Can I interest you in a road trip through the spectacular American Southwest?
San Juan County is located in Utah's far southeastern corner. It's a large region with a small population, overlapped by the Navajo Nation. You can visit Canyonlands National Park, plus numerous national monuments, state parks, tribal parks and 100,000+ ancestral Puebloan ruins.
It's also close to some high profile destinations like Moab, Arches National Park, Mesa Verde National Park and Arizona's Monument Valley.
San Juan County recently invited my family for a visit. I was excited to check off a few places on my wish list, and made the 3-day trip with my 12-year-old son and 11-year-old niece. We packed a lot into that time and soaked up plenty of gorgeous scenery all along the way.
Here is our list of fun things to do in San Juan County – Utah's Canyon Country.
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park has three sections – Island in the Sky, Needles and the Maze – with separate entrances. I'd visited Island in the Sky several times and have written about it. This time, we focused on Needles and I couldn't believe that I hadn't managed to get here before.
The thirty-mile drive from Highway 191 is incredibly scenic, cutting through the new Bears Ears National Monument. The road is paved and well maintained. We found a new visitor center with clean, modern bathrooms and picnic tables. We only had a few hours, so the ranger pointed us to three short hikes – Roadside Ruin, Cave Springs and Pothole Point – which we loved. There are also longer hikes and 4WD trails you can explore.
Learn more at https://www.nps.gov/cany/index.htm
Natural Bridges National Monument
Natural Bridges National Monument was the activity that excited me most before our trip, and it's one of the reasons I'm planning a return trip. I need more time here. Natural Bridges is located about 45 minutes west of Blanding.
Natural Bridges is home to three large natural bridges. You can see them all from easy view points high on the mesa top, or hike to the bottom. It was late in the day and we quickly realized that we didn't bring nearly enough water, so that limited our time and energy for hiking. The trails are not very long, but they are strenuous. You'll be rewarded with much better views and photos though.
Learn more at https://www.nps.gov/nabr
Bears Ears National Monument
The new Bears Ears National Monument protects many miles of outstanding scenery and archaeological sites. One of the most famous and accessible sites is Newspaper Rock a few miles off of Highway 191. Newspaper Rock is an impressive collection of petroglyphs, low to the ground and just a few steps from the paved parking lot.
At this point, there are few maps and signs for Bears Ears National Monument. No visitor center, literature or NPS website either. It covers two sections of San Juan County – Indian Creek to the north and Shash Jaa to the south.
Hovenweep National Monument
Hovenweep is a natural monument featuring several well-preserved ancestral Puebloan structures. It sits on the Utah-Colorado border, east of Blanding. It has a small visitor center with restrooms.
My family stopped here briefly when we drove through the larger Canyons of the Ancients National Monument just over the border in Colorado. If you pack plenty of water and a picnic, you can easily do both on the same day.
Four Corners Monument
Four Corners was a must because my 2012 article about it attracts hundreds of readers a day. I wanted to see it at a different time of year and a different time of day and find out if anything has changed. It's pretty much the same – and still a fun and unique experience.
Four Corners is the only place in the U.S. where you can stand in four states and three sovereign nations at the same time. It is managed by the Navajo Nation, and it can be surprisingly crowded, considering how remote it is. After you get photos, save time to shop the Navajo arts and crafts booths and try some fresh fry bread.
Monument Valley straddles the border of Utah and Arizona, and it's one of the best-known scenic drives in the United States. The Monument Valley Tribal Park is managed by the Navajo Nation. It has a visitor center and charges a small fee.
Watch Forrest Gump before your trip, so you will recognize “Forrest Gump Hill” and stop for a photo op.
Lake Powell makes up most of San Juan County's western border. It is Utah's premier water recreation destination, and many families spend time here every summer. My dream is to rent a houseboat here sometime.
Lake Powell boasts thousands of miles of jagged shoreline and many nooks and crannies where you can get away from the crowds. The red rock scenery is outstanding and hot summer temperatures beg you to take a swim.
