It happens every year in Utah – winter’s death knell tolls and skiers mourn the melting snow. Spring, however, gives rise to the best time of year for outdoor recreation in the state. Mountain biking, hiking, rock climbing, canyoneering and backpacking fill the void winter leaves behind. Spring is the signal for our migration towards Southern Utah where we can bask in perfect temperatures, and then head back north to escape the heat in our incredible mountains.
Unfortunately, spring is short lived and you have to be efficient to maximize the time/fun ratio. So we’ve come up with a way to make the most of it with the following classic trips. It’s a tick list featuring some well-known places combined with obscure undertakings to get the very best of Utah. Plus, each trip can be done in a single weekend.
Eight weeks, eight adventures. Your spring begins now.
Canyoneering Egypt 3 in Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument
When it comes to outdoor adventure in Southern Utah, there is nothing quite like canyoneering through a sandstone slot. Canyoneering gets you down into the earth, where you are forced to touch and interact with the rock, sand and water. Canyoneering is dirty, wet, sometimes dangerous, and not for the claustrophobic. But when a springtime canyoneering trip is good, it’s about the most fun you’ll ever have. Egypt 3 in the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument is a slot-canyon classic that’s located just off the Hole in the Rock Road south of Escalante.
Egypt 3 is a slot that has everything, tight squeezes through red-rock walls, swimming across huge potholes, and rappelling over smooth sandstone drops. Getting there is an easy hike down a slickrock incline to the canyon’s entrance. Soon though, the walls close in, choking the sky until it’s just a sliver of blue overhead. After a short rappel, there are several potholes to swim through, including one long swim through a tunnel-like constriction where all you can do is try and keep your face in a small air-pocket between the water and the rock above. Once on the other side, the canyon widens at its end where a long hike back to the car awaits.
Of course spring can be a time for rain, and it’s never a good idea to explore nature’s drainpipes when precipitation is forecast as flash floods are always a concern. But if the sky is blue and you’re up for a physical challenge, then Egypt 3 will deliver in spades.
While There: Stop in at the Trailhead Café in Escalante. This funky joint is part coffee shop, part guide service, and is a magnet for anyone seeking information about the myriad canyons in the area. Before you start your exploration, have a sandwich, check out their maps, look up weather conditions on the computer, and chat up the friendly purveyors for any beta.
Cycling the Trail of the Ancients
The mark of a classic road ride requires two things: amazing scenery, and a challenging course. The Trail of the Ancients in southeastern Utah has plenty of both. This National Scenic Byway traverses red-rock country in Colorado and Utah for over 480 miles, but the section between the town of Blanding and Natural Bridges National Monument, is a vintage Utah road ride.
This stretch of cycle-friendly road is a 79-mile out and back that winds through history-filled Cedar Mesa, home of numerous archeological sites and natural, red rock wonders. Begin at the intersection of Highways 191 and 95, four miles south of Blanding, and slowly ascend through groves of juniper bushes and pinion pines. Several worthy side trips can be taken along the way, like Mule Canyon – an area jam-packed with archaic Indian ruins that can be explored a short hike from the highway.
The highlight of the ride comes at the halfway point, where a loop in Natural Bridges National Monument provides dazzling overlooks of all three bridges far below. If you happen to bring your trail shoes along, it’s worth descending into the canyon to see these stone archways up close.
The return trip should be easier as it’s mostly downhill to the intersection where you left your car.
While There: Visit Edge of the Cedars State Park in Blanding. The museum has the largest collection of Ancestral Puebloan artifacts in the region, and it’s all on display. Seeing the intricate pottery of these ancient people is a reminder of the civilization that once lived on the lands we now use for outdoor recreation.
Hiking Chesler Park in Canyonlands
Utah is home to some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, and Chesler Park, located in the Needles section of Canyonlands National Park, has got to be near the top of the list. You’ll find the usual red-rock formations everyone expects around Moab, but Chesler Park takes the scenery up a notch with its red and white stripes of color that transform sandstone towers into something like a giant version of Candyland.
Chesler Park is a remote hideaway that can only be accessed after hiking in. The best place enter is from the Elephant Hill trailhead. From there, you can choose from several hiking options such as the Chesler Park Loop, the easy Joint Trail, or the scramble-fest to Druid Arch. You can also choose to stay the night at one of five backcountry campsites that require a permit.
Either way you choose to experience Chesler Park, you’ll be enamored by the large, wildflower-filled meadow encircled by amber walls and towers of red sandstone that rise from the ground like a phantasmagoric cradle of rock.
