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A picnic area at Zion National Park
A picnic area at Zion National Park

RVing in America’s Magnificent Five

For those RVers who have the desire and capacity to truly enjoy, appreciate and savor the overwhelming beauty and majesty of the geological features of southern Utah and northern Arizona I strongly recommend a tour of the Magnificent Five and the Awesome Threesome.

A self-guided tour of five national parks and three national monuments plus several state parks and national forests is available to those who dare risk such scenic wonders.

The travel route outlined here leads efficiently and effectively with little lost time and expense to a maximum exposure of these unique and diverse natural geological wonderlands. One may begin the tour at any point on the route and proceed in either direction to the next park, monument or federal land.

Dozens of books, hundreds of thousands of photos and millions of written and spoken words have been presented by far better writers, speakers and photographers than I as they have attempted to describe the beauty of these parks and monuments. Perhaps the most eloquent and compelling descriptions are made by those who see, feel, enjoy and savor the beauty in silence and amazement.

When we see the towering cliffs, deep, cragged canyons, hoodoos, winding streams and rivers, individual and associated huge rocks, boulders and spires along with the interconnected ecological habitats and living creatures of all types, and are then unable to find the words, thoughts or expressions to display our inner appreciation we may be offering the greatest compliment to nature or to God.

It is not just the size, variety, diversity, range of colors and tones that defy description. Rather it is the sense of our own insignificance, the brevity of our existence and of our meager impact on the earth and its inhabitants in relation to the immensity of geological time and the forces of change.

A thesaurus may offer many additional superlatives as synonyms for MAGNIFICENT and AWESOME. Any true words may be used as descriptors as long as no small, trivial, negative or common words are used to describe the beauty of the Magnificent Five and Awesome Threesome.

Colorado River in Glen Canyon
Colorado River in Glen Canyon

First stop, Glen Canyon

My chosen route began at the junction of AZ 89 and 89A. Moving westward via 89A the first stop was at Lee’s Ferry in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The very nice campground overlooks the Colorado River, is surrounded by the Vermillion Cliffs and is about 6 miles off 89A near the site of the original river crossing.

From Lee’s Ferry one may proceed through the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument to Jacob’s Lake on the Kaibab Plateau at the Junction of 89A and 67 where a recently renovated campground is located. An easily traveled 55 miles on 67 leads to the north rim of the Grand Canyon. However the north rim was closed in mid-April 2013, so I bypassed that day trip and went north on 89A to Kanab,Utah, and further to the intersection of Scenic Bypass Route 9.

There are a few small RV campgrounds nearby where one may park an RV and take the towed vehicle into Zion National Park. It is possible to RV into and through Zion, but an escort is required because the tunnel allows only one way traffic for large vehicles. The national park campgrounds at the Zion visitor center are just inside the west entrance and are very easy to access from the west. The east entry is not so easy and is a challenge for large RVs, but not impossible. Check at the entrances for clearance, if necessary.

Zion National Park
Zion National Park

After the visit to Zion return to 89, travel northward to Scenic Bypass 12 and turn east toward Bryce Canyon National Park. The gateway to the Dixie National Forest is a welcome introduction to the hoodoos, or weathered rock pillars, scattered throughout Bryce. At Bryce Canyon there are private and national park campgrounds. The national park campground is quite acceptable for boondocking and is far less expensive than are the private parks.

After a few days at Bryce, continue on Scenic Bypass 12 up to Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. At the small town of Cannonville, the excitement of the drive begins. Side trips to Kodachrome and Petrified Forest State Parks add a certain diversity. Two other small state parks are along the route up the Staircase. RVs less than 26 feet are welcome at Calf Creek Recreation Area, one of my favorite campgrounds.

Proceeding across the narrow backbone ridge of the Staircase leads to absolutely super views of this huge national monument. Rising out of Boulder, Utah, the trip begins a long and twisting RV trail to the 9,600-foot elevation of the pass. Many small campgrounds dot the mountainside, but most do not welcome large RVs.

Shift to a low gear for an equally taxing descent to Torry, Utah, the town nearest to Capitol Reef National Park. Turn east on Route 24 and take the downhill slide into the Capitol Reef visitor center at Fruita, Utah. A beautiful RV and tent campground is located 1 mile south of the visitor center.

The abundant deciduous trees were beginning to leaf out when I stayed there for three days in late April 2013, with anticipation of nicely shaded sites during the summer. It is difficult to imagine a more peaceful and inspiring area than this section of Capitol Reef.

Campgrounds at Capitol Reef National Park (photo courtesy of National Park Service)
Campgrounds at Capitol Reef National Park (photo courtesy of National Park Service)

Travel east on 24 to Hanksville and then north to I-70. Go east past Green River and turn south at 191 toward Moab. Use Moab as a base for trips into Canyonlands and Arches National Park. An alternate route at Hanksville is Hwy. 95 south to Blanding and an intersection with Hwy. 191. This route allows stops in the Glen Canyon Recreation Area and at the Natural Bridges National Monument. At Blanding, drive north on 191 to Moab, Utah.

