Utah, USA: Why you should visit these spectacular US natural wonders now

It's a stark contrast. Thirty minutes ago, I was standing on the rim of Utah's dramatic Bryce Canyon, looking down at a labyrinth of pink-hued hoodoos, pinnacles and buttresses. Now, I'm on an elevated plateau in nearby Kodachrome Basin State Park, admiring dozens of towering sandstone chimneys. The difference? In Bryce Canyon, every trail was swarming with ant-like processions of tourists; here, there's not another soul in sight.

Southern Utah is blessed with a quintet of spectacular national parks, the "Mighty Five" of Zion, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Arches and Capitol Reef, which, predictably, attract a spectacular number of visitors. Arrive on a weekend between June and September and you can sometimes queue for hours just to get in.

The good news is the region also has a multitude of similarly scenic but far less-visited state parks, recreation areas, forests and national monuments. Which means you can intersperse your forays into the national parks (trust us, you'll still want to see them) with regenerative excursions into these quieter areas.

For example, while driving along Scenic Byway 12, a 198-kilometre route that starts near Bryce Canyon and finishes near Capitol Reef, you'll pass through the vast Dixie National Forest and the extravagantly-named Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSNM).

The regulations in these areas are often less restrictive than in the national parks, so visitors can camp, swim, climb, canoe, fish and hunt.

Of course, less restrictions also means less infrastructure, so don't expect pristine roads and manicured boardwalks. Some of the more remote areas can only be accessed by high-clearance 4WD so check the insurance on your rental vehicle before heading off-road.

Fortunately, there are plenty of accessible options, too. Near the western end of Scenic Byway 12 is Red Canyon, a maze of rust red spires, turrets and hoodoos that shadows the road for six kilometres. Head east and you'll pass Escalante Petrified Forest, a 400-hectare state park full of million-year-old fossilised trees, followed by Calf Creek Recreation Area, where you can hike through soaring sandstone cliffs to a swimming hole and a 40-metre-high waterfall.

It's a similar story when taking Route 24 between Capitol Reef and Canyonlands. A 19-kilometre diversion will deliver you to Goblin Valley State Park, a surreal, otherworldly landscape dotted with thousands of mushroom-shaped sandstone hoodoos. Continue south from Canyonlands and you'll hit Natural Bridges National Monument, which in 2007 became the world's first International Dark Sky Park thanks to its exceptionally low light pollution.

As well as these natural wonders, there are anthropologic sites too. Ten minutes west of Escalante is the Upper Valley Granary, an ancient stone and mud storehouse built into the cliff by the Ancestral Puebloans, a Native American tribe that lived in the area between the 10th and 14th centuries. To learn more about their culture, visit Boulder's Anasazi State Park Museum, which has a partially excavated Puebloan village dating from around 1050AD.

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The concern, of course, is that these less-protected areas won't always be so accessible. In 2017, Trump cut the GSNM almost in half and reduced the size of Utah's Bears Ears National Monument by 85 per cent to allow oil exploration and mining. It was the single biggest reduction of federal lands by any US president in history. Who knows what the future will bring but it would seem wise to add these lesser-visited gems to your travel wish-list sooner rather than later.

TRIP NOTES

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Virgin Australia and Delta Air Lines fly to Las Vegas, Denver and Salt Lake City. See virginaustralia.com 

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Rob McFarland was a guest of the Utah Office of Tourism and Brand USA.

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