Join me in a dreaming moment here and envision this – you’re cruising down backroads caked in red dirt (does Brooks & Dunns “Red Dirt Road” song come to mind here?). You’ve got the tunes on low, your road trip buddy is next to you, some delicious chips and snacks are scattered between you, and wild horses are cruising right next to your vehicle. There is literally NO ONE around for miles, it’s just you, your significant other, your truck and wild horses…. Come out of your dream state now, my friends. Now that is what Utah backroad cruising is all about.
The backroads of central and southern Utah provide a great place to get that “lost” feeling as the long stretches of asphalt wind through small towns, past unnamed trails, and through seemingly endless farms.
This past spring, we ditched our desks and computers for adventure. The itch was back, and we were ready to scratch it. We packed as much gear as we could into our Toyota 4Runner TRD PRO and made our way through those Utah backroads. We started in the “main” city of Moab then ventured onto some not-so-main highways, such as Highway 24, Highway 12, the ever-popular Highway 89, and, finally, Highway 9 through Zion National Park area. Each road has its twists and turns that make it special, and the endless stretches of highway beg you to stop for a minute (or an hour) to enjoy the beautiful red-rock scenery around you.
A Utah road trip is one of those bucket list things you need to do at least once in your lifetime. For every place we stopped along this route, there are thousands more epic adventures to enjoy in this area. Take an open mind with you, and don’t hesitate to “take the long way home”... Also, plan on purchasing an $80 National Park Pass that will allow you to get into the National Parks on this route. You won’t regret it!
Moab, UT is an off-road mecca, so it makes sense that this would be our first stop of the journey. Getting to Moab is fairly easy either from the North or South. Plan on spending a good amount of time in this red rock playground to enjoy the scenery and surrounding attractions. We spent 3 days there and still didn’t feel like it was enough. Don’t forget to visit neighboring Arches and Canyonlands national parks for more spectacular views.
Links- Discover Moab Website
There is really no way to describe the expansive trails and expanses in Moab. You have to see it to believe it!
Driving from Moab to White Wash sand dunes isn’t a long journey, but it does traverse several different types of roadways, including a short stretch of freeway on I-70 and a relatively smooth gravel road (we took our trailer down it without issues), known as Ruby Ranch Road, that takes you to White Wash.
With trails galore, White Wash provides a great spot for all kinds of riding preferences.
Once at White Wash, expect epic riding conditions in the form of wide-open washes, moderately steep uphills, a good amount of sand dunes that wrap around to form more dunes that are molded into trails. There are also rock climbing areas here. Needless to say, it’s a great place for UTV’s!
This area is expansive and has many different camp areas to enjoy. Most campers stay up on this hill, which provided phenomenal views every morning.
Out of Moab, UT, take the 191 North to I-70 west. Exit at Ruby Ranch Road and head south. Follow the signs to White Wash Sand Dunes.
The third destination on our list was Caineville, UT. The riding area there, better known as Factory Butte, is one of those places that I referred to as “otherworldly”. It’s like a cross between mood terrain and a rock quarry. There is more abundant riding for motorcycles here in the form of single track trails, but we still found plenty of places to have fun in our UTV. The hills are steep here, and the dirt is this loamy mix that is so much fun to drive on.
Just imagine sliding around these perfectly banked hills...
On the way down to the Caineville area, make sure you stop at Duke’s Slickrock Grill in Hanksville to enjoy some home town cooking and a fun restaurant atmosphere. Fuel up at the Shell across the street before you get to Caineville to ride too. Nice!
If you look close, you can spot a little tiny RZR in the photo…
Going down Highway 24 is a drive where you could enjoy a full day of sightseeing with Goblin Valley State Park and plenty of dirt trails off the highway. Take it slow and enjoy the scenery on your way to one of the most epic ride spots on the planet. While it’s not huge, Caineville does offer some amazing views and free camping areas for everyone.
From White Wash Sand Dunes, head North on Ruby Ranch Road (same road you traveled in on) to the I-70 West. Take the exit for Highway 24 and head south towards Hanksville. Once in Hanksville, turn right (West) to continue on Highway 24 to Factory Butte (Caineville). There are several entrances on the right side of the road, with “Factory Butte” signs leading the way to the main entrance and staging area. While the ground isn’t extremely soft, a semi high-clearance vehicle is recommended.
Again, if you can take an extra day and enjoy this drive to the fullest, do it! On your way to Bryce Canyon, you will go through some amazing country, including Capitol Reef National Park and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Both of these places not only offer incredible views, but the crowds are typically non-existent because of the remote vicinity here. There are so many overlooks and amazing forest trails to ride on. Make sure you fill up in Torrey before you head south on Highway 12 - the mountain roads get steep and twisty from there to Bryce. Check out Escalante Natural Bridge if you have time, and if you don’t have time to hike then stop at the various overlooks, including Head of the Rocks Overlook, and others. Along the way, there is also a petrified forest (Escalante Petrified Forest), and other fun towns to check out, like Tropic, UT. Head up the grade out of Tropic and Bryce Canyon is on your left. We stayed at Ruby’s Inn RV park, and they had plenty of RV and tent camping available for us to enjoy. Do your best to book ahead at these places because they tend to fill up.