There are several private RV resorts and campgrounds in Moab. Check at the visitor center regarding the small campgrounds in both Arches and Canyonlands national parks. Also, a campground is available at Dead Horse State Park, just outside the entrance to Canyonlands.

For really nice boondocking campgrounds on federal lands follow Utah Hwy. 128 east from Moab along the Colorado River. Many of the campsites are located directly on the river bank, and cost about $15 per night. Some even offer a 50 percent discount for seniors.

After visits to Arches and Canyonlands, your tour may continue south toward Blanding and then eastward to the Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients National Monuments. From there, continue further to Mesa Verde National Park. The latter parks are on my “To Do” list and are not a part of the tour.

The entire tour covers a distance of 600 or more miles of RV travel plus a few hundred miles of travel with a towed vehicle for day trips.

How fortunate I am to have visited these five great national parks and three wonderful national monuments in southern Utah, plus a quick stop in the Colorado National Monument at Grand Junction, during a span of two weeks. And then top that with a morning spent in the lovely and picturesque towns of Ouray and Ridgeway, Colo. For a fun trip, follow a move eastward route to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison and various small mining towns of the region.

First lght on Turret Arch framed by north window at Arches National Park. (photo courtesy of National Park Service)
First lght on Turret Arch framed by north window at Arches National Park. (photo courtesy of National Park Service)

Moab, Utah — Home of the Arches and Canyonlands

An overnight rain turned to puffs of snowflakes this morning at the RV park north of Moab at the junction of 313 and 191. The white powder accentuated the ridges and fins of the red cliffs as we descended into Moab. Although the low, dark clouds reduced visibility we proceeded into the Arches National Park after a good omelet breakfast at the Jailhouse Cafe in downtown Moab.

The splendor of the Arches was only slightly diminished by the blustery winds and 40 F temperatures. Short hikes to a few of the more prominent arches and distant views of smaller arches enabled us to truly enjoy this visit to Arches National Park.

The Arches’ one campground, located near the terminus of the paved roadway through the park, is a very picturesque site for the 51 campsites that are open to small RV and tents. Although this is the only campground in the park, there are ample backpacking campsites allowed with permits obtained at the visitor center. RVs may be parked in the center parking lot and towed vehicles used for travel on the 15 miles of paved highway.

This highway is not especially RV friendly and the pulloffs and parking lots are not designed for RV parking. However, there are always a few rental and private RVs on the roads and in the campground.

RV resorts in and near Moab have pricing from $25 to $45 per night. Both private and public boondocking sites are found along Highways 191, 313 and 128. Highway 128 is an extremely scenic road leading east from Moab toward Castle Valley. The road borders on the Colorado River for many miles eastward. Numerous federal campgrounds and picnic areas are situated directly next to the river. The cost per night is $15 per day or $7.50 for RVers holding a senior or annual NP pass.

No signs were visible to designate Highway 128 as a Scenic Byway. However, it is not an overstatement to say that the first 15 miles eastward offers some of the most scenic views in the universe of towering red cliffs that overlook the westward flow of the Colorado River.

For 13 miles there are immense red cliffs on both sides of the highway. At the 13.5 mile mark, the strategically placed Red Cliffs Lodge is nestled along a bend in the river. This lodge does not offer RV accomodations, but does have a winery, restaurant, several forms of recreation and the Moab Museum of Film and Western Heritage that features several movies filmed in the Moab region.

Turn south on the Castle Valley Road to view the green, verdant valley that lies at the foot of snow capped, 12,000 ft peaks. The return trip to Moab on Highway 128 provides entirely different, but equally spectacular views of the river, cliffs and campgrounds.

"Chocolate Drops" at Canyonlands National Park. (photo courtesy of the National Park Service)
“Chocolate Drops” at Canyonlands National Park. (photo courtesy of the National Park Service)

Moab is know for both the Arches and Canyonlands national parks that are located within 30 miles of the town. There is a strong emphasis on ATV and Jeep riding, mountain biking and mountain dirt biking as well as hiking and river rafting. Rental companies make it easy to spend several days conducting different recreational activities.

For those who enjoy and appreciate quality food that is well prepared there are abundant reasonably priced cafes and high end, cozy restaurants. Moab and the nearby national parks have much to offer both adults and children who have learned to appreciate nature in its finest moments of glory.

Indeed, I realize there are millions of Americans and billions of people on this earth who have not nor ever will have even one day in their life that is equal to the hundreds of days of pleasure that I have enjoyed in visits to national parks and monuments. They will never see this beauty, never hear the silence, never touch the rocks, streams, flowers or have their hearts touched in a special way. In most cases they will never have the slightest idea or concept of what they have missed or are missing.

About Dr. Bob Gorden

Dr. Bob Gorden is an RVer, hiker and writer. He has a PhD in microbial ecology from the University of Georgia in Athens. He is a retired research scientist from the University of Illinois Natural History Survey. He has owned and operated more than 55 RVs of various types, and has visited every state, except Hawaii, in his RV. He also traveled by RV in New Zealand, Canada and Mexico. He currently owns and travels in a 1978 GMC 26-foot Class A and 2013 Thor ACE 30.1 Class A motorhome. He has a compelling desire to be “On the Road Again!”

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