Spring is an excellent time to hike Chesler Park as it gets way too hot in the summer. The area is wild and remote, so be sure to bring the hiking essentials and plenty of water.
While There: After a long hike in the desert sun, you probably need a cold beer. Moab has not one, but two breweries to slake your thirst. Eddie McStiffs is a good place for a burger and microbrew, or you can sip their famous Mojito on the patio. The Moab Brewery also has top-notch beer (try the Steamer Lager) and food that will fill up those calories you lost on the trail.
Mountain Biking Good Water Rim Trail in the San Rafael Swell
The San Rafael Swell in central Utah isn’t exactly a well-known mountain biking destination, but it should be. Old jeep roads winding around abandoned uranium mines is the norm in these parts, but with new mountain-bike specific singletrack being cut like the phenomenal Good Water Rim Trail, the San Rafael’s pedaling potential could be limitless, especially in the spring when temperatures are perfect.
The trail follows the edge of Good Water Canyon, a side-drainage of the Little Grand Canyon near the Wedge Overlook. It features 15 miles of twisting singletrack, peppered with some of the most spectacular views of any mountain bike ride in Utah.
Begin at the Little Grand Canyon Overlook and follow the edge of Good Water Canyon as it snakes around the labyrinth of side drainages that spill into the main gorge. The ride is fast and fun as you pedal through pinion pine forests broken up by open spaces that reveal endless views of the canyon below. A ride on the Good Water Rim Trail can quickly become a full day as you stop to take in every view that reveals itself along the way
The trail is typically done as a loop that starts and ends at the parking lot of the Little Grand Canyon Overlook. After riding the 16 miles of singletrack, a quick, 6-mile return on dirt roads brings you back to your car.
Hopefully Good Water Rim is the beginning of a new singletrack revolution in the San Rafael Swell.
While There: You must stop at the Buckhorn Wash Rock Art Panel. This impressive collection of 2,000-year-old pictographs and petroglyphs are located right off the road and feature phantasmagoric images of ancient men, animals and supernatural beings. It’s an eerie place made more impressive when the sun sets, casting the red cliff with an orange glow.
Rock Climbing the North Chimney of Castleton Tower
Castleton Tower near Moab, is a red rock pinnacle that screams the stereotype of the American Southwest. One glance at it evokes wagon trains and gunfights in black-and-white films (orRoadrunner cartoons.) The tower also happens to be one of the “must climbs” of the country. Spring is a good time to go and tackle the tower as mild temperatures keep the climb comfortable, especially the North Chimney route.
There are two ways up Castleton Tower, the North Chimney and the Kor/Ingalls route. The latter is the most popular but is in direct sunlight and can get very hot. The North Chimney route is shaded and some say is a better, more sustained climb than its sister to the south.
Begin with a hike from the Castleton Tower trailhead on the LaSal Mountain Loop Road in Castle Valley. A slog up the tower’s steep base on a well-defined trail will get you to the start of the North Chimney route.
Start climbing the classic 5.8 pitches that feature corner cracks felled by killer double hand jams on cold sandstone inside the chimney’s protective walls. On your way up, stop and take in the view of Castle Valley spread out over a thousand feet below as you pull yourself over chock stones, stem up walls and jam hands and feet into cracks.
Once you link up with the Kor/Ingalls route for the fourth and final pitch, enjoy the exposure and top out where your lunch and celebratory beer will be well earned. A series of rappels down the Kor/Ingalls route gets you back down pronto.
While There: Stay the night at the climber’s campground, just off the road in a large pullout west of Castleton Tower. It’s very popular and large, which creates a sense of community where you can meet new people are get route beta. However, you must register early to get a spot at UtahOpenLands.org. And be sure to bring your wag bags!
Sea Kayaking the Great Salt Lake
For some, the Great Salt Lake evokes unsavory images of shallow water and swarms of brine flies. But in the spring, this massive body of salt water is actually an outdoor lover’s dream. You easily explore the area via Antelope Island on foot, horse or bike, but to really soak in the beauty of this dead sea, you have to get on the lake itself in a sea kayak.
Floating on the Great Salt Lake is a feast for the eyes and nose alike. Sure you’ll have to contend with an ever-present smell that offends the olfactory senses of Wasatch Front locals, but you’ll also be witness to a spectacular, moving mosaic of wildlife in flight, as thousands of birds cavort just yards away from your boat. A short paddle from the Antelope Island marina will take you to Egg Island, a nesting place where you can observe white pelicans, avocets, and black-necked stilts, blue herons, and dozens of other large birds doing what birds do.
