To experience national parks like a local, get yourself a hub.
By Megan Wagstaff
I imagine if I lived in Anaheim or Orlando, the novelty of Disney parks would wear off quickly. Yes, the attraction is in my backyard, but is it worth fighting the crowds to visit each year? As a Utah local, I feel the same way about the state’s national parks. Yes, Zion is amazing, but is it worth battling crowds on trails so packed that I feel I’m in a fanny-pack parade?
In the spring of 2019, I mapped out a local’s guide to visiting Utah’s national parks that included lesser-known hot spots. Affordable? Absolutely. Crowded? Not so much. And the food … dare I say “gourmet”? Without further ado, here’s a four-day weekend itinerary that gives you an alternative national park experience.
Make Cedar City your hub for the weekend. From Salt Lake, the small town in Southern Utah is a straight shot down Interstate 15 that takes about 3 ½ hours, provided you avoid rush-hour traffic. Check in at El Rey Inn (80 S. Main, Cedar City, 435-586-6518, ElReyInnCedarCity.com), a comfortable hotel with free Wi-Fi, complimentary breakfast and an outdoor swimming pool.
The best part about El Rey Inn is its walkability; you’re located in the heart of historic downtown Cedar City. Try booking through the hotel for best rates (most hotels in Cedar City are under $100/night).
Once you’ve checked in, stroll down Main Street to Bulloch Drug (91 N. Main, Cedar City, 435-586-9651, BullochDrug.com), a pharmacy with unique gifts, clothing, treats and decor. If you’re in the mood for a snack, belly up to the old-fashioned soda fountain and order an ice cream sundae or float. Alternatively, skip the dairy and book an adults-only wine tasting at IG Winery and Tasting Room (59 W. Center St., Cedar City, 435-867-9463, IGWinery.com). With its exposed brick and hardwoods flooded by natural light, IG Winery is an ideal place to taste the fruit of the vine while awaiting dinner time.
You might be surprised that one of the best pizzas you’ll ever eat is found in Cedar City. Centro Woodfired Pizza (50 W. Center St., Cedar City, 435-867-8123, CentroPizzeria.com) is so good you might end up eating here every night of your trip. I won’t judge; I’ll be jealous. Try the pancetta and grape pizza with Gorgonzola and fontina cheeses, red grapes, pancetta and pistachios.
Then put your carb-filled belly to bed—you’ve got a big day tomorrow.
Grab continental breakfast at the hotel (or a cold slice of leftover pizza) and hit the road. You’re headed to the backside of Zion National Park, where the crowds are lighter, and the trails are arguably prettier. To get there, take I-15 southbound out of Cedar City. In about 25 minutes, take Exit 40 to Kolob Canyons, where you’ll find the Taylor Creek Trail. Pay at the visitor’s center. (Yes, you still have to pay the Zion Park fee, but the hike is worth it, and your parking pass is good for the whole week.)
The Taylor Creek Trail is a 5-mile hike that only gains about 500 feet in elevation, so it’s relatively easy and totally doable for little hikers. It crisscrosses Taylor Creek about 30 times each way, so wear hiking shoes you don’t mind getting wet. Keens or Tevas are good options if soggy socks aren’t your style.
The hike culminates at the Double Arch Alcove, but on rainy years (and this has been a pretty wet one), if you continue about 100 yards past the alcove, to the left, you may see a beautiful waterfall showering down between a wall of red rock. It makes for a refreshing rinse before the hike out.
On your way back to Cedar City, make a detour for Hike No. 2 at Kanarra Falls. To get there, take I-15 northbound from Kolob Canyons for a ½ mile, then exit onto U.S. 91. Take a right on 100 North and head to the trailhead. Passes for Kanarra Falls should be purchased in advance (visit KanarraFalls.com). The fee is $12/person. This hike is weather-dependent, and heavy snow runoff can cause unexpected closures. Visit the website for up-to-date information on current conditions.