Even with no steep cliffs or HooDoo’s in sight, we greatly enjoyed the smooth roads and amazing forest views.
Once you are at Bryce Canyon, Ruby’s Inn RV Park (and hotel) has all of the facilities necessary to make your UTV riding adventures perfect. You can ride straight out of the park and onto the dirt trails. There are hundreds of miles of amazing mountain UTV trails right out your backdoor, with views of HooDoos and amazing sights on many of the trails. We really enjoyed following portions of the Paunsaugunt OHV trail. Most of these trails are wide enough for 4-seat UTV’s, but we did encounter some ATV-only trails and downed trees (bringing a chainsaw isn’t a bad idea!). The good thing was, we were able to back out of any of those situations with relative ease. Be careful of the wildlife up here, as we did almost encounter a large Cat while on the trail. Be prepared and make sure to ask the locals about recent wildlife sightings. When you get back from a long day on the trail, head over to old-town in Bryce and get an ice-cream in the little shops there while you check out the festivities.
The Tropic Reservoir sits right alongside the main fire road that leads to all of the different trails in the area. This makes for a great picnic spot with shaded trees and access to the entire lake.
“Old Bryce Town” is an eclectic and fun place to do some tourist shopping. Luckily, it’s also right across the street from Ruby’s Inn where we stayed.
Head West on Highway 24 out of Caineville. In Torrey, head south on Highway 12 towards Bryce Canyon. The entrance to Bryce will be on your left.
On your way out of Bryce, stop at Bryce Canyon Pines Restaurant (on the right off Highway 12) for some amazing homemade pie and a whopper of a Club sandwich. You’re going to pass through a really neat arch in the road as you make your way down to Highway 89. Head south, and if you need supplies, stop at Terry’s Food & Drug in Orderville. Not only do they have a great hometown grocery store, but they also have a massive hardware store in the back if you need additional camping supplies.
Endless sand dunes and trails await you at Coral Pink!
In the future, we’ll do a full ride spot article on this location, as with all the locations we have mentioned, but we have to mention that in addition to the camping areas at Coral Pink, there are a good amount of free dry-camping spots south of the dunes. Check these out and find a random spot (some don’t require 4WD). If you enjoy amazing sandy trails that lead to the backside of Zion National Park (incredible views await you!) then this is your place! See Dinosaur tracks here, venture into the mountains on fun doubletrack trails, and enjoy some truly pink sand dunes that wind their way through the mountains. This area has turned into one of our favorites because of the diversity of riding.
Not only does Coral Pink include wide open sand dunes, there are also free-flowing trails that are a blast to ride on.
Out of Bryce, head West on Highway 12. At the 12/89 junction, head south on Highway 89. Pass Mt Carmel Junction. As you head up the grade on Highway 89 south of Mt Carmel, look for “Coral Pink Sand Dunes Recreation area” signs and Highway 43. Turn right (south) on Highway 43 and continue down to the state park and primitive camping areas.
There are several very scenic highways to take you away from Coral Pink to get to Sand Hollow, but our favorite is route 9, which takes you through Zion National Park! Zion is another otherworldly place with incredible views, amazing places to go explore on foot, and wildlife sightings that will make great memories. Expect to present your National Park Pass at the gate, and also expect to pay a $15 trailer fee if you are towing due to the narrow tunnel you’ll have to pass through. The upside to the trailer fee? You get the tunnel (you’ll love it…) all to yourself. When you get outside of the park on the West side, be sure to stop in the towns right outside of the park and enjoy some local shopping and flavors.
It doesn’t look like it from the lake, but Sand Hollow has a good amount of dunes to ride in. While they may not be very flowing, there are still very fun.
It’s a mere hop, skip, and a jump over to Sand Hollow State Park after you get through Zion. Just outside of Sand Hollow, there are hotel accommodations, fueling stations, and a WalMart. Camping wise, be sure you have reservations for holiday weekends at Sand Hollow. When it comes to the riding area, Sand Hollow is one of the only places that you can drive your boat on the lake and ride your UTV on the dunes, all in the same spot! So, bring your toys, family and friends, and lots of fuel to have a blast in this all-inclusive camping area.
We absolutely love this place - where else can you drive your UTV and your boat all in the same day?! There are a couple more places, but this is definitely one of the best...
From Sand Hollow, you are right back at the 15 freeway where you can return to where you started or head onto your next adventure!
From Coral Pink, go back north on Highway 43 to Highway 89. Make a left onto Highway 89 (north) back to Mt Carmel. Take a left (West) on Highway 9 that leads you through Zion National Park. Follow the 9 through Hurricane and turn left onto Sand Hollow Road. The state park entrance will be on your left.