Continue paddling along the shoreline to reach Buffalo Point where (if you’re lucky) you can see herds of bison and antelope as they graze among windswept boulders. Paddle back at sundown where an astounding orange and red color show reflects off the flat water.
If you don’t have your own kayak, rentals are guiding services are available at the Antelope Island Marina.
While There: Be sure to stop by the Island Buffalo Grill at Bridger Bay on the north end of the island for their (of course) famous buffalo burgers. You can also get sandwiches, hot dogs and drinks, then chow down on wooden picnic tables with 360-degree views of the lake.
Exploring The Subway in Zion National Park
No canyon in Zion National Park is as revered by hikers and photographers quite like The Subway. This natural drain-pipe earns its title from the perfectly carved, rounded tunnel that causes shutterbugs to shudder, and canyoneers to explore these twisting, out-of-this-world waterways with zeal.
The Subway is the second most popular hike in Zion, and is strictly regulated to the amount of people that can go in per day. This quota system requires hikers to reserve and pay for permits. Despite the process, the intense beauty of this hike is more than worth it, and should not be missed.
Begin at the Wildcat trailhead, located in the Kolob Canyon section of Zion, approximately eight miles from the town of Virgin. Follow the trail, signs and cairns down into Left Fork Canyon, where a rappel over an obstacle drops you into The Subway.
The real fun starts as a leisurely walk through the river amid red rock canyons carved like sculptures. The occasional swim through tight sections and large pools keep things interesting, however nothing technical is encountered until Keyhole Falls, where a rope is a good idea for hand lines and rappels.
Beyond Keyhole Falls, take in the other-worldly beauty of The Subway. The curved rock around you is like a giant drainage system for desert water that unleashes the imagination. If you time your day right, sunlight angling into the enclosed spaces increases the dramatic scenery. Slow down, enjoy the pools, explore the nooks and crannies, and soak it all in. After all, discovering The Subway is the reason you made the journey, so make the moment last.
Exploring The Subway is serious business, and knowing how to rappel is mandatory. Along with dry suits and warm clothes, bring a rope, harness, and slings or daisy chains to anchor yourself to the rock. Helmets are also a good idea.
Get a permit from the Zion National Park Visitor Center where they are available the day before you plan on canyoneering. Permits can be reserved up to two months in advance on their Backcountry Reservation System. Also, flash floods are always a concern, so check weather conditions before heading out.
While There: Pick up some microbrewed beer from Zion Canyon Brewing. It’s hard to find most places in Utah, but in Springdale you can get cold six packs in pretty much every gas station, restaurant or supermarket. They make an amber, lager, and IPA, but our favorite is the Virgin Stout.
Backpacking Naturalist Basin in the Uinta Mountains
Naturalist Basin is one of the most popular backpacking areas in the entire Uinta Mountain range, and it’s no wonder as the scenery is spectacular. What you’ll gain in beauty, you’ll lose in privacy- if solitude is your primary reason to load up a pack and head for the woods, you won’t find it here. No matter, because the annoyance of the crowds is far less than the experience of exploring one of the Uinta’s most gorgeous spots.
What makes Naturalist Basin such a special place in late spring is the abundance of high-alpine lakes, mountain meadows filled with wildflowers, and waterfalls and streams swollen with snowmelt. The kicker here is that the basin is surrounded by an amphitheater of giant peaks that loom over the mountain floor like the inside of a white cauldron.
A seven-mile hike along the Highline Trail leads into Naturalist Basin, where the path becomes a loop that skirts the edges of the basin. Dozens of lakes dot the landscape, but the trail visits notable ones like Morat, Faxon, Jordan and Blue. Veer off the path, explore the lakes, and choose your campsite.
Once there, make side trips to other lakes where you can try to catch some fish, hang out in the alpine sun, or sharpen your photography skills as alpenglow illuminates the peaks with sunset red.
Bring lots of bug spray, as mosquitoes can be vicious in the Uintas. Also wear sturdy boots to navigate the rocky trails and wet bogs these mountains are known for.
While There: After the trip, drive through Samak and pull into The Notch. It’s become tradition to grab a bite and beer at this classic-style roadhouse right off Highway 150. They’ve got the typical pub fare like burgers and fries, plus an impressive selection of local beer on tap. You can enjoy at all while listening to live music on the killer patio out back.