This popular spot sees fewer crowds on weekdays, so opt for a Friday hike rather than a Saturday or Sunday. About 4½ miles long, Kanarra Falls is a moderate trek that can be challenging due to the amount of time spent in water and climbing the falls with ladders, ropes and chains. Unlike Taylor Creek Trail, the water here can be much deeper—and colder! Neoprene or wool socks and hiking boots make smart choices, as is bringing an extra pair of dry socks and shoes for later.
By now, you’ve earned yourself some tacos, and a giant margarita or two. On your way back to the hotel, stop for dinner at Don Miguel’s (435 S. Main, Cedar City, 435-586-6855, LaCasaDonMiguel.com). Enjoy authentic Mexican dishes—owners Carlos and Lilia Leon’s family recipes hail from the southern region of Jalisco—such as the tostada de nopales, molcajete and the to-die-for chile verde.
Perhaps skip the hotel breakfast and walk across the street to The French Spot (5 N. Main, Cedar City, 347-886-8587, TheFrenchSpotCafe.com), a tiny gem owned by Lyonese chef Michel Attali. His daughter, Leah, often works the counter serving up butternut-squash quiche, homemade croissants and fresh crêpes. Seating is patio-only, and the cold brew coffee is a must.
Options abound for Saturday, so outline your plan over the morning meal. Whatever you choose, first head up the street to Lin’s Market (150 N. Main St., Cedar City, 435-586-3346, LinsGrocery.com) and shop picnic provisions before embarking on your excursion.
If you have four-wheel drive and high clearance, Toquerville Falls should be at the top of your list. Take I-15 south out of Cedar City to Exit 27 in Toquerville and follow Spring Drive to the rocky four-wheel trail up to the falls. It’s 8 miles of four wheeling, which accounts for the majority of the hour-long drive; you’ll be rewarded with a double waterfall ideal for cliff jumping and soaking up the rays.
No four-wheel drive? You could head back to Kolob Canyons and try another hike, since your Zion pass is good for the week. La Verkin Creek Trail offers a full-day, 11-mile route that loops past Kolob Arch. Rock climbers find fewer crowds up Finger Canyon off the South Fork of Taylor Creek.
A third option is to check out Thunderbird Gardens, a series of newly developed trails right in town that link up with the Iron Hills Trail System. Take your pick from several routes, ranging from 1 to 4 miles long, with options for hiking, horseback riding, ATV, rock climbing, mountain biking and dirt biking—a great way to enjoy national park-like beauty without the restrictions. Head east from Lin’s Market to 200 East and follow the road to Highland Drive. Take a left, then turn right on Skyline Drive to the parking lot.
Whatever adventure you opt for, leave enough time for dinner at Porkbelly’s Eatery (565 S. Main, Cedar City, 435-586-5285, PorkBellysEatery.com). It’s hard to miss the smell of smoked meat wafting down Main Street in the evening, and the selection is first-come, first-serve, with rotating options on the chalkboard menu. The Chickenerones—crispy fried chicken skin—is always tempting, and the pulled pork is simply unforgettable.
Before you check out of the hotel, walk down the street to The Grind Coffee House Cafe (19 N. Main, Cedar City, 435-867-5333) to grab a Caffe Ibis espresso drink for the road. With your bags packed and coffee in hand, you’re off to Bryce Canyon National Park, located a 1½ hour drive east through Dixie National Forest. To get there, take Utah Highway 14 east from Cedar City. In about 40 miles, turn left onto U.S. 89 North. Continue on for 20 miles before turning right on Utah Highway 12. Traveling east 13 miles, turn right onto Utah Highway 63 and follow signs to Bryce.
There are hiking options for every ability in Bryce, and it’s typically less crowded in spring than Zion National Park. With their stunning views of hoodoo formations, it’s hard to pass up the combined 2½-mile hike along the Navajo Loop and Queen’s Garden Trail. If you are “hiked out,” Bryce offers numerous viewpoints and vistas that you can easily park and walk to, or simply drive past, so at least you’ll have cool pics to show around the office on Monday.
When you’ve had your fill of hoodoos, head north on U.S. 89 until you reach Utah Highway 20. Hang a left, and head to I-15 to Salt Lake. Plan for a four-hour drive home.