5 Utah Family Adventures & Where to stay (or maybe not stay)

5 Utah Family Adventures & Where to stay (or maybe not stay)

Man, Utah is an amazing state. From the red rock desert of the south to the high desert pine forests of the north, salt flats in the west and dinosaur bones in the east… it’s just awesome. 

Here are the 5 places we’ve explored and where we stayed (and my personal opinion about each place), staring from the south and moving north:

The Watchmen at Zion

#1 Zion National Park

Maybe it was because we’d been in the desert for four months and hadn’t seen a green plant… maybe it was because we woke up to a giant climbing tree beckoning the kids from the window… maybe it was because the family next to us had three kids and a mama willing to sit down and gab over a cup of coffee with me…. 

Besides all of these amazing coincidences, Zion is one of our favorite National Parks. It rained and snowed on us, but we didn’t give a hoot. The park has a fantastic shuttle system, it’s loaded with hikes of all different levels, it’s geology is diverse and fascinating, and the Watchman campground is amazing (and a short walk from stores and shops). It’s so good, it’s one of the three places we’ve already put on our list to revisit in the coming year.

The Skinny on Zion: 

  • Don’t miss: Driving through the tunnel and out the to Suessical geological formations on the south entrance to the park.
  • Hikes: Watchman hike was great. Hike to Lower Emerald Pool was ok (we should have planned more time to hike to a higher pool or to do the hike out the ___ like our friends recommended!); short walk to Weeping Wall was fun, short, but steep. The kids loved the water and plants growing on the rock wall.
  • Junior Ranger program: the kids were only old enough for the youngest tier of activities, but I heard from a friend that the 10+ age activities were pretty intense, so give yourself time for that if it’s a priority for your family!
  • Ranger talk: the ranger talk (focused on geology) was engaging, had many visual aids, invited audience participation AND a hands-on experiment
  • What we missed but plan to do next time: Explore the Kolob side of the park and hit some more hikes. We want to do at least a part of the Virgin Rivers Narrows as a fam & Angel’s Landing (this one is probably going to be a solo hike for me. Joe’s got a fear of heights that he’s very careful not to show too much to the kids, so he has zero interest. I’m not sure I’ll be able to enjoy the challenge if I’m worrying about my 8 year old letting go of the chain – we’ll see)

Where we stayed: Watchman Campground, loop B 

  • Water fill and dump station. We stayed in an electric-only site.
  • Bathhouses: flush toilets and dish-washing sinks but no showers
  • Other benefits: lined by a river to play in, boulders and trees to climb, and literally under the Watchman cliffs.
  • Walking distance to many trailheads and shuttle service (i.e. free parking included!)
  • One of the most peaceful, protected, and beautiful campgrounds we’ve stayed at, though very very busy (book six months in advance!)

For more Zion insider tips, check out Abby’s awesome guide at Our Wondering Family!

#2 Bryce National Park Campground

The price tag for an overnight in Bryce is pretty steep – we stayed for $35 a night with no hook ups. All of the hikes (except the Rim Trail) go down into the canyon, which is AMAZING, but is HARD to climb back out of (think 700ft elevation in 1/4 mile if you’re going up to Sunset Point – or multiple ups and down if you’re tackling the Window Trail).

There were tons of international tourists here, so the highly advertised spots like Inspiration Point, Sunrise and Sunset points were packed with people, many of whom asked (or didn’t) to take pictures of our children.

Bryce is amazing, beautiful, something everyone should see with their own eyes. But, you probably don’t need a week to take it in. We could have shortened our stay in the expensive campground to a few nights and checked out Glen Canyon National Recreation Center, the nearby Red Canyon, or even headed to Capitol Reef National Park. That said, the historic lodge is beautiful and paying $3 for an 8 minute shower was worth every. damn. penny.

The skinny on Bryce:

  • Don’t miss: the hike down in (deets below). Catch a sunrise or a sunset. The golden light passing through the red spires is breathtaking.
  • Favorite Hikes: The walk down to Queen’s Garden and out through Sunset Point was amazing. If we were going to do it again, I would go down the switchbacks by Sunset first (or through Wall Street if it’s open), down through Queen’s Garden and back up to Sunrise Point.
  • Jr. Ranger program: a few intense activities (lots of calculating for tree age and energy consumption!). The Hike the Hoodoos program was a great motivation for hiking and discovery for the kids.
  • Ranger Talk: these can be hit or miss, but the general geology one we attended was short and informative – and highly enjoyable with the sheer number of 90s pop culture references!
  • What we missed but plan to hit next time: Nothing. If our kids were bigger, we might consider going back to tackle some of the more aggressive hikes

Where we stayed: Bryce National Park campground.