Related: Tips for Touring the Glen Canyon Dam
Dead Horse Point State Park
Dead Horse Point is a stop on the way to the Islands in the Sky district of Canyonlands. The panoramic view is stunning, and it's worth paying the state park entrance fee on top of the Canyonlands entrance fee. There is a visitor center, and it's a short walk from the parking lot to the view point.
Hiking, mountain biking and camping are also available at Dead Horse Point. Morning is the best time of day for photos. The first few minutes of Mission Impossible: 2 were filmed here.
Learn more at https://stateparks.utah.gov/parks/dead-horse/
Related: 4 Ways to Save on National Park Fees
Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum
Edge of the Cedars in Blanding was our first stop on our recent trip. It's a museum built next to a restored ancestral Puebloan home. Mounds of earth indicate unexcavated structures nearby. The museum has two floors of artifacts from local sites, found as recently as April 2019. There is a room filled with hands on activities for kids.
I LOVE seeing the ancestral Puebloan ruins that dot the Four Corners region, so this was my kind of place. The kids liked the museum, and thought that it was especially fun to climb down a ladder into a real kiva. They were a little old for the children's play area inside the museum, but I think they'd have cheerfully spent more time there if we weren't in a rush.
Learn more at https://stateparks.utah.gov/parks/edge-of-the-cedars/
Related: Best Places to Go Stargazing in Utah
Fort Bluff was a pleasant surprise on our way back from Four Corners to Monticello. It is located in the town of Bluff, where the Hole in the Rock pioneers settled after their harrowing six-month journey across Southern Utah. Fort Bluff is a free historic site, but it's obvious that a substantial amount of money has been donated to renovate it – and fairly recently. It feels all new.
Start with the short two-part HD movie that will fill you in on the Hole in the Rock story. Then explore the family activities and historic structures and antiques in the back. The kids had fun pulling handcarts, dressing in pioneer clothes and roping “cows.” We spent about an hour here, but it was a little rushed.
Leran more at http://www.hirf.org/
Blanding's Dinosaur Museum was a fun stop on our way to Four Corners. It has three galleries featuring life-sized skeletons and fleshed out sculptures. It also has a lot of classic dinosaur movie memorabilia. One of our favorite exhibits was the Permian Logs inside the front doors, which were found in San Juan County and pre-date the dinosaurs.
This museum is not as large as some other dinosaur museums in Utah, and I wanted more local fossils. Nevertheless, it's inexpensive and educational, with some showy exhibits. We spent about an hour here.
Learn more at http://dinosaur-museum.org/
Learn to Pan for Gold
Panning for gold was (unexpectedly) our favorite activity in San Juan County. Kevin and Tyler are Monticello locals who have been prospecting for gold in their spare time for 17 years. It helps that Tyler is a licensed gemologist and Kevin owns the local hardware store, and that they are both quite personable. They are now sharing their experience – and pay dirt from their mining claims – through AirBnB Experiences.
We spent a few hours learning techniques for real-life gold prospecting and successfully found small amounts of gold, copper and colorful gemstones – mostly apatite. Results will vary. Tyler collected our treasure into clear pendants with silver chains, and we took them home as souvenirs.
Learn more at https://www.airbnb.com/experiences/214354
We visited during peak summer vacation season, and found that the crowds have not yet discovered this part of Utah. We had the open road and the natural wonders all to ourselves. Spring and Fall are especially good times to visit San Juan County because the weather is cooler.
It was so fun to visit San Juan County with my son and niece. They were good sports, and made the most of every activity on our itinerary. My husband wasn't able to join us on this trip, and we are actively planning a romantic road trip through Monument Valley before too long.
These are just of a few of the fun things to do in San Juan County. Find more, plus tips for lodging, dining, tour guides, outfitters… at www.utahscanyoncountry.com
Disclosure: The San Juan County Office of Tourism planned an itinerary based on our interests, and paid our expenses for this trip. My family has visited this region at our own expense on at least three previous trips. All opinions are my own.