1. North Canyon Trail, Maze District
Canyonlands National Park
Rock and sky. In southern Utah's Canyonlands National Park, it seems there is nothing else. Sandstone pillars rise like towering skyscrapers and riotous jumbles of boulders spill into deep slices of earth all against a neon-blue backdrop. The rock is most outrageous in the park's remote Maze district, a favorite stomping ground of the solitude-seeking desert rat Edward Abbey. Take the 15-mile North Canyon Trail to the Maze Overlook and then drop down to explore the other-worldly spiderweb of canyons. But pay attention to where you're going; they don't call it the Maze for nothing.
2. Elephant Hill, Needles District
Canyonlands National Park
This slickrock landscape of spires and needles in Canyonlands National Park will have you believing you are visiting some distant planet. Begin the multiday, 16-mile Elephant Hill loop hike at the Elephant Hill parking area. Descend to the bottom of Elephant Canyon to the junction with the Druid Arch trail take a 4-mile (round trip) detour to Druid natural arch. Head back to Elephant Canyon and climb out to the high, grassy meadow of Chesler Park, guarded by statuesque stone pillars called the Needles (backcountry camping is allowed near here). On Day Two pick up the The Joint trail and complete the loop, hiking through narrow slickrock passageways to return to Elephant Hill parking area.
3. Bullet Canyon
Grand Gulch Primitive Area
Hike a few miles into Grand Gulch and you'll slip back in time 1,000 years. The many cliff dwellings and rock art found in this section of Utah's Cedar Mesa offer clues to the Anasazi people who lived in Grand Gulch from the pre-historic, hunter-gatherer period until they mysteriously vacated the area around 1300. Enter the Gulch on the Bullet Canyon trail (keep your eyes peeled for Jailhouse and Perfect Kiva ruins) and hike out through Kane Gulch.
Contact: Bureau of Land Management, Moab District, (435) 587-1510.
4. Virgin River Narrows
Zion National Park
When a Mormon settler first stumbled upon Zion Canyon in 1872, he called it the most wonderful defile it is my fortune to behold. Hikers traversing the canyon's Virgin River Narrows will be just as awestruck today by the sheer 1,000-foot high walls pressing in on the cottonwood lined stream. Be prepared to do plenty of wading on the 16-mile traverse and bring trekking poles to hold steady in the current. Best times to hike are June-July and September-October.
5. Peek-a-boo/Spooky Canyons Loop
Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
This four-mile slot canyon loop in Grand Staircase National Monument is so tight you will have to turn sideways to get through the narrows. Start at the signed Dry Fork Wash Trailhead (26 miles down Hole in the Rock Road near Escalante). Scramble down Dry Fork Wash to the mouth of Peek-a-boo; hand and footholds help you climb (Class 2) up into the slot (be sure to hike up Peek-a-boo and down Spooky; going the opposite requires ropes). A double arch marks the entrance and sandstone walls tower 60 feet overhead. Follow Peek-a-boo until the canyon ends and take the path (marked with cairns) to the right that leads over a hill and down into a tight squeeze in Spooky. Exit the canyon's north end and return to trailhead. Avoid summer flash flood season.