  • No hook ups.
  • Bathhouse with running water, no showers (pay showers available near the lodge – driving distance or a LONG walk)
  • Benefits: You’re paying for access to the rim, and it’s beautiful. High desert forest and across the street from the visitor center. Great bike path access. 
  • My take: If we were to go again, we’d spend a night, maybe two in the campground and then spend the move on or explore nearby Red Canyon.

#3 Dead Horse Point State Park (access to Arches, Canyonlands, Moab)

When we visited in spring 2018, Dead Horse State Park has just opened a new campground loop. They provide electric but no water (seriously, they are on top of an amazing high desert plain above the Green River – I can’t imagine how expensive it would be to provide water there).

The visitor center is fantastic, the views are incredible, and I’ve heard the mountain biking trails are great. 

Even though we were in the high desert, it rained most of the week we were there. Not a soaking rain, but a general moisture that kept us indoors most of the time. It’s a super exposed spot, so be prepared for sun, wind, and rain.

Besides the great views from the edges of the park, the main appeal for us was that we had great Verizon coverage and it was between Canyonlands (north entrance) and Arches and not far from Moab. I’m not a huge Moab fan (there was a huge revving-motorcross, frat guy vibe I didn’t take to) but the town is cute and we found some awesome playgrounds and liquid-nitrogen-frozen ice cream made to order at the Garage Coffee Co.

The skinny on Dead Horse:

  • Don’t miss: The views, the bike paths.
  • Favorite Hikes: The perimeter path up to the point was fun to walk. I can’t say it was my favorite hike in the world, but proximity to Canyonlands was great and easy access to Arches was incredible.
  • Jr. Ranger program: The movie at the visitor center and exhibits were interesting. The badge was shaped like a sheriff star badge, so the kids loved it.
  • Ranger Talk: We didn’t go to one – not sure if they offered them here. 
  • What we missed but plan to hit next time: Nada. Maybe more adventurous on the bike trails as our kids get bigger.

Where we stayed: Dead Horse State Park

  • Electric only
  • Bathhouse with running water, no showers. Dish sinks available.
  • Benefits: Scenic, proximity to Arches and Canyonlands

#4 Dinosaur National Monument

Ah, Dinosaur. Let me say that the tour of the dinosaur bone wall is awesome. The history of the location, the current archeological dig, the preservation of the site – TOUCHING REAL DINOSAUR BONES STILL BURIED IN THE EARTH was fantastic. 

The Green River campground was not (for us). We thought we’d have Verizon coverage, we didn’t. We were in a site with no shade and 90 degree days. It’s the desert. This is one of the few places where we saw our fill and then by Wednesday we were ready to pack up and move out. Joe could work at the visitor center, but the campground was 5+ miles away, so he’s need the car to get there, leaving me and the kids to bear the heat on our own. It was not ideal.

The skinny on Dinosaur National Monument:

  • Don’t miss: The dinosaur bones. I mean. Amazeballs.
  • Favorite Hikes: We didn’t do any. It was hot.
  • Jr. Ranger program: Good. Easy to do in a day (thank goodness). 
  • Ranger Talk: We didn’t go to one.
  • What we missed but plan to hit next time: Nada. If we go back, we’ll avoid summer or make sure to get a site with shade (few and far between). 

Where we stayed: Green River Campground

  • No hook ups.
  • Bathhouse with running water, no showers. 
  • Benefits: Proximity to DINOSAUR BONES. Like, a lot of them.
  • Drawbacks… no Verizon coverage, little shade, hot hot hot in the summer. 

We jumped ship midweek and headed for…

#5 Flaming Gorge National Forest

Flaming gorge-ous is more like it. Back in high desert with the pine forest variety. We were so happy to have shade that it really didn’t matter where we were – but the gorge is beautiful. We stumbled upon the resident family of five bighorn sheep a few times, we swam down in the lake, we checked out the dam, and we loved the car tour of the Sheep Creek Geological Loop. This was an unplanned short trip for us, but we loved it. Beautiful, peaceful, and close to some pretty cool geological features.

The skinny on Flaming Gorge:

  • Don’t miss: The view, the bighorn sheep between the perimeter trail and the lakes, the Sheep Creek Geological Loop, swimming at one of the beaches. 
  • Favorite Hikes: Perimeter hike
  • Jr. Ranger program: Nada.
  • Ranger Talk: We didn’t go to one.
  • What we missed but plan to hit next time: Fishing in the small lakes. we tried, but the wind was rough and it just didn’t happen for us.

Where we stayed: Red Canyon Campground

  • No hook ups.
  • No bathhouse.
  • Benefits: Shade. High, cool desert forest. Beautiful.
  • Drawbacks: Ummm… we were so happy to have cell coverage and shade that this place was sort of like a little slice of heaven. 

Want more insider tips for great places to check out or places you might think about just spending a day or two? Sign up for my weekly newsletter!

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