved as most people will then avoid the canyon altogether.
South Fork Indian Canyon
Despite its remote location, Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park is not a place to find isolation. The hum of ATVs, dirt bikes and dune buggies are constantly in the air, and the campground is frequently booked during peak season. And if you happen visit this area of shifting sands and vermilion cliffs during the deer hunt, then forget having the place to yourself. But just four miles to the northeast, lies a hidden canyon that holds some of the state’s most impressive pictographs. The South Fork of Indian Canyon is the place, and along with ancient rock art, you’ll rediscover the sound of the wind away from motorized noise on nearby dunes.
Indian Canyon’s south fork is difficult to get to, especially if you don’t have a high-clearance, 4WD vehicle. Sand Spring Road is the way in, and it’s appropriately named. The road’s entire length is covered in fine sand that can sometimes be impassible due to weather conditions. Also, if you like your car’s paint job, then steer clear unless you want to sport “Utah Pinstripes” etched into the glossy exterior of your SUV, courtesy of overgrown cedar and Gamble oak tree branches reaching out from the roadside.
The above elements weed out some would-be hikers who don’t own an off-road capable vehicle. If your car falls into this category and isn’t up for the trip, then you can instead walk the road four miles one-way to the actual trailhead. However you’re able to get there, the chance of finding solitude is pretty good.
At the end of the sandy, twisty road is a tiny parking area on the rim of Indian Canyon. Once parked, you can walk to the edge and overlook the surprisingly green, desert cleft below. A sand-filled footpath leads the way down as it winds around small cliffs and boulders. After a descent of only .5 miles and 150 feet, the trail goes left and traverses the canyon’s side where it ends at the South Fork Indian Canyon Pictographs.
The rock-art panel here is estimated to be around 800 years old, and it is stunning. The pictographs nearly cover the entire back wall of a large alcove. A wide-angle lens is needed to capture the entire scene in a photograph, but there are individual paintings that are well-defined enough to isolate with your camera’s zoom. If you’re lucky, you’ll be the only person within miles, and the eerie paintings will seem to amplify the silence as you stand beneath creations of ancient man that withstood the rise and fall of civilizations.
If You Go:
Take Highway 89 near Kanab to Sand Dune Road and follow the signs to Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park. After about 8 miles, turn left onto Hancock Road. 3.5 miles later, the 4WD Sand Spring Road will appear on the right. Drive for 2.5 miles to a left turn with a sign that points the way to South Fork Indian Canyon where you’ll reach the parking area after almost 2 miles of rough, sandy road. Park here and descend into the canyon after finding the trail.
If you’re in the mood for isolation, then a hike through Mule Canyon will provide; that is unless you don’t mind the spirits of an extinct civilization keeping you company. In fact, the primary reason to explore Mule Canyon shouldn’t be as an excuse for antisocial behavior, but to check out the many ancient Anasazi ruins nestled inside nooks and overhangs along the canyon walls.
The ruins of Mule Canyon were occupied between 750 and 1300 AD, and archeologists still aren’t sure why these cliff dwellers vanished from the land, leaving behind their homes that remain to this day. But the fact that the stone and mortar structures are still standing makes Mule Canyon a truly special place.
What’s really amazing is that the Mule Canyon trailhead begins right off Highway 95 between Blanding and Natural Bridges National Monument, yet it sees few visitors. All it takes to begin this hike is a short drive on a dirt road into the creek bed, and the place is yours.
Mule Canyon is a 10 mile round-trip hike that starts at the bottom of the canyon and winds up through juniper forests that grow along the sandstone walls and alcoves. After just over a mile, the first of several Anasazi ruins appears, hunkered down behind some trees and a giant roof. You have to keep a sharp eye and constantly scan the shadows and natural amphitheaters to see the ruins, as there are no signs advertising their locations.
As you walk up canyon, several more houses and granaries are revealed, though some are more impressive than others. Time has worn away many of the more exposed ruins, while leaving the sheltered buildings practically untouched. The best example of a well-preserved ruin is about five miles in, at the junction of two smaller canyons where the canyon floor is an oasis of ponderosa pines. It is the largest ruin of them all, filled with numerous rooms that snake back into the cliffside. Pottery shards litter the ground, whole rooms are intact with roofs blackened by campfires that burned hundreds of years ago. The back rooms are so dark that a headlamp or camera flash must be used to peer inside and make a startling discovery.
A door. Still sealed with a mortared, flat stone. The mind swims with the possibilities of what may be inside. Pottery? Petrified corn? Perhaps even an Anasazi grave lies behind the rock. Amazingly, there are other unopened doors throughout the ruin. Curiosity can be overwhelming, but it is not for us to disturb these sites. We must only observe and let history remain in stasis, so those who come behind us can enjoy the same discoveries.
If You Go:
Drive west on Highway 95 from Blanding. In 24 miles, leave the highway on the gravel-covered Texas Flat Road. You will see a sign marking the Mule Canyon trailhead on the left. To enjoy the hike, the BLM asks you to register and pay $2 at a fee box, located off the highway. The ruins of Mule Canyon are a national treasure, and must be treated with respect. It is best not to enter them, but if you do, be careful not to touch the walls and always leave artifacts like pottery shards where you found them. Help keep our archeological sites